My Word: Soul food for thought

The death of two actors and the link to different times.

December 8, 2016 20:14


Hollywood’s version of Heaven usually shows tables laden with delicious food. I hope the service is suitably celestial, because the world’s worst waiter and bumbling restaurateur (at least on screen) both died last week.

Andrew Sachs, better known to most as Manuel from Fawlty Towers, died of pneumonia in London at the age of 86, having suffered for the last few years from dementia. Israeli actor Jacques Cohen, beloved to TV audiences as proprietor Abu Rahmi in The Big Restaurant (Hamisada Hagedola) died at the same age also of pneumonia, having worked almost to the end in television commercials for a brand of hummus. (He also operated his own restaurant in real life on the moshav where he lived in southern Israel.) For somebody my age and bi-culturally British and Israeli, their deaths were doubly painful.

Both of their screen characters and the comedy shows in which they starred have served me well over the years, providing comic relief amid tension and, in Cohen’s case, also helping me pick up some spoken Arabic.

Like so many great comedy actors, both Sachs and Cohen had a serious side to their lives.

Sachs played a baffled mustachioed Spanish waiter whose catchphrases were “Que?” and “I know nothing” and whose behavior was constantly excused by Basil Fawlty (the incomparable John Cleese) because “he’s from Barcelona.”

But Sachs wasn’t from Barcelona. He was born in Berlin.

(And if you don’t think at this point of Fawlty’s all-time classic order: “Don’t mention the war. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it all right,” you have clearly missed one of the best episodes of BBC comedy ever to be broadcast.) His Jewish father and Catholic mother took the family to England in 1938 as the dangers of Nazism became apparent.

Cohen was a refugee of a different type. His Egyptian-born parents left Alexandria for Jerusalem when Jacques was five years old. Hence he was able to play the character of Israeli Arab Abu Rahmi in fluent Arabic.

Although Cohen is recalled outside the Middle East for his role in films like The Delta Force, in this region he will be remembered for his bonhomie as the restaurant owner in the weekly sitcom.

As The Jerusalem Post’s Greer Fay Cashman wrote of The Big Restaurant this week, “In some respects it was a bridge builder not only between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities, but between Israel and the Arab world. It was watched in many neighboring countries.

“The show was the brainchild of another Egyptian expatriate, Joseph Barel, who was the director of Arabic news for Israel Television and later of TV Channel 1. Barel envisaged a program that would appeal to both Jewish and non-Jewish viewers in the region.”

With their deaths last week, I found myself mourning not only the actors and their characters but also a certain period.

Made in the 1970s, Fawlty Towers by today’s standards was hopelessly politically incorrect. In 2013, the BBC censored the iconic series to avoid giving offense. As I wrote at the time, nobody – I hope – would write a BBC comedy series today including using racist epithets for laughs, but to airbrush them out as if they were never used is patronizing (and futile) in its own way.

Today, Fawlty’s misogyny and racism – not to mention his nasty habit of bashing Manuel on the head – would not make it to the screen. Even when the characters were created four decades ago they were obviously over the top. That’s what made them funny.

Strangely, despite the (welcome) awareness of what could hurt people’s feelings, in Europe and elsewhere you can still openly defame Israelis and “get away with it,” as the fictional Fawlty might put it, and even be considered to be part of polite society, abiding by its bon ton.

The Big Restaurant also reflected a different period – at the same time filled with stereotypes and yet in many ways more open and accepting.

It stems from the era of pre-commercial television in Israel when the whole country would watch the same programs.

Hebrew speakers easily picked up a phrase or two in Arabic as Arabic-language presenters introduced programs (“Sayyidati wasadati,” ladies and gentlemen) and melodramatic Egyptian movies were popular weekly fare.

The Big Restaurant truly was big. It had a universal appeal.

Like Fawlty Towers, the scenes were both outrageous and recognizable. Manuel’s pet rat, Basil, escapes inevitably as the health inspector pays an unwelcome call; a pet snake leads The Big Restaurant staff on a similar chase on opening night.

The Israel-Arab sitcom made sure to include musical interludes and some big names on the local entertainment scene took part.

Jews and Arabs played alongside each other, playing for laughs. The audience loved it.

IN 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared a period of calm in Israel “unsustainable,” and launched yet another diplomatic initiative aimed at solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, investing more time and effort in it than in trying to stop the slaughter in neighboring Syria, where ISIS was rapidly gaining ground. By June that year, Israel was suffering from a round of Palestinian terrorism and the summer was marked by the more than 10,000 rockets launched from Gaza.

At the Saban Forum in Washington this week, Kerry repeated most of his familiar lines.

“I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, ‘Well, the Arab world’s in a different place now.

We just have to reach out to them, and... then we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No. No, no and no. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and without the Palestinian peace,” Kerry predicted, or threatened.

Israel does, thank Heavens, have a cold but functioning peace with two neighboring countries, Egypt and Jordan – both of which face similar threats from Islamists, but in Kerry’s thinking peace is not possible until he says so.

THE SECOND annual A-sham Arab Food Festival is taking place in Haifa (from December 7 to 9). Some 45 chefs (of different religions) are participating and the organizers expect more than the 70,000 visitors who came last year. The festival is the brainchild of Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, best known locally as the winner of the 2014 MasterChef Israel show.

Before her passion for cooking put her professionally in the kitchen, the 35-year-old mother-of-three from the Israeli Arab town of Baka al-Gharbiya had a very different career.

A microbiologist, she earned her PhD, from the prestigious Technion. Eat your hearts out, Israel detractors. Another stereotype bites the dust.

“During problematic times, food brings people together,” Atamna-Ismaeel told a press tour as reported by the Post’s Anav Silverman. “There is no room in the kitchen for politics, only cooperation, collaboration and teamwork.”

As long as we can share food and laughs, not all is lost. Food for thought (however incompetently it’s served).

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