Playing Sayed Kashua: Actor Norman Issa Feels Like the Third Brother of Arabs and Jews

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

So how are you doing?

Great, I’m doing well, hamsa hamsa, things are really good. I’m a happy man.

Have you always had it good in life?

I come from a poor family; I grew up in Wadi Nisnas [a neighborhood in Haifa], eight people to a room − no kitchen, a shared bathroom with the neighbors. But the best thing there was all the warmth and love. My parents gave me the most wonderful thing, the self-confidence I received. I’m lucky to have such parents. I learned to be happy with what I have, because a person really needs to be happy with what he chose. I’m not all the way there yet, but I get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say − I’m glad to be who I am. It’s nice. I feel very good about myself. I’m happy with where I am. I have a lot of ambitions in life. It keeps me going − all the things I want to do.

You’re an optimistic person?

I think things will work out. I really do think there will be peace. I’m a very optimistic person, because I think there are good people here who want good. Everyone wants the good. But the politicians, it trickles down from above, they make all the mess. It’s also a matter of education. Education here is based on fear. We’re told, “They want to kill us” and “We have no place else to go.” Why? Let’s think a little positive. Let’s live in peace, let’s open borders. Why not think the opposite way? Why must we always think about how to survive the day, or how to survive the month? Why can’t we take care of our future? Let’s do it.


Is it so hard to make peace? If this step isn’t taken now − two states for two peoples − in the end there will be one state for two peoples, a binational state.

Would you be in favor of that?

I don’t know. To me, that could also be a good option.

And if it doesn’t happen?

I foresee a very big war if it doesn’t happen. Between the Arab countries and Israel, as well as a civil war.

Do you feel racism? Does it exist in your life? You’ll always be reminded of where you come from. For example, can you pass freely through the airport?


Is that just since you’ve been on television?

Actually, since I’ve been on television, things have changed a bit. Yes, of course.

How has your success on television changed your life?

It hasn’t changed my life, it’s changed the people around me. People are addicted to television, so whenever they see someone they recognize they somehow want to get close to him. The Amjad character on ‘Arab Labor’ is a character that Israelis really love, because he’s someone who wants to be like them all the time, and that’s endearing.

Are you like that too? Like Amjad? Do you want to be like the Israelis?

I’d say that I’m 30 percent Amjad.

What about the other 70 percent?

I know who I am and what I am. Amjad is continually vacillating, he doesn’t know. But I’ve encountered him in all kinds of situations I’ve been in.

Like what?

One day I went to Ramallah and I entered via the Qalandiya checkpoint, and no one asks you anything when you’re going in. And when you leave, you’re waiting at the checkpoint, one car at a time, and they talk to you through this loudspeaker, and there are lots of Palestinians there that want to get through and I get there with my car and they tell me − Get out of the car and open the trunk. So I get out and open the trunk and then I hear two soldiers − “Whoa, it’s Amjad from ‘Arab Labor,’ I don’t believe it.” And then they start coming over to me like they want to hug me and kiss me, and ask to take pictures and so on. And I feel awful. What is the other side going to think when they look at this picture, that I’m all buddy-buddy with the soldiers and so on? There’s only one thing they will think − basically, that I’m a collaborator. So I say to the soldiers, “Hey man, don’t hug me, take your hand off, not here, don’t do this, it’s no good for me.” It’s not good for me. And this is one of those situations where I feel like I don’t know how to handle it.

You’re torn between two very powerful forces.

Yes, exactly. Or the time I was in Jerusalem and it was Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day for fallen soldiers] and there was a siren. And I see Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews keep on walking and other Jews standing still. And I find myself walking and standing, walking and standing, and I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’d be happy for someone to just take me and make me disappear. I don’t want to be there. There are these situations where I truly feel torn between my two brothers − my Jewish brothers and my Arab brothers − and I feel like I’m between two brothers, and I’m the third brother.

You don’t feel you belong to either side? Really?

Not completely. I feel neither here nor there.

This split you describe must be quite difficult.

It makes me want to go out and try to fix things, to bridge between the two. Forget peace, I mean just for people to talk. To have a dialogue. And it’s hard to get there. This is why I started the Arab-Jewish Theater. Because I believe we are born with a language in which we communicate with one another. The official language that’s imposed on us − Hebrew, Arabic, English − erases this language we were born with. I’m trying to develop this thing, this forgotten language, this place of childhood, communication between two people − when you look a person in the eye and understand what’s what without him saying a word. That’s what I’m aiming for. I want this language that people have forgotten.

This split is also something you embody in many ways. Because of your chosen profession, as well as your personal choices. You’re married to a Jewish woman.

Is that a crime?

No. But it must be complicated.

I don’t think it’s a big deal.


It’s really not a big story − to fall in love with someone and marry them. What, she’s not a human being? I’m not a human being? What are you trying to say here?

Don’t box me into that corner. You know that’s not what I’m saying, and you know that it’s a relevant question because of the place where we live.

The same thoughts, the same things, the same experiences, the same goals. What’s the difference between us and any ordinary couple?

I’m looking at the outside, you’re looking inside, that’s the difference.

You’re looking at me from outside, so it’s your problem, not mine.

