Is This Really a Laughing Matter?

Arabs and Jews together watched two episodes of the new series created by journalist and writer Sayed Kashua, which premiers next Saturday (November 24). Afterward they were asked to respond to some questions. At least with regard to one thing Shapira was right: There are a lot of tensions to ease.

Before the meeting of the focus group in the offices of Channel Two franchisee Keshet, on Sunday, moderator Michal Shapira said she thought the series "Avoda Aravit" (Arab Labor), which had passed the viewing test, could ease tensions through humor. The group included five Arabs and four Jews. Together they watched two episodes of the new series created by journalist and writer Sayed Kashua, which premiers next Saturday (November 24). Afterward they were asked to respond to some questions. At least with regard to one thing Shapira was right: There are a lot of tensions to ease.

The meeting started with a round of introductions. Each person spoke with the person sitting next to them and then introduced their neighbor to the others. Biyan started. She introduced Nitzan. He is 34, was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Haifa and lives in Tel Aviv. He has a B.A. in economics. When his turn came, Nitzan explained that Biyan is 21 and comes from Baka al-Garbiyeh. She is studying communications at Tel Aviv University and "is satisfied with life, I think." This mention of satisfaction became a measure for the others in the group. "This one is also satisfied with life," whereas "this one is not so satisfied with life." When the meeting was over, Shapira explained that imitating a dominant speaker is a common thing in focus groups.

Rina, 47, from Ramat Gan, introduced Sammy, 44, from East Jerusalem. She owns a bed and breakfast in Ramat Gan (the group was surprised to hear this); he is a tour bus driver. They have already arranged to do business together. Michal, 27, is a teacher. She works in Tel Aviv and is originally from Tiberias. On the other side of the table, Dana, 30, an economics student, wrote down Said's information so she could introduce him accurately. "Said, 24, is an events photographer working on a degree in film and television and works for the Association for Israeli Arab Rights." Next to him was Lilianne, married with one son. She is an English teacher, who is doing a graduate degree in gender studies. "Even when she was a teacher, she made sure to teach feminist content," said Alia Shadi, a political science student who lives in Haifa and is originally from Nazareth. "All of this is meant to relieve the tension," whispered Avinoam Brug, the manager of the Market Watch company, which analyzes focus groups.

A feminist stereotype

Kashua's series, directed by Roni Ninio, is in both Arabic and Hebrew and portrays the life of an Arab family in Israel, in all its aspects. From the perspective of a Jewish viewer, it does so very well, without giving any breaks to anyone. It is amusing, unique, clever and brave. It provides a dignified platform to a population that has no voice in most Israeli television shows and does so during prime time on Channel Two. For that fact alone it deserves praise.

Surprisingly, this is not the impression of the focus group's Arab viewers, even though some of them laughed heartily while watching the beginning of the first episode. Said and Shadi, with near perfect timing, stifled their laughs during familiar-embarrassing moments. And still, they said, the more they think about it, the more the series just infuriates them. "Would you continue watching it," Shapira asked. Most of those present responded affirmatively.

The Arab students said that in today's era of satellite television, when one can receive programs from all over the world, there are better series available. "During Ramadan there was a series that captivated the entire Arab world," said Shadi. He would prefer that series to this one. They were asked whether they would react the same way if they were not in a mixed group, which might make them feel as though they have to serve as spokesmen for the Arab public. "We would say worse things," assured Said.

"It's possible to learn about the prevailing national mood from these groups," Shapira said at the end of the meeting, "but they have no statistical significance." Michal, the teacher, dictated the tone when she took offense at the character of Amjad, the hero, who is basically Kashua's alter ego. "It reinforces preconceived notions," she said. The offense she took seemed a little sharp, even out of place. Shapira explained that Michal's reaction could be a reflection of a desire for group acceptance, which is typical of focus groups. The organizers try to neutralize this trend during the analysis stage.

Following the scene in which the father of the family (Salim Dao) swindles his son Amjad (Norman Issa), Shadi wrote something on the sheet of paper in front of him. At the end of the screening he explained what bothered him. "The father character proves that the series is not only riddled with stereotypes, but also creates negative characters that do not exist in reality."

