LONDON - About a month ago, a year after she made a splash as the Arab contestant on the first season of the Israeli "Big Brother," Ranin Bulus packed her bags and headed for London, alone. The woman who came across on the show as whiny and spoiled, but at the same time had a strong personality and a cosmopolitan air about her, returned to the city where she lived and attended university for five years, seeking serenity far from Israel. Nothing in what she does today has to do with coexistence or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had been at the center of her life since childhood. Nor does anyone bother her with questions about "Big Brother." For the first time in her life, she isn't compelled to go into lengthy explanations about her identity.
"It's easier for me here," she admits. "No one looks at me as an Arab. They just see me as Ranin or as a non-Brit. When people ask, I tell them I'm Palestinian-Israeli, and then I add: 'Forget it, it's complicated.' No one here cares if you're an Arab or a Jew. It's a normal life. It's more comfortable for me to speak Arabic in the street here than in Tel Aviv. No one looks at me, and in Tel Aviv everybody looks. When you're looking for an apartment or for work, you don't have to think: 'Well, I'm an Arab, I don't have a chance,' or: 'They'll never hire me for this job.'"
On "Big Brother," which aired between September and December last year, the producers tried to portray her as an "Arab princess": A spoiled, pretty, sensitive and exotic person who managed to shatter nearly every Israeli stereotype of Arab women. They encouraged her to act that way in front of the camera and she blithely went along with it: "They came to my house in Neve Shalom and said to me, jokingly: 'You live just like a princess, an Arab princess,' and then added: 'Say that to the camera' and that's how it came out."
Bulus' life in London proves that TV reality shows don't necessarily misrepresent their participants when they portray them in a superficial or exaggerated light. She lives in an upscale apartment building in Farringdon, a central and expensive part of London, with narrow and winding cobblestone streets. The area is home to traditional British pubs, alongside the offices of advertising and media companies. A large balcony off the living room of her rented studio overlooks a wonderful panorama, a mix of red-brick buildings, balconies and staircases - a quiet corner of London that's all hers.
During the interview, Bulus, who is 25, was busy organizing the apartment into which she'd moved just a few days before, and getting rid of the old Ikea furniture that previously filled it. While most other recent university graduates her age are trying to make ends meet in this pricey city, Bulus doesn't seem concerned about that.
"I have a very serious problem," she explains, pointing the piles of boxes and objects on the balcony. "I can't manage with things that aren't new. So I threw out everything that was already here in the apartment. The old sofa is still here, but I've ordered a really good leather one."
Bulus was sent to London to work for an Israeli company, Forex Place, which trades in foreign currency on the Internet; she worked in the company's marketing department prior to her participation in "Big Brother." Now she is responsible for setting up the company's British office - a task that simultaneously scares and excites her.
"Sometimes I think I should have said: 'Thank you very much, but I'll wait another year,' she says. "But it's normal to get nervous and be scared. I really want to succeed as a businesswoman. I like the control, the power and the status. And being a woman, a businesswoman, who runs the show. My fantasy is to be able to combine acting and business, because I love the camera. I love to be filmed and to model."
Meanwhile, she seems to be living the life of a young start-up entrepreneur. Her small living room boasts a giant plasma TV to which a Sony PlayStation console is hooked up, and there is a small laptop and a Blackberry on the round dining table. In the kitchen are two empty pizza boxes, to which another is added in the course of the interview, along with an order of fries and a big bottle of Coke. Lunch. Wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, Bulus easily juggles conversations with her boss in Israel, e-mail messages and phone calls from friends. As on "Big Brother," she glides smoothly from Hebrew to English to Arabic. On the show, her excellent English contributed to her snobby image, but in this multicultural city full of immigrants, the jumble of languages is completely natural.
Bulus was definitely one of the more interesting and surprising characters on "Big Brother." Despite being the only Arab in a Jewish group, she stood out as a strong and elitist figure, empowered by the experiences she had had living abroad and by her childhood in the Jewish-Arab community of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace," in English), which is located exactly between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as by her supportive family and her attractive appearance. At the start of the program, she declared she wanted to shatter stereotypes about Arabs, especially about Arab women, and she seems to have succeeded.
