Amid anger toward US policies across the Middle East, there is at least one corner of this tumultuous region where America is being praised.
Drive 15 minutes south from Bethlehem, turning off on a winding road with olive groves and open fields, and you’ll find Rafideh. The village has just welcomed one of their sons home after 23 years in prison, thanks to a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
“When Kerry’s wife entered the hospital, we asked God for her to get better because he is a mediator,” says Khaled Asakreh, basking in his newfound freedom at a luncheon held in his honor this week. “We all believe that the USA plays a very great role.”
Mr. Asakreh was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for his fatal stabbing of Annie Ley, a French tourist dining at the Bethlehem hotel where he worked toward the tail end of the Palestinian intifada.
Many Israelis consider him and the 25 other prisoners who were released a week ago to be terrorists. All were jailed for murder or attempted murder, and most of the victims were Israeli Jews. Some say it will take a generation or more before Israelis will be able to accept the idea of making peace with people who have committed such brutal crimes, still seared on the national consciousness.
But Asakreh says he is a different man now.
“I have changed completely,” says Asakreh, speaking in Arabic with his nephew translating. “I have a new vision, that the solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] doesn’t come in violent ways.”
Asakreh was 18 years old when he went to jail, and bounced around from one Israeli facility to another. For a little over two years, he lived in a cell next to Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian prisoner sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela.
Dr. Barghouti was jailed with five life sentences for his involvement in the second intifada. He has since espoused civil disobedience in protest of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Fluent in Hebrew, he taught his fellow prisoners the Israelis’ language and served as a role model.
“He was like a father to all the prisoners,” says Asakreh, whose own parents died while he was in prison.
His family built him a house in expectation of his release. As a veteran prisoner he has been collecting a monthly salary of 8,000 shekels ($2,250) from the Palestinian Authority, which will continue for life. Now, he is looking for a wife, and trying to put the past behind him.
In his first week out of prison, Asakreh still put his clothes under the bed when he went to sleep, woke up early, and stood in line for breakfast – part of a routine he had grown accustomed to during 23 years in prison.
But no one has recorded his voice, asked for his fingerprints, taken his mug shot, or examined him naked, which he says was part of the prison routine.
Now he can freely use a cellphone, unlike the days when prisoners waited for relatives to smuggle phones into jail by hiding them in grape leaves stuffed with rice. Visitors would also conceal small, tightly folded letters in empty caplets of drugs – all tactics the Israeli prison authorities caught on to.
Though visits were infrequent, and restricted to close relatives such as siblings or parents, a prisoner organization helped educate him and other political prisoners so that they could better advocate on behalf of the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom.
“I consider myself as a leader in peaceful ways, not in violent ways,” says Asakreh, who is enthusiastic about the peace talks now under way. “I am completely optimistic … all Palestinians are very optimistic, if both sides are serious.”
“Does anyone here not know what a Kindle is?” asks the man leading a $180 business seminar at Jerusalem’s Ramada hotel on a recent evening, his side curls swinging as he takes a quick look around the crowded room.
It may be a strange question to pose to budding entrepreneurs, but some of Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg’s clients come from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where some consider Internet and TV taboo and many maintain a lifestyle built around tradition that has little need for modern technology.
As a scion of prominent Hasidic rabbis himself, Rabbi Ginzberg is steeped in this community and its religious sensitivities; his family, he says, traces its roots back through rabbinical dynasties to King David and even Adam and Eve.
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But Ginzberg’s eager gaze lies very much on the future – to how social media and cutting-edge business practices can help propel him and his clients to greater prosperity, all in pursuit of spiritual goals. He spends most mornings learning in a yeshiva, and then works during New York's daytime hours as a business strategist, offering seminars and $400 consultations as well as free lectures, writing columns for The Jerusalem Post, and squeezing every ounce of potential out of LinkedIn and Facebook in the hopes that his earnings will enable him to follow his forefathers and open a local synagogue.
“I’ve built a reputation for myself as someone who looks like a guy from Fiddler on the Roof, kind of eccentric, but he’s proven to be able to help businesses from Fortune 500 down to the little guy,” says Ginzberg, whose reach extends well beyond the ultra-Orthodox community. He has lectured at Google’s Tel Aviv offices and will be speaking at Yahoo in Israel in a couple of weeks. “Once I’ve achieved that reputation, I can be a rabbi, learn all day long … and pay my own way to build a synagogue.”
