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The Infidel – an East End ‘skin flick’

by Gil Toffell
8 Jun 2010 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Earlier this year, walking the south side of Whitechapel High Street in London’s East End I passed an advertisement for the cinematic release of the film The Infidel. Staring at me from a poster on the side of a bus stop was the film’s hero Omid Djalili. A curious figure he’s presented as cultural confusion embodied. His clothes are the stock garb of a Pakistani everyman: taqiya and kurta. Telling a different story, though, are his hands: one stuffs a bagel into his mouth, the other – a la Tom Eliot’s ‘Bleistein’ – is held palm upturned at chest height. Next to him a tagline reads “Is it a Jew? Is it a Muslim? No! It’s the infidel”.

The East End is a space marked – discursively and physically – by both Jewish and south Asian immigration into Britain. The aforementioned bus stop is adjacent to the sizeable East London Mosque – a major communal institution of Bengali East London. Seventy years previously the site was located at the centre of the Jewish East End and was home to the Rivoli cinema. Not only did this regularly show films of Jewish interest (Yiddish ‘talkies’, Zionist films of nation building in Palestine), but it served as a place of worship when a tiny nearby synagogue overflowed on high holy days. Despite this shared geographic experience the appearance of this particular poster in this particular place somehow jars. Much recent chatter in the news media, on television documentaries and the virtual spaces of internet comment has imagined these two groups as opposed. The reason for this is obvious: Israel. Jews and Muslims, we are told, don’t share spaces and  – because of this – Judaism and Islam don’t share bodies. In The Infidel these tensions are examined.

Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) is a minicab driver living in the East London suburb of Leytonstone. He’s Muslim, but hardly what you’d call devout; indeed, his main preoccupations are his family and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Currently, though, he’s having a tough time. His mother has recently died and his son has announced his engagement. This latter event would be fine except for one thing: the stepfather of his son’s fiancée is Arshad Al Masri (Yigal Naor), a radical Pakistani cleric about to make a controversial visit to the UK. It is in this context that Mahmud finds his birth certificate while clearing his mother’s house and discovers that he was adopted. In trying to track down his name at birth it gets worse: he was born ‘Solly Shimshillewitz’ and his biological parents were Jewish.

Unable to make sense of his personal history Mahmud’s world begins to spin out of control. He starts hearing the word “Jew” in every conversation and takes to making antisemitic comments to his workmates. Desperate he turns to the only Jewish person he knows, Lenny (Richard Schiff), a semi-alcoholic American ‘cabbie’ living in the wreckage of a messy divorce. Taking it upon himself to school Mahmud in the intricacies of Jewish culture Lenny teaches Mahmud to “oy vey”, lends him a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint and outlines a typology of London Jews. Just as Mahmud is reaching a point where he is ready to confess his secret to his family life takes a turn for the worse. Attending a pro-Palestine demo events conspire against him and he’s caught on camera stamping on a burning yarmulke. This endears him to his son’s future father in law, Al Masri, but his new found Jewish friends are less impressed and when they turn up at his house to demonstrate the gig is up.

Furious at being lied to Mahmud’s wife Saamiya (Archie Panjabi) leaves him. Further, Al Masri insists his stepdaughter will not marry the son of Jew, thus scuppering his son’s wedding. At his lowest ebb Mahmud takes to sulking indoors and watching old music videos of his teen idol, a disgraced New Romantic singer from Manchester called Gary Page. Noticing a striking similarity in the nervous tics of Page and Al Masri Mahmud realises he has solved the mystery of Page’s twenty year disappearance. Confronting Al Masri with his own inauthenticity at a public meeting Mahmud sends the old reactionary packing and opens the door for a reconciliation between his son and the ex-fiancée. The film ends at the couple’s wedding, Mahmud clear about who he is and where he comes from.

In the first few decades of the twentieth century a plethora of ‘ethnic’ films were put out by the major US studios. Seeking to appeal to burgeoning audiences of urban American Jews, Italians and Irish, stories featuring the trials of immigrants in the New World were a notable feature of the cinematic landscape. A common plot device in such fare involved staging a tension in the interactions between two distinct ethnic groups. In His People, for instance, a romance between a Jewish boxer and his Irish sweetheart formed a key subplot; similarly The Cohens and Kellys series of comedies found humour in an Irish versus Jewish family rivalry. Typically, the narrative development of these films moved from a period where intransigent opposing forces faced off, to a resolution involving a dissolution of difference. There is something of the pre-World War II ethnic movie in The Infidel. The same insistence that when one looks closely supposed opposites have much in common.

