Screening stories about Israel
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Screening stories about Israel

Israeli Arab comedy writer to screen his TV series in Englewood

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Norman Issa, who plays Ajmad in “Arab Labor,” and Clara Khoury, who plays his wife Bushra, were named best comic actor and actress by Israel’s Academy Awards this year.

Amjad, an Arab Israeli, is driving from his village into Jerusalem, where he works. He’s trying to decide which radio station will seem most Israeli, so he won’t be singled out for a search as he enters the city.

Remember, speak only Hebrew, he tells his wife and their six-year-old daughter, Mava. “No Arabic. Just Hebrew.”

He stops at the checkpoint.

“Good morning officer,” says Mava with a warm smile – in Arabic.

“Open your trunk” the officer says.

Welcome to “Arab Labor,” the Israeli comedy series that looks at the fraught situation of Israel’s Arab minority through the story of Amjad. Played by Norman Issa, Amjad is a journalist for a Hebrew-language newspaper who painfully wants to be accepted by Jewish society – but whose efforts to assimilate sometimes succeed more at separating him from his traditional parents than at uniting him with Israeli culture.

The show makes for viewing that is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and painful – and sometimes both, simultaneously.

First aired in 2008, filming for the fourth season just finished.

The show is the work of one creator, Sayed Kashua, who writes all of its episodes.

Kashua will be in Tenafly later this month for the Israel Film and Cultural Festival presented by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Three episodes will be screened at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on March 16, and then he will take questions from the audience.

Like his lead character, Kashua works for a Hebrew newspaper. He writes a weekly column for Haaretz; before that he wrote the column for the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir, for which he also worked as a reporter.

And like Amjad, Kashua, 38, has a foot in both the Jewish and Arab worlds. He has written three novels, which have won leading Israeli literary prizes. They are written in Hebrew. He left his village in northern Israel at 15 to attend a prestigious Jewish boarding school for high school. Thrown in to a largely Jewish environment, he focused on his Hebrew and on fitting in. The price: He never developed fluency in formal written Arabic.

As a result, his novels are all written in Hebrew, and they have earned him highly sought-after literary awards. They have been translated into English and Arabic, and have received some good reviews in the wider Arab world.

Where did his comedy come from?

“There’s an Arabic saying – the worst of sorrows is funny,” Kashua said in a phone interview from his home in Jerusalem, conducted in a mixture of Hebrew and English.

His career in television comedy was an outgrowth of the satirical column he had begun writing for Haaretz about being an Arab in the Jewish state. The column caught the eye of a local television mogul, and “Arab Labor” became the first Hebrew language television show to feature Arabic. About a third of its dialogue requires Hebrew subtitles. (The DVDs prepared for the American market feature English subtitles for the Arabic and the Hebrew.)

In January, the third season brought “Arab Labor” five awards from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television: best comedy, best director, best screenplay, best lead actor in a comedy, and best lead actress in a comedy.

“We get about 20 percent of the prizes, just like our percentage of the population,” Kashua quipped at the time.

The show’s reception within Israel’s Arab community was not so warm initially.

It didn’t help that the premiere episode played off on the stereotype of Arab car repairmen as being car thieves.

“It was a new genre,” Kashua said. “People were not really used to it. Because I am using a lot of stereotypes, to make fun of them, they were very suspicious at the beginning. Now, many Arabs are big fans of the show.

“Maybe people were expecting lectures against the occupation,” he said.

Which is not to say that “Arab Labor” doesn’t try to educate Israel’s majority population on what it means to be part of the 20 percent of minority.

“We are part of the State of Israel. Maybe an unwanted part, but a part,” Kashua said.

In an early episode, a radio producer asks Amjad to comment on a report showing there are more traffic accidents among “minorities,” in the producer’s words.

“Oh, you mean Ethiopians?” says Amjad, pushing back against the euphemism.

“I mean members of the sector.”

“You mean charedim?”

“I have a show to produce,” the producer concedes.

“They’re called Arabs,” insists Amjad.

Later on, Amjad’s sister-in-law is invited to dinner by Amjad’s Jewish newspaper colleague and friend. He painstakingly cooks her tabuli, tehina, stuffed grape leaves, and other traditional Arab food.

She is offended.

“You think because I’m an Arab I need to eat grape leaves and hummus?” she asks. “This is exactly what Edward Said talks about in his book ‘Orientalism.'”

“A cookbook?”

For an American Jew, watching “Arab Labor” is an education of what it means to be a majority, rather than a minority. The picture is not always pretty. It is certainly ironic. Ajmad, in the American parlance, is assimilating to Israeli society, attempting to pass.

After attending a Passover seder, Amjad invites his hosts to join him for a subsequent Arab holiday. But he has second thoughts. In the village, they celebrate by slaughtering, roasting, and eating a sheep. That seems primitive to him after the book-based seder ritual. So he put together a “haggadah” with songs and recitations to impress his Jewish friends.

(It is amazing to think that all of the talented, hilarious Jews who dominated American television comedy since its inception did not create a comic portrayal of a Passover seder until a 2005 episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – and that was by no means as funny as what Kashua created.)

Kashua says his writing initially was a disappointment for his parents, who had hoped he would become a scientist. “When they realized that this is my career, they were very supportive. They love my writing. Though until today, my father will say things like, ‘It’s really a shame that a good writer like you is not a good lawyer by now.'”

Kashua says there’s some economic truth to his parents’ concerns.

“Even if you’re a best seller in Israel, it’s difficult to survive in the city without any other support,” he said. “Writing for TV is mostly for economic reasons. I like it a little bit. I don’t want to be a writer who needs to write a novel once a year to make a living or survive. I want to write a novel when there’s an idea I won’t forgive myself for not writing. Right now I wish I could have some time to just sit down and write this idea. Sometimes it’s difficult.”

Does he have anything he wants to say to American Jews?

“To be honest, it’s the same thing I want Israelis to know about the Arabs.

“I think I would like to explain how difficult it is, or how impossible it is, to be a non-Jewish citizen in the Jewish state of Israel. There are about one million citizens who are totally discriminated against in Israel and considered a demographic problem and a fifth column.

“I would like to let them know what does it mean to be a minority. I’m sure Jewish people – like Israelis – know very well what it means to be a persecuted minority,” he said.

Does he think his television work makes a difference?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Although it was a huge surprise for me, I don’t think so. Five minutes in the evening news cancels one year of writing and shooting of a TV show.

“It’s a very important and very slow process. Maybe a series like “Arab Labor” can be much more helpful with racism and identity problems if there was peace, not a situation where there is still a war going on between Israel and the Palestinians. Since I started writing the situation has gotten much worse,” he said, hastening to add, “I take no responsibility for the political situation in the Middle East.”

In a recent Haaretz column, he wrote about voting in the recent Israeli elections. The core conceit was that with former media stars like Yair Lapid leaping to the top of political parties, maybe one day he would enter politics.

Which meant, for the purpose of the column, that he dressed in a suit to vote.

And he panicked that if he were to vote for an Arab party, it would be obvious that it was him in his small Jerusalem district – which would derail his chance of mainstream political success.

The column was funny.

But seriously, would he consider being drafted by a political party?

“I understand nothing of politics. I’m a writer. I don’t want to be a politician,” he said.

“If I were very poor, I would do it. To be corrupt. I’d do my best to steal money from the public. I would want people to know I’m going there for the wrong reasons.”

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