Egyptian movie stirs intifada sympathies

The young Palestinian straps on his belt of explosives before starting down the hill for his final trip to an Israeli checkpoint. As anxious soldiers search him, he holds his palms heavenward, smiling at Allah for a moment before blowing his enemies and himself to smithereens.

It's a climactic moment in the movie "Friends or Business," a sympathetic portrayal of a Palestinian suicide bomber. Now in its third week, the movie has hit Cairo's silver screen with a bang - and a mushroom cloud of controversy.

Egypt's theaters have long been a barometer of Arab mood and sentiment. Until now, the Arab world has been seen as complacent over the plight of their Palestinian brethren. But the popular response to this film indicates that may be changing. Critics fear it may even encourage radicalism among Egyptians.

Western diplomats and Israeli officials are concerned that the movie will inspire copycats. They fear that suicide bombing, already seen as an acceptable strategy by a majority of Palestinian civilians, will gain acceptance even among citizens in moderate Arab states like Egypt.

Some movie critics say the positive reception of "Friends or Business" indicates a new attitude among Egyptians and other moderate Arab states toward the Palestinian intifada, or uprising. They say viewers increasingly want to move beyond their everyday lives and play an active role in helping the Palestinians regain their homeland.

Indeed, "Friends or Business" is the boldest of several popular theater and movie productions this summer that focus on the bloodshed in Israel.

The film has met with angry calls for censorship from Israeli officials in Egypt, which maintains a binding peace agreement with its Levantine neighbor.

"This new praise for suicidal martyrdom has run parallel to a growing streak of anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press and is being encouraged through the state press," says Ayellet Yehiav, an official in Israel's Embassy in Cairo. She condemns the movie as "mere propaganda," and charges usually vigilant Egyptian government censors with deliberately ignoring its highly provocative nature.

Egyptian-Israeli relations have grown steadily worse since last November, when Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel to protest harsh tactics used by Israeli security to combat the Palestinian intifada.

Egyptians have been boycotting Israeli goods and lavishing praise on a previously unknown country singer whose song, "I Hate Israel," topped the popular charts earlier this year. But nothing has pricked bilateral relations like "Friends or Business," Israeli sources say.

Filmed in southern Lebanon, the movie shows a friendly gang of Egyptians producing a game show, which features trivia questions about Western singers.

Looking to inject substance into the daily fare, the young producers decide to take the show on the road - to the Palestinian territories. They hop into a minivan and speed off to Israel, where they are confronted by sneering, red-headed Israeli soldiers. The producers are assisted at a border crossing by Jihad, a young Palestinian, who takes them to his village.

As they film their game show in the hills of Israel, their questions grow increasingly irrelevant as the day turns into a festival of brotherhood and unity with the Palestinians. Then, celebrations are interrupted by a funeral for a martyr and a riot that turns deadly. Israeli soldiers gun down children.

Horrified by the killing, Jihad decides to martyr himself. Just before he walks toward the Israeli checkpoint, he explains on camera why he is about to make the ultimate sacrifice. There is a sad farewell, and, moments later, he is dead.

Back in Egypt, the top network executive, apparently signifying Arab complacency, forbids the team from airing the footage.

The producers defy him by airing the show on satellite TV, exposing the Arab world to the realities of the Palestinian struggle.

"This is not a film, it is a commercial," says Tarek El Shinawy, a film critic at Rose El-Yousef magazine in Cairo. "I don't see the producers ... as committed to the subject, but rather keen to exploit the mood here in Egypt of wanting to do more." Nonetheless, he says, the film's exploration of suicide bombing breaks new ground.

The film's writer and producer, Medhat el-Adl, insists that his main idea was to show how distant the Arab world's media are from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "What I'm talking about in this movie is the distant attitudes and complacency in the entire Arab world toward the intifada."

"I don't think the movie should encourage suicide bombing as much as make a statement about why it exists," says Amr Waked, the young actor who plays Jihad.

The target audience appears to be young Arab viewers who feel powerless to effect a change in the ongoing tragedy playing out daily in Israel.

It may even be helping to radicalize young Egyptians, if the comments of viewers are any indication.

Egyptians attending a matinee this week were visibly moved and eager to talk about their sympathies with the bomber.

Wiping tears from his eyes, 21-year-old Adel Mogazy said: "I thought the movie was great. We Egyptians are aware of Israeli cruelty, but this puts us more in touch with the agony and feelings of the Palestinian people. We, as Egyptian youth, want to go and help to stop Israel's policy of slaughter, and if I get a chance, I'll go too and give my life for Palestine."

Walaa Aly, 19, her neck draped with a red necklace, expressed similar sentiments: "There is nothing like this bomber. If I have the chance, I'll do the same, because Palestine is ours too. I wouldn't mind sacrificing myself."

Asked if she had considered the idea of suicide bombing before the movie, Ms. Aly said: "Ever since this problem began, I've felt ... basically helpless, and I want to find a way to act."

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