Rising Israeli Arab TV Star No Longer Forced to Worry About Humiliating Airport Security Checks

Israeli cinema and television have provided Palestinian actress Samar Qupty with a showcase for her talent and enabled her to make small inroads against bigotry — even among the occasional Ben-Gurion airport security worker.

Itay Stern
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Samar Qupty.
Actress Samar Qupty in Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Milrod
Itay Stern

Last July, Arab actress Samar Qupty was on her way to Bogota, Colombia for the premiere of the movie “Junction 48” in which she stars, when the security agents at Ben-Gurion Airport stopped her for extra questioning. She was detained for more than two hours, and finally allowed to catch her flight, but not before the security personnel confiscated her carry-on bag that held several evening dresses, toiletries and a book that she’d packed for the short trip abroad.

Qupty, 27, who grew up in Nazareth and calls herself a Palestinian, had been subjected to this sort of questioning more than once before, but this time she decided she was fed up and posted a furious message on Facebook: “So, dear Ben-Gurion Airport, I wanted to say thank you,” she wrote. “First, for protecting us from frightening people and situations. For making sure to remind me every time anew how unwanted I am here and how frightening I can be. For the attitude, the looks and the winks you always give when you see my name. For the way you tear me apart inside each time anew — not by your idiotic searches, but by the fact that I see you humiliating a woman the age of my mother, or my grandmother, before my very eyes ... each time anew!”

A few months later, Qupty had become a familiar face to viewers of the Yes cable drama series “Taagad,” set near an Israeli army base. In it, she plays an Arab shepherdess who is set to wed an older man in an arranged marriage, but becomes intimately involved with a soldier from the base. Still, the last time Qupty was at the airport, about a month ago, she was once again sent for an interrogation by security. But then, the security agent recognized her from the TV show and immediately let her proceed. “You’re amazing,” the agent told her, as she gave her the green light to enjoy an hour and half in Duty-Free, a luxury she’d never had a chance to experience before, since she was always tied down in interrogations. “I didn’t know what to do with all that time,” Qupty laughs. “It might have been worth doing ‘Taagad’ just for that!”

Actress Salwa Sakkara, actor Tamer Nafar, director and producer Udi Aloni and actress Samar Qupty, from left, pose for the photographers during a photo call for the film 'Junction 48' at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016.
Actress Salwa Sakkara, actor Tamer Nafar, director and producer Udi Aloni and actress Samar Qupty, at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin.Credit: AP

Indeed, it wasn’t such an obvious choice for Qupty to take part in a show that features so many characters in khaki. Just a couple of months ago, at the Ophir Prize ceremony (the Israeli version of the Oscars), she had raised a fist in a show of solidarity with Tamer Nafer and Yossi Tzabari, as Culture Minister Miri Regev got up and walked out as the two recited a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. Qupty is also a daily presenter on the Ramallah-based Palestinian “Musawa” TV channel, and travels each week among different Arab villages.

Palestinian heroines

A graduate of the Tel Aviv University film program, Qupty has directed three short films. All feature Palestinian heroines coping with problems at home. Asked if she sees any improvement in the situation of these women, who live in Israel, Qupty says: “Yes, there is a change and I see it almost everywhere. The main thing that’s changed is the way we look at ourselves. If you come as the victim and you want to take this role, then you can. But you have to remember that the victim sometimes has privileges too, and the question is where you go with that. If you come from a place of strength and you don’t want to prove anything to anyone but to stand on your own two feet, then you have a much better chance of succeeding. We’re tired of finding excuses for everything we do and currying favor and wanting to please all sorts of people. You can’t really please everyone, so why even try? People respect a person who sticks to his principles, even if they don’t necessarily agree with him.”

She says that now, after the success of “Taagad,” she’s sometimes surprised by the warm reception she receives in the streets of Tel Aviv or Tiberias. “We were shooting there not long ago, and these kids with kippot came up to me and told me how much they loved me. Suddenly, everyone wants a selfie.”

