06-18-09 Arab Labor: Using humor in Israeli sitcom to change perceptions of Arab citizens

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Arab Labor: A humorous sitcom that turns tragedy into understanding
By Ray Hanania —
The life of an Arab citizen is anything but funny. Just ask my relatives who live in several Israeli cities. Non-Jews in a Jewish world caught on the edge of the wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis. Yet, that’s exactly the premise of a sitcom that was a hit last year and is in its second season on Israeli TV called “Arab Labor.”

The sitcom is the brainchild of Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua and produced by Israeli Danny Paran. Even in our everyday language, you might note, Arab citizens of Israeli are still spoken of as if they are not a part of the larger Israeli society.

A sizable 20 percent of Israel’s population, the Christian and Muslim Palestinians rarely get any real or substantive airtime on Israeli television, outside of the news reports which, like most Western media, portray them purely in a negative light.

“Arab Labor” is a mild translation of the sitcom’s Hebrew name, Avoda Aravit, which is slang for “sloppy workmanship,” a derisive stereotype of the Arabs of Israel.

Yet under all this, Kashua may have achieved one of the most brilliant portrayals of the challenging life Arabs in Israel face every day. And using humor, he may have presented it in the only way most Israelis are willing to see it, one filled with racism, suspicion, distrust and stereotypes that must be brought out into the open if they are ever to be one-day healed. Because healing is something Arabs and Israelis need very badly.

Kashua’s remarkably captivating series focuses on the life of one Arab, Amjad Aliyan (Norman Issa), a journalist working for a Hebrew language Israeli magazine. Around him are his wife (Bushra played by Clara Khoury), daughter (Maya, played by Fatma Yihye), his parents, the rascal-like Ismael (Salim Dau) and cautious Umm Amjad (Salwa Nakra). Dau happens to be the head of the Arab Theater in Haifa.

What is really impressive is how the insignificant in life becomes the symbol of the very significance of the relationship between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis.

Each episode of the sitcom focuses on one underlying challenge set in the broader theater of life. The first episode cuts right to the chase when Amjad is driving through the checkpoints – remember, he is a “citizen” of Israel – and he wonders how is it that the Israeli soldiers know how to single him out and pull him aside for constant inspection. He asks his daughter to please make sure not to speak Arabic and greet the soldiers in English. And of course, the daughter, in her best formal and religious Arabic, warmly and effusively greets the soldiers, who immediately check all their papers.

But his Israeli friend explains the reason for his daily harassment isn’t the way he looks, dresses or “smells,” but rather the car he drives.

Amjad drives a Subaru, his friends notes. And Subarus are only driven by the most extreme Israeli settlers who wear a yarmulke on their heads, or by Arabs.

So Amjad determines to buy a new car, through his father, who negotiates a purchase price and sale price and his double-sided commissions.

But in the process of lampooning something as subtle as the car you drive, other idiosyncrasies of Arab-Israeli life emerge. If you wear a seat belt in an Israeli licensed plated car through an Arab village in Israel, you must be an Israeli undercover agent with the Shin Bet.

Amjad engages in an argument about another subtle but serious topic. Why are there more accidents in the Arab communities in Israel than in the Jewish communities? Because of Arab culture of the fact that Arab villages and cities get so little funding their roads and infrastructure are dilapidated and eroded, causing more accidents.

Only a person who lives this life can see these details and expertly turn them into a humorous debate about everyday life.

In another episode, Amjad hears from his father about an Arab shepherd who has on goat who, when the Israeli soldiers pull him over for inspection, uses his snout to pull out the shepherd’s ID card from the shepherd’s pocket. When they try to recreate the scene for the magazine story and photograph, the goat is shy. So they stage it, of course. And once everyone is gone, the goat does precisely what he was acclaimed to do.

And in another episode, Amjad and his wife discuss placing their young but clever daughter in kindergarten, rather than leaving them to learn about life from the wily roguish grandfather.

So, they enroll her at an Arab school which happens to be religious. The daughter doesn’t want to go to the school but decides to go to excess in her religious transformation to shock her father into removing her. He then takes her to an Israeli school, called the Peace School.

That sounds innocent enough until they are told they have never had an Arab enroll at the Israeli school. And yes, while the name is “Peace” they never expected it to mean it might attract Arab children to mix with the Jewish children.

Unheard of, and shocking.

Episode after episode draws the viewer through the maze of conflicts that make of the reality of Arab-Jewish life in Israel.

The sitcom is broadcast in Hebrew with English sub-titles that are easy to read and understand. Words are often mistranslated to disguise the more obvious racism that sometimes exists in dialect and speech patterns and habits.

But the biggest tragedy is that most Arabs will not be able to see “Arab Labor,” because there are no cable or TV systems that are of any real reach that can present this sitcom to the public in the United States or the in the Arab World.

The first season features 10 hilarious episodes from start to finish. You can purchase the DVD online at www.AliveMind.net.  300 minutes on 2 disks, the DVD sells for an bargain price of only $34.98. Or, you can purchase it from its American distributor, “Cinema Purgatorio” at www.CinemaPurgatorio.com.

I urge you to get it. Not to laugh at the foibles of human tragedy, but rather to understand through the only medium that permits understanding in the emotion-charged Arab-Israeli conflict, humor.

(An award winning Palestinian American columnist, standup comedian and Chicago radio talk show host, Ray Hanania is the 2009 Winner of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com.)

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and Columnist who began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He covered Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992 (Mayor Daley to Mayor Daley) and has expanded to writing for newspapers around the world focussed on Middle East and American politics.

Hanania loves to write about American Arabs in politics, and focuses on Arab life in America.

Currently, he writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com. He writes on American politics for the Des Plaines Valley News, Southwest News-Herald, The Regional News newspaper and the Reporter Newspapers. He also writes for the online websites TheArabDailyNews.com and NewsAmericaNetwork.com (Illinois News Network at IllinoisNewsNetwork.com).

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hanania began in journalism as an activist publishing Chicago’s first English-language American Arab Newspaper “The Middle Eastern Voice” from 1975 through 1977. In 1976, he was hired by the Chicago community newspaper The Southtown Economist (Daily Southtown) and in 1985 was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times and covered Chicago City Hall for both. In 1993, he launched the “The Villager” Newspapers which covered 12 Southwest Chicagoland suburban regions. In 2004, he published “The National Arab American Times” monthly newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East ethnic food stores in 48 American States.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

Hanania’s writings have been published in newspapers around the world. Formerly syndicated by Creators Syndicate, Hanania also has written news, features and Opinion Columns for Al Jazeera English, the Jerusalem Post, YNetNews.com, Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Newsday in New York, the Orlando Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle, The Daily Star, the News of the World, the Daily Yomimuri in Tokyo, Chicago Magazine, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, and Aramco Magazine. His political columns are published in the Southwest News-Herald and Des Plaines Valley News, Regional News and Palos Reporter newspapers in Chicagoland. Hanania is the President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group media and public affairs consulting which has clients in Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Washington D.C.

Hanania is Palestinian Christian from prominent Bethlehem and Jerusalem families. His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.

His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania

Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com