The Spy – Part I: A Review of the Series

People who serve in signals intelligence are often called spies. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan. They were undercover agents using their eyes and ears to bring back impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side. James Bond, in contrast is less of a secret agent type of spy, but more a fearless character of adventure with little to do with secrecy or mystery, and much more to do with a mixture of daring and charm, though his direct enemies are characterized by their disloyalty and treachery. But the spies who really interest me and I find most fascinating are those, like Smiley in a John Le Carré novel, who are poseurs and serve undercover in foreign countries over a period of time. They are traitors in the countries in which they work and loyalists to another regime.

If we are paranoid, we are always surrounded by informers planted from abroad or corrupted from within. But even if we are not, we are well versed that there may be spies on our native soil. The fact that we do not know whether they are there or not is part of the mystery. And they are a danger. Recall Guy Fawkes Day commemorating 5 November 1605 when a cabal of Catholic Englishmen plotted to blow up Parliament.

Novelists and playwrights are intrigued by spies because they are poseurs within a form of literature that is, after all, make-believe, fiction posing as reality. Like spies in reality, these writers are fascinated by covert behavior as well as undercover observation because these traits go to the heart of what they do. And in both realms, risk-taking and suspense are key to the stories, both for the teller of tales and the agents in them. Writers and spies must of necessity be devious.

Mis-direction, make-believe, masks and mapping, both of the geography of our environment and of our internal souls, all are at the core of any spy story and almost all fiction. The poseur spy must appear to be what he is not while the fictional author must make appearances and descriptions tangible, textured and real.

Among poseur spies, many are seedy and marginal characters with a black cloud of self-betrayal hanging over their heads. Though these types intrigue me, I have much more interest in spies like Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in King Henry VIII’s court and Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy working in the highest places in Damascus, Syria. They are brilliant and accomplished men who reach the highest offices in the land in which they play the role of a traitor for one side and a hero for the other. They know where their deepest loyalties lie and are not generally permeated with self-doubt. They are dissemblers par excellence and, as such, take the very methods of the spy realm to an altogether higher level by combining charm and guile, hidden feelings and glib language. They are flatterers who, in their sycophancy, hide their contempt, and, though rare because of the skill and serendipity required, nevertheless, infrequently but much-too-often, reach the highest offices in the land.  

Canada has its own history of notorious spies. Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk working in the Soviet Union’s embassy who defected to Canada was easily the most famous and most notorious. Currently, Cameron Otis, the high-ranking RCMP officer whose apartment was raided to reveal dozens of computers and encryption methods in the plethora of PCs found in his Byward Market condo in Ottawa, recently made his initial court appearance.

Eli Cohen was one of the best and most famous spies in history; he is the subject of a current entrancing Netflix bio-pic series released a month ago, The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and Ali G fame. In Who Is America? Sacha Baron Cohen posed as an Israeli interviewer who tricked gullible Americans into saying the most outlandish things. Borat, of course, was also a poseur in order to trick the unsuspecting into embarrassing situations and responses. Since I never watched Borat or Ali G, I did not have to discard comic expectations when watching Sacha play Eli.

If you are looking for spine-tingling suspense in a spy drama, there are only rare moments in this series. The story itself and Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance are what intrigue the viewer even if one is fully familiar with the narrative details. Sacha Baron Cohen builds on his previous straight role in Les Misérables. This is neither an adventure tale nor a deep bore into what made Eli Cohen so successful. As presented, the achievement appears to be a combination of Syrian ineptitude, Eli Cohen’s skills as a poseur, which Sacha Baron Cohen portrays with absolute conviction, as do in their roles, Noah Emmerich as Dan Peleg, Eli’s supporter but conflicted Mossad handler, his colleague, Maya (Yael Eitan) and Shlomo “Moni” Moshonov as the determined Mossad chief, Jacob Shimoni. Critics of Israel are bound to be outraged at both the exaltation of the hero and the negative depiction of Arabs. For this bio-pic is really focused on the expertise and determination of this Israeli hero and his Mossad handlers, but even more about how they wrestle with internal ethical tensions.

The occupants of high office in Damascus focused especially on Colonel Amin Al-Hafez (or Hafiz, Waleed Zuaiter), whom we first meet in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but subsequently as a general and member of the Ba’ath Party who became President of Syria on 27 July 1963 in a military coup until he too was overthrown on 23 February 1966. The Syrians were indeed embarrassed and absolutely enraged much more than the Americans tricked by Sacha Baron Cohen in a comic role. For Sacha Baron Cohen, in a dramatic role as Eli Cohen operating under the fake identity of Kamel Amin Thaabeth Tabat or Thabet or Thabeth (Arabic: كامل أمين ثابت‎), was presented as totally pulling the wool over the eyes of the Syrians until he was caught.  The sense of betrayal of the Syrian leadership is palpable. But smothering even that feeling is Al-Hafez’s sense of being so profoundly duped.

Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, played a critical role in the 1963 coup that brought the Ba’athists into power. He would displace the blame onto the president who succeeded Al-Hafez for the Syrian losses in the Six Day War, turn the tables and overthrow Nureddin al-Atassi in 1970 who had led the 1966 coup. Ruthlessness seems to beat embarrassment almost every time. I am mindful of that even though I strongly support the impeachment of Donald Trump. However, he plays no significant role in this series.