As one would expect, the central theme on which the film riffs is identity: Muslim and Jewish identity specifically, though by extension, any gesture or claim to be part of some collective body. However, working on the premise that many British Jews and Muslims are not particularly hung up on scripture, adherence to religious injunction is not explored. Whilst a brief explanation of Jewish custom around the recently dead is given, religious practice is rarely focussed on and belief is not lampooned. Instead, culture – or a certain understanding of the meaning of that word – is the category extracted to examine selfhood. To be Jewish or Muslim in this film thus involves some personal alignment with a shared set of references and dispositions within the context of a post-imperial multiracial Britain. Indeed, it might be better understood as a flavour of Britishness, an always already hybrid construct where East is West and West is East.

This version of cultural identity is not something to be taken particularly seriously. It is constituted in some curious realm where mass-cultural cliché meets the arcane traditions of faraway places. In the film Jewishness might amount to little beyond the spectacle of care-home pensioners whirling rattles in unison during a Purim celebration, and dancing like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. It is something of a pose, an attitude. When Mahmud accidentally finds himself obliged to deliver the punchline of a joke at a Bar Mitzvah speech all he can do is spout an illogical mish-mash of random Yiddish phrases. At first the room is silent, but when one woman begins roaring with laughter the rest of the guests soon follow suit. No one understands the gag – they can’t, it’s nonsense. That, though, is irrelevant – the idea is to join in, to appreciate the gesture.

The point of all this seems to be to suggest that identity is not something to get too hung up on. Yes, it’s fine to feel different, but just remember that much ‘culture’ is a bit trashy. Moreover, a lot of this stuff is very changeable – Fiddler on the Roof hasn’t always been there to tell you how to dance in the ‘old country’ style. Far more sensible is to look beyond a pure and singular identity that defines you in your entirety. Instead of thinking of yourself simply as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Muslim’ consider the various roles you inhabit. Mahmud’s connections to those around him through kinship – as father, son and husband – or through friendship are more significant than the links he has to those with whom he merely shares a religion (of either variety).

Whilst this conceptualisation of culture might be reductionist in the extreme, there is a sense in which there’s not much to complain about here. Liberal populist iterations of cultural hybridity so beloved by politicians are sometimes inane – there is something quite funny about Chicken Tikka Masala being discussed in the House of Commons. And to be fair to the film it does take itself seriously enough to suggest a more sober dimension to shared representations and practices. Contra the purified modes of being that fundamentalism and nationalism offer we are shown the borders of collective distinctness as illusory. A central lesson that Mahmud learns during his crash course in Jewishness is just how similar British Jews and Muslims are. The phrases “As-Salamu Alaykum” and “Shalom aleichem” are branches of the same root; both communities have a taste for ‘bling’ when laying on a family occasion; cab driving has been the immigrant worker’s vocation for decades; and, of course, Whitechapel’s Royal London Hospital has seen more births to kids with ‘funny’ names than just about anywhere else in Britain.

What is never really resolved, however, is the place of the human body in this post-assimilationist landscape. Speaking in one of the many interviews that inevitably preceded the release of the film The Infidel’s (Jewish) scriptwriter, David Baddiel, tells the interviewer that once, as a child, he was mistakenly identified by bullies as Asian and beaten up. Further, he recalls that in his early days performing stand-up comedy he received fan mail congratulating him on being Britain’s best Indian comic. This kind of confusion is central to the logic of the film. In addition to Jews and Muslims sharing a horizon of experience at the level of culture, they might also have much in common at the epidermal level.

