Egyptian play about the Holocaust reveals changing mindsets

The play speaks volumes about the change in perceptions of Jewish people and Jewish history among younger Egyptians.

CAIRO - While praised by critics, a new play being performed in Egypt’s capital to portray the horrors of the Holocaust has become a political and cultural lightening rod, considered “convincing” by some and “dangerous” by others.

“Sobibor,” written and performed by students from Ain Shams University in Cairo, puts the suffering Jews sustained in German concentration camps before and during World War II under the spotlight.

It focuses on the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany in Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Actors in the play masterfully depict the brutal treatment of Jews by Nazi officers in the camp.

The play raised philosophical questions about who might be in control, why Jews should be singled out for the terrifying experience at Nazi extermination camps and the brutality of man to his fellow.

This was probably why Israel was gratified by the play.

“The moral of the play is that we are all human,” Lior Ben Dor, director of the Egypt and the Maghreb Department at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a video posted on the ministry’s Facebook page. “Our knowledge of the life of others makes us realise the common things that bind us together.”

Many comments on the video by Egyptians echoed the same point of view.

“This is a successful play,” said one of the people commenting on the video. “We are all human.”

“I believe it is a wonderful and convincing work,” said another.

The play speaks volumes about the change in perceptions of Israel and Jewish history among younger Egyptians.

Egypt and Israel recently marked 40 years of peace after decades of hostility between the two countries. However, the peace has mainly been a government-to-government thing. At the individual level, it has been nothing but frosty.

Most Egyptians are strongly focused on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and negative role in Arab politics.

“Sobibor,” however, is apparently a reflection of the change taking place among young Egyptians.

Play director Mohamed Zaki said the show focuses on the extermination of the Jews as a human issue.

“It also connects the extermination of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis with what the Zionists do in Palestine today,” Zaki said. “It shows that the Zionists commit the same crimes against the Palestinians but also underscores the high value of humanity, regardless of any religious or national affiliations.”

Perhaps this last point was why Zaki and the others involved with the play were criticised by ordinary people and political observers who said the work could lead to an undesirable change of heart towards Israel.

“There is a change of mind among youth on Israel, which is a very dangerous thing,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “The play is not a work of art at all but a political work that has its own objectives.”

He faulted the creators of the play in promoting what he described as “Israeli myths.”

There is a high degree of scepticism in Egypt about the Holocaust, especially regarding the number of Jewish victims. The scepticism is coupled with anger at Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories and the region. Locals calling for normalising relations with Israel are reviled in the media and by ordinary people.

A political science professor at Cairo University had to plead innocence several times on his Twitter account a few months ago after photos of a similar-looking person attending a reception at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo were shared on social media.

Egypt’s professional unions either impeach or sack members who have either met Israelis or visited Israel. In March 2016, a lawmaker had his parliament membership revoked because he received the Israeli ambassador in Cairo at his home.

Egypt officially maintains close cooperation with Israel, especially at the security level. The two countries coordinate policies and military strategy against a branch of the Islamic State in Sinai and in the Gaza Strip.

“Sobibor” has won many awards and will represent Egypt at the International Festival of University Theatre in Tangier, Morocco, this year.

“It is a wonderful work of art,” said theatre critic Mohamed al-Rubi. “Works of art should not be judged by whether we approve of their message or not.”

Ahmed Megahid is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.