There are several other Arabs of note, first and foremost the intense and menacing Syrian Intelligence Colonel Ahmed Su’edani (Alexander Siddig) who disliked and distrusted Cohen and eventually caught him red-handed transmitting information to Israel. In contrast, the Syrian businessman, Sheikh Aheikh Majid al-Ard (Uri Gavriel), befriends Eli Cohen and even eventually facilitates an engagement with his daughter. Evidently, Cohen met the sheikh on a boat from Genoa to Beirut in 1962. The most colourful Arab character is perhaps Ma’azi Zaher al-Din played by Nassim Si Ahmed as the half-wild Algerian-Mexican lieutenant who paves the way for Eli Cohen’s entry into the Arab ex-pat community in Argentina.

Borat was a comic figure. Eli Cohen, however, was anything but, even though he too wore a bushy moustache. For Borat deliberately and humorously spoke in a tortured English accent while Cohen in reality spoke fluent Arabic even though the series is overwhelmingly in English. Cohen is brilliant as a tall, handsome and supposedly very rich Arab import/export businessman using Damascus as his base and both charm and money, dark glasses and expensive suits to seduce the upper echelon of rulers in Syria who attended his lavish parties. The picture below, if it can be transmitted, shows how handsome the real Eli Cohen was and how closely Sacha Baron Cohen took on his appearance in the series.

To get to peace, countries very often use two-track diplomacy, that is, secret channels for dialogue, usually using academics or other non-government officials to conduct negotiations for which a regime can at any time deny any responsibility. In the conduct of war, they use spies, undercover agents who are the critical complement to their military prowess. And none have been more critical to Israel – at least, as far as we can tell – than Eli Cohen, known best for his audacious arrangement to plant Eucalyptus trees along the edge of the Golan Heights ostensibly to shade the soldiers manning the “pill boxes” along the rim of the Golan Heights which allowed the artillery of Israel to destroy that three rows of  the “Maginot Line” with deadly accuracy in the opening of the Six Day War.

In the movie flashback from the final hanging, there are references to Eli Cohen at first as a very disgruntled former Mossad spy in Egypt in Operation Goshen that smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel in the early fifties, possibly a player in The Lavon Affair and its botched attempt to bomb Egyptian facilities that was to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, and his flight to Israel himself in December 1956. Once there he became a depressed signals clerk in the Mossad. His opening current position is that of a resentful clerk in an insurance office after having twice been rejected as a Mossad agent.

The series follows a double-track format, one track in Israel where Mossad finally recruits Eli Cohen to be their “spy in Damascus” and, also, afterwards, to nurse and hold the hand of Eli Cohen’s long-suffering wife, Nadia, played brilliantly and totally convincingly by Hadar Ratzon-Rotem. They were married in 1959 just before he was recruited, trained and then established his Syrian identity as an ex-pat Syrian businessman in Buenos Aires in 1961. Between February 1962 and 1965, he rose in a world of flash and corruption, wealth and dissolute behaviour, in a Las Vegas version of Damascus filmed in colour, while in the depressing black and white parallel track, Nadia’s life seems to disintegrate into loneliness and, surprisingly, apparent penury in Bat Yam. Was the latter accurate? If so, it is perhaps much more embarrassing to Israel than the high-risk exposure into which they placed Eli Cohen for reasons of state.

There is another question about the verity of the series. Did Cohen really have something to do with Osama bin Laden and his father, the fabulously wealthy Mohammed bin Laden? Or was this a bow to Hollywood poetic license? The fact that I ask the question is, in itself, a minor criticism of the series. For success of a spy film about reality depends on the movie communicating masking and lying in the most honest way possible.

The latter is a major theme in the video series as well as the account, Our Man in Damascus: The thrilling, shocking, true story of Israel’s most daring spy by Eli Ben-Hanan which ends with Cohen being caught, tortured, tried and hung in the Damascus’ Martyrs (Marjeh) Square on 18 May 1965 before a derisory mob shouting the equivalent of ‘Down with Israel’ after a visitation by the elderly Chief Rabbi of Syria, Nissim Andabo. This is where the series begins with Cohen’s body left to dangle for six hours. However, the series more closely followed the French version of the tale as told by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu d’Israel in the nondescript titled The Spy Who Came from Israel.

The film series depicts Cohen’s recruitment in 1959, training, positioning himself in Buenos Aires as a Syrian businessman who longs to return to his native country (which he does in 1962), the route used to infiltrate the power elite in Syria. According to the series, rivalling his greatest exploit, the intelligence he supplied on the military fortifications on the Golan Heights, was the information he gathered on Syria’s plans to divert the Jordan and starve Israel of water and Syria’s efforts to build a nuclear reactor. Those plans were sabotaged by Israel.

However, I do not recall the Ben-Hanan book being about Nadia, but it is a long time since I read it and I must have given my copy away for it is no longer on my bookshelves – or, at least, I could not find it. But this is a core trope of the series – the disintegration of Nadia’s life into loneliness and the sole responsibility for two young children (I believe there were three) in contrast to the high life Cohen was living as a multi-millionaire in Damascus. In the series, Cohen is depicted as almost puritanical in resisting the enticements of a corrupt Lothario, but somewhere I believe I read that Cohen had a long series of mistresses. In the series, he is too much in love with his wife and family and only gets involved with the daughter of a very wealthy Syrian businessman as part of his cover and only under orders of his Mossad minder.

To be continued – Part II An Evaluation

With the help of Alex Zisman

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