Ginzberg, who moved to Israel from Brooklyn, N.Y., five years ago, is a stark contrast to the prevalent perception of ultra-Orthodox in Israel today, where the community faces an increasing backlash for not “sharing the burden” of modern Israeli society – namely, serving in the army and contributing to the economy.
Many ultra-Orthodox men eschew army service and regular jobs in favor of studying the Torah and other Jewish teachings, and they generally rely on state subsidies to provide for their large families, though some wives help bring in income. Recent legislative moves to require all but a handful of ultra-Orthodox to serve in the Israeli military have faced stiff resistance.
“If someone is learning, studying, he should not be forced to give that up,” says Ginzberg. On the other hand, he doesn’t see a contradiction between his community’s religious traditions and the world of modern business. “It’s not like I have to find the cracks between religion and business. It actually meshes quite well,” he says.
And the combination is attractive. One of the attendees at his recent seminar, Avi Kaufman, is also an ultra-Orthodox immigrant from Brooklyn who recently started a business selling SIM cards to people traveling to the US. “My wife kind of pays the bills” for now, he says, but he’s hoping to grow his fledgling company.
Another young attendee, Abe Rosmarin, describes himself as an “avid fan” of Ginzberg.
“He brings a very unique perspective,” says Mr. Rosmarin, who works in the travel industry and lives in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, the epicenter of the city's ultra-Orthodox life. “A lot of the ideas here have helped me greatly.”
Call me crazy, but my idea of a day off from reporting on the Middle East is driving out to the West Bank, past the big red signs that warn Israelis that it is illegal and dangerous to their lives to proceed any further, and going for a hike.
These excursions have taken me through rustling olive trees, amazing canyons, and a wadi that could well have inspired the 23rd Psalm’s “valley of the shadow of death.” But never had I imagined stumbling upon a Palestinian country club.
A few adventurous friends and I set out from Battir, a village just south of Jerusalem that’s more famous for its eggplants and agricultural terraces than any marked trails. We were armed with Stefan Szepesi’s essential “Walking Palestine” guidebook and a GPS programmed with the route, but sometimes detouring for luscious fresh figs is more fun than bushwhacking through thorny weeds that look like they were custom-made for hiding snakes.
We got pretty off track, and were picking our way through some villagers’ hot peppers and enormous zucchini when, above the braying of donkeys, we heard what sounded like quite a party for a Saturday morning. As a Palestinian farmer redirected us and we got back on the right path again, ascending a steep rocky hillside above the village, we saw the aquamarine of a big swimming pool – complete with a bright orange water slide.
Lo and behold, a Palestinian country club right here in this little valley.
Ok, so there is no golf course or tennis courts. But the complex, which is ringed by palm trees and sculptured bushes, does include a state-of-the-art gym; an outdoor veranda with gorgeous views; a poolside café with ice cream, soda, and other snacks; and an upscale indoor pool for women and children.
At the main pool outside, where kids splash vigorously and dive for shekels, women are welcome to lounge poolside in their hijabs and long dresses. But they are forbidden from swimming, since the owner is a conservative Muslim and frowns on women showing that much skin in public.
While that might sound ungenerous to Westerners, it is due to the beneficence of this man, Mohammed Sayeed Jabber, that this complex even exists, according to his adult nephew, who invited us for a tour. A former employee of the Intercontinental Hotel in Jordan and Jerusalem, Mr. Jabber used his retirement package to build this oasis for local kids and their families.
It’s not totally free – a board at the entrance says the fee is 30 shekels per day ($8.50) for adults, with a slight discount for children. That’s a considerable expense in these parts, but clearly not a deterrent – taxis and minibuses full of fresh customers unloaded at the front gate during our short visit. The pool is open in two shifts, from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. with a break in between.
If only I had brought my bathing suit on the hike.
Whatever is decided in today’s peace talks, or subsequent rounds during the nine months that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to negotiate, ultimately any deal will be put to the Israeli public in a referendum.
So the results of a recent Israeli opinion poll are highly relevant in gauging how much maneuvering room Israeli negotiators have, since at the end of the day they will need the public to support any concessions they may make.
