The Israeli TV series “Jerusalem,” which premiered last month, focuses on the bubbling cauldron that is the Old City. Viewed through the crosshairs of the weapons and interests of religious figures and police officers, the holy city is portrayed as a “babushka of shit,” as one of the cops unsubtly puts it.
The plot sees the Muslim religious trust (the Jordanian-run Waqf) that has controlled the Temple Mount since 1967 in danger of losing power to a fundamentalist Muslim sheikh who is trying to alter the status quo on the site (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif). At the same time, U.S. evangelicals are funneling money to messianic Jews to continue buying homes in the Muslim Quarter, seemingly in order to hasten the arrival of Judgment Day, which they believe will lead to redemption.
Thrust into this tumult are the Old City’s police officers, who attempt to manage the flames that are liable to set the entire Middle East ablaze while also juggling cocaine trades and covering up murders.
Hisham Suliman plays the fundamentalist Muslim cleric seeking to end Waqf rule. As in his previous roles, Suliman’s acting is credible and interesting. The role itself is neither, though. Through no fault of his own, he is asked to portray yet another character of a Muslim sheikh seeking to set the region on fire.
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When asked if he has previously turned down roles because they may have presented stereotypical images of Arabs, he nods. “I’m a believer and I’m not willing to take part in anything that’s judgmental or offensive. If you portray the role of a religious figure and don’t relate to it with a judgmental perspective, then it isn’t for me. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a red line. Sometimes you have to be careful about the roles you choose.”
I’m not raising my kids as if we’re living in a state of chaos. Incidentally, they’re not that aware of what’s going on outsideHisham Suliman
He adds: “The media is selling us on the idea that life here is really atrocious, as if it’s impossible [for Jews and Arabs] to live together. I try not to let it have any effect on my children. It’s obvious to me that there’s complexity in this place – but there’s still life here.”
Do you think Jewish showrunners can successfully capture a Palestinian narrative, like the one presented in “Jerusalem”?
“I would always contend that a creative person brings their own personal story with them even though it’s not necessarily a story that happened only to them. An author penning a novel doesn’t necessarily write their own life story. We’re all living here, Israelis and Palestinians, and if a creator writes from their own personal perspective about the social-political conflict, that’s their right. The question in the current era, if you’re telling a story, is how much you can be trusted to present the complexity of the two sides in the conflict.”
Many critics have charged that “Fauda,” in which you starred in the first season, was extremely problematic in that regard. The narrative there, and for sure in the second and third seasons, did not present the Palestinians in a particularly positive light.
“I think that in the first season they did succeed in bringing in the complexity of the conflict. The character I played was highly complex, along with all of his own personal conflicts. There was something very convincing, and the fact is they watched ‘Fauda’ all over the Arab world. I received reactions from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – thousands of messages. Not long ago, I received messages of support from Lebanon. I’m talking about the first season, not the second or third seasons. I don’t really remember them because I didn’t take part in them.”
“Jerusalem” deals with the political volatility of the city, and you portray a Muslim cleric seeking to set the Temple Mount afire. To what extent were you able to identify with your character, Riad?
“This debate is of no interest to me, but I’ll answer in relation to the role I played. My character and the other characters can be found to be taking an extreme position. I think that everyone starts from a healthy place and wants to do good. They arrive very clean but in order to survive, they start to change and head toward some extreme position. If I had to imagine Riad 20 years ago, he only wanted to protect Al Quds [Jerusalem] – and then things got complicated, veering toward corruption, and a situation where you’re willing to do anything in order not to lose.
“As for real life, to my great dismay, people – especially those in key positions and who have leadership roles – opt to take extreme positions. It’s very sexy and it draws attention, but it isn’t healthy. Instead of checking and seeing if it’s possible to take the middle ground, they move to the extremes.”
Alone in Tel Aviv
Hisham Suliman was born in Nazareth, where he still lives, the 12th of 14 children. His father worked as a tailor, altering men’s suits. His mother was a housewife. Now 44, he is himself married and has three children.
He fell in love with theater at a very young age. He discovered the northern city’s drama clubs and, as he grew up, his love for the theater grew ever more intense. At 18, to his father’s chagrin, he left Nazareth and went to study acting in Tel Aviv.
“My father said he would not be willing to fund my studies because he wanted me to be a lawyer, but I was a wild child. Everywhere I went, I had a really big mouth. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll manage.’ I had a very strong inner voice that told me it would work out. I went to Tel Aviv, signed up for acting school and Yoram Levinstein accepted me. You should understand that I barely spoke any Hebrew.”
Weren’t you concerned that the language and identity obstacles would make it hard for you to succeed?
