When Roschdy Zem, a well-known French actor of Moroccan Muslim origin, appeared on screen in Radu Mihaileanu's film Va, vis et deviens (Live and Become, 2004), I could not suppress a gasp. He was playing Yoram Harari, an Egyptian-born Israeli Jew who volunteered to welcome a young Ethiopian boy just rescued from an African refugee camp into his family. I had already seen a few movies in which Jewish actors played Arab characters, but not Arabs playing Jews, much less Israelis, and sympathetic ones at that.
In France, in fact, there has been a plethora of movies in the last few years evoking either strong ties of friendship or love between Jews and Muslims or emphasizing their similarities. And while actors from one group rarely play characters from the other, the theme of consciously or accidently passing for the other, or of being mistaken for the other, does come up in a number of films.
One example is Mauvaise foi (Bad Faith, 2006), a comedy about a mixed couple and how they are perceived by relatives, friends, and society. The film is written, directed, and stars Zem as Ismael, the Muslim lover of Clara, an Ashkenazi Jewish girl played by Cecile de France. Like Zem himself, Ismael is the French-born son of Moroccan parents. Thoroughly secular and non-observant, Ismael and Clara have never let their respective religions intrude on their four-year-long relationship. However, the day they find out that Clara is pregnant launches a series of both funny and tragic vignettes, as they introduce their significant other to their respective parents and tell them they want the baby. Suddenly, bridging the cultural and religious prejudices that seemed nonexistent or invisible to them before seems insurmountable. Each tries to feel what it is to become a practicing Jew or Muslim before seeking a compromise. In one funny scene, Ismael tries on a kippa out of curiosity, but forgets to remove it while going to buy halal meat for his mother at his devout Muslim uncle's butcher shop. The uncle and his employees stare at him in total bewilderment, while the crowds in the streets of the working-class Belleville neighborhood do not even seem to notice him, with so many local North African Jews and Muslims looking alike.
The physical similarities between Jews and Muslims appear to be exactly the point in the film Salut Cousin! (Hey Cousin!, 1995) by Merzak Allouache, who took refuge in France after his life was threatened when he made a feature film about the violent ascension of Islamists in his native Algeria (Bab El Oued City, 1993). Allouache casts a young Moroccan Jew, Gad Elmaleh, then an up-andcoming comedian, to play the part of Alilo, the naïve, strongly Arabic-accented Algerian youth visiting his beur (Maghebi-French) cousin Mok in Paris, who in marked contrast, speaks impeccable French. Alilo is to bring back to Algeria high-end dresses for black market sale, but he temporarily misplaces his contact's address and meanwhile has to stay with his cousin. Mok lives in a derelict inner city neighborhood, La Goutte d'Or, along with many fellow immigrants. As the title and other allusions in the film to La Fontaine's stories suggest, Mok is much like the mouse of the fable hunted by French police instead of the City Cat. Alilo's experiences of North African immigrant life offer eye-opening instances of the status of migrants in France. His uncle lives in one of the projects in the banlieue (impoverished suburb) and all the stereotypes of immigrants living in France are addressed more or less benignly through Alilo's naïve eyes.
Three scenes are of particular interest on the subject of Jews as the Muslim Other. One of the first Algerians Alilo meets in Paris is an ex-policeman who, full of remorse that he had contributed to the government massacre of hundreds of young civilians there, fled Algiers after the riots in 1988. Having become an illegal petty street peddler, he says he found an excellent way of tricking the French cops: he just dons a kippa, and "they never arrest" him because they think he is Jewish. This indicates that, on one hand, the North African Jewish immigrants are treated better than Arabs, while, on the other hand, being physically indistinguishable. And indeed two more scenes attest to their physical and psychological similarities. Mok's friend and neighbor Simon, a would-be actor, comes to borrow a jacket and chooses one from Mok's over-the-top garments to audition at the venerable Comédie Française. Looking North African in every way, he rehearses a famous seventeenth-century soliloquy with a distinct Jewish Algerian accent, and proves by this and his gauche jacket how utterly unrealistic it is that he would be accepted. The last scene showing interchangeability between Jews and Muslims occurs when Alilo finally finds the address and goes to the couture workshop to retrieve the dresses. The owner, Monsieur Maurice, who happens to be a Jewish Algerian, left the country at the same time as the French Pieds Noirs when Algeria became independent in 1962. He invites Alilo for a glass of tea, and while pouring it, reveals his nostalgia for his native country. He knows he will never go back to Algeria, but every day, while drinking mint tea and listening to Oum Khulthum, he imagines himself retracing his steps home through Algiers' streets, breathing in the various scents of herbs and spices. He tells Alilo that he prays every Saturday at the synagogue for the Algerian Muslim victims of the raging civil war. He even says a few words in Arabic to convey his dismay of the Islamic fundamentalists and what they are doing to Algeria.
