How to Stay Optimistic as a Young Arab in Israel 2019

The blend of Israeli Jewish and Arab cultures, Hebrew and Arabic, village origins and the Tel Aviv bubble – all of this informed the life and work of 24-year-old actor Ala Dakka, who preferred not to define his identity. But now, he's reached a turning point

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Actor Ala Dakka in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2019.
Actor Ala Dakka in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

A few weeks ago, actor Ala Dakka returned from a tour in China, where he appeared in performances of a play called "A Winter Funeral," staged by the Beersheba Theater. The trip was interesting and there was a good audience response, but in addition to the powerful artistic experience, China afforded Dakka a particularly intriguing encounter.

“In China there is an autonomous region called Taiwan. It’s a state within a state, but you can’t say that in China. I met a Taiwanese man and we talked about things we both knew something about. For example, I asked him whether he felt a need to declare his identity – to say ‘I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.' He said he didn’t: ‘I know I’m Taiwanese. That’s how I go to sleep and how I wake up, and that’s my motivation to get things done.'”

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And you identify.

“I totally identify. My lack of a home is my impulse to do things and succeed.”

Alaa Dakka doesn’t need declarations regarding his identity. In fact, he deliberately avoids them. Not because his identity isn’t clear to him, but because any attempt to define it would be superficial, or, alternatively, could be used for cynical purposes that are far removed from him and his life.

“People ask you to decide, wait for you to say something they can exploit,” he says soberly. “I believe in being the best actor I can be, in doing my part so that viewers go away with the story and the pain of the character – as part of their own pain, not out of pity. I want them to see themselves in me, since I see myself in them. That’s what I strive for. I struggle to distance myself from provocations revolving around my identity.”

Actor Ala Dakka in "Mouna."Credit: Eitan Riklis

The character of Rani, played by Dakka in the TV series "Mouna," which premiered last week on Channel 11 of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, shares the actor's worldview. Rani, who is about as different as he can be from his parents in their village, is a secular photographer, liberal, flaky and into drugs. The series has a lead female role – Mouna, portrayed by Mouna Hawa (who starred in the movie "In Between"): a Palestinian photographer who is chosen to represent Israel at an important European exhibition. From that point on – and on the backdrop of a war in the Gaza Strip and missiles being launched at Tel Aviv – all the characters enter a whirlwind of tensions, conflicting pressures and even violence.

Rani is Mouna's friend and studio partner. He prefers spending time in bars rather than at demonstrations. On their roof in Tel Aviv he grows hallucinatory mushrooms. He avoids commitment to any specific identity and does not want politics to define him. “He’s a Green Leaf voter,” as Dakka puts it, referring to the Israeli party that supports legalization of cannabis.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the friendly Dakka and the character of Rani. Both have occupations connected to the world of art, both live in a creative milieu, embedded in Israeli-Jewish society, living the cliché life inside a bubble. But Dakka is someone who’s hard to pigeonhole and, as mentioned, he has no desire to volunteer to be cast in any mold.

“I grew up among Jews my whole life. My friends are Jewish, they served in the army, they were in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. I had a friend who was killed there. I experienced it from the other side. My pain is dulled and cumbersome. You see the pain from both sides and you realize that people don’t come back – on both sides – because of something that’s not them, while the government leaders don’t pay a price. Only we are the losers in this situation.”

Do you feel there is a demand that you decide where you stand?

“Anyone who wants to demand this is invited to come over for coffee, that’s what I have to say. I won’t decide, I am against making a decision.”

Kibbutz schooling

Ala Dakka, 24, is an actor who seems to have just arrived but in fact already has some impressive credits to his name. His first (and unsuccessful) foray was appearing on the music reality show "The Voice." He then changed course and studied acting. In recent years, besides appearing on stage, he’s acted in two TV series, "Hamidrasha" and "Tagad," and in three movies, "The Cousin," "7 Days in Entebbe" and "Beyond the Mountains and Hills." Currently he is acting in the Channel 11 series “Pamta,” where he plays Khalil, a lawyer clerking in the Tel Aviv district prosecutor’s office, the polished and educated son of a wealthy family, and “Mouna,” where in one of his first scenes the only thing hiding his crown jewels is a hat.

One could say that Dakka lies somewhere between these two characters. He is the son of Rose, a teacher, and Moussa, who used to be a teacher but is now a lawyer. Ala attended primary school on Kibbutz Hatzerim, and high school in the Eshel Hanasi youth village in the Negev.

Dakka says his father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he was pulled in other directions: “My parents were really unhappy with my occupation,” he laughs. Just before our conversation he had spoken on the phone with his mother, who reminded him to be cautious in the interview. “They thought I’d lose myself. I told my mom that I was already lost, it’s part of the deal – I was lost a long time ago.”

That seems to connect to “Mouna”: people living in an Arab and Jewish environment, with the language slipping from Arabic into Hebrew, with a few sentences in English suddenly interspersed.

“I’m familiar with these characters, Mouna and Rani and Ihab – all those who left their villages to move to Tel Aviv, where they found life very difficult, even though they blended in. Rani has problems processing his success, and that’s his problem in this series. He thinks that nationality and his Palestinian foundations are important, but there is also his life and work, where he's making a successful living – why should all this be ruined for an agenda? He’s in a crisis that does not get resolved until the end of the series. I don’t think politics, which dissolves the beautiful fabric that we see, contributes anything to anybody. [The character of] Mouna only loses out because of it.”

Does that also happen to you?

“I did 'Mouna' out of a desire to understand this crisis. The wound is the absence of an identity. A person needs a home, that’s basic. In the movie 'In Between' [directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, about three young Arab women living in Tel Aviv] and in 'Mouna' too there is a problem with home, with belonging. It is precisely when they're going home that these women feel a sense of alienation and disconnect, of being caught in between. In the end we’re caught up in our own history. I have my life with my family at home, and there’s the life of my grandparents in the village of Arabeh in the north, a rural existence in which there are people who don’t want ongoing communication with Israeli institutions.”

Actor Ala Dakka in Tel Aviv, January 13, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

In some respects, your parents are the first in-between generation.

“That’s true. My father realized it’s all nonsense and that we have to blend in without fear. Unwillingness to blend in is motivated by fear. My parents were not afraid.”

On the subject of parents, Dakka says his proudest moment was when he was appearing in “Pamta,” where he was about as close as he could be to "realizing" his father’s dream that he become a lawyer. Our cheerful conversation at this point digressed to darker realms, since “Pamta” deals with corruption in the legal system, and we drifted again into social and political topics.

“In the house where I grew up," Dakka explains, “there was a statesmanship-oriented approach. Israeli statesmanship. The rule of law. For my parents the law is paramount. I remember as a child my father talking about the rule of law and a state guided by law. Until the nation-state law arrived. That overturned everything he believes in.”

And you?

“That law ruined something that's very fundamental. It has brought me to the brink of despair. Before that law, I knew that Arabs weren’t exactly first-class citizens, but I thought it was my role to prove that we’re equal, no less smart and capable of attaining impressive achievements. The nation-state law openly declared that we’re worth less. Whichever way it’s turned or discussed, it broke something in my faith and in terms of the statesmanship-oriented approach I grew up on. I'm don't think I am totally despondent because this law is like the culture loyalty bill: It’s throwing peanuts at coalition partners, not something that will directly affect my life. But it mustn’t break the hope that still exists. This thing mustn’t win.”