"I understand that I was a surprise to many people," she says. "I didn't fit their stereotypes. I'm sure that they thought a young Arab woman would be less intelligent, more primitive and dressed in a less modern fashion that the rest of the group. I'm glad that I was the total opposite."
But there were times when one got the sense that you felt you were better than all the others, that your political awareness was more highly developed.
Bulus: "We come from very different places. I had the privilege of getting the education I received. What drove me mad was the feeling that the people there had a very closed view of the world. At home, I was brought up to want to see more, to know more. That's where the main clash was. I am never disrespectful toward other people's views, but the people there were so one-sided; they had no idea at all about what's happening on the other side, about who their enemy is. We talked, for example, about the checkpoints in the territories and someone who used to be a soldier said: 'But they're making life hard for us. You don't understand what the Palestinians are doing to us.' And I said to him: 'They're making your life hard?!' That's why I said again and again that they were narrow-minded. I don't know if they wanted to understand the other side or not. That's the way they grew up: They're the victims. I have no explanation for it."
In the so-called confession room on "Big Brother," Bulus provided some candid and very emotional moments when describing her feelings as the lone Christian Arab in the group. "I looked happy and I was singing," she said on one occasion, "but inside I wasn't. These are not my songs. Einav [Bublil, another contestant] started singing the Israeli anthem. Honestly, and I don't want to offend you either, but I was ashamed of myself." She started to cry: "Nefesh yehudi (a Jewish soul) and all that - but I'm not. I don't have this Jewish soul. No one will understand. No one."
Another time, right after the Shabbat evening blessing over the wine, Bulus ran into the confession room and asked to quit: "I'm not ready to do Kiddush every Friday. I'm not a Jew. Out of courtesy, I stand up and sit down with the others, but every week my parents and friends are seeing me do Kiddush. It's not for me."
An empty role
Ranin Bulus may have altered a few stereotypes, but she was much less successful at her greater mission. Like many reality show contestants, she came to "Big Brother" with an unconcealed ambition to exploit the exposure to further a career in acting and modeling. Unlike many of the participants in such programs, she actually seemed to have a fair chance of realizing this dream. Her father, Daoud Bulus, is a television director and as a child she appeared on Arabic educational television and on "Rehov Sumsum" (the local version of "Sesame Street"). She played a part in Eran Riklis' movie "The Syrian Bride." The beauty and sex appeal radiated by this articulate young woman from a good home were hard to ignore. She was interviewed on television and in the press and appeared on the cover of La'isha magazine, but the career she wanted to pursue failed to materialize.
"I didn't get the offers I wanted, to act in television or in the movies. I wanted to do something big. I've been an actress since I was very young, I was very well known among kids in the Arab sector. But in the end I found myself only playing the role of the celeb. It's a very empty part. I asked myself what was the point. It's not something you can live off of or translate into real success. I'm very grateful to my parents who made sure I kept my feet on the ground. They love me as an actress, but being photographed for the gossip columns is not acting, it's not art."
But maybe this is the trap of reality shows? They supposedly offer a quick and easy path to fame and success, but most participants end up right back where they came from.
"Maybe. But I was feeling this frustration even before the show: I wasn't able to make a real breakthrough in Israel. Now in London, even though no one knows me, I already got two offers on the street from very big agencies, involving modeling and ad campaigns. And in Israel, everybody knows me! It hurts. It's my country, and I made it part of the way. Everyone there knows who I am, but I still didn't really get anywhere."
This isn't the only side of Bulus' personality that wasn't showcased on "Big Brother." The show did not reflect her complex and contradictory identity, stemming from her story of being related to the Palestinian elite that was dispersed upon Israel's establishment, and of growing up in the Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom, which is grappling simultaneously with a difficult external, political reality and with internal tensions and crises.
Bulus' parents both come from well-established Christian Arab families. Her mother, Rita, comes from the Muniyer family from Lod; her father's family comes from the north, and is one of the wealthiest in the Arab sector with business interests in real estate, tourism and marble used in construction.