Most of the participants realized that you have to go to extremes to create comedy. The stereotypes do indeed surface, the Jewish ones, too. The friend who invites the Arab family to her home for a holiday is a caricature of the condescending Israeli woman desperately trying to be nice. Her father is a right-wing extremist. The question is whether the series reinforces or debunks preconceived notions. "Sayed Kashua upends things," said Lilianne. "He's not stupid. He depicts the stereotypes, but at the same time, he doesn't believe in them."

She made those remarks after watching the first episode. It would be interesting to know whether she noted that the second episode features a sharp-tongued feminist, a stereotypical character reminiscent of her. Lilianne was furious that the women in the village hardly talk at all in one scene. "It's a Mediterranean outlook," she concluded. "But that's how it is with you," Nitzan added. Lilianne responded: "Look, I'm sitting across from you and talking."

'I also get stopped at the mall'

In another episode, Meir (Mariano Edelman), one of Amjad's Jewish friends, invites a friend of Amjad's wife to his home. The friend is an Arab woman who has returned from studies in Boston. Very quickly the romantic encounter, whose very occurrence attests to some certain courage, becomes loaded. The educated Arab woman rises up against the "Mediterranean outlook" of the Jew opposite her. Lilianne liked this episode more, "because of the feminist."

If anything, this scene proves that almost every friendly encounter between a Jew and an Arab will very quickly turn into a political argument. It happened in the focus group, too. Dana said the series is characterized by "the humor of coexistence," but the Arab students didn't understand what coexistence she was referring to. Rina said, "I come in contact with Arabs. There are some very intelligent ones among them." Then she added, "Here they showed the not so nice side."

She was referring to a scene depicting a checkpoint. She didn't understand what all the fuss is about. "I also get stopped at the mall," she told the Arabs across from her. Shadi despaired: "Stand behind me at the mall one time and see how they inspect me, see what sticker they put on our luggage at the airport, and what sticker they put on yours." Nitzan told him, "Obviously they treat us differently, but I also understand where it comes from."

There were not just differences of opinion in the focus group, but also different characterizations of the cultural gap. One example was when Sammy, a pleasant man, was asked if he enjoyed the episode. He said politely, "I enjoyed the group," and added, "It was nice to meet some new faces." Shapira insisted and he responded: "The show is okay." Would he want to watch it again, she asked. "There is always hope for the good," he said.

And there are also hints of the generation gap. Sammy recalled the days before the first intifada in 1987. "The Israeli came to visit the Palestinian at all hours. We had a common life. We had fun," he said. The students from the Arab Israeli rights association were quick to shush him. "Why was it fun," shouted Shadi. "Wasn't there discrimination before 1987 and was it good during the Oslo era," he asked, attacking the representative of the older generation. "Don't gloss it over."

Shapira asked who they think wrote the series, an Arab or a Jew. Everyone thought it was an Arab. Some knew that Kashua is the author. After the session, Shapira explained that another focus group for the series calmed down when they realized that an Arab wrote the series. Perhaps it is not so easy to digest a television series with an antihero, an Arab who wants to undergo a process of "Israelization," who constantly wants to be like the Jews to the point that he writes a Passover Hagaddah for Id al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice.

Lilianne is a regular reader of Kashua's column, which runs in Haaretz Magazine. "I like his cleverness," she said. "He is entirely about hope, naivete, the feeling that we can fit in, and the disappointment that stems from that." Shadi added: "Sayed Kashua doesn't try to talk to the Arab minority in the country but to the majority of the country. The series will be more suited to Jews than to Arabs."

With your own eyes

The people in the focus group commented on the series' language. The Arabic speakers frequently use Hebrew words. For example, during a phone conversation, the father (Dao) says in half Arabic-half Hebrew: "Ant shufat b'shtei einekha" (Did you see it with your own eyes?). Shadi and Said claimed that in the village they don't talk like that. Sometimes Amjad speaks in Hebrew to his wife (Clara Khoury). That's impossible, said Lilianne. "Apart from that, did you notice that there are no Arabic subtitles when they talk in Hebrew on the show?" asked Shadi. The production office stated that the episodes will be translated into Arabic when they are aired.

Avinoam Brug added at the end: "Is this really something to laugh at?" The Arabs said no. "And therefore," said Shadi, "you're going to take a fall with his show." Lilianne looked at the moderator and at Brug and summarized, "Yes, everything's political."