Times: Israeli Arabs find nothing funny

The problem in Israel today is that the Arabs there find nothing funny.

BEIT SAFAFA, Israel — Being an Arab Israeli has always been a complex affair, at times almost a contradiction in terms. For Sayed Kashua, 32, an Israeli-born Arab journalist and author, it just got more complicated.

His latest work, a prime-time situation comedy on Israel’s commercial Channel 2 television, deals with Israeli society’s prejudices and peccadilloes through the eyes of a Muslim Arab family that bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Kashua’s own. The series is popular with its mostly Jewish audience, which finds it irreverent and funny. But many among the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel — 20 percent of the population — say it borders on insulting.

The Arabic press reviews have been “deadly — the critics are attacking everything I’ve done,” Mr. Kashua said. “They say that I work at a Zionist newspaper” — he writes a satirical weekly column in the liberal Hebrew daily Haaretz — “and that I supply stereotypes for the Jews.” The lavish praise by the Hebrew-language critics has not helped.

Welcome to Mr. Kashua’s world, which, like the series, “Avoda Aravit,” or Arab Labor, works on multiple, often paradoxical levels. The title is Hebrew slang for second-rate work, and the one that Mr. Kashua chose.

On one hand Mr. Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view — mostly expressed in colloquial Arabic — into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment. On the other, “Avoda Aravit” reflects a society still grappling with fundamental issues of identity and belonging in a Jewish state which, Mr. Kashua says, still largely relates to its Arab minority as “a fifth column or a demographic problem.”

“I wanted to bring likable Arabs into the average Israeli living room,” Mr. Kashua said.

Israel’s Arab citizens are guaranteed full equality under the state’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, and they participate in Parliament. The current government includes the country’s first Arab minister. But discrepancies in budget and land allocations have resulted in yawning gaps between the state’s Arabs and Jews, a disparity that is reflected in popular culture.

A study published in 2006 by the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which regulates commercial broadcasts in Israel, showed that 50 percent of the characters appearing on prime-time commercial television were secular Jewish Israeli males with standard accents. Arabs accounted for 2 percent of the remaining 50 percent and were portrayed negatively.

In a refreshing departure, “Avoda Aravit” focuses on a young professional Arab couple, Amjad and Bushra, and their way-too-smart, eye-rolling, preschool-age daughter, who live in an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Amjad is a journalist working for a Hebrew newspaper. His best friend, Meir, is a Jewish photographer there.

Mr. Kashua resorts to some unflattering stereotypes on both sides for the sake of comedy, but he is also a master of subtle nuance in dealing with both Arab and Jewish society, and is self-deprecating enough for the borscht belt.

Mr. Kashua’s alter ego, Amjad, sometimes goes to ridiculous lengths to fit in with what he views as Israel’s Ashkenazi elite. He sends his daughter to a Reform synagogue kindergarten after lampooning the local religious Islamic Movement one.

For Passover, Amjad and his family are invited to participate in a Seder, when Jewish families traditionally gather to read the story of the Children of Israel’s exodus from ancient Egypt. Amjad joins in with gusto, having memorized the classical Hebrew text, and gobbles down his gefilte fish, after which Bushra refuses to go near him.

By an accident of fortune, Amjad’s father has been given the annual Passover responsibility of buying the Jewish state’s leftover chametz, or leavened bread, from the chief rabbinate for the duration of the holiday, when Jews are meant to clear their homes of it, for the symbolic price of one shekel. He promptly sells it on eBay.

Some Arab viewers took particular exception to Amjad’s father, a wily character who does not hesitate to cheat his own son out of a few shekels and who has taught his granddaughter that eight plus three equals a Jack.

Samih al-Qassem, a renowned Arab poet from the Galilee and former editor of Kul al-Arab, an Arabic weekly newspaper, said that he applauded Mr. Kashua’s courage and good intentions but that Arabs were “insulted by the tendency to ridicule the victim.”

With 70 percent of the dialogue of “Avoda Aravit” in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles, going for prime time was a risk. Arabic-language programming on Channel 2 is usually confined to news and current affairs broadcasts at siesta time on Friday afternoons.

“Of course we had to think of the ratings,” said Avi Nir, the chief executive of Keshet, the company that has the concession for half the air time on Channel 2 and invested in the series. “We weighed up the risks against having something original, different and interesting.”

In late December, after five episodes, the ratings stood at a respectable 20 percent, putting “Avoda Aravit” among Keshet’s 10 most popular programs.

The idea for the series came from Danny Paran, a successful Israeli television producer and an observant Jew. He called Mr. Kashua in 2004, and the two met in a cafe. “He kept adjusting his skullcap,” Mr. Kashua recalled, “but when he paid for my beers I realized he was for real.”

Mr. Kashua’s work is better known in Jewish circles than in Arab ones, since he usually writes in Hebrew. That, he says, is because he is not capable of writing literary Arabic. Mr. Kashua was born in the Arab town of Tira in central Israel. He was accepted at age 15 to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem where everything was in Hebrew.

“Arabic was something I had to get rid of, quick,” Mr. Kashua said.

His two novels, “Dancing Arabs” (2004) and “Let it be Morning” (2006), were written in Hebrew and were also published in the United States.

Mr. Kashua currently lives in Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem that straddles the boundary with the West Bank.

In real life, his daughter, a second grader, studies at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education. The school, situated in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, is a haven of coexistence where Jewish and Arab Israelis learn and play together, and where each class has two teachers, one Arab and one Jewish, who repeat everything in Arabic and Hebrew.

Mr. Kashua says it offers the best education at the best price. But here, too, the staff struggles with the dominance of Hebrew, the language of power and advancement in Israel. If one Jewish child joins nine Arabs in the yard, everyone switches into Hebrew, the Jewish and Arab co-principals say.

Away from the school, the outlook is bleaker. A recent survey of 500 Jewish Israelis found that 55 percent of respondents who watch “Avoda Aravit” would agree to have Arabs like Amjad and Bushra as neighbors. Of those who do not watch the series, only 38 percent said they would agree to live next door to Arabs. (The survey’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus four percentage points.)

Mr. Kashua, typically deadpan, was happy to hear that so many Jews would live near an Arab. “I told my wife we can start looking for an apartment in West Jerusalem,” he said.

What is less clear is how many Arabs would now be happy to live next door to Mr. Kashua.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just saw "The Syrian Bride" last week. A lot of this fits in well with that film too.