"Both families have dramatic stories," Ranin Bulus explains. "The Muniyer family was a big, well-known family, and my maternal grandfather was a very sharp fellow and a prominent political figure in Lod. He wrote a book that was translated into several languages about what happened in the city in 1948. Whenever I saw him, he was writing. I remember seeing piles of papers in his handwriting at his house.
"In 1948, many family members were killed and most were expelled. My grandfather worked with the Red Cross and managed to stay around. Another part of the family wasn't able to stay, and after that it became one big mess. I have family all over the place but I don't know them - in Jordan, Lebanon, London, France, America and Ramallah. Their homes are not in these places: They are refugees. We're in touch only with the family in Israel. When I arrived in London and was mature enough, I renewed the connection with the family here."
Her father grew up in Kafr Yasif near Acre, and after high school he went to the United States to study film and television. Among other things, he was the director and screenwriter for the Arabic-language educational series "Close Neighbor" starring Makram Khoury.
"They were all this one big gang - Khoury, Mohammed Bakri, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Suheil Haddad," Bulus recalls. "My father acted a little, but mostly he was behind the scenes, even though he's an amazing actor; I don't know why he didn't do more of it. He liked running the show rather than being a part of it."
Her parents settled in Neve Shalom in the 1980s and since then, like the majority of residents there, most of their activity has been devoted to the community. Neve Shalom is home to 50 families, and its residents run a bilingual school system, the School for Peace (which organizes joint encounters for Jews and Arabs), a spiritual center and a guesthouse. Bulus' older brother, Suleiman, who studied medicine in Germany, will soon return to Neve Shalom with his South Korean wife; she also has two younger sisters, Natalie and Mona.
Whose holiday is it?
Ranin Bulus belongs to the first generation of children that grew up in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, and as such she's an old hand at conflict: "Everybody thinks that Neve Shalom is: 'Hey, we all live together and eat cereal and forget about identity. But that's not the idea there. In my kindergarten there were Jews, Muslims and Christians, and two teachers, one Arab and one Jew. For every holiday we had a ceremony: Our teacher Aisha would say: 'Children, there is a holiday today.' Every holiday had its own crate of stuff and we would wait excitedly to see which crate she would put in the middle, which holiday it was.
"I remember one day she took out masks and a game I loved involving giving baskets of food to people, and she asked: 'Which holiday is it?' And we all said: 'Purim!' And then she asked: 'And who celebrates Purim?' I raised my hand and she said to me in Arabic: 'No, Ranin, Purim is not your holiday.' I was very hurt. I loved Purim! For me, Purim and Christmas are the same kind of fun. And then it hit me: Wait, it's not my holiday, so what does this mean - that I'm not supposed to dress up? All I could think about was my costume! My father took me to buy a costume and the next day I came to school dressed as a flower. When I went in I said to the teacher: 'I know it's not my holiday but you can't take it away from me.' That's when the whole process began. You understand that you're living together and it's nice, but there will always be a difference, because it isn't my holiday."
The village has won support and acclaim from many international organizations, and at age 12 Bulus already began giving talks abroad about the special environment in which she was raised. Her role of child ambassador brought her to Europe and the United States, and to Muslim nations like Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. She appeared at synagogues, churches, at the United Nations and in the British House of Lords. Fielding tough questions about her identity became second nature. As a youngster she took part in countless projects to promote dialogue between Jews and Arabs, and at 18 was accepted to the Olive Tree program, which finances B.A. studies at City University in London for students from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, who share accommodations during their time there. Bulus studied communications and sociology.
Palestinian students from Gaza who were at university with you met someone who grew up in an atmosphere of freedom and economic well-being. Did that make them angry or jealous?
"It wasn't my fault. In the beginning, there were some of those feelings. I could sense that they looked at me differently, that they didn't trust me, because they didn't know what my political views were. It was the first time they had ever met anyone like me. But it's legitimate and normal, I'm used to it. The way I see it, this is the time to act, to try to create a connection between them and me. Obviously, our lives are different, but we still share a very strong bond. We're conscious of our sad reality, of the story of the Palestinian people - that what happened, happened and now we're dispersed. We didn't want this or choose this. What's the point of someone from Gaza being angry at me? In the end, the affinity between them and me was stronger than with the Israeli group. It's my language, my music."
Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been for her a source of opportunities for personal development, Bulus has a critical and skeptical attitude toward the organizations that deal with the issue.
"A lot of kids from the community travel abroad, but I really did it a lot. I loved having an audience. I like to see that people are listening to me, eyes wide open. At first there's always the same look - here comes some more of that peace rubbish - but I can handle it because I think the same way. I have no faith in organizations that promote coexistence. I'm opposed to their activity, even. It's an illusion that they're doing anything, because it's really a case of: 'I'll help you but then I'll turn my back on you and even stick my elbow into you.' No one is more familiar with these organizations than I am, and I'm telling you from experience that I don't believe in it. Instead of trying to really deal with the situation, they try to prettify it. It's the same shit, they just cover it up nicely."
So what's different about Neve Shalom?
"At Neve Shalom there are people who say the same things I'm saying, but if the community was just one big load of bullshit, I would say so. We don't say that everything is good and nice, and look how content we are. We're not even close to saying something like that. There are crises, and there are political arguments and disagreements. For example, during the Second Lebanon War and the war in Gaza, a lot of people protested, but there were other people who didn't demonstrate, who said that the fighting was justified for security reasons. Neve Shalom doesn't have a single, uniform agenda."
'It's tiring in Israel'
One of the most divisive crises affecting Neve Shalom occurred after a resident, Tom Kitain, was killed in the 1997 helicopter accident in the north. The community was split over whether to erect a memorial monument, since he was killed during his military service, on his way to Lebanon. This was the first time that the issue of service in the Israel Defense Forces came up so strongly. "I'll talk about Tom in the most human way, without regard to the army," Bulus begins. "We grew up together and he was an amazing person. The night before they called him up, we were in his house and we watched 'The Simpsons' together and we were cracking up. I'm a good friend of his brother Amit, who's my age. The next night I heard his mother screaming and crying. I was trembling in my bed. I was afraid to get up and find out what happened. I ran to my mother and she said: 'Tom,' and started to cry. The community was really united before all the problems began around this story. We were all there for one another."
A good friend from the village subsequently decided, after much agonizing, to refuse to serve in the IDF for reasons of conscience. "When she opened up her enlistment notice I told her: 'It will be very hard for me to see you in uniform. You are my sister.' But I know how hard it is not to enlist in Israel. I told her that it would be weird and painful for me, but that I would understand if she did it."
Bulus herself was not prepared to go to national service. "I don't like frameworks. The way I look at it, I've been doing national service since age 12. I'm serving the country, the people. When people are moved by what I say at lectures, that's service. Where is Neve Shalom after all?"
Each person in the village has to decide individually about army service, she explains. "I believe that there are many ways to fight besides the military way. But I have friends I grew up with who enlisted."
Does that create an obstacle between you?
"Not on the day-to-day level, but when there's a war or when something major is shaking the country up - then, yes, it does create distance."
Despite her feelings, Bulus presents herself as something of a patriot: "I have a very strong connection to the country, to the land and to the people. I don't relate to the way the state defines itself or disqualifies me because I'm not Jewish, but I feel a strong sense of belonging. I have a very big responsibility and I think I have a role to play in Israel. The fact that I was on television and that there's no one right now in Israel that doesn't know me, that's already a change. I'm no longer looked at as different, but just as Ranin. It just goes to show that there needs to be more interaction and personal connections." Bulus sees her future in Israel - but only in Neve Shalom and absolutely not in Tel Aviv, where she couldn't get anyone to rent her an apartment before she became famous. After "Big Brother," she got calls from people who offered to let her rent their apartments. "I said no. I didn't want to get an apartment just because I was on the show. So I stayed with my parents and then came to London. A person has to live, too. With all the Neve Shalom stuff and being an ambassador and all, a person still has to live, and here, no one cares. It's tiring in Israel, it's never calm. Here I have my own apartment, I'm on my own. Sometimes it makes me crazy, but after a few years here, it was hard for me to go back to Israel."