Stream On: Middle Eastern intrigue from the creator of Homeland
חטופים (Prisoners of War), The Tyrant, The Spy
Homeland has ended after eight seasons. Some critics argue that the show lingered past its prime; I found the first five seasons, available with subscription on Hulu and on demand from other services, well worth watching.
This column, however, is not about the well-known 2011 espionage series from Showtime, but about the superior (in my opinion) Israeli series that inspired it, and two other shows from one of its creators, Gideon Raff, originally on Hulu and Netflix.
חטופים (Prisoners of War)
When Showtime executives saw this Israeli series they asked Raff to adapt it to American TV, resulting in Homeland, which has the same overarching themes of family, identity and loyalty, but a different story (in case you’re familiar with Homeland).
Like the American show, POWs opens with the premise of prisoners of war (in this case, three soldiers) who are suddenly returned to their country. It takes place 17 years after Nimrod Klein, Uri Zach and Amiel Ben-Horin are captured during a secret mission to Lebanon. Nimrod and Uri are returned to Israel along with Amiel’s remains, after a long public relations effort by Nimrod’s wife, which included an appeal to the United Nations.
The first episode is steadily paced, as the audience and the POWs are introduced to the lives they left 17 years earlier. Nimrod is reunited with his wife and daughter (who was five when he was captured) and meets his son, with whom his wife was pregnant.
Uri is reunited with his father and his girlfriend, who, unbeknownst to Uri, married his brother after five years, with whom she had a son.
Amiel’s close sister learns of his death and accepts his remains, while he continues to appear to her as she tries to make peace with his passing.
What concerns Haim Cohen, an Israeli Defense Force psychologist who debriefs Nimrod and Uri, is why the men were actually freed. What must they have told their captors? His fears are well-placed, as we see Jamal Agrabiya, the leader of the cell that captured them, tell one of the prisoners (who we don’t see), before he boards the Red Cross plane for home, “May Allah protect you.”
Unless you speak Hebrew and Arabic, you’ll need subtitles on for this thrilling show. POWs won the 2010 Israeli Academy Award for Television for Best Drama Series.
This FX series from Raff is a fish-out-of-water drama that concerns the two families of Barry Al-Fayeed, a Pasadena pediatrician. In California for 20 years, he has an American wife, son, and daughter, and rarely thinks of his homeland, the fictional country of Abuddin, where his father is the military dictator.
He returns with his family to Abuddin for the wedding of his nephew, and finds his family there gripped in intrigue as a popular rebellion roils the streets and his unstable and violent brother plots to overthrow their father.
More conventional than POWs, Tyrant is nonetheless a turbulent yarn of 20th century court intrigue as seen through the eyes of a fairly typical American family with more skin in the game then they might have wanted. “They are your family.” “That’s why I left.”
THE SPY (Netflix)
In the final scene of Prisoners of War we see a character studying his own reflection in a mirror. From context we know he is thinking, “Who am I?” This question is at the heart of Raff’s 2019 Netflix miniseries, The Spy, about Israeli national hero Eli Cohen and his frankly amazing exploits.
Eli Cohen (in a surprising performance by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) was an Egyptian Jew from a Zionist family, all of whom had emigrated to Israel. An analyst in military counter-intelligence, he applied to the secret service, Mossad, repeatedly and was turned down. Mossad wasn’t keen on recruiting volunteers for security reasons. But when they heard of a Syrian plan to divert the waters of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s sole source of water, Cohen’s name came up in a search of personnel and applicants. As a Sephardic Jew from Egypt, it was decided that he could pass for a Syrian and he was recruited by Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich, The Americans).
His dogged devotion to his training and natural talent put him in the field in 1961, when he was placed in a Buenos Aries Syrian expat community as a businessman. As “Kamel Amin Thaabet,” his normal reticence gave way to another personality, a charismatic hail-fellow-well-met, and he made many friends in the community, including Colonel Amin Al-Hafez, a Ba’athist sympathizer who would later lead a coup d’état in Syria.
Moving to Syria, Cohen was a bon-vivant, becoming friendly with two governments, and on a tour of the front, expressed concern that the positions on the Golan Heights had no shade. He made a gift of trees to be planted at them, which were later used as targets by the IDF in the Six Days War.
He was an audacious agent, who took risks but had good luck – until he didn’t. The story is told in flashbacks, and the first scene shows a disheveled Cohen in a Syrian prison, with bandages on his fingertips. He is at a plain table and writing a final letter to his wife, with a rabbi. As he finishes, the rabbi says, “There, good. There’s not much time left. Now sign it.” Eli poises the pen and stops. The rabbi looks hard at him and says, in wonder, “You don’t know who you are!”
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