A Device That Lets Palestinian Israelis Shed Their Arabic Accent?

A new project by Palestinian director and artist Scandar Copti presents fake technological solutions, but the irony in the work becomes a double-edged sword

Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
From the CoptiCo exhibition.
From the CoptiCo exhibition.Credit: CoptiCo
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

In one memorable scene in “Ajami,” the 2009 film directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Binj, a young Palestinian, goes with his Jewish girlfriend to a Tel Aviv nightclub. They drink and dance, until he gets an urgent phone call from his family telling him to rush back to Ajami because of clashes there between the police and neighborhood residents. This guy, who up until that moment was perfectly assimilated in the Jewish crowd, is suddenly speaking Arabic, to the astounded looks of the other clubbers. He bids his girlfriend a hasty goodbye and makes his way back to the Jaffa neighborhood. At a police checkpoint, put there to block entry to Jaffa, a policeman asks him where he lives and where he’s going, and the Palestinian guy looks him in the eye and answers, “Bat Yam,” a nearby suburb. The policeman lets him through because he “passes” as a Mizrahi Jew, and so he is able to return to Arab Ajami. This scene reveals all the elements of assimilation – the name Binj that is devoid of any clear ethnic affinity, the Jewish girlfriend, the “accentless” Hebrew – and its different aspects: the arduous effort it can entail, its divided language, its fragility and risks and successes.

Scandar Copti, the director, plays Binj, in what is at least partially a self-portrait, and the character’s bitter end also seems meant to allude to the fate of the assimilation of Palestinian Israelis in Jewish Israeli culture. Now, nearly a decade later, Copti lives with his family in Abu Dhabi, teaches film at a local extension of New York University and makes films and art.

The Beit Ha’Gefen Art Gallery in Haifa is currently showing his new project, CoptiCo, a patent company that “produces and markets smart products designed to solve global sociocultural problems with emphasis on Palestinian society.” According to the company’s website, “CoptiCo Intellitechnologies was founded by a diverse group of people that share the same belief that technology is an excellent tool for building familiarity and closeness that enable effective dialogue between people in conflict.” Using advanced technologies, the company is developing a variety of new devices that, it says, will help to better integrate the Arab population in modern society, avoid friction between different cultural traditions and reduce racism.

For the exhibition about the company and its products, the gallery’s upper floor was redesigned as a high-tech sales space. The entire space is carpeted, company brochures are spread out on a table, there’s a coffee corner with cups bearing the company logo. It’s a neat and orderly space that promises an enjoyable “user experience.” A PR film about the company detailing its aims and achievements is screened, and in the center of the space, small screens are set up where one can contact a company service representative.

Three of the company’s flagship products are displayed: iAshgar: a device worn on the neck that relays an electrical impulse that causes a muscle contraction ensuring that the vocal cords will produce the Hebrew letter resh with an Ashkenazi pronunciation. Arabs could use the iAshgar to speak with an “Israeli” accent that will keep them from standing out.

From the CoptiCo exhibition.Credit: Beit Ha’Gefen

The second item for sale is the Shishette – a special hookah or water pipe for women who have to contend with the stigma in Arab society against women smoking cigarettes. The Shishette enables a woman to inhale and exhale cigarette smoke in the guise of smoking a water pipe – and to conceal the scent of the cigarette smoke if needed – all so more women can smoke comfortably in public.

The third, and possibly most intriguing, device is the AFFIX, invented to help save from extinction the Aye-Aye, a rare small primate species in which the males will not mate with females that have had previous sexual intercourse. CoptiCo developed a special protein that can recreate the hymen of the female Aye-Aye. A spray containing the protein is said to be available for simple and immediate use.

The irony is clear. All of these products aren't real. But even if they don’t actually exist, they indicate the kind of activity common in our modern technological society: They offer “solutions to problems using advanced technology.” Here, addressing social tensions deriving from differences is achieved by means of self-improvement technology, with which the “other” can become identical to the rest or conform to others’ needs: The Arab will speak like a Jew, the Arab woman will conceal her bad manners, and females in general will grow new hymens for males’ benefit.

Parafictive art

Binj’s efforts at assimilation in “Ajami” – an endless, Sisyphean political struggle over personal and social identity, an effort that entails self-knowledge and self-forgetting and is liable to fail at any given moment – is here replaced by physical and biological “solutions” presented as flawless and not open to failure. These products may be fictitious, but Copti’s project shows how – like other, real, products – they exist first of all as a label that enfolds within it a social stance that it conveys onward, for free. And this stance – of fixing the nonconformists rather than fixing the society – is at the basis of the assimilative ideology of technological development.

From the CoptiCo exhibition.Credit: Beit Ha’Gefen

Still, there is a dimension to Copti’s project that is not ironic, and that is the way it is made. The project emulates the sterility of a product presentation and its smoothly packaged but empty marketing: The impressive and clever images, the lively editing, the clichéd language, the non-conflictual stance, the narrative of assured success. All done here in the tradition of parafictive art that makes use of a variety of rhetorical ploys to create a false, but very real-looking, installation.

But as soon as the deception is revealed – and here it happens quickly (unlike, for example, in the works of Walid Raad, in which the false is enfolded within the real in a much more complicated and surprising way), the work becomes didactic and its intentions seem all too obvious.

Meanwhile, something else becomes apparent: The criticism of technology’s gleaming façade is conveyed here by means of an utterly professional and cinematic art project – with high production values, clearly recognizable allusions and guaranteed enjoyment. The buyer experience has been converted here to the viewer experience – and both are positive user experiences. There may not be an actual technology lab in Abu Dhabi, but there is certainly a lab that produces very carefully crafted art. Reviewing the technology of the CoptiCo project is a technological act with an added level of critical reflexivity. But it’s hard to know who the subject of this critique, if it even exists, is – from which stance it is being made, who is supposed to receive it. The de-politicization of the technology, about which Copti’s project sounds a warning, affects it as well: Here too there is no conflict, no struggle, no theory of change, no chance to succeed, or fail.

Scandar Copti, CoptiCo (2018). Curator: Yael Messer. Beit Ha’Gefen Art Gallery, 2 Ha’Gefen Street, Haifa. Monday-Thursday 10:00-15:00, Friday and Saturday 10:00-14:00. Through August 4.

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