Cairo — Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop, with his boyish face and gaunt physique, Amir Ramses looks at first glance like someone half his age. But the prominent 33-year-old film director has already directed three major commercial films and several acclaimed documentaries. His new film, the independently produced “Jews of Egypt,” Ramses says, is his most important feature film to date.
“There is all this offensive, racist stuff you hear about Jews in Cairo,” explains the Egyptian filmmaker as he sips a cup of coffee. “We managed during 40 years to combine or relate the concepts of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli into one word and create an enemy out of that word, although they’re not necessarily related.”
The documentary, about 90 minutes long, premiered the night before his coffee shop sit-down with the Forward, and it will not be mistaken for an olive branch to Israel. A self-described secularist in the mold of Egypt’s most famous director, his late mentor, Youssef Chahine, Ramses opposes Zionism for the same reason he opposes the concept of a Christian or a Muslim state. “I don’t believe that any country in the world should be based on religion,” he says. But he is equally adamant that hostility toward Israel or Zionism is a lousy excuse for anti-Semitism.
The goal of the film, Ramses says, is to disentangle Judaism from Zionism in a country whose enmity for its northern neighbor has long served as the lifeblood of widespread anti-Jewish prejudice. The film does so by recreating the years in which some 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, amid Muslims and Christians in a cosmopolitan potpourri that seems impossibly distant today. And it does not shrink from describing the brutality with which these natives of Egypt were expelled en masse, as recalled in their own words.
The October 6 unveiling of Ramses’s film at the week-long Panorama of the European Film in Cairo coincided with a hallowed date in Egyptian history. On that date in 1973, Egypt’s army crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces that produced its most celebrated modern military triumph. Even as the film opened, Egypt’s new, democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was commemorating the attack in a major address before tens of thousands inside Cairo Stadium. But the lobby of the Galaxy Theatre in Cairo’s Manial District, was also packed to the gills, albeit with a smaller crowd, well before the film’s 6:30 p.m. start time. In fact, so many flocked to the theater that organizers had to scramble to organize a second screening later in the evening.
There was a touch of the taboo in the event — a chance to engage a piece of Egyptian history long suppressed and ignored, and vaguely shameful, in contrast to the loud declarations of pride that characterized the larger gathering.