“There was culture shock at first. It’s a different culture. You come with an eastern-Arab identity to Tel Aviv; it isn’t Haifa or Be’er Sheva. It took me three or four months to figure out where I was. I remember how Yoram Levinstein helped me improve my Hebrew. There was a student named Nati who helped me, and also the vocal training instructor made time for me. I worked as a newspaper ‘hawker and in a convenience store that worked around the clock, and in a restaurant and a café. I was like a tsunami: nothing could beat me – not language, not culture, nothing.”
And you managed to stay in contact with your family in spite of this act of defiance?
“Yes. My father tried to make me give it up, but I never conceded. Sometimes he would come visit me in Tel Aviv because he thought I was just messing around. A few years ago, we closed that circle. I participated in Lucy Aharish’s TV program ‘The Influencers’ [in 2018] and they brought my father in to be interviewed. They asked what he thought of my being an actor, and he said he was proud of the fact that I’d followed my heart. I told him, in front of the cameras, that I had him to thank, because the fact he had said no actually became a trigger for me. I wanted to show him I was capable of doing things even without him.”
Immediately after completing his acting studies, Suliman began working in the theater. He drifted between Palestinian repertory theaters like Haifa’s Al-Midan and Jerusalem’s Al-Hakawati (where he met his wife, Rahik Haj Yahi), and roles in Israeli repertory theaters such as Habima and Cameri.
In 2013, he landed a small part in the film “Bethlehem,” directed by Yuval Adler, which subsequently led to an audition for the Yes series “Fauda.” He played the charismatic Abu Ahmad, who became one of that season’s most loved characters.
“Fauda” became an international hit, thanks to Netflix, and Suliman went on to star in a plethora of Israeli TV series that have garnered global attention. Those shows include “Your Honor,” in which he portrayed a Bedouin army officer (the thriller was subsequently adapted for American television by Showtime, starring Bryan Cranston). He also played Halil in the period drama series “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” which also streams on Netflix, as well as the main role in “The Girl From Oslo,” another hit on the streaming giant. Most recently he has been filming a new series by Noah Stollman, “The Malevolent Bride,” in which he plays a police detective – a role he describes as “a career high.”
Suliman is essentially one of the most successful Arab actors working today. Aside from his acting career, he also works at Yoram Levenstein’s preparatory acting studies program in his hometown of Nazareth.
‘There are sane people here’
Is Suliman’s success in Israel evidence of the optimistic possibilities for Arab actors – and maybe Arabs in general – who want to blend into the Israeli landscape as equals?
“We were raised on the idea that there are two peoples here and that they have to hate each other,” he says. “Do I have to accept this truth, which is opposed to human nature? I say to you that if we live another few decades, the situation will look so different that we will not believe we ever lived here this way, with all these conflicts. I returned not long ago from New York, and when you look at life there, you try to understand if it’s real, that the Blacks there were slaves until not too long ago. I’m not prepared to accept 99 percent of the things with which they’re trying to induce us into hatred.”
You have three children. They’re growing up in an Israel where the Religious Zionism party is predicted to win 10-plus Knesset seats in the next election. How worried are you about their future?
“The Israeli media is selling us the idea that life here is truly atrocious, as if it’s impossible to live together. In my own experience, I make an effort that it not affect my children. It’s obvious that there is complexity in this place, I’m not an idiot. But there is still life here. They can definitely survive. A person who was raised with certain values and who knows how to fight for his identity in the most modern sense will survive. There are sane people here who believe in this path.”
Even when you speak of the future, you talk about surviving. That’s pretty basic – what about prospering and succeeding?
“I’m not raising my kids as if we’re living in a state of chaos. Incidentally, they’re not that aware of what’s going on outside. I don’t watch the news at home, not at all. I decide what I want to see.”
You’re presenting almost extremist moderation.
“People always say about people like me that we’re putting a nice face on reality. Okay, I am putting a nice face on reality. One of my kids studies at the Givat Haviva International School [in northern Israel], where he’s learning that there’s a very complex life here with a great many cultures: Muslim Arab, Christian Arab, Russian culture, Israeli culture of which all of us are part of, Mizrahi culture, the culture of the Haredi community and the secular community and the religious-Zionist Jewish community, as well as the Druze and Circassian communities. In my opinion, that’s a fantastic thing. So my child learns with Sudanese, Brits, Americans, and in his room he shares the space with a Jewish boy. Furthermore, I have inculcated in him Muslim-Arab culture. As I see it, this is how we should be raising all our children here. You have to fight for this diversity.”
In the past few years you’ve also begun to act on overseas shows, such as “Baghdad Central” and “Trader.” To what extent is the Hollywood dream calling you?
“Working abroad is really the dream of every actor, especially when his appetite develops. On the other hand, I never thought of moving. I’m happy to be here. I feel a great sense of belonging to this place.”