Tel Aviv hipster with snacks from Jenin

Her room, in an apartment she shares with two flatmates by the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, is also an intriguing puzzle piece as for what it says about her identity. On the door is an old poster that says “Visit Palestine,” but with the pastoral Jerusalem view bisected with the separation fence. And the snacks on the table – Bamba [a snack food] coated with cheddar, and mini-cans of cola – came from Jenin. At the same time, the overall décor, the little kitchen and makeshift closet, all say Tel Aviv hipster.

When you see Arab television presenter Lucy Aharish, who is criticized by the Palestinian side for being too Zionist, and by the Jewish side for being pro-Arab – Is that something you can identify with?

“To be clear, Lucy Aharish is very far from me, both in terms of political views and in terms of the style she’s chosen for her life and career. I respect a person who makes a choice and follows it through. Whether or not I agree with her is something else. I think that if you work so hard to please someone else and you’re not true with yourself, it’s hard to respect you. That’s also what happens with a lot of Druze soldiers who go to the army and expect to be part of the state and get all their rights and then they end up surprised. But the starting point was warped to begin with, so of course what happens later is warped too.”

Ideologically picky

She says it wasn’t an easy decision to take the part in the daily drama, though it’s the kind of part most young actresses dream about. “I didn’t even know if I should go to the audition. My agent, Perry Kafri, says I always turn down too many offers because they don’t fit my ideology. I started to realize that it’s important to work with people I don’t necessarily agree with. Not every set is going to be like ‘Junction 48’ directed by Udi Aloni, where it was like I really had a family. So I decided I wanted to give different things a chance and take more risks. After I got the part, I went to talk to the director, Zion Rubin, and I told him I had to remain faithful to where I come from. He told me that although the show deals with the army, it’s not about the political aspect of the army. It’s about what commanders do with their soldiers. I saw that the Arab was going to be the object in this story, but that’s part of the understanding that this is what goes on here in Israel.”

So you agreed to take part in the project because you think it reflects the reality here?

“If you show some stereotype, it can reinforce it, but it can also let people re-think it. Sayed Kashua’s TV show, ‘Arab Labor,’ is as stereotypical as you can get, and it was written that way by an Arab just to show Israelis – ‘Look, this is how you see us.’ And it also had very strong inner criticism. The soldier who falls in love with me on ‘Taagad’ is seemingly a real racist. But then you, the viewer, look at this character from the outside and see if you want to be that person.”

Your character’s fate all depends on the passport she can use to escape from here. How much do you yearn for escape?

“I don’t think that escape is the solution to any problem. If I’m leaving from a place of weakness, then I haven’t solve anything. But if I were to leave here out of strength and choice, because I have new opportunities abroad, then great. Only after the whites joined the struggle of the blacks in America, and only after men joined the struggle for women’s rights – were they able to be free. So somehow, maybe it’s really the binational language that’s the only thing that can solve the problem here. Ultimately, the Israeli is stuck here just like I am. He didn’t choose to be a racist or to turn around whenever he hears Arabic, and he didn’t choose to tell me, ‘You’re pretty, you don’t look Arab.’”

Do you have hope for a better future?

“Unfortunately, the reality governs us, but I do see some hope. When Udi Aloni sends me to represent the movie in Colombia, and I speak to an audience of 300 people as if I wrote the movie, then I know he’s placed great trust in me. And when he speaks in my name, and in the name of Palestinian women, I know I can trust him. I’ve received messages on Facebook from people who saw the TV show and they said they were brought up on racism, on the ‘Arab enemy,’ and suddenly on the show they’re beginning to see the person behind the headlines, and it made them start to think. To me, that’s hope. Ultimately, it’s a basic language of two people who want peace, in the sense of positivity and the desire to love. That’s what we’re all looking for in the end, and I think everyone here is weary of hostility and war.”

A scene from Udi Aloni's "Junction 48" shows Samar Qupty as Manar, left, and Tamer Nafar as Kareem.
A scene from Udi Aloni's "Junction 48" starring Samar Qupty, left, and Tamer Nafar.Credit: Amnon Zalaita, AP

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