In this summer of bombings of U.S. embassies and high-security alerts at American facilities across the Middle East, a corny mass-entertainment movie out of Egypt may have a lesson for Washington policymakers on how badly the U.S. image is faring in the Arab world.
The $350,000 comedy, "Saidi at the American University," has touched a nerve with Egyptian audiences. Its message is that true Egyptians should not love a country--America--that looks down on them.
Amid pratfalls, unrequited love and some catchy songs, the film slips in serious references to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and Iraqis living under U.N. sanctions--with the audience told, not so subtly, that the colossus United States is behind both.
The climactic scene is an anti-Israeli demonstration that leaves an American university official aghast and calling for the police. During the fray, the film's hero, an apolitical southern Egyptian who has arrived on a scholarship at the prestigious American University in Cairo, finds the courage to set the Israeli flag on fire.
The film's greatest scorn is heaped upon a young Egyptian professor who sports a U.S. passport, fancy clothes and a nice car but who has forgotten his roots.
The professor preaches democracy and praises the global economy, only to see his students ultimately reject him as a mouthpiece for an alien culture.
What's interesting about all this is the reaction of the Egyptian moviegoers. They identify totally with the saidi, a person from rural southern Egypt, who is played with verve by Egyptian comic actor Mohammed Hineidy.
They jeer the upper-class Egyptian university students who wear Western clothes, dance with the opposite sex and speak English rather than Arabic among themselves. And they applaud when the Israeli flag and the American university officials eventually get their comeuppance.
The film has earned $4.1 million in six weeks, putting it on track to become the highest-grossing Arabic film, according to its director. But although it has been an indisputable hit among the masses, it has not been popular with either the university, which charged in a lawsuit that its name had been used without permission, or the Israeli Embassy, which has criticized the flag-burning scene.
A university spokeswoman, Nihal Tamraz, said the institution sued because it could not let its identity be commercially exploited. Would a company like Microsoft have sanctioned a film titled "Moron at Microsoft"? Tamraz asked. The lawsuit was dropped after the filmmakers apologized, she said.
She denied that the film's political message was the reason for the lawsuit or the university's refusal to allow scenes to be shot on campus. The movie shows only exterior shots of the university, a landmark on the edge of busy Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.
Students at the university, which has provided an American-style liberal arts curriculum for Egypt's best and brightest since 1919, are giving the movie largely negative reviews, saying it reinforces a false stereotype of them as elitist and Westernized.
"I was really afraid when I watched the film that extremists might come here and plant a bomb or something," said Nadine, 19, a sophomore who asked that her last name be omitted.
The economics major said the depiction of her fellow students was ludicrous: "Girls wearing micro-skirts--it doesn't happen."
The prestigious university is seen by ordinary Egyptians as a playground of the rich. No wonder. Its $9,000 tuition is way beyond the means of all but a few in Egypt, where average per capita income is about $1,200 a year.
The sweet-faced Hineidy, who conceived the plot, defended the portrayal of the school, saying that the film gets across that many of its students are decent and patriotic.
"Many people have a wrong impression about this university. We tried to say that it is a respectable university," said the 31-year-old actor, who attended the more proletarian Cairo University before entering film school.
As for America's image in the region, Arabs are fascinated by the country, he said, but at the same time suffer from its policies.
"Everybody blames America for everything because you are the biggest country," he said, adding that it's OK to be the biggest, but "you have to be fair. Our hope is that you would be fair."