Discussing how The Infidel moves beyond the concerns of earlier ‘ethnic’ movies, Baddiel tells the same Jewish Chronicle interviewer that “In this film, there is no majority culture. Nearly every character is a Muslim or a Jew…this film has been made at a time when both communities can be seen as straightforwardly British and not worry about what the whites are thinking”.[1] Curious here is the distinction made between Jews and “whites”. As the cultural historian Sander Gilman[2] has demonstrated, prior to the twentieth century much European imagining of Jews involved a perception of Jewish skin as marked by darkness. In racial ‘science’ literature Jews were even described as “black”. This, argued some, was proof of their status as a “hybridised” or “mongrel” race and was the result of “breeding” with Africans during the Alexandrian exile. By the end of nineteenth century, however, the truth of this physical marker became questioned with increasing frequency. With time a more common position emerged in which it was argued that Jewish physiognomy was a matter of acculturation, and that assimilation would mean transformation at the physical level. Indeed, for racial supremacists such as the Nazis, the assimilated Jew posed a special kind of threat through his or her very invisibility.

Given this historic background any claiming of the status of non-whiteness for Jews would seem a counter-intuitive manoeuvre. In fact, it is the case that the truth of bodies is questioned by the film – a theme given clearest expression after Mahmud features on a television news report at a Palestine solidarity rally. Seen standing alongside Islamist radicals and setting fire to a yarmulke embroidered with the star of David, this highly provocative act provides the catalysts for all hell to break loose as his house is besieged by Jewish demonstrators. Facing the crowd on his front porch, Mahmud explains that he is, actually, by birth, Jewish.  In response to this two protesters begin to argue about the plausibility of this revelation. Whereas one considers Mahmud as definitely “looking Jewish”, his friend disagrees and asserts “he’s basically a schwartzer” (Yiddish pejorative for a person of colour). Maybe, the film seems to say, race is a projection. Reading a body as raced is something accomplished in relation to a whole constellation of knowledge.

This would seem to be the message of the piece as it reaches its finale. Hijacking a public meeting held by Al Masri, Mahmud clambers onto the stage and informs the audience that the man in front of them is, in fact, a has-been Mancunian pop star. As footage of an old pop video is projected onto a wall Al Masri’s bodily disposition acquires an altogether different character and he reverts to his Gary Page self. Exiting via a fire escape he mutters a “well played son” to Mahmud in a broad Lancashire accent. Finally, an old photograph of Al Masri’s parents replaces the projection of the pop video. Basking in his victory Mahmud goes onto assert that Al Masri’s family were Scientologists – “if it matters”.

For the film, however, it appears it does matter. That the photograph is monochrome means an assessment of skin tone cannot be made. Similarly, designating Al Masri’s parents ‘Scientologists’ merely begs the question of what they really were. Signifiers of ethnicity are thus held back rather than problematised. Further, a question remains. What would have happened if Mahmud’s son had fallen in love with the stepdaughter of a fundamentalist cleric with ancestry really stretching back to 8th century Arabia? Presumably Mahmud would have had to concede defeat. Biology is something that his arguments cannot take on. Even, then, whilst the film seeks to destabilise a variety of iterations of ethnic identity, certain figurations of authenticity refuse to leave the set. Ultimately, here, dark skinned people are dark skinned people and whether or not they are worried about “what the whites are thinking”, they are not them.

It is, perhaps, somewhat fanciful to ask a populist comedy to deconstruct the ambiguous connections linking concepts of race, culture and identity. The film has, for the most part, got its heart in the right place. Stereotypes are challenged – a burkha-wearing friend of Saamiya is revealed to be an enthusiastic fashion victim; and, in contrast to many ‘ethnic’ movies, no one is required to jettison their questionable foreign ways in order to assimilate. However, images of the body are key to interpreting how a society understands itself. Whiteness and blackness are active categories around which individuals think through their place in the social landscape, and around which borders (social and otherwise) are policed. It is not always clear that a full recognition of this reality is in operation in the film. Whilst attending a Bar Mitzvah Mahmud is asked to lend his signature to an absurdly exaggerated statement of support for the State of Israel. The more he tries to force his pen to paper the more his hand recoils, and he ends up jabbing himself in the eye. Surely it is not the case that skin colour can, or should, be forwarded as a mediating factor in defusing communal tensions around such issues. That it appears here as a potential site of commonality would suggest that the place of those marked as particular may be less settled than this film is prepared to admit.


1.  Simon Round, “Interview: David Baddiel”, The Jewish Chronicle, March 18, 2010. [↑]

2.  Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body, (New York: Routledge, 1991). [↑]

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Gil Toffell is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School for Languages, Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary, University of London. He is currently researching Jewish cinema culture in interwar Britain.
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