But the most striking achievement of the film is Gad Elmaleh's uncanny ability to incarnate a North African Muslim in all of his physical mannerisms, his Arabic-accented French, and his speech patterns. He managed to fool even native Algerian audiences into thinking he was an authentic Algerian. His success as a comedian with his first show Décalages was, until then, only carried through the grapevine by both Jewish and Muslim North Africans living in Paris. Elmaleh became famous in Algeria too, and Chouchou, a character in one of the sketches included in his second one-man show, La vie normale (Normal Life) in 2000, appealed so much to the Algerians at home, that Elmaleh and Allouache collaborated in a new eponymous movie, Chouchou in 2003.
Chouchou is an Algerian homosexual fleeing the Islamists in his country. Recently arrived in Paris, he becomes a transvestite wooed by a native French of aristocratic origin. His heavy Arabic accent in French combined with the butchering of French idioms made both native North Africans and Français de souche (indigenous French) roar with laughter. Gad Elmaleh became an icon of free Arab and Berber humor against religious oppression. Moroccan audiences embraced him with pride, as he never failed to mention his native country and nationality. Although the plot in the film adaptation is rather flimsy, it resulted in an enormous box-office success, garnering Elmaleh immediate fame and recognition in France.
Curiously, most native French audiences, very fond of Elmaleh, consistently perceived him as a Muslim because of the Moroccan nationality he touted so much as well as his exotic name. For many years, they even mistook his elderly character Baba Ihya, who speaks in a definite Judeo-Arabic accent, as "the Arab grandfather." Elmaleh went on to write, perform, and tour in France and all around the world with two other shows, L'autre c'est moi (I am the Other) and Papa est en haut (Daddy is Upstairs). Although not as much focused on the immigrant language as before but rather on hilarious cultural differences, they both include moments in which he talks with a strong Muslim Arabic accent—to the joy of his numerous fans, which include Muslims, Jews, and native Frenchmen.
It seems that it was not until Elmaleh went on to make his own movie, Coco, in 2009, that he was finally identified clearly as a Jew. It was based on the eponymous sketch in the same show as Chouchou, and this time portrayed a highly caricatured parvenu Sephardi Jew planning a phenomenal Bar Mitzvah celebration at the Stade de France. His numerous appearances on TV shows and press articles for the promotion of the film finally ended for good any remaining ambiguities among his native French audience as to his origin, even though all the crew of actors and actresses playing in this film looked and acted like bona fide North Africans in their eyes.
One of the results abroad was that Elmaleh became the subject of a hate campaign in Lebanon by Hezbollah's Al Manar radio and television station. He was accused of having served in the Israeli army and was forced to cancel his scheduled Lebanese tour in July 2009, to the bitter disappointment of many of his francophone fans. Another outcome of his popularity abroad was his appearance in three American movies in 2011, as a "real" Frenchman in Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) and Jack and Jill (Adam Sandler), as well as the Arab character in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin (2011).
While in French films, Gad Elmaleh can play a convincing Muslim and Roschdy Zem an equally believable Sephardi Jew, they remain mostly indistinguishable, both to indigenous Frenchmen and Hollywood's global public.