Egyptian Comedy Angers Israel

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- A hit film that pokes fun at Westernized Egyptians has managed to anger Israel and the American University in Cairo as well as point up deep differences in this Arab country's society.

``Saidi at the American University,'' tells the story of Khalaf, a bumpkin southern Egyptian who wins a scholarship to study at the university whose students -- many from Cairo's upper class -- are known for their Americanized attitudes.

The ``saidi,'' the Arabic word for a southern Egyptian, runs into trouble from his first day. Wearing a tie and yellowish suit, he draws giggles from fellow students in casual college dress.

``Did you fall into a mustard jar?'' one asks Khalaf. But audience reaction, as reported in the Cairo press, has turned the tables on the students' derision -- with cheers for Khalaf and boos for his detractors.

Both film and reaction speak to the contrast between upper middle class Cairenes who go to bars and American fast-food restaurants and the vast number of Egyptians who are conservative Muslims.

Khalaf -- definitely in the second group -- doesn't drink alcohol, speak English to fellow Egyptians, or dance with girls. In his hometown of Sohag, Khalaf never saw men and women dance together. Some who have seen the film feel that Khalaf is the real Egyptian while the university's students represent an alien culture.

``They are from a different world. They want to imitate everything Western,'' said Mona Mohammed, a 21-year-old student at a technical university in Cairo. Whatever the reaction, the film is so popular that tickets must be bought days in advance. Showing at 25 movie theaters, it made nearly $600,000 in its first week, very high by Egyptian standards. Mohammed Hineidy, who plays Khalaf, is said to have doubled his salary per film to $58,000. Hineidy, 36, is now seen as a rival to Adel Imam, Egypt's top comedian. And many people in Cairo are singing one of the film's songs, ``Casuawilouh,'' an Arabization of the word ``casual'' that means ``make him dress casual.''

The song plays as Khalaf, making peace with fellow students, visits one of Cairo's shopping malls to trade his old-fashioned clothes for jeans and polo shirts. Not everyone is happy with the film. The American University in Cairo, which was founded in 1919 and sees itself as having educated generations of Egyptian society, sued to stop distribution of the film using its name. But it withdrew the lawsuit this week after the filmmaker said he intended no harm to the university.

The film's producer, Mohammed el-Adl, was quoted in the press as saying the university refused to allow photos to be taken on campus to help design sets. Some scenes were shot at Cairo's Russian Embassy, which looks like AUC's older buildings. The movie's main scene also angered Israel. It shows an anti-Israeli demonstration on the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state earlier this year. One student organizer is arrested but manages to throw an Israeli flag to Khalaf, who sets it ablaze. Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Ayellet Yehiav said such a film should not be shown ``after nearly 20 years of peace and relations,'' referring to Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the first with an Arab state.

``I can only regret the fact that in a film that is supposed to be a comedy, there is a scene that is not funny at all in which they burn our flag,'' she said. The director, Saeed Hamed, has said audiences often applaud and stamp their feet at the flag-burning, reflecting Arab frustration over Israel's stalled peace talks with Palestinians. ``When they burnt the Israeli flag, we began to clap. There was a feeling inside us. I had tears in my eyes because of what is happening in Palestine,'' said 19-year-old law student Ibrahim Mohammed Talib.

After the protest, Khalaf tells police: ``I have nothing to do with demonstrations or politics. But after burning the Israeli flag, I felt relieved.'' The film ends with Khalaf, who came first in the political science exam, giving a graduation speech. ``When I first came here, I was overwhelmed by America. But after three years,'' he says, ``I would like to say that we don't hate anyone ... but we hate those who call us backward people.'' -=-=-


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