The monthly Peace Index, carried out by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, found that a majority of Israeli Jews oppose four concessions Palestinians have long sought. Here’s a breakdown from the index’s authors, broken into bullet points for easier reading:
- 77 percent of Israeli Jews oppose recognition of the Palestinian “right of return” involving the return of a small number of refugees and financial compensation for the rest;
- 63 percent oppose withdrawal to the 1967 borders with land swaps;
- 58 percent oppose dismantling [all but the largest] settlements while leaving Ariel, Maale Adumim, and the Gush Etzion bloc intact; and
- 50 percent oppose transferring Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority along with a special arrangement for the Holy Places.
Worth noting is that nearly a third of Israeli Arabs polled (32.3 percent) also said they would not support dividing Jerusalem, under which Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of a future Palestinian state. The index’s authors surmised that this may be due in part to respondents who live in these neighborhoods opposing the idea of living under the Palestinian Authority. Another reason may be that many Israeli Arabs are Christian and do not place the same emphasis on Muslim control, politically or otherwise, of a city considered to be the third holiest in Islam.
That may be a moot point, however, for many Israeli Jews, nearly half of whom (49 percent) think that a referendum on a peace deal should be limited to Israeli Jews only and not their fellow Arab citizens, who account for about a fifth of the population. After all, the “Arabs of ’48,” who stayed behind when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled when Israel was established in 1948, tend to be more sympathetic toward Palestinian aims. Some Israelis, particularly on the right, see them as undermining Israel from within.
But interestingly, these Arab Israeli expressed far more faith than their Jewish compatriots that the Israeli government is sincere in its attempts to reach a peace deal, with 37 percent of Arab respondents agreeing with the statement “I’m sure it wants to” compared to 23 percent of Jewish respondents.
Why are Palestinian prisoners being released before their terms are up?
Twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, raising Palestinian hopes that they would have a state of their own within five years, there is no Palestinian state and the number of Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has roughly doubled. Both sides blame the lack of a peace deal on the other’s intransigence.
Israel refused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s request for a freeze on settlement building, as well as a request that Israel formally acknowledge the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiating the borders of a future Palestinian state. The prisoner release is meant to be a gesture of good faith that Mr. Abbas can hold up as an Israeli concession, giving him the political cover to return to the negotiating table.
The 104 prisoners who will be released were jailed prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Who is being released and when?
The prisoners will be released in four phases over the next nine months, as the peace talks progress. Israel has announced the names of the first 26 prisoners to be released, which is expected to take place early tomorrow.
Among them are eight that were “due to be released in the next three years and two in the next six months,” according to a statement by the Israeli prime minister’s office. Most of them were arrested for or charged with the murder of Israeli Jews, though a few of them were jailed as accessories to such murders. The Jerusalem Post compiled a list of the prisoners and the crimes they committed, and more information about their Israeli victims can be found at the Almagor terror victims’ association website.
Are Palestinians satisfied with this step?
Many Palestinian families of the prisoners have expressed delight at the prospect of being reunited with their loved ones after more than two decades, and Abbas has ordered official receptions in the West Bank and Gaza for the released prisoners. However, there have been some grumblings from prisoners and prisoner advocates. Palestinians appear to have had little if any input on which prisoners would be released, and are upset that no Israeli Arabs or Jerusalem residents were among the first wave to be released.
In addition, 14 of the prisoners will be sent to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, a move that has been criticized for separating some prisoners from their families and hometowns.
Israel tightly restricts access between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which both limits intra-Palestinian visits via Israel and reduces the potential for recently released prisoners to attack Israeli citizens.
In the last major prisoner swap, when more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, some were exiled to Gaza. But some make the best of it – this spring I profiled two former prisoners who set up a dessert shop that was so popular they had to open a second location a month after opening.
How much opposition is there from Israelis?
Many of the relatives of those killed by Palestinians now in jail are upset about their release, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces stiff resistance from within his own cabinet. Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party said Sunday, “It’s not clear to me how releasing murderers can bring peace.”
Almagor, which advocates on behalf of families who have lost relatives in terrorist attacks, had petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice to block the prisoner release but the court today rejected the request though it acknowledged the families' pain. Many of those killed at the hands of these prisoners were simply going about their daily business, such as David Dadi, who was killed in his sleep by Palestinian workers in his housing complex.
Dadi’s siblings reflect the divide in Israeli society over the prisoner release, with his sister angrily opposing it and his brother welcoming it – albeit cautiously – as a potential step toward peace.
