“I don’t get your question,” says Salim Dau, when I ask what he thinks about the additional funding for Israeli Arab cultural institutions that Culture Minister Miri Regev has approved during her tenure. I ask again, and he smiles and says: "You can ask me again and again, but I still won’t get your question.”
Just hours after our conversation, Regev once again attacks Beit Hagefen, the Arab cultural center in Haifa whose theater Dau has been running for three years. This time the minister was incensed that the center had hosted a political event sponsored by Hadash – the far-left, Arab-Jewish party – about the new nation-state law. The event was ultimately held there despite the minister’s opposition.
Still, Dau’s reaction to my question indicates that he’s unwilling to take part in the lopsided game Regev is trying to create, whereby she’ll agree to fund Arab cultural institutions in return for them behaving like loyal subjects.
Dau, 68, is one of the country's veteran actors and has some 50 movies (“Avanti Popolo,” “Cup Final”) and dozens of TV shows (“Arab Labor,” “Fauda”) and plays to his credit. He has never hesitated to express his political views and in our conversation, too, he has plenty to say about the resurgent racism in Israel of 2018, although he’s not too worked up over the nation-state law.
“This law doesn’t excite me. It doesn’t anger me either. We’ve been living this racism for all these years. We feel it everywhere. Workers are already forbidden from speaking Arabic, whether it’s at the pharmacy or the supermarket," he says.
"For years in Israel, we’ve been required to speak Hebrew. I can sit with my relatives and my wife's, and I fight with them to speak Arabic. I have no problem with them speaking Hebrew, but within the family – why not speak in our own language? We’ve buried Arabic ourselves. I feel like a nuisance saying it but it saddens me. After I gave some people a really hard time about it, they tried to only speak Arabic without a word of Hebrew ever since.”
Dau’s current project is a new TV food show called “Salim’s Recipe” ("Hamatkon shel Salim"), produced by Makan, the Arabic division of the Kan public broadcaster. In each episode, Dau visits a different Israeli Arab town or village, and explores the local cuisine, learning about the typical ingredients used and how the dishes are prepared.
The first episode was dedicated to Ba'ana, the Galilee village where he grew up. He learns to make pita filled with sumac and fried onion, and kebabs dripping with fat, and delights in some chewing gum-flavored ice cream that makes him feel like a child again. Dau brims with love and affection for the place and is greeted like a local superhero as he strolls the narrow alleyways.
“In Ba'ana, my village, the place of my origins, there are Christians and Muslims, but no one knows who is a Christian and who is a Muslim,” Dau explains. “Despite all the government’s attempts to divide and conquer, my village is still a very humane and very cohesive place. There are no brawls between Muslims and Christians and they really are like brothers. The people of my village, and I say this modestly, are proud of me.
"I can live in Tel Aviv for six years, in Paris for eight years and in Haifa for almost 35 years – but ultimately I come from the village of Ba'ana. All that I’ve done and will yet do in my career – I take from my well, from the village where I came from. It’s a village that is very rich in local color and in humor, kindness and giving. This is where I was created. It all starts there.”
'A Greek tragedy'
“Salim’s Recipe” is an unusual show that is not at all indicative of Israeli television outside of Makan. Despite the proliferation of cooking shows, encounters with Palestinian Arab cuisine on the mainstream channels are mostly confined to the occasional Arab woman contestant on “Master Chef.” Dau, who is very knowledgeable about this subject, also has plenty to say about what Israelis consider "local" cuisine.
Dau: “The food they call 'Israeli' is not Israeli. It’s Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian. But yallah, you took it – so, okay, enjoy it. We eat falafel in Jewish places too, but this is our food. Hummus is ours too, and falafel and shakshuka. It’s all ours. What is Israeli cuisine? There is no Israeli cuisine. There’s Russian cuisine, there’s North African-Maghreb cuisine, there’s Western European cuisine. There’s no Israeli cuisine.”
How do you feel about Israeli cuisine appropriating Arab food?
“When you have nothing that you can call your own – you invent things. Who’s going to judge you for that? Anyway, you [Jewish Israelis] are the judges here. Za’atar [wild hyssop] has also become Israeli. Before long, olive oil will be considered Israeli too.”
So I gather you’re not into the whole idea of promoting “coexistence” by eating hummus in Abu Ghosh [an Arab suburb of Jerusalem].
“I think it's funny. What does that have to do with anything? So you go to Abu Ghosh or Nazareth – that means there’s coexistence with the Arabs? Is that how you measure coexistence? Enjoy the hummus. Just don’t go thinking that it’s creating some kind of change. I’ve been going into our Palestinian villages now and discovering a lot of things I didn’t know about. Things that could bring Jews and Arabs closer – there could be a general awakening.
"The Jews here are being led by a government that is relentlessly leading us all toward the brink of ruin. It’s like we’re living in a Greek tragedy. The hero knows what his end will be yet he continues toward the abyss. But why can’t people here see the predictable end? Why don’t they stop? The people are increasingly identifying with the government. You think hummus will solve the problem? You’ve got to be kidding.”
'Happy murder victim'
Dau, who has chosen his roles very carefully over the years, is enjoying presenting a lifestyle show for a change and leaving all his serious-mindedness at home. In recent years, he became well-known for playing Abu-Amjad in Sayed Kashua’s comic series “Arab Labor.” He followed that up with the role of Sheikh Awadallah, the Hamas spiritual leader, in the first season of “Fauda," the hit Israeli show that was bought by Netflix. Dau's character is killed off at the end of the season, sparking bloody chaos in the second season.
“I couldn’t be happier that my character was killed off in the first season,” the actor says. “In the second season there was some Israeli arrogance, as if they’re invincible. They created a totally demonic and unequal Palestinian side. So I’m a happy murder victim, and I want to tell you that even if they hadn’t killed me off, I would have refused to continue with the second season. You can’t be killing Palestinians everywhere and assassinating them everywhere and also feeling ‘sad’ about it. It really got to be too much. Disgraceful.”
So how do you feel about Arabs who were in the second season's cast of “Fauda”?
“I’m critical but I understand them: They want to become known. When I was young, I knew how to say no. They’ll get to be more experienced and they’ll understand. Today, having done 50 films, I can tell you that if I said yes to everything that was offered me, I’d have acted in 100 films. If the script doesn’t sit well with my heart and my conscience, I won’t do it.”
Despite your fierce tone, you still come across as an optimist. You seem to really have faith that change can happen.
“If I’m sitting down with you like this, it’s because I have a kernel of optimism. Maybe someone will actually listen. If somebody in the government is telling me that your existence is worth more than mine, I don’t care very much. Because look who’s telling me this: I’m a lot better than the people who passed these laws.
"We, the sane folks, are in a better situation. The problem is with the bunch that came up with this legislation. I don’t believe a thing that has to do with the State of Israel. I don’t even believe the weather here. I dress warmly until April. You think it’s funny but I’m serious.”