'Someone Has to Keep Israeli Arabs on the Map'

Actress and singer Mira Awad has achieved a number of firsts for an Israeli Arab, but still isn’t satisfied.

A few months ago, Mira Awad stepped into a taxicab in Tel Aviv and found herself in a familiar situation: The driver wanted to settle on a price in advance, but she insisted that he run the meter, which would compel him to issue a receipt and pay tax. “It’s impossible to make a living in this country, I tell you,” the driver tried to persuade her, nonetheless. “Income tax, national insurance, VAT. These Arabs that take national insurance and don’t pay taxes are exploiting the state, I tell you.”

“So the Arabs are to blame?” Awad tried to understand.

“Who else?” he replied. “You go into their villages, I tell you, each one’s got a villa like you wouldn’t believe. I get the car fixed in Taibeh, I tell you. You don’t understand what’s going on there.”

Awad: “You travel all the way to Taibeh to get the car fixed?”

Cabdriver: “Why not? Do you know how much it saves me? They give me a price there like you wouldn’t believe. Besides, the hospitality – it’s hospitality, the coffee, the baklava. Like you wouldn’t believe.”

Awad: “Wow, sounds terrific.”

Cabdriver: “Yes. But they’re thieves, I tell you. I know their type. Don’t pay taxes. Freeloaders.”

Awad later posted this episode on her Facebook page. The post was very popular and prompted a lively discussion, as have other posts of hers that recount similar experiences from the daily life of the singer and actress – nothing of whose appearance, singing and acting career and residence in the heart of Tel Aviv gives away the fact that she is Arab.

“I experience racism in Israeli society in all sorts of ways, especially if they don’t realize that I’m an Arab. That way I get ‘inside information’ on the person’s mind,” she says. “They say things to me because they think I am ‘one of us.’

“Early on, when they didn’t know yet who Mira Awad was, I would show up to sign a rental contract for an apartment. I looked fine, I spoke fine, but as soon as I would say ‘Mira Awad’ and take out my identity card, then they said ‘Um… um…’ And suddenly there were all kinds of delays. It isn’t simple today, either. In Israel, no matter how successful you are – if you’re an Arab, the moment there is security tension, you don’t know if you’ll have work in the foreseeable future. It isn’t just me, it’s my friends too. They’ve closed on all kinds of contracts – for a series, for a film – but when there is tension, the [employers] manage without their roles. This affects your livelihood directly and immediately, and that’s before you’ve even expressed yourself on political issues.”

Awad, 38, has been engaged in the world of culture and art for nearly 20 years: She is an actress, singer, television host and also a composer and songwriter. She grew up in the Galilee village of Rameh, not far from Peki’in, to a Christian Arab family. Her father, a family doctor by profession, was born in the same village. In 1948, when he was 12, his family was expelled for several weeks to nearby Beit Jann, but returned afterward (“Fortunately, the worst the family experienced in the Nakba [referring to the ‘catastrophe’ Palestinians suffered when Israel was founded] was land expropriation,” she says). Her Bulgarian-born mother is an expert on Slavic languages. The couple met in Bulgaria, where Awad’s father was attending medical school, and returned to Israel, to Rameh, where they had three children.

Tel Aviv landlords

Awad got involved with music as a teenager, and by 16 was the soloist for the band Samana, which sang Western rock in Arabic. In the mid-1990s, she moved to the Tel Aviv region and studied at the prestigious Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. Her big breakthrough came at 26, when she was cast in the leading role of Eliza Doolitle in a professional production of “My Fair Lady,” alongside Oded Teomi as Professor Higgins. On her resume, which includes two solo albums, you will also find that she took part in Idan Raichel’s album “Mi’ma’amakim,” from 2005, the same year she competed in Israel’s Eurovision qualifier contest, but came in last.

Four years later, she was chosen, together with Achinoam Nini (the singer known abroad as Noa), to represent Israel at the Eurovision song contest in Moscow, thereby becoming the first Arab to represent Israel in that competition. That performance made Awad the target of harsh criticism from pro-Palestinian groups; the global movement to boycott Israel, BDS, even issued a petition calling for her to be boycotted.

To television viewers, Awad is mainly known for her work in the comedy series “Arab Labor,” created by Sayed Kashua, which airs on Channel 2. She plays Amal, an Arab human rights lawyer who is married to Amjad’s Jewish friend Meir. Awad also took part in one season of the reality show “Dancing with the Stars.” Her career has international angles as well – aside from her joint concerts and albums overseas with Nini, in 2010 she signed with the world music giant Sony to produce three solo albums, the first of which came out in 2011.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

“I wanted to be a doctor, to help people. But music took me somewhere else. There wasn’t some lightning strike where I said, ‘Now this is going to be my career.’ But that is what happened – despite everyone telling me how difficult it would be and how hard it is to make a living in this profession.”

