By Jamil Khader
Egyptian Director Rami Imam's popular Ramadanic sitcom, Naji Attallah's Band, revolves around the personal vendetta of Naji Attalah (performed by the well-known comedic actor, Adel Imam) against the Israeli government. A former employee of the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, Attallah returns to Cairo to recruit a supernumerary group of misfits, whom he tries to fashion into a paramilitary guerrilla band, in order to infiltrate Israel and rob a bank as a part of his plot to avenge the Israeli government for freezing his financial assets. The sitcom frames Attallah’s personal vendetta within the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict and more specifically, the unresolved contradictions of realpolitik in Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Israel. While the sitcom repackages the standard national narratives in the Israeli-Arab conflict, the first eleven episodes (upon which these observations are based) reveal the contradictions that pervade the ideological field of contemporary Arab politics in the age of economic openness and globalization. The oscillation between what the sitcom knows about national struggle and realpolitik within the political and economic realities of globalization and its disavowal of that knowledge produces a splitting in this ideological field, a splitting that eventually mystifies the Palestinian struggle for national sovereignty.
There are three distinct forms of ideological mystification at work here: First, the sitcom presents the slippages in the dialectic of resistance and normalization in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict in terms of ideological cynicism. Second, it underestimates the real power of ideology in the management of contemporary Israeli society, substituting the subtle working of “non-ideology” for the crude and vulgar manifestations of Zionist ideology. And finally, it displaces the fundamental antagonism of class struggle, subsuming it within the protagonist’s narrative of vengeance and banditry. The clash of these three ideological discourses blocks the sitcom’s ostensible patriotic and nationalist discourses especially, the collective and communitarian dimension of the Palestinian struggle against Zionist settler-colonialism and Israeli apartheid.
One of the remarkable things about the way ideology works today is that the subjects of ideology know deep inside that this ideology is a mere illusion that does not work, but all the same they still believe in it. In Naji Attallah’s Band, this ideological fantasy is clearly manifested in the twists and turns of the dialectical relationship between struggle and accommodation in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The sitcom is framed within the tension between two ideological discourses namely, pragmatism and nationalism, which are represented by Naji Attalah himself and Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, the new information and media relations officer at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, respectively. This relationship is first mediated through an antagonistic structure, only to be overturned and finally suspended within the considerations of realpolitik.
Naji Attallah’s daily diplomatic activities and personal relations with Israeli citizens, mostly Jews as if there are no Palestinian Arabs in Tel Aviv, are the center of the first three episodes of the sitcom. These episodes detail his pragmatic politics in dealing with Israeli Jews from restaurant owners, bank employees, and realtors. To the chagrin of the Embassy’s employees (except for the ambassador himself who actually seems to favor Attallah’s pragmatic transactions), Attallah justifies his actions by the old formula of “know thy enemy” (he presumably speaks fluent Hebrew) and the need to escape the existential prison of self-segregation.
Against this pragmatic logic, the new officer, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, whose name falls with shock and disbelief on the ears of every Israeli Jew he meets, faithfully represents the ideological position of his namesake. As an iconic replica of the logic of national liberation and anti-colonial struggle, Mr. Abd Al-Nasser cannot get himself to even shake the hands of Attallah’s acquaintances. Imprisoned in the claustrophobic space of his Tel Aviv apartment, the restless Abd Al-Nasser resigns from his position three days after his arrival, and upon his return home becomes embroiled in a national controversy over the celebration of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 (the July Revolution) at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv which was condemned by national leftists in the media.
This seemingly manichean relationship between the pragmatic and his nationalist nemesis, however, is subjected to the slippages and reversibility of their ideological positions. While Abd Al-Nasser confesses to Attallah, as he prepares to leave the embassy, that he took a liking to him, the thrust of Attallah’s narrative is the appropriation of and conversion into the nationalist discourse of resistance, albeit for purely selfish reasons. In the eighth episode, Attallah even tries to endow his personal vendetta with legitimacy, by placing his misadventure within the specific history of the Zionist claims over Palestine and justifying his expedition as a retaliatory patriotic act against Israel’s seizure of Egyptian wealth and resources on their way out of Sinai.
However, the authenticity of his nationalism is contested throughout to the extent that Attallah himself is identified with the Israeli enemy. On their way out of Israel and wearing Israeli military fatigues, for example, the band is captured by Hizbollah forces, creating an international crisis around the news of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Moreover, the associations between this band and paramilitary groups fail to turn it into the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit that it tries desperately to invoke.
