Hassan, Marcus, and Cohen: Redefining Literary Representations of Jews in Contemporary Egypt

By Mostafa Hussein
Submitted to Session P4846 (Representations of Jews in Contemporary Arabic Literature, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
How does Arabic literature inform our understanding of the depiction of Jews in Egypt? Does it reflect a deeply anti-Jewish culture? Or does it illuminate an insufficiently acknowledged side of Jewish history? Although the overwhelming majority of Jews in Egypt left the country in waves from 1948 to 1967, representations of them never vanished from Egyptian culture. During the second half of the twentieth century, portrayals of Jews appeared in a period of time marked by turmoil and conflict between Egypt and the nascent state of Israel. Representations of Jews in contemporary Egyptian literary works, however, mark a shift from negative Jewish stereotypes. In past works, a few clusters of traits were common. Jews were seen as powerful and manipulative, as dividing their loyalties between Egypt and Israel, and as materialistic and aggressive. Through a close reading of six Egyptian novels — Santa Teresa (2001) by Baha’ Abd al-Majid, Hadd Al-Ghiwayyah (2004) by Amr ‘Afiyyah, Ayyam Al-Shatat (2008) by Kamal Ruhayyim, Akher Yahud Al-Iskandariyyah (2008) by Mu’tazz Fetihah, Toyur Al-’Anbar (2008) by Ibrahim Abd al-Majid, and Yahud Al-Iskandariyyah (2016) by Mostafa Nasr, I argue that contemporary depictions of Jews challenge previous Jewish stereotypes and represent more realistic aspects of Jewish character. The representations of Jews — which, I should stress, tend to be overwhelmingly positive — within both historical and contemporary discourse concerning Egyptian-Jewish relations have three objectives. First, they more fairly represent Egyptian society by denouncing stereotypes. Eager not to be misunderstood, writers have taken the initiative to adopt a just treatment of Jews by exploring various aspects of their personality. Second, they invoke the Jewish character to restore its place in the Egyptian society as a manifestation of pluralism and cosmopolitanism. On a social level, the Jewish character is brought up to challenge fixed stereotypes that found homage in previous literary works. Among these images is one of the Jew as liberal, wealthy, and stingy. This misconception is challenged by depicting the Jew in Egyptian society as just as poor and moderate as Muslims and Christians. On an economic level, the Jew is said to contribute to economic life in Egypt. Third, the Jew is used to discuss possible ways by which the Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved and peace could triumph. This goal is expressed through the trope of love between a Muslim male and Jewish female.