When people tell you that, does it compound the sense that it’s also going to be tough because of the faces you’ll get from Tel Aviv landlords?

“I’m not a victim, and I’ve never thought of myself as one. This has always been my thing. Even when I’ve been treated as second-class, I did not think of myself that way. I have aspired to excellence in everything that I’ve done. But what are you going to do? A Palestinian in Israel is second-class. We are still discriminated against in every field.”

And you’re not afraid of saying political things [like that], even though it might hurt your career?

“Obviously I have concerns about my career, but I guess I’m used to it already, and also my career does not depend on situations like these. I have embarked on an international career. I carved out this path because I didn’t want to be dependent on my surrounding environment. In this connection, I have popularity problems in Arab society, too. I recently wrote on Facebook protesting the [November 13] murder of the soldier in Afula, and they laid into me straight away – [asking] how come I don’t write about the Palestinian kids in Gaza.”

And there was also the story with the Eurovision.

“That was about more than the participation itself. Don’t forget that the news that I was going to represent Israel came at the time of the Gaza war,” she says, referring to Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-2009, “so they said that I was representing Israel while Israel was massacring Palestinian children in Gaza. I had a great many doubts about whether I wanted to represent the country at that moment. If they hadn’t come out with the petition against me, it’s possible I would have given up on the representation of my own accord – but the moment they put me in that corner, they lost me. It was clear to me that someone had to keep us on the map.”

Who is “us”?

“The million-and-a-half Arabs in this country. All of this happened precisely at the time that [Avigdor] Lieberman was appointed foreign minister, and I suddenly felt that if I gave in, he gets what he wants and I’m left on the sidelines. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines, I wanted to represent. I intend for us to be an inseparable part of this country – I don’t want autonomy. I want to be a part of this place. I want all of us to be part of this place. Only there are a lot of things that need to be fixed along the way.”

What can be done?

“First of all, there needs to be awareness about the importance of accepting the Other. A million-and-a-half Arab citizens don’t exist in the public’s awareness – until they throw rocks. Let’s talk about the media. Do you know how hard I tried to create content that brings the Arabs into public awareness? I had a bilingual lifestyle TV program with Yuval Kaspin. We didn’t want to discuss politics, but rather to show people from both sides in the simplest context – in their restaurant, in their living room. Just to show. It ran very briefly, on Educational TV, and only a place like the educational channel could have taken it.

“Until recently, I had a show on the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Channel 33, which is ostensibly aimed at the Arab population. It ran for only 10 episodes and was taken off the air. There I tried to present Arab society, just like they present Jewish society – people from various places, with various occupations, panels, discussions. But the amount of stifling and paranoia I encountered in the course of the work made me want to throw up. There were three people there from the IBA who monitored everything I said, they simply engaged in censorship. It was a real insult to intelligence.

“For example, there was an item on veganism in the Arab community. The IBA people had something to say about that too – it could have repercussions, if you say this or if you say that. In other words, let an Arab deal with his veganism, but don’t say anything about it. I felt like I was in the 1950s military regime. Do you know how many times I chucked the earpiece and left the studio in a fury?”

But there are other examples in contrast to that, as well, such as “Arab Labor.”

“That worked because things are presented through humor. In the first season, nobody liked it, neither the Jews nor the Arabs. Today, they have mellowed somewhat. There is a population I encounter that likes the series only because of the shoe that gets hurled at [the Arab protagonist] Amjad. That’s the level of the humor, nothing deeper than that. On the other hand, there are people who grasp all the layers. The episode on the Nakba resonated, but it upset those who liked the shoe. I received comments along the lines of, ‘What a bummer, it was funny before, but this episode isn’t.’”

Could there be a drama series about Israeli Arabs, the way “Srugim” is about the national-religious [Jewish]community?

“I tried writing a series like that, about young Arabs who live in Tel Aviv. I brought it to all the relevant places. But do you see a series like that? One day, when I have my own Internet channel, which I am starting to build because I realize there is nowhere to broadcast here, that series will also air. It is a series that will talk about young Arabs who live in Tel Aviv, and nobody gets that they’re Arabs. It describes all the entanglements and complexities, the escapism there is sometimes, the blows and the beatings. Why doesn’t it exist now? Because no one is interested in producing it. Make me laugh, okay. But other than that – leave me alone.”

‘Knives are less painful’

What are the dilemmas young Arabs face in Tel Aviv?