Ultimately, however, pragmatism and nationalism are suspended in an impasse within the context of the practical considerations of realpolitik. In the sixth episode, for instance, in a meeting in Cairo among Attallah, Gamal, and a journalist, who used to cover Israeli matters for an Egyptian periodical, the three complain about how they have been marginalized and silenced by the Embassy. Here we can clearly see the impasse in this ideological field, in which resistance to, accommodation of, and intellectual engagement with Israel are all suspended in that contingent space of international relations and the diplomatic exigencies of realpolitik. This does not mean that ideology is dead but that these subjects can only revel in ideological cynicism.
There is obviously no position of truth from which to expose and reject the illusion we call ideology, but the signifier Israel, which Attallah calls a “jinx” (Nahs) for the three of them, functions as an anchoring, or quilting, point to stabilize the ideological field of the clashing Arab national narratives. Within the slippages of meaning and signification, the referent Israel provides the stability, unity, and consistency that these narratives require for their reproduction.
Attallah’s diplomatic activities and daily interactions with Israeli Jews allow the director to represent his version of the working of Zionist ideology in Israel. In this scenario, Israel is organized along fascist and totalitarian structures of surveillance, discipline, and control in which no aspect of an individual’s personal life escapes the reach of power. The Mosad plays a central role in instilling fear in Israelis and in constituting Israeli subjects as conformist anti-Arabs war-mongers. This is dramatized in the sitcom first, through the troubled relations between Attallah and a Mosad officer, whose cousin (with whom he is having an extra-marital affair) is married to one of Attallah’s gambling associates.
And second, it is seen in the story of a young Israeli woman, the daughter of an Egyptian Muslim man and a Jewish woman, who uses her classes at Tel Aviv University as a pulpit to preach (self-) hatred, colonial expansionism, and “death to Arabs” (Mavet La Aravim). In the tenth episode, however, it is revealed that this woman’s father, who supported the Palestinian resistance, was assassinated by the Israelis, and that she has been living her life in Israel undercover, waiting for the right moment to avenge her father’s death. This twist notwithstanding, the vulgarity and crudeness of the representation of the racist and fundamentalist Zionist discourse can only be matched by the large size of the Star of David that the young woman wears around her neck and by the skull caps that almost every Jewish male seems to be wearing in these episodes. In this sense, Zionist ideology is magnified through as it is externalized and embodied in concrete religious iconography. Even worse, it attributes the racist and colonialist manifestations of Zionist ideology to an undercover Muslim and Arab woman, effectively blaming Arabs for smearing Israel’s democratic image in the world.
My point here is not that this critique of the fascist and totalitarian dimensions of Israelis society and the prominence of religious fanaticism in the “Jewish state” is unfounded (evidence for this can be gleaned from reading Israeli daily newspapers), but rather that it underestimates the subtlety of the working of ideology in Israel. As the Solvenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has recently stated, Israeli reality has been ideologically mystified to the extent that ideology appears in its opposite form as “non-ideology,” whose strategy is to displace the realities of the occupation and to humanize the Israelis especially, soldiers, by claiming inner life as a basis of common humanity.
Hegemonic Zionist ideology in Israel is far more subtle in its interpellation of the Israeli Jewish subject, and one might add some of its Palestinian Arab citizens as well. Since the beginning of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Zionist discourse perfected the strategy of blaming the victims and inverting the realities of the geopolitical context in which the imbalance of power that favored Israel’s military supremacy was always obscured by the elevation of Israel to the status of pre-ontological victimization. For example, before signing the Camp David Accords with Egypt, Golda Meir told Sadat, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” As such, Israel’s military supremacy itself is ideologically mystified, while the inauthenticity of human relations in the context of occupation and colonial oppression is celebrated and elevated as the sign of the humanity and the ordinariness of the Israelis themselves.
Finally, ideological mystification in this Ramadanic sitcom works by concealing and displacing the constitutive antagonism of class struggle in Egyptian society. The personal narratives of the band’s members unfold along their struggles against an oppressive and exploitative social system that privileges the Egyptian upper-classes through systemic cronyism, corruption, and the metaphysics of disposability that allow the wealthy to defile ordinary citizens as excremental non-entities. Indeed, in the eighth episode, when the band members collapse after their first training session in Port Said, the common theme in their private reveries is upper-class fantasy of wealth, extravagance, and social mobility.
