BBC Reporter assaulted in Egypt: “Sorry,…. “we thought you were a Jew.”

The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the
assault would have apparently been justified.”

How I was the subject of anti-Semitic abuse in Cairo

By Thomas Dinham

BBC News,  Cairo

Relations between Israel and Egypt
have become increasingly strained in recent weeks, and in the Egyptian capital
there is a mounting sense of tension, including incidents of anti-Semitism.

Suspicion is a feature of everyday life in Egypt, and a fondness for
conspiracy theories is as much a part of the landscape here as the constant
traffic jams and their accompanying symphony of blaring car horns.

With the democratic certainties that greeted the immediate aftermath of
January’s revolution having faded, however, the climate of mistrust and unease
about the hard-won gains of the revolution is becoming increasingly palpable.

As disquiet sets in, so does the fear of foul play, backroom deals and,
increasingly, malign foreign influences.

I noticed this tendency towards cynicism while enjoying some of the
incredible food on offer in Cairo.

The streets here are dotted with makeshift, roadside restaurants where in the
mornings you can pick up a veritable feast of quintessential Egyptian dishes
that, thanks to a weak Egyptian pound, will only cost you around $0.80 (50p).

As dishes of seasoned aubergine, heavily spiced beans, salad, fermented
cheese, chips, tamea [falafel] and gorgeous wholegrain Egyptian bread were laid
out before me, I realised I was beginning to attract attention, and not just
because of my appetite.

A group of old men slurping tea mixed with incredible quantities of sugar was
studying me.

Eventually one of the men struck up a conversation, revolving primarily
around what exactly I was doing in Egypt at a time when most foreigners had

My answers met with furrowed brows and clearly dissatisfied shakes of the
head, when suddenly, raising his hand in front of his mouth in a conspiratorial
gesture one man shot, “I bet he’s from Israel” into the ear of his friend so
quickly as to be barely discernable.

I was shocked. In nearly six months of living in Syria, where orchestrated
hysteria about Israel is integral to the very identity of the state, I had never
heard the accusation surreptitiously levelled against me.

Neither am I from Israel, nor am I Jewish, but as someone of unmistakably
European appearance, I have found myself constantly associated with Israel in
Egyptian eyes.

‘Conspiracy theorists’

A few days later, while sitting with the same group of men in the cafe, a
bridge in a nearby neighbourhood collapsed with an incredible “boom”.

State media reported five people killed. My new friends
exchanged knowing glances, apparently linking my appearance in the neighbourhood
a few days earlier to an otherwise inexplicable calamity nearby.

Israel is just one of a panoply of worries that exercise the conspiracy
theorists that frequent Egypt’s cafes.

The standard fare of political gossip tends to revolve around the trial of
[former President Hosni] Mubarak, internal corruption, and the causes behind the
dire economic woes Egypt is currently experiencing.

A prosecuting lawyer at Mr Mubarak’s trial even introduced the novel idea
that the ex-president had died years ago, and that the man on trial was none
other than an impostor.

I would hazard a guess that Israel struggles to make it into the top-five
political issues discussed in Egypt.

Israel has probably been less of a concern than the
rising power of Shia Iran in the region, which apparently worries many in this
overwhelmingly Sunni country, partly thanks to a constant stream of stridently
sectarian rhetoric broadcast from Saudi Arabia.

In the Byzantine politics of the region, hearing strident opposition to
Israel and its greatest regional foe, from the same person, almost in the same
breath, is commonplace.

Nevertheless, a strong and sometimes violent dislike of Israel is a fact of
Egyptian life, something I was unfortunate enough to discover after a
cross-border raid by Israel killed several Egyptian security personnel.

The Israelis had been chasing a group of gunmen who had attacked an Israeli
bus close to the border between the two countries.

While walking in the street someone pushed me from behind with such force
that I nearly fell over.

Turning around, I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to
punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was
for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan.

Relieved that a seemingly random assault was over, I was appalled by the
apology offered by one of my assailants. “Sorry,” he said contritely, offering
his hand, “we thought you were a Jew.”

Shaking his head in disbelief on hearing the news, an Egyptian friend
sympathised: “That’s stupid, you are obviously not a Jew.”

The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the
assault would have apparently been justified.


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