“My main dilemma is easier to phrase in English: Why do I bother? Why do I constantly take the trouble to explain these to those, and those to these? I try to show both sides that there is someone to talk to, but I keep getting rocks thrown at me for my trouble, aspersions and accusations from all sides: What do I need that for? Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Pick yourself up and leave, go someplace else.’ I constantly get offers. I am a very productive person, I can do many things, in other places as well, forget about this complexity. If I lived in London, it would be different. I would mind, but there the knives are less painful.”

So why do you stay?

“Because I want to change something. I want, when I bring children into the world, for it to be different for them here. Twenty years from now, they will look at me and ask, ‘Why did you leave us here?’ I don’t know if I will know how to answer. I greatly hope I will have a good answer to that question. I too, when I was a child, asked my father why we hadn’t remained in Bulgaria.”

What did he say?

“He had a calling. He had offers to stay there – free fellowships, whatever he wanted. He could have been very successful there. But he said, ‘There is no doctor in the Galilee. I must go back, to be the doctor of the villages,’ and that is what he did: He opened a clinic and established a nonprofit that grants free medical services to needy populations. He did a great deal. That is how he used to answer me. But at a certain point he started saying to me, ‘You know what? I really don’t know. Because essentially nothing has changed much. I guess I belong here, and it’s automatic.’”

Do you think that the rest of your generation feels that way too? That perhaps just as your screenplay was rejected, they too are rejected in other places and can’t make it to the top?

“There are some who make it, but it is the bare minority. It’s because of their hard work. But the very fact that they are so few shows how much the doors are blocked to others. Look, today everyone accepts that Arabs are pharmacists, accepts that Arabs are also doctors. But a department head? That is a bit harder. A Jew would have a tougher time accepting an Arab surgeon operating on him than if he were an ordinary doctor who merely gives him a check-up.”

But how do we combat this? Maybe we ought to insist on excellence, that as many as possible go to school and do the best they can to become the best surgeons?

“But we have those. We have excellent surgeons, and some of them emigrate from Israel because they want to get ahead in life. We have wonderful scientists. There is a guy from my village, a brilliant man, who recently got a job at the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology]. After he succeeded abroad, he was accepted in Israel. There are a great many talented young Arabs, and some of them are building their careers abroad because they feel there is a glass ceiling here.

“Last year, my brother left for Bulgaria. He said to me: ‘There is a limit. I will never do reserve duty with the guys from work, I won’t have that locker-room talk about the unit.’ He got as far as you can go. Now, he’s with an American company in Bulgaria, as happy as can be. He knows that everything depends on him and his abilities. Everyone there works together – one from Turkey, one from Syria, one from Israel. No one is interested in people’s origins. They’ve come to do the work and they’re happy.”

How do you explain the motivation of those who prefer to stay and fight?

“In every field there are spearheads, people who bang their heads against the wall and break down the walls. It doesn’t matter how many blows and bruises they suffer, they know they are opening a door for those who come after them. And this door really does open. That doesn’t mean the other will enter like a king, but the third and the fourth one will have it easier. That is how things get built. These spearheads are aware that they are spearheads; they try to be liked, to assimilate, but get a lot of criticism from home for forgetting their roots, the family, the struggle. It happens everywhere, in all cultures. I am a spearhead of sorts in my field. I’m not alone, there are others, each in his own field.”

How does this fit in with your being a woman?

“Today, the situation of women is amazing compared to when I left home and began to sing, write, express an opinion and conduct myself the way I do now. But there are still challenges. It is not just a matter of wage gaps. At all companies, there is contempt for women. Even the most senior female CEO will be less respected than a male CEO in the same role. In a conservative society like the Arab one, it is even more complex and complicated, because there is patriarchal silencing of women. This is typical of every conservative society, and has to be contended with.

“An Arab woman can have a fulfilling career, but she is expected to preserve the family honor. She does not have sexual freedom, her body is ‘on loan’ until her parents transfer the kushan [an Ottoman land deed] to the husband. The moment a woman says, ‘No, I’m deciding what to do with my body,’ it’s a problem. A woman who expresses an opinion is something very threatening: It pulls the rug out from under the decision makers, who are usually men.

“I’m not judging women who choose to be at home. My mother, for example, is a university graduate who chose to be a housewife and raise the kids. Once we had grown up, she went to work as a housemother at a shelter for battered women. It is a worthy choice, like a lot of other choices women make. But there are many women who have no choice, who are forced, by means of violence or by being made to feel ashamed for wanting things for themselves.”

Daniel Tchetchik
Emil Salma