“A young man [David] lost his life, and another man has spent the past 20 years in prison and hasn’t been able to start a family,” Rehamim Dadi told the Jerusalem Post, characterizing the past two decades as a loss for both sides. “Does he deserve it? Yes, but what has it done for us or for them? Nothing,” he said.
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There is at least one place where supreme order prevails amid all the political upheaval in Egypt: Abd El-Zaher Bookshop, which caters to many foreign embassies in Cairo as well as well-heeled customers around the globe.
Established in 1936, it has withstood the rise and fall of the supremely popular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser; Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after becoming the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel; Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years after Sadat; and most recently, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was deposed by the military July 3.
Here, they are concerned not with the latest conspiracy theories but with a timeless craft: binding books by hand. Amid Cairo’s chaotic streets, where the daily frictions of life in a teeming city have been exacerbated by political tension, the bookshop offers an oasis of perfection, from its carefully arranged shelves to the gilt spines and custom lettering that adorn its books.
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“I’m very precise in the work I do,” says owner Mohammed Abd El-Zaher, who began as an errand boy before taking charge in 1962. “I’m proud because I am able to preserve something that is dying out. Especially now in Cairo with everything evolving very quickly, it’s very important to take care of these smaller details.”
And at a time when many Egyptians are embarrassed about the turmoil in their country, once the most powerful and venerated in the Arab world, he also takes pride in the fact that foreigners value his shop’s work.
“It makes us so happy that an Egyptian product that we made with our hands can impress a foreigner,” says Mr. Abd el-Zaher, whose team of 14 uses paper and other materials from as far away as France and India. “It also really impresses us that we can get materials from abroad and make something that foreigners can’t make.”
To be sure, the deterioration in Egypt’s economy has affected business, though not because of the drop in tourism. “Normally tourists come here to ride the camels or see the pyramids” – not pick their way through creaking carts and stray dogs to select a new guest book or travel journal from his store.
“The more important thing,” he says, “is that our clientele – a certain type of foreigner intellectuals who like customized binding – these people have left.”
Still, they’re ordering from abroad, sometimes paying up to six times more for shipping than for the binding work itself, just to possess themselves of the handiwork of an Egyptian tradesman toiling in the shadow of Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque – and the country’s unpredictable politics.
Feminist activists seeking freedom of worship at Judaism’s holiest site were once again shut out of the women’s prayer section at the Western Wall today by women who oppose their efforts.
The activists, known as Women of the Wall (WOW), have been seeking for 25 years to challenge the Orthodox customs that govern the Western Wall and limit how and where women can pray. In recent months, as their campaign has gained momentum, it has also garnered serious push back – mostly from other women.
WOW activists have described their female opponents as trapped in a male-dominated paradigm, in which they are simply doing the bidding of their "rabbi-handlers." But actually the counter-protest is not driven by men, but by a group called Women for the Wall. The group says it is tapping into Orthodox frustration with WOW's attempts to subvert longstanding Jewish tradition in the name of women's rights and religious freedom.
“I just got so fed up,” says cofounder Ronit Peskin, who decided to take action after WOW declined a compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky that would have allowed them to pray at a separate, less conspicuous area of the Wall, albeit with some limitations.
So in April, she and Leah Aharoni established Women for the Wall, and began making calls to rabbis and politicians mobilize a show of support for Orthodox tradition. They then helped orchestrate flood tides of schoolgirls and other women opposed to WOW, who came pouring into the women’s prayer section so that there was no room for the activist group.
Even at today's monthly service, the women’s section was overflowing despite calls by some rabbinical leaders for ultra-Orthodox women to stay away given the sensitive timing – today was the final day of Ramadan and Jerusalem's main Muslim holy sites are located just above the Western Wall.
About 200-250 supporters of WOW, including some men, were relegated to a fenced-off section at the back of the Western Wall plaza, where police protected them as they prayed and sang. A small crowd of ultra-Orthodox men, with swinging side curls and jeering faces, blew shrill whistles in an attempt to drown them out.
Ms. Peskin and Ms. Aharoni, though they oppose WOW, vociferously disagree with such provocation from ultra-Orthodox.
"These foolish boys are the unwitting allies of Women Of the Wall, and their best PR tool," said Aharoni in a press release. "Screaming and violence do not belong at the holy site. The Kotel [Western Wall] is not the place for a media circus or standoffs between Jews."
