A series about the spy Eli Cohen, who inflitrated the highest echelons of the Syrian regime in the 1960s, launched on 6 September on Netflix: it is likely to attract a global audience. The part of the ill-fated Egyptian-born Cohen, whose body was never returned, is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as a comic actor. Article by Harry de Quetteville in the Daily Telegraph:
Spying, Kipling describes so beautifully in the prototypical espionage novel Kim, is about living with many identities. Eli Cohen, the charming Israeli spy whose astonishing, nerveless, glamorous feats of derring do are now being serialised by The Spy (with Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead) was a master of the art.
Born Eli Shaul Jundi Cohen in Alexandria in 1924, he studied at a lycee and Cairo Farouk University, where he spoke French, English and Arabic. In 1949 his family left for Israel even as he stayed behind. Eventually he would join them, only to acquire a new identity in Syria. But his first target was Britain.
His is an eye-popping tale, one of many told about the agents and operatives of the Israeli secret services, and one which proved tempting to Gideon Raff (creator of Homeland) and irresistible to Baron Cohen. The actor’s father – an Orthodox Jewish accountant – treasured the tale of Eli, and Baron Cohen was asked to play the spy role shortly after he died. “I felt compelled to do it,” he told Vanity Fair.
If the transformation of the comic actor into the deadly serious spy seems unlikely, it is as nothing to the contortions of identity required of Eli Cohen. How, after all, could a passionately Zionist Jew reach the zenith of Syrian society, passing himself off as a Arab nationalist of unimpeachably antisemitic persuasion?
The answer, of course, lies in the mesmerising flux of the Middle East.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about living in Israel is discovering how much of the Middle East is there. You bump into Iraqis, and Syrians, Egyptians and lots of Iranians. You see elderly, craggy faces that would not look out of place in Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran. These are the Jews of those cities and countries who have been expelled, or rescued, or have fled for the security and prosperity of Israel.
Today they are citizens of a nuclear-armed country which is routinely threatened with destruction by their former homelands. And yet, for all the promises of mutual annihilation, contact between old communities flourish, diplomatic ties or no. When I was living in Jerusalem, marble was imported from Iran, routed via Turkey, and bought in to build Israel’s best homes. Old ties were literally moving mountains.