They smuggle themselves into Gaza from Egypt via the tunnels, attend the funeral of a missile-launching Islamic terrorist, then pass into Israel dressed as a huddle of hassidim on the bus. They then rob Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv, fleeing with the money to the northern border, where they are captured by Hezbollah, which jumps at the chance to announce to the world that it has captured eight Israeli hostages.
If it sounds a little fantastic, stay tuned. The plot only thickens and lengthens, bringing in the politics of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, stretching the bounds of believability and blurring the lines between political commentary and outright absurdity.
Fans say it’s a downright addictive drama that makes them cheer and chuckle. Critics say it’s more harmful than humorous.
Welcome to the world of Firqat Naji Atallah
(The Naji Atallah Squad), this year’s most popular Ramadan program, certainly with Palestinians and possibly across the Middle East.
The title character, a former attaché in Egypt’s embassy in Tel Aviv, is angry with the Israeli establishment because it has frozen his bank account, following the discovery of a large sum of unexplained income.
The money was made from the illegal gambling business Atallah is running on the side, but no matter. Back home, he turns to some of the fittest and most fast-thinking young Egyptians he knows, and recruits them to go on a payback operation that is more about making a point than making a mint.
The bank heist is not just a way to get back at Israel, but some kind of mission to set things right in a messed-up world, like an Arab Robin Hood stealing to return money to the poor.
“It’s all about a person who makes fun of Tel Aviv, even though in the early scenes it’s clear that the Israelis love him. Naji succeeds in beating the Israelis, and I love seeing how it drives the Mossad crazy,” said Abdel-Nasser Khader, a Ramallah high school student who is an avid fan of the program.
“It’s fun seeing our situation from an Egyptian perspective, because I’m fed up with the Palestinian perspective,” he said.
Ramadan is the season for steadfastness – but also for serialized television dramas, or musalsalat. For many across the Muslim world, iftar
, the evening break-fast meal, is immediately followed by a plethora of special series available on Arab channels.
The number of series grows each year, with different channels competing for the best offering. But with veteran Egyptian actor and comedian Adel Imam playing Naji Atallah, who takes his young cronies on a fabulous adventure – which can only be compared to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
, with its nonstop mischief-making and nearmisses – this is the show that causes many to rush through their iftar meal to and is quickly becoming the subject of popular jokes.
“Why were Palestinian Authority salaries late this month?” asks one. “Because Naji Atallah robbed the bank and it screwed up the payment system.”
“People are looking for a savior, and for 30 days, Naji Atallah is the savior of the Palestinian people. You feel you have to watch, because who knows what Naji Attalah has up his sleeve tonight?” says Yousef Shayeb, a media critic in Ramallah who writes for the Al-Ayam newspaper.
“This is the first Ramadan series that really deals with the details of the Israeli-Arab conflict. For some, this is an implementation of an Arab dream which says that with our minds, we are able to defeat Israel.”
That’s a message that some find troubling. The Anti- Defamation League said in a statement earlier this month that the series – along with other popular Ramadan specials – is “rife with anti-Semitic themes and expressions of hatred for Israel.”
For example, the ADL noted in a press release, in this series “the Jewish bank manager… tries to cheat Attalah while counting his money” and includes a scene in which a driver for the Egyptian embassy says that “one’s heart jumps out of joy” when a missile lands on Israelis.
Ofir Gendelman, the prime minister’s spokesman for the Arab media, was highly critical of the series in his Twitter feed at the beginning of Ramadan. Gendelman’s comment, in Arabic, stirred debate all over Egypt, and Middle East Broadcasting, which has been running the series, even featured the tweet on their website.
“It created a little storm in Egypt because it was the first time in several years that there was an official Israeli reaction to a Ramadan series,” Gendelman told The Jerusalem Post.
“We’ve been watching all the series that deal with Israel. When we see this from a country that has a peace accord with us, we felt obliged to comment. We see in this a representation of Jews which is grotesque, distorted and negative.”
Gendelman also pointed to “a thousand” small inaccuracies that bothered him, from broken Hebrew to a scene in which Israel has a Saudi-style religious police force that comes – again in haredi garb – to confiscate shrimp from restaurant-goers’ plates.
Even some Egyptians are scoffing – at the errors and exaggerations, at the outrageous, thieving behavior of someone who is supposed to represent Egypt as a diplomat, and even at the use of religion to justify the robbery.
“The Islamic values of right and wrong are very clear-cut. Theft is wrong, period. Having a running theme in the show of a sheikh dropping Koranic verses and hadith [saying or act ascribed either validly or invalidly to the Prophet Muhammad] to infuse a ‘holy-ish’ flavor to the heist is despicable and disrespectful to the viewers,” Egyptian writer Mohamed Dashan wrote on his blog. Noting that the title character also insults his host country in a TV interview, he added, “I am guessing the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs has not been a big fan so far.”
The series was actually finished and ready to run last year, but Hosni Mubarak’s government did not permit it to air.
It is not just Israel which gets made fun of, however. For example, when Hezbollah realizes it has captured a bunch of Egyptians and not Israelis, it is embarrassed and eager to save its reputation. Naji Attalah recruits a group of Israelis who are willing to be “kidnapped” for a fee, Hezbollah gets to avoid the humiliation of having to retract a story, and everyone is happy and goes home unharmed.
At a Ramallah cafe called Stones, upwardly-mobile young people meet with friends for post-iftar tea and nargila – and watch the series on mounted flat screens. Most say they have been keeping up with it, but do not take it too seriously.
“It’s fun to imagine that things could happen that way – that a group of Egyptians could slip across the border from Egypt to Gaza and into Israel. They make it look so easy. But you can’t get a fly through the border, much less a group of people,” said Mohammed Imimi, eliciting a laugh from his buddies.
Bilal Abu Hijleh, a Coca-Cola executive sitting nearby, had watched most of the series and could not help but want to see how Naji Attalah and his squad would make it home.
“Everyone has time to watch something entertaining on Ramadan after their dinner, and this show has so much – a great cast, it has some comic aspects, and it relates to the facts on the street, talking about the needs and feelings of the people.”