Israel: Straddling Cultures, Irreverently, in Life and Art
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jan 7 14:04:38 UTC 2008
January 7, 2008
Beit Safafa Journal
Straddling Cultures, Irreverently, in Life and Art
By ISABEL KERSHNER
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. Kashuas 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
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
Israels Arab citizens are guaranteed full equality under the states 1948
Declaration of Independence, and they participate in Parliament. The
current government includes the countrys first Arab minister. But
discrepancies in budget and land allocations have resulted in yawning gaps
between the states 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. Kashuas 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 Israels 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, Amjads father has been given the annual
Passover responsibility of buying the Jewish states 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
Keshets 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. Kashuas 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
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
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 surveys 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.
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