An everyday tale of anti-Semitism in Cairo

October 24, 2011Posted on No Comments

BBC
News Magazine
September 15, 2011
By Thomas Dinham

Relations between Israel and Egypt have become increasingly strained in recent weeks, and in the Egyptian capital there is a mounting sense of tension, including incidents of anti-Semitism.

Suspicion is a feature of everyday life in Egypt, and a fondness for conspiracy theories is as much a part of the landscape here as the constant traffic jams and their accompanying symphony of blaring car horns.

With the democratic certainties that greeted the immediate aftermath of January’s revolution having faded, however, the climate of mistrust and unease about the hard-won gains of the revolution is becoming increasingly palpable.

As disquiet sets in, so does the fear of foul play, backroom deals and, increasingly, malign foreign influences.

I noticed this tendency towards cynicism while enjoying some of the incredible food on offer in Cairo.

The streets here are dotted with makeshift, roadside restaurants where in the mornings you can pick up a veritable feast of quintessential Egyptian dishes that, thanks to a weak Egyptian pound, will only cost you around $0.80 (50p).

As dishes of seasoned aubergine, heavily spiced beans, salad, fermented cheese, chips, tamea [falafel] and gorgeous wholegrain Egyptian bread were laid out before me, I realised I was beginning to attract attention, and not just because of my appetite.

A group of old men slurping tea mixed with incredible quantities of sugar was studying me.

Eventually one of the men struck up a conversation, revolving primarily around what exactly I was doing in Egypt at a time when most foreigners had left.

My answers met with furrowed brows and clearly dissatisfied shakes of the head, when suddenly, raising his hand in front of his mouth in a conspiratorial gesture one man shot, “I bet he’s from Israel” into the ear of his friend so quickly as to be barely discernable.

I was shocked. In nearly six months of living in Syria, where orchestrated hysteria about Israel is integral to the very identity of the state, I had never heard the accusation surreptitiously levelled against me.

Neither am I from Israel, nor am I Jewish, but as someone of unmistakably European appearance, I have found myself constantly associated with Israel in Egyptian eyes.

‘Conspiracy theorists’

A few days later, while sitting with the same group of men in the cafe, a bridge in a nearby neighbourhood collapsed with an incredible “boom”.

State media reported five people killed. My new friends exchanged knowing glances, apparently linking my appearance in the neighbourhood a few days earlier to an otherwise inexplicable calamity nearby.

Israel is just one of a panoply of worries that exercise the conspiracy theorists that frequent Egypt’s cafes.

The standard fare of political gossip tends to revolve around the trial of [former President Hosni] Mubarak, internal corruption, and the causes behind the dire economic woes Egypt is currently experiencing.

A prosecuting lawyer at Mr Mubarak’s trial even introduced the novel idea that the ex-president had died years ago, and that the man on trial was none other than an impostor.

I would hazard a guess that Israel struggles to make it into the top-five political issues discussed in Egypt.

Israel has probably been less of a concern than the rising power of Shia Iran in the region, which apparently worries many in this overwhelmingly Sunni country, partly thanks to a constant stream of stridently sectarian rhetoric broadcast from Saudi Arabia.

In the Byzantine politics of the region, hearing strident opposition to Israel and its greatest regional foe, from the same person, almost in the same breath, is commonplace.

Nevertheless, a strong and sometimes violent dislike of Israel is a fact of Egyptian life, something I was unfortunate enough to discover after a cross-border raid by Israel killed several Egyptian security personnel.

The Israelis had been chasing a group of gunmen who had attacked an Israeli bus close to the border between the two countries.

While walking in the street someone pushed me from behind with such force that I nearly fell over.

Turning around, I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan.

Relieved that a seemingly random assault was over, I was appalled by the apology offered by one of my assailants. “Sorry,” he said contritely, offering his hand, “we thought you were a Jew.”

Shaking his head in disbelief on hearing the news, an Egyptian friend sympathised: “That’s stupid, you are obviously not a Jew.”

The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the assault would have apparently been justified.

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