Actor Luna Mansour walks into her new apartment, laden with bags of groceries. She only moved in the day before; the boxes are still sealed, waiting for her. It’s a modest place in a residential high-rise, abutting the stock exchange area of Ramat Gan and overlooking the traffic on the Ayalon Freeway. The 27-year-old actress, who played Marwa Awadalla in the television series “Fauda,” has said that she encountered racism in Israel when she looked for places to rent. On one occasion, a landlord told her straight out that he doesn’t rent to Arabs. And when she was studying English and Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, she was told she would not be able to share a dorm with a Jewish student.
This time, though, things worked out: Lihi Griner, who ended up being Mansour’s No. 1 rival in the latest season of the reality show “Survivor: VIP,” became a good friend and signed as her guarantor for the apartment. Lihi, Mansour says, “is a very positive person. It’s true that she’s always laughing and having fun, but no one should think she doesn’t have problems in life. She came to ‘Survivor’ two months after her brother died of a heart attack. I asked her what had brought her there and she said she had thought it would be a distraction for her. To me, she is a very strong woman.”
“Strong” is apparently one of the most meaningful terms in Mansour’s private lexicon. “When I was a girl, my father always told me to be a jeda – a strong fighter. His message was ‘Fight for what’s coming to you’ and don’t show weakness toward men. Anyone who does you wrong should get a slap in the face. I was always told that if I have a dream, I must fulfill it.”
The message seems to have taken root. Mansour, who started out as a model and won first place in a beauty contest for Israeli Arab women, is carving out a career on television. After her success in “Fauda,” she was cast in the sitcom “Doctor Karage,” which is about relations between Jews and Arabs in a Galilee village. The series’ second season is now airing on the Arabic-speaking station of Kan, the Public Broadcasting Corporation. The actor is also involved at present in the shooting of the second season of “Kupa Rashit” (Hebrew for “checkout counter”) – a mockumentary about a “typical” supermarket in a small Israeli city. Mansour is especially pleased with this role because it has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time she’s just an employee in a supermarket.
Still, the conflict is very much on Mansour’s mind. Recently she took part in a project sponsored by Givat Haviva – Center for a Shared Society and by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, marking the first anniversary of the passage of the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. In a video clip she made, Mansour relates that until the age of 21, when she left her hometown of Acre, in northern Israel, she did not experience racism.
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“If we return to [the perspective of] ‘Survivor,’ then the nation-state law is a kind of strategy,” she says. “If we live together and we are on the road of peace, what will it do to the government? To the politicians? They’ll be unemployed.”
Mansour’s participation in the protest campaign against that law represents a surprising shift. Formerly, she had declared time and again that politics was of no interest to her. “I don’t speak politics, I speak in my language. The thing about the nation-state law is that it’s pathetic for both sides. I swear to you, I hear more Arabic than I did before the law was passed. Take the buses, for example, or the lifeguards on the beaches. There are announcements in Arabic, which you didn’t have before. Maybe the law ‘energized’ Arabic.”
Arabic has certainly been a career springboard for Mansour. In “Fauda” she played a Muslim woman who wears a head covering. I tell her about an interview I did with Salim Dau, who played Sheikh Awadalla, the spiritual leader of Hamas, in the series’ first season. The season ends (spoiler alert) with his character being killed in an incident that generates chaos and a horrific cycle of bloodletting in the second season. Dau told me that in any case, he would have declined to take part in the second season, because of the portrayal of the Palestinians as bloodthirsty, cruel and lacking compassion in the show.
“I heard that a lot of actors felt uncomfortable, but I don’t really understand it,” Mansour says, in response. “Why didn’t they turn down the part from the outset? It’s not like your agent makes you do it. I saw ‘Fauda’ as the opportunity of a lifetime. If I get another opportunity to be there, and I like the script – I’ll do it again. I didn’t see anything extreme about my character. I saw the cruelty on both sides and also the good on both sides. If I hadn’t been comfortable with the script, I would have said no. That’s happened, too. In Los Angeles I was offered a part in a student movie as a terrorist whom Hamas forces to carry out an attack in Tel Aviv. I passed on it.”
There aren’t many film roles for Palestinians. Possibly, actors will say yes to a series on Netflix even if they don’t like the script.
“I know Palestinian actors who have taken part in a third season and aren’t happy with the script. It’s hard to say no to a series like that [i.e., a Netflix show], which does wonders for a career. I’m only saying that instead of crying over what’s not good, be happy with what is good: It can catapult you 10 levels up. When you go to the United States and say you acted in ‘Fauda,’ they’ll look at you differently than if you were in ‘Survivor.’”
She adds that she has to confront her identity as an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli every time Jewish reporters ask: Which of them defines you the most? Mansour – who has relatives in Jenin and Ramallah in the West Bank, as well as in Acre and elsewhere in Israel – doesn’t see herself in those terms.
“I define myself as Luna Mansour. A human being. C’est tout. You don’t need more than that. So that it won’t look as though I’m not proud of what and who I am, I’ll explain: I have Palestinian roots on my father and grandfather’s side. That is a fact. I have family in Palestine. An additional fact is that I am an Israeli. I was born here, I have an Israeli passport and a blue ID card. If the Palestinian side doesn’t see that there is an Israeli part in me, then they just have to get over it, and vice versa. I don’t want to ignore any side of me for anyone.”
You have made unusual choices for a Muslim woman. You appeared in a bathing suit in “Survivor” and you kissed an actor in “Fauda.” Were you afraid?
“I respect everyone – the religious and the less religious, and the whole Arab society. But I don’t think about them when I have to make decisions. I want to represent them, but not the way they want. I will not represent a whole society according to its needs or viewpoint, because then you end up representing nothing.”
Have you been threatened because of your choices?
“I appeared on television in a bathing suit and I kissed an actor, and I wasn’t murdered. Does that mean that all of Arab society accepts this? Definitely not. But my family accepts it. Some families accept more, some less. Among the Jews, too, not everyone accepts their children’s behavior. There’s no shortage of Jewish religious families who cause a ruckus.
“I say to Jews and to Arabs: Remember the gray path, of the young – the path that accepts everyone. There’s no need to love or to hate. For the old generation everything was black and white. Today we can walk on the gray path, where the human being is accepted. You don’t have to love him, just accept him – and continue from there.”