Labor of Love

Ahead of the second season of 'Arab Labor,' a series exploring the trials of an Israeli Arab trying to fit in with Jews, cast and crew talk about pushing TV's boundaries after a long hiatus.

On a winding street in the village of Abu Ghosh in April a crew was filming the a man, Amjad, trying to fight the stigma that dogs bark at Arabs - to humorous effect. Amjad is the schlemiel hero of "Arab Labor" ("Avodah Aravit" ), which is returning for a second season on Saturday.

Arab Labor
Mariano Idelman, left, and Norman Issa on the set of Arab Labor.Emil Salman

The scene was being filmed in Arabic, though the director's instructions were given in Hebrew, and they were forced to take a short recess, despite the tight schedule, because of a muezzin's calls to prayer.

"Arab Labor" seems to be the most unusual comedy every produced and broadcast in Israel. Amjad , played by actor Norman Issa, is an Arab Israeli journalist employed by a Hebrew newspaper, who tries to fit it as an equal in Jewish Israeli society. Amjad's wife, social worker Bushra (Clara Khoury ), is the voice of calm and reason. The couple have one daughter, and at the end of the previous season a son was born. At the beginning of this season he is about a year old.

In the background are Amjad's parents and his photographer friend Meir (Mariano Idelman ), who becomes romantically involved with Amal (Mira Awad ), Bushra's lawyer friend. All these come together to create wild situations in which stereotypes are handled with mild mockery and unconcealed sarcasm.

More Jewish than a Jew

Two years have passed since the end of the first season, which was preceded by fears of controversy. The director of the first season, Roni Ninio, has been replaced by director Shai Kapon. And the creator of the series, Sayed Kashua (who writes a column in Haaretz Magazine ), has cooked up particularly calamitous situations this time: Amjad and Bushra move to a Jewish neighborhood and their daughter Maya is sent to a mixed school. The situations move to the extremes, the stigmas are emphasized and that is only the beginning.

"We flowed in that direction, and slowly but surely, from a series that was meant to be funny, you discover that there's a statement here that is a shame to miss," Kapon says from the garden of a house serving as a set during a short break in shooting. "As Israeli Jews we don't see the things that they see from the other side. We don't know what it's like to get strange looks or remarks that you sometimes hear. I became aware of that during the course of the work and it surprised me. My ambition is to show this exposed nerve."

Aren't you afraid of the way this season may be perceived?

"I don't feel that we've become extreme, but rather that we've become more accurate, and you can't work when you're afraid of how it will be received," Kapon says. "The statement is sharp and clear, but not judgmental. One of the episodes that moves me most is one about Israel Independence Day, the Nakba episode. Everyone is celebrating Independence Day and Maya, who studies in a mixed school and participates in the choir, wants to participate in the ... ceremony. She really goes crazy when they don't let her, and then she discovers the Nakba.

"It's not a militant series, not a self-righteous one, we don't show the light because there's no light to show. We have a hero, an anti-hero, who wants with all his might to remove the label 'Arab' from himself. He works on it. It's universal: During the work on the texts, Sayed and I read 'Tevye the Milkman.' Amjad is a little bit of Tevye the Milkman."

Issa says the Amjad character wants to be more Jewish than Jews themselves. "He doesn't succeed because the society in which he lives doesn't allow him to do so, but that doesn't affect his optimism," Issa says.

According to Issa, "When Amjad moves to a Jewish building, the person who sells him the apartment actually wants to take revenge against his neighbors who are about to close in a balcony. Amjad is surprised that they even allowed him to enter the building, he thinks that the man who sold it to him did so for leftist reasons."

Don't you snicker a little at Amjad? "No, I understand him," Issa says. "I understand him perfectly, why he behaves that way. There are Arabs who behave exactly like that. There have been people who met me in the street and said to me, 'You're talking about me. That's me.'"

At the end of the first season Meir and Amal broke up under the pressure of the cultural, social and political gap between them. During the new season they're still attracted to one another. During the break between filming the scenes, as she is sitting in the living room of the house being rented for the filming, Awad analyzes the situation.

"Amal finds someone who rationally is more suitable for her," she says. "He's from her world, speaks the same language, he has the same political ideas and it's easier and more comfortable for her, and less of a conflict. But her heart ... In that sense she's still with Meir. This series has a good time with the stereotype, takes it and stretches it."

Meanwhile, in another corner of the garden, beneath fruit trees, Idelman, who plays Meir, is trying to rehearse the text for the next scene.

"I was afraid in a way, I admit," he says, referring to the time that has elapsed and to the more extreme script. "But the moment I read the episodes my fear disappeared. The ideas are wonderful and there's nice progress in the plot. I can't predict, but my feeling is that it's even better."

Do you think that the time that has elapsed will affect the series' popularity?

"That's a symptom of series in Israel in general. The distance between the first and second season is so great that the viewers forget somewhat. If there's a second season, no matter in which series, they should probably air the first season again so that people will remember who's who. But that's how it works in Israel, there's no work continuity."

How is it to go back to the same character when so much time has passed since you played him?

"I haven't aged too much, it's all right. Had it happened in another year or two it could have looked a little funny, but now it's all right. I only hope that the second season will succeed and be popular."