Yet Peskin, Aharoni, and the thousands of other women who have come to the Western Wall are sometimes lumped in with such provocateurs. One WOW activist, Phyllis Chesler, called her group's female opponents a “psychological lynch mob.”
“People are associating us with [the male protestors] when we probably oppose them even more than [WOW] do,” says Peskin in a phone interview.
She, like Aharoni, is an American immigrant to Israel and admits that without fluent Hebrew it has been hard to get the word out to the public about Women for the Wall. Even teenage girls whose rabbis call on them to come may not be aware of the group, let alone its non-combative approach.
Peskin says she sees WOW as fellow Jewish sisters who deserve her love and respect. But she disagrees with the characterization of their campaign as a fight for religious freedom and a liberation of women from religious coercion.
"[I]n reality, they wish to coerce changes upon those who prefer to pray in full accordance with thousands of years of Jewish tradition," she wrote in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post today.
“Personally as an American I totally support freedom of religion,” says Peskin, who moved to Israel seven years ago. “But I don’t really see much support for freedom of religion coming from [WOW].”
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These days, Egypt is not an auspicious place to be running a boutique hotel that caters to foreigners. Americans are being chased out of Tahrir Square and blamed for both backing the coup and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to reverse it; large swaths of Cairo have been repeatedly shut down by massive protests; more than 270 people have been killed in the past month; sexual harassment has become increasingly prevalent and violent, especially in Tahrir; and populist currents are sweeping the multitudes. Many Egyptians have thrown their full support behind Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and more than a few are suspicious of foreigners.
But that doesn’t faze Hebba Bakri, managing director of Longchamps Hotel, which she inherited from her German mother. When Sisi called for the masses to come out on July 26 and give him a “mandate” to crack down on violence, she marched down to Tahrir that night with sandwiches she had made and served them to hungry protesters as part of an Egyptian tourism initiative. At a time when even seasoned female foreign correspondents were avoiding Tahrir after dark, she made her way through the crowds alone and walked the half-hour back to the hotel to boot. As a guest at her hotel, that made me curious, so I decided to find out more.
Ms. Bakri, who is half Egyptian and has lived in Cairo on and off for decades, may seem unflappable behind her leopard-print glasses and fine pearls. But she is well aware of the deep undercurrents convulsing Egyptian society, and strives to balance her staff’s needs with hers as the head of a meticulously maintained hotel.
“It’s a hard school with me,” she says, admitting to a firm managing style. “Yes, it has to be a tight ship. If it’s not a tight ship, it doesn’t go.”
But she also feels a responsibility to help those on the front lines of Egypt’s difficult transition period keep their heads above the waves. She recounts how one worker, who had saved up enough money to get his own apartment so that he could finally marry, had recently had to open his doors to his parents and siblings when his father suffered financial problems and lost the family apartment.
“This is very important to be generous with him,” says Ms. Bakri, who gave the worker 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($145) to prevent his father from going to jail.
“I am asking him to be good. How can he be good if he doesn’t know anything else good?”
On another occasion, she noticed a worker kept writing incorrect bills, charging people 98 pounds instead of 86, for example. Eventually she realized it was due to poor eyesight, and trotted him down to get operations on both eyes at her own expense.
“I think if I don’t help, I don’t deserve to have those good people working here,” says Bakri, who also has been hosting biweekly meetings on the political situation since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. "I try to give them a little bit of a push, so we concentrate on our work and not sit in front of the local TV ... and I want to see how they think."
But it’s not a charity organization; it’s a well-oiled business, with carefully appointed rooms and a steady flow of customers. Early on, Bakri realized that tourists alone would not sustain the place – or help her keep her staff employed – so she targeted other types of guests as well, including experts, European Union officials, or journalists like myself.
“This is also very important, to have such a niche of guests,” she says, putting on lipstick before getting back to work.
As tensions rise in Egypt’s sprawling capital city and rival camps of protesters dig in to protect their competing visions of democracy, Umm Ismail has a much more simple goal: finding something to eat.
“We as Egyptians don’t care what’s going on in politics, all we care about is having food on the table,” she says, sitting under an overpass on the fringes of the tony Zamalek neighborhood, where more generous Egyptians are providing free evening meals – known as iftar – during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. “We feel extremely embarrassed to have to come here for iftar because we can’t get food anywhere else.”
