When a series of unexplained explosions rocked tehran in july, the israeli actress niv sultan posted a video of herself watching the news, with a coy expression on her face.
For fans of israeli spy dramas, the video made total sense ms sultan is the star of tehran, a tv show about a mossad hacker smuggled into iran to help blow up a secret nuclear site.
The show, bootlegged and illegally streamed this summer across much of the middle east, including iran, is the latest in what has become israels most resilient cultural export: espionage thrillers that trade on the mystique of the jewish states secret services, both feared and admired in the region. this weekend it will be launched in the us on apple tv.
In recent months, the latest season of fauda (chaos), has consistently been among the top-watched shows in lebanon, jordan and the united arab emirates on netflix, with arab audiences intrigued by the exploits of a shadowy israeli unit that operates covertly in the west bank and the gaza strip.
The red sea diving resort, a film about the mossads daring evacuation of ethiopian jews out of a 1984 civil war, also has a loyal audience.
We all know to laugh, how to fall in love, but we dont all know how the spy world looks like, said avi issacharoff, the journalist who co-wrote fauda, israeli televisions first breakout international hit. this is not just a clich, that this is a world in the darkness, and so suddenly to find and learn about the world of espionage through a realistic lens people are attracted to that.
Even sacha baron cohen, the actor famous for playing satirical characters such as in the film borat, abandoned comedy to play eli cohen, a famed israeli double-agent embedded in the syrian government before the 1967 six-day war and hanged in a public square in damascus after he was discovered.
Unfortunately, these are the headlines we are in too often, because of the situation here, said arik kneller, the agent who sold the israeli show prisoners of war, which was remade as the hit us series homeland. it appears that this is our claim to fame abroad, whereas in israel, people are telling more personal, and less political stories, especially in cinema.
Israel has a serious literary and cinematic history including the books of amos oz and yuval noahharari as well as films such as the oscar-nominated waltz with bashir but the exploits of its spies and assassins have become a profitable niche.
Just as india is best known for bollywood, and china for its kung fu and han-era historical dramas, israels violent birth and its constant battles with its neighbours have made espionage its cultural watermark.
Part of the commercial success can be tied directly to the reputation of the mossad, israels foreign spy agency, said avner avraham, who retired after 28 years with the service and set up a cinema consultancy and speakers bureau called the spy legends agency.
In the spy world, the agencies are both always secret and always on the top of peoples imagination, said mr avraham, who advised actor ben kingsley for his role as adolf eichmann, the nazi war criminal who was abducted by the mossad in argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in jerusalem.
It also helps that it is official israeli policy for spymasters to brag of their exploits, adding to the perception in the middle east that the mossad is everywhere, listening to everything.
Embarrassing failures are far outweighed by the successes, including, most recently, the spiriting out of an abandoned tehran warehouse of the entire nuclear archives of the islamic republic, proudly displayed on tv by prime minister benjamin netanyahu in april 2018.
The realism helps too, said sima shine, who kept an eye on iran for most of her career at mossad and the national security council, and watched tehran closely when it aired in israel.
Its good that they give a lot of credit to the security apparatus [in iran], and they dont show them as stupid instead they show them as operating quite well, she said. we see the demonstrations by students, and the counter demonstrations, and the hidden parties of young people we know that all these things are happening in iran.
The iranians were equally fascinated by the drama and perturbed by inaccuracies, said holly dagres, an iranian-american non-resident fellow at the atlantic council, the washington-based think-tank.
This is the first time a wide israeli audience got a glimpse of their enemy, iran, beyond the news cycle. this is also the first time iranians got to see what israelis, to an extent, think of them, she said.
The timing helped too. the unusual explosions mustve added more interest in the series for both audiences as it unintentionally served as publicity for tehran because the plot is about israel taking out nuclear facilities.
For israeli directors and film-makers, the hope is that other art will eventually come to the international stage. one show, shtisel, about the ultraorthodox community, is already on netflix, and others, such as yellow peppers, about an autistic child, was remade as the a word for british television.
The obvious stuff has gone through, said mr kneller, who hopes that female israeli television writers will soon come to dominate the cultural output, pointing to thursdays emmy nomination for fifty, a series by yael hedaya, about an israeli screenwriter turning 50. maybe now the less obvious stuff will shine also.