We’re not talking about me, personally, you know.

Anyone who looks at it differently has a problem that he needs to solve. I’m doing what I want, what I love, what I choose to do. And I’m happy with what I’ve chosen, and if somebody doesn’t like it − What did Arafat say once? − they can go drink the Gaza sea.

Maybe it’s easier for you because you’re successful? Because you’re on television, because you’ve received awards, because you pass through the airport easily, because people want to hug you on the street. Would Norman Issa want to go on “Big Brother” like Amjad?


Would he agree to take part in a mission in which he had to pretend he was a Jew?

No, no. That’s not me.

You know, this embrace you’re getting from the establishment has a somewhat misleading origin. It’s very hard for people to tell where you begin and the character ends. The masses embrace you because you play an Arab who’s a little confused, who grovels to Jews, which is not you.

Let’s call it a character in a TV show.

Certainly. But you know that when somebody sees you on the street, he doesn’t say − Oh look, it’s that Arab actor who’s just 30 percent Amjad. He says − Look, it’s Amjad.

Maybe he just likes the work I do. Why decide for the viewer what he is seeing? People often come up to me and say, “I love your acting.”

Fine, I’ll let you get out of answering. What do you think about the left?

You know, it used to be that the left arose out of hardship, out of poverty. That’s how it is all over the world. But here it’s the opposite. The left is the wealthy, it’s the elite. If you want to say something, you should get up and take action. Do something. Don’t grovel and be a hypocrite.

Do you think the left tries too hard?

Yes. More than necessary. It puts me off. So you voted for Meretz − great, so what? There’s something overdone about it. I’d suggest that the left would do well to become a true left.


A true left, to me, is Hadash. I support this party. They don’t prettify things. They say: This is our view, this is what we think, and they were the first to say two states for two peoples, and they were the first to meet with the PLO. That’s the real left, as far as I’m concerned.

How free do you feel to voice criticism?

Totally free.

You don’t feel you need to be careful?

No. If something hurts me, I say so. If something bothers me, I say so. I don’t think I refrain from being critical. I’m someone who says what’s on his mind.

What about your heart? Where is your pain?

There is pain. All the time. I act from pain. All my work is motivated by pain.

What is this pain?

It comes from hardship, from where I lived, from the poverty, and this thing of not belonging. You’re born into a reality in which you see how another people is treated differently.

What excites you?

Everything. Even cartoons. Family always excites me − father, son, mother, these relationships. I’m a very sensitive person. It’s very easy to hurt me.

Anyone can hurt you?

Only people close to me, and then you still have to try hard to get to that point where you hurt me. But when I am hurt, it’s serious.

And then what do you do?

I get very angry.

When you’re angry, what happens?

You don’t want to know.

I do want to know.

I lose control.

Tell me about one time when you got that angry.

When I was studying acting, I was working with this one director. One day I asked him a question, something professional, and then he said to everyone − “Move aside, I want to explain things to this idiot who doesn’t understand anything.” I blew a fuse. I got up and left the theater. He said to me, “Go to the principal.” I said, “I’ll go to the principal, but I will never ever work with you again.” That was back at Beit Zvi. Years went by and I always held it against him. Whenever we crossed paths somewhere in the profession, I always brought him down. He wanted to direct something where I had the lead role − I blocked it. He wanted to receive a prize − I blocked it. I crossed him off. I can be very brutal in this way, really. To me, he’s erased. That’s it.

And he could never come to you to ask forgiveness, to talk to you?

No. It’s over.

Right at that moment?

Yes. To this day.

So you’re not the forgiving type.

It’s better not to hurt me. I don’t hurt people, and I expect that they won’t hurt me. That’s all.

Did you ever think of leaving Israel?


Why not?

Because I love this place. I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world. As far as the weather and as far as the people who live here. I still believe in the people here and I’m optimistic that things will be good. Not for nothing did all the prophets choose this place.

And if one of your children decides to leave the country?

I would wish them well. And remind them to call once in a while.

If my daughter left, it would break my heart.

Oh, come on, and what if she gets married and moves up north? She doesn’t
belong to you.

I know. Like Khalil Jibran said: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

Yes. I believe in that. I tell parents − “Who do you think you are? You really want to control your child so he’ll do what you want? What about him? Where is his place in this?” This is the future. They will be the future. This theater that I opened here is about just that. About building a better future. How do you build it? With the children, so they’ll grow into this future. Did you know that the tiniest state budget is allocated for young children? Isn’t that ludicrous? Instead of allocating a big budget for this age, because this is where everything starts, and if you invest here you’ll see the results, they say − Let’s buy another helicopter, another airplane, another bomb.

How do you feel when there’s a war?

Horrible, I feel horrible. I feel like leaving. I don’t like wars. If anything could make me leave, it would be a war. I could leave in a second, no problem.

What? A minute ago you said you love this place more than anywhere else in the world and you would never leave.

But if there’s war, then it doesn’t go with my way of thinking.

A lot of people believe that war also brings a sense of connection and belonging to a place.

There’s nothing worth fighting for, in my view.

Actor Norman Issa, now feeling the wrath of nationalistic Israel.Credit: Gali Eytan
Norman Issa.Credit: Gali Eytan