Nonetheless, the sitcom turns a blind eye to the hole that class struggle has created in the fabric of social relations, glossing over the structural solutions to economic disparity in Egypt. Thus, Attallah responds to all the misfits’ problems by either offering them ridiculously ostentatious displays of food or simply encouraging paternalistic structures of dependency on him. In this way, the sitcom fetishizes social relations, translating any possibility of social transformation into an individualistic philanthropic act that can fulfill immediate needs and desires at the expense of the long-term health and good of the commons.
As such, the sitcom substitutes the class struggle not only for the protagonist’s narrative of personal vendetta and self-aggrandizement, but also for religious conflict. Even in the case of the undercover Muslim woman, her vengeance narrative is evacuated from any national and revolutionary content, subsuming it instead under the false religious dimension of the Israeli-Arab conflict. More importantly, Imam’s valorization of the narrative of religious conflict as well as selfish interests and banditry renders invisible not only the political core of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but also the collective and communitarian dimension of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation and sovereignty. In fact, when Palestinians begin to appear in the ninth episode of the series after the band’s stop in Rafah, they simply serve as the backdrop for and the vehicle through which Attallah can actualize his banditry project.
As a narrative conceit, the Palestinians are represented as an Other. With their traditional garb, dabka performances, wife beating, incomprehensible jokes, and family land disputes, Palestinians seem to be coming out straight from the Arab edition of National Geographic. To this extent, the band can relate to this Palestinian Other through aesthetic/ erotic investment, negation, and debasement. One of the band members, Ibrahim, can only mediate his feelings and thoughts about Palestinian women through sexual fantasies. Furthermore, he negates the existential threat that forces the Palestinians to take up arms, insisting instead on the right to hedonistic pleasures, since humans in his opinion need some entertainment to escape their brutal realities.
In the tenth and eleventh episodes of this sitcom, the Palestinians are also seen as a politically divided people. The Hamas/ Fatah split is played out at the national level as well as in the family dynamics, allowing political disagreements to destroy the fabric of social relations. Invoking the plight of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, the sitcom implies that Palestinians are incapable of liberating themselves on their own and that they need foreign intervention to settle their problems. In the eleventh episode, for example, Attallah settles a family land dispute that the host could not solve with his brother-in-law. Adding insult to injury, Attallah and his band laugh at the “incomprehensible” jokes of his Palestinian hosts, only to compare Palestinians to the rural population of Southern Egypt (Sa’aida), effectively calling his host a boorish country bumpkin.
Although Attallah encourages his band to develop political literacy about the current geopolitical dynamics in the region, the sitcom privileges religion, Islam in this case, as the only viable universal dimension that can affect a sense of solidarity and communitarian identity among Arabs. This is clearly captured in the eleventh episode, when the band is sitting around the Iftar table at their host’s house in Gaza, as the call to prayer blasts in the background, waiting to break the fast together. When Yaser, the youngest son is shot by the Israeli army at the end of that episode, the band marches in his funeral, chanting “God is Great” and bearing the Palestinian flags. As Attallah marches in the first row of the funeral with other dignitaries, religion is again used to endow legitimacy on his excursion.
The seriousness with which this sitcom represents the Israeli-Arab conflict, regardless of the trivial account of Palestinian factionalism, betrays any comic intent to poke fun at the surrealism of the current situation. Indeed, there is no comedy about the resoluteness of the protagonist to accomplish his individual act of vengeance or the religious subtext of his alleged patriotic narrative. It remains to be seen whether comic coventions will be able to inspire the political imagination to mediate these ideological contradictions more effectively, as its narrative space expands outward to other countries in the Middle East.
- Jamil Khader is Professor of English and the Director of the Gender Studies Program at Stetson University. He is the author of Cartographies of Transnationalism in Postcolonial Feminisms: Geography, Culture, Identity, Politics (Lexington Books, 2012), and is the co-editor, with Molly Rothenberg, of Žižek Now: Current Perspectives in Žižek Studies (Polity Press, 2013). He has published numerous articles on third world feminisms, supernatural fiction, and literary theory in various national and international literary journals, and other collections. He is currently working on a monograph on marginality in Palestinian literature. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.