“We’ve now got 300 channels, none of them worth watching. In the old days, Israel had one channel, and we looked forward to the Arab film shown on Friday afternoon from one week to the next.”
That was one man’s verdict after watching ‘Arab Movie’ (Seret Aravit), a documentary by Eyal Sagui Bisawi telling the extraordinary story of how much of Israel was transfixed by Egyptian movies in the 1950s and 1960s. The film was shown at the DocAviv festival in Israel on 12 and 13 May.
Israel did not have Hebrew-speaking TV channels until 1967. It did, however, have one channel broadcasting four hours a day — three of them in Arabic. In order to fill airtime, Salim Fattal, head of the Arabic channel, decided to establish what became a Friday institution — the Arab Movie. Egypt was the hub of Middle Eastern culture and had a thriving film industry: Egyptian ladies from Bat Yam sang along enthusiastically with the diva Um Kalthum and the Jewish star Leila Murad, whom everybody claimed as a relative. They shed copious tears if the film ended badly.
Egypt’s cinematic melodramas, with their dashing heroes sweeping voluptuous girls off their feet, were so popular that the Israeli public demanded Hebrew subtitles. Among known aficionados were Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, who was so taken by one film that he refused to interrupt his viewing to take a call from prime minister Golda Meir.
Israel was then at war with Egypt. The films were smuggled into Israel from Egypt via Jordan, copies made and the originals returned so as to protect the smugglers’ identities.
Some of the films were ahead of their time — surprisingly forthright in their depiction of sex and violence — and the Israeli censor made cuts, mindful of the fact that children were watching on a Friday afternoon. Egyptian cinema explored homosexual relations and even satirized aspects of Egyptian society, though this was mostly lost on Israeli viewers.
It was not until the 1990s that the Arab Movie graduated from the family living room to the cinema screen. But a film shown at the Edison Cinema in Jerusalem caused a riot. The audience was so angry that songs had been cut out of the film that they broke the chairs.
One is left wondering if and how these films would play in the current ultra-conservative atmosphere in Egypt. In that sense, Israeli viewers of ‘Arab Movie’ have had a privileged glimpse of a bygone age.