October 26, 2002
CAIRO – The images flash quickly across the television screen. They show a
bloody face, Victorian men and women in a drawing room, soldiers wielding
rifle butts. And a man in black hat with side curls and long beard.
An Egyptian satellite television channel has begun teasers for its blockbuster
Ramadan series that its producers acknowledge incorporates ideas from the
infamous czarist forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That document,
a pillar of anti-Semitic hatred for about a century, appears to be gaining a new
foothold in parts of the Arab world, some scholars and observers say.
The series, “Horse Without a Horseman,” traces the history of the Middle East
from 1855 to 1917 through the eyes of an Egyptian who fought British
occupiers and the Zionist movement.
It is divided into 41 episodes and will be shown nightly through the Islamic holy
month of Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks and guarantees maximum
viewership because many Muslims congregate at home after breaking the daily
fast. With Egyptian state television and other Arab channels also broadcasting
the series, the potential audience numbers in the tens of millions.
A historical epic with a pulpy look, judging from the commercials, the series is
the first production of one-year-old Dream TV.
The channel is one of the country’s first two private stations, and has a
somewhat freewheeling format compared with state television. It is controlled
by Ahmed Bahgat, a prominent Egyptian businessman.
The “Protocols,” which purports to depict Jewish leaders plotting world
dominion, has long been recognized as a fabrication by the czarist secret police.
It was used in early 20th-century Russia and in Nazi Germany as a pretext for
persecution of Jews.
Still, the show’s backers say they are keeping an open mind about its
authenticity. They say that in any event, reality seems to bear them out, in that
Israel controls part of the Middle East.
“In a way, don’t they dominate?” said Hala Sarhan, Dream TV’s vice president
and feisty personality on the air. “Of course, what we read from the
`Protocols,’ it says it’s a kind of conspiracy. They want to control; they want to
dominate. I represent everybody in the street. We will see whether this
happened throughout history or not.”
Ms. Sarhan is quick to point out that the material about the “Protocols” is only
one aspect of a sweeping television panorama. But others who have seen the
entire program say that a Zionist conspiracy to control Arab lands is one of the
themes running through the series.
At one point, men in the Arab anti-British resistance movement find the
“Protocols” and have it translated, said a co-writer, Muhammad Baghdadi.
“They discovered that many things in this document were happening in reality,”
Mr. Baghdadi said, “whether they were written by the Jews or not.”
The underlying focus of the drama “is how the Zionist entity was planted in
Palestine and in the Arab world,” he said. Mr. Baghdadi said the series
respected Judaism as a religion. “We only criticize the Zionist movement,” he
Nevertheless, the program has troubled the United States as well as Israel.
American Embassy officials say they raised their concerns with the Egyptian
government but received a noncommittal response.
The series is closely associated with Muhammad Sobhi, a popular Egyptian
screen and stage actor who is not shy about courting controversy and whose
previous works have sometimes poked fun at Arabs. He co-wrote the script and
plays the main character.
Mr. Sobhi declined to be interviewed, but earlier this year he told Al Jazeera
television that whether or not the “Protocols” was authentic, “Zionism exists
and it has controlled the world since the dawn of history.”
He said that many of the book’s predictions had been borne out and that it
would be “stupid” not to consider the possibility that the book was true, even if
the chance was “one in a million.”
Commentators, like David I. Kertzer, a professor of anthropology at Brown
University, have noted an increase in anti-Semitic imagery more typical of
Western societies cropping up in the Arab world since the Sept. 11 attacks,
along with the canard that Jews were warned of the attacks.
Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford
College, said, “With each new wave of war and anger, the European-imported
brand digs itself deeper into society.”