How true is The Spy? True story behind Sacha Baron Cohen series

It's based in fact, but not everything played out exactly as on screen.

Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy

Sacha Baron Cohen has gone undercover for a very different kind of role in Netflix’s The Spy. The 2019 miniseries saw Cohen pull double duty, acting as an executive producer and playing the lead role of Mossad spy, Eli Cohen. While the series was praised by some as a gritty reimagining of Cohen’s story, others slammed it for Hollywood sensationalism that bent the truth.

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As Cohen went undercover in Syria with the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet, things soon unravelled and led to his execution in 1965. The Spy itself was based on Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat novel called L’espion qui venait d’Israël (The Spy Who Came From Israel), but if you want to know the “real” story, here’s where The Spy deviated from the truth.

Eli Cohen and Amin al-Hafiz weren’t as close as you’d think

Aside from Eli’s relationship with wife Nadia, the big bromance of the story is Cohen (working as Thaabet) and future Syrian president, Amin al-Hafiz. In The Spy, the pair met in Buenos Ares, with al-Hafiz using Kamel to help promote his political party – eventually appointing him Deputy Defense Minister.

In reality, there is no official documentation that proves the pair were ever friends. In a 2001 interview with Al Jazeera, al-Hafiz said he only met Cohen after his arrest in 1965. According to al-Hafiz, their friendship was conjured by the Egyptian press as part of a smear campaign.

Ahmad Suidani

Another central figure to the story is Ahmad Suwaydani. The Spy incorrectly claimed Suidani was al-Hafiz’s Director of Security. Although the part about Suidani never trusting Kamel (and helping lead to his arrest) is true, he never had the job as al-Hafiz’s Director of Security.

The Spy did accurately portray Suidani’s suspicions of Cohen and pretty much nailed the scene of Suidani bursting into Cohen’s apartment while catching him in the act of sending messages to Israel.

Eli’s wife

According to Eli’s daughter, the family’s arc presented within The Spy “hurt”. Most of all, she told Channel 12 News (via The Times of Israel) that it was the way the show portrayed Nadia that was the worst. Sophie Ben-Dor said the “ethnic gap” was the most offensive, with her mother being portrayed as a maid. Discussing The Spy, Ben-Dor said the job they gave Nadia was “unnecessary”.

Cohen’s role as Deputy Defense Minister

Kamel Amin Thaabet becoming Deputy Defense Minister would’ve been impossible. As well as inaccuracies with how close Cohen was with al-Hafiz, the position of Deputy Defense Minister didn’t exist in Syria until 1970 – long after Cohen’s execution. Added to this, the position is restricted to military personnel, meaning a civilian like Cohen/Thaabet wouldn’t be eligible.

Amin al-Hafiz’s wife

One of The Spy’s big moments was the James Bond-esque embassy dinner where Cohen leapt out of the window, infiltrated al-Hafiz’s office, and took photographs of covert information. There was also the sensationalised moment wherein al-Hafiz’s wife grabbed Cohen by the crotch. 

In particular, this scene was slammed by Syrian viewers who disagreed with the portrayal of the beloved former First Lady and the idea that al-Hafiz consented to a sexual relationship between his wife and Cohen. Finally, neither Amin nor Zeinab al-Hafiz were present at Cohen’s execution.

Eli Cohen’s brother

Maurice Cohen features prominently in both the fiction and real-life accounts of Eli’s life. In The Spy, Eli’s brother deduced his cover due to a cryptic sign-off about Nadia’s Singer sewing machine. In reality, Maurice learned the truth after he had a phone line installed.

Speaking to Jewish Magazine, Maurice explained, “I told him I now had a phone and gave the number of his apartment in Damascus, which I had received in a message just before he’d come home. He began writing the number but stopped abruptly and, looking flushed and flustered, mumbled under his breath about needing to run out to the supermarket before it closed. I had gotten under his cover.”

With Eli’s cover partially blown, Maurice’s Mossad superiors told him to keep the secret. In the show, Maurice begged Eli to think of his family and give up this life, whereas it was actually Nadia who asked him to stay in real life.

The 1963 Syrian coup d’état

The Spy depicts the bloody coup of 1963. The show plays out with Cohen holding a lavish party to distract officials, which gives al-Hafiz the chance to overthrow President Nazim al-Kudsi. Although there’s some evidence that Cohen threw parties that descended into orgies, there’s nothing to link him to the 1963 coup.

Elsewhere, al-Hafiz using the coup to immediately take power didn’t happen. Although al-Kudsi lost power and the Ba’ath Party would eventually take over, Lu’ay al-Atassi was appointed President first. When he resigned a few months later, al-Hafiz was declared President on 27th July, 1963.

Eli’s role in the Six-Day War

Eli is held as a hero by some and is said to have been crucial in ending the Six-Day War in 1967. Despite Eli’s death two years earlier, there are those who believe his intelligence helped bring the Six-Day War to a close. Madhi Zahreddine escorted Eli to the Syrian front in 1962, meaning there was a five-year gap between these events and the end of the Six-Day War.

As well as questions about how useful this information would’ve been due to the gap, there are reports that Cohen was sent to the front to crack down on Nazi officers instead of gather information.

The Spy is streaming now on Netflix – check out our guides to the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix.

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