While the Egyptian economy already faced serious challenges before the 2011 protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak, it has sharply deteriorated in the two and half years since, as now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood locked horns with their political opponents. Food prices have spiked, and June’s inflation rate of 9.8 percent was the highest since Mubarak’s time. While the government has tried to keep the cost of basic supplies affordable, such subsidies have helped drive up the budget deficit to 11 percent of GDP. Recent pledges of $12 billion in aid from Gulf countries have eased jittery markets and stabilized food and fuel prices, but Egyptians like Umm Ismail have yet to feel relief.
“It’s been going downhill ever since Mubarak,” she says, sitting at a table covered with stained red carpeting and crumbs from the night before. “At least then we had bread on our table.”
“The problem with Mohamed Morsi is that he doesn’t feel the people’s pain,” adds Umm Ismail, a middle-aged woman with a magenta headscarf framing her tired expression. “We want a president who would come down and see the people, feel our pain.”
It’s not that Umm Ismail is so hungry that she ignores the plight of her fellow citizens, including the 75 or more who were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters last weekend. “Every day we hear of people dying here and there – how long is this going to continue?” she asks rhetorically.
As plastic pitchers of what looks like grape juice is passed around, a man at a nearby table reaches under the table to fill a large plastic bottle with the juice – presumably for later.
But before we are able to ask Umm Ismail or her fellow diners any more questions or take pictures, we are chased out by grizzled, toothless men at the next table over who are insulted, angry, or maybe just plain embarrassed to have a foreign journalist dropping in on what is already a humiliating affair.
Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart, doesn’t get it: If Egyptians hate American policies so much, why do they stand in line for hours in front of the American embassy to pay $115 for a visa to the land of the free – or even decide to move there permanently?
“Our relationship with America is a relationship of people who don’t know what they want,” muses Dr. Youssef in the first episode of his new series "America in Arabic," describing his people as “schizophrenic.” “No one knows whether we love or hate the States.”
So during this Ramadan season, the popular comedian with 1.8 million Twitter followers is examining this fundamental contradiction on air. The series runs the gamut from tears to hearty laughs, from the World Trade Centers going up in smoke on 9/11 to Jon Stewart welcoming Youssef on his show – and includes rather sober conclusions for a man more widely known for wisecracks.
The series, with more than 20 episodes already aired, comes at a delicate time. While Egyptians have long resented America’s policy toward Egypt, especially its support of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule over three decades, anti-American sentiment has grown much more pronounced. Opponents of deposed President Mohammed Morsi have been protesting in the streets with matching posters of him and US Ambassador Anne Patterson crossed out with big red Xs, painting her as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others blame the Obama administration for not denouncing the July 3 military coup. Even in Tahrir Square, a symbol of freedom in the new Egypt, security guards were turning away Americans last week out of fear they would be harassed or beaten up.
But it’s not just Americans who are distrusted, notes Youssef, pictured throughout the series at a dusty old typewriter in a basement library.
“What I want to write about is why we don’t trust the West, and why we don’t even trust the Arabs who live in the West,” he says in the opening episode, looking bookish in a smart waistcoat with a watch chain dangling out of the breast pocket.
Much of the show, therefore, focuses on Arabs – particularly Egyptians – living in America.
“Everyone in Egypt is beautiful, we are proud of Egypt, but there was so much injustice there,” says one man, virtually sobbing. “If the past 30 years would have gone the right way, we never would have thought of going to the US.”
Others find humor in the discrimination they face, both in the US and from Arabs back home, many of whom suspect Arabs in America of being spies or even traitors who have been corrupted by Western money and culture.
In one satirical scene on a bench in Central Park, Youssef asks a fellow Egyptian what he’s doing in New York.
“I’m working on a film,” he responds. “Of course, on the side I’m going to the Masonic worship center and taking money from the US government.”
Youssef both criticizes US interference in Egyptian politics and takes a frank look at the discrimination Arabs still face in America a dozen years after 9/11, including the intense opposition they often encounter just to build a mosque – a problem they never had before. But he also points out to his fellow citizens the positive role they can play in the US, bolstered by interviews with everyone from a democracy activist to a Syrian rapper in Los Angeles.
“Here [in Egypt], we’re influenced by the States,” he says, “but there we’re the ones who influence them.”