Unlocking the Biggest Taboos in Arab Society

The new documentary series ‘Taboo’ looks at some of the most volatile issues in the Israeli Arab society, including abortion, sexual assault and drug abuse

Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
A demonstration in the Israeli city of Lod following the murder of an Arab-Israeli woman, in 2019.
A demonstration in the Israeli city of Lod following the murder of an Arab-Israeli woman, in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

The “culture of honor” remains a central pillar of Arab society and, despite the processes of change that are taking place in various areas, some harsh conventions are still derived from it.

The term “honor” refers to all those values that perpetuate patriarchal norms, which primarily sanctify female modesty and family honor. In some cases, the ideology suppresses the individual voice in favor of the collective and prevents freedom of expression – especially on issues such as the body, sexuality, gender identity, sexual harassment and more.

The documentary series “Taboo,” which premiered last month on Israeli TV’s public broadcasting channel aimed at the Arab community (Makan 33), stretches the boundaries of the debate and delicately breaches the walls of silence surrounding several taboo issues in Arab society.

Director Kamal Zaid, left. He peels away all the ancient prohibitions gradually but with great determination.Credit: Kan 11

Director Kamal Zaid peels away all the ancient prohibitions gradually but with great determination. He gives voice to women who chose to have an abortion, teenagers who were victims of sexual assault, and former drug addicts who are still dealing with the stigma that accompanies life on the margins of society.

The series invites the viewer to delve deeper into the complexities of Arab society, often revealing a disturbing portrait of oppression and suppression.

Zaid has spent the past year living with his family in Houston, Texas, where he is completing a doctorate in comparative literature and at the same time working on projects for Netflix. In a Zoom interview, he talked about the challenges involved in creating “Taboo.”

“I proposed several subjects that are considered complex in Arab society, such as abortion and sexual assault against children and teens,” he explains. “In this society, there’s no legitimacy for such stories – for example, the story of a girl who is abused by a pedophile. There’s an ugly silence surrounding them, they’re considered illegitimate, but in this series the victims get a genuine opportunity to tell their stories.”

Zaid, 50, married and the father of three, is best-known as an actor. He recently appeared in Avi Nesher’s film “Image of Victory” and previously had a supporting role in Hanan Savyon and Guy Amir’s 2019 movie “Forgiveness.”

“I wanted the discussion about taboo subjects to open a window to the Arab world,” he says about his ambitious for the show. “These issues are just as critical and important as political issues – you can’t talk only about politics. The time has come to talk about these subjects on the local level of Arab society in Israel, and to trigger a debate in the rest of the Arab world as well.”

In addition to interviews with subjects who recount their tales, the series recreates the traumatic incidents on screen using professional actors. “The challenge was to find the people who would agree to discuss what they had experienced. After all, that’s the main taboo: the constant silencing of the victims,” Zaid says.

“The question that preoccupied me all along was this: ‘Where are the victims?’ I wanted to shed light on the victim, to make their voice and pain heard, but not through intermediaries or a third party. For 18 months I searched for people who were willing to share their stories. I turned to hotlines in the Arab community in order to find interviewees. Some agreed to cooperate and then at the last moment disappeared, but I never gave up.”

Kamal Zaid interviews an Israeli policeman for 'Taboo.'Credit: Kan 11

Focusing on the victims

The first episode deals with children and teens who were sexually assaulted and who share their personal stories. Zaid says the idea to focus on this subject was suggested by a school principal in the Israeli-Arab town of Tamra. “I had concerns, because it’s a very explosive subject,” he admits. “The tendency in such cases is to point an accusing finger at the attacker and focus on his story, while the victim disappears from the narrative.”

For example, Zaid presents the story of a boy who fell victim to an attacker he met online. “There was a computer game I really loved,” the youngster recounts. “Once, I logged on and saw a man there who called himself ‘Steve,’ after the main character in the game. We started to correspond on Chat and he wrote that he was 14 years old. He asked me to keep the relationship a secret. We started to correspond on WhatsApp and he kept encouraging me to meet with him and for us to play together – until he persuaded me.

“When I approached his car, I realized he wasn’t 14 and I got scared. Two hours later, he brought me back to the place where he’d picked me up. I returned feeling sad, frustrated. I felt sickened and didn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Another story concerns a girl who fell victim to an attacker who was a family member. “I was in third grade, I had an ordinary life,” she says, her face blurred to protect her identity. “He asked me to come to his house. I entered because I knew him. He locked the house and all the lights were off. I felt something bad was happening.”

Director Kamal Zaid. 'I proposed several subjects that are considered complex in Arab society, such as abortion and sexual assault against children and teens.'Credit: Debby Porter

After the episode aired, the girl’s mother was interviewed on Israeli radio and explained how breaking the silence had helped her daughter. “We’re in 2022 and such stories are still suppressed. I paid a social price as a mother who decided to stand by her daughter, and even to go to court and punish the attacker. I’m not willing to remain silent, because that will offer legitimacy to harassers to continue with their crimes.”

The second episode concentrates on drug addicts who were subsequently rehabilitated. They note that despite being able to break the cycle of addiction, they are still living on the margins of society and suffering from prejudice due to their past.

One man speaks openly (his identity is not hidden) about the hell of drugs and his recovery. Another takes the camera to the childhood neighborhood where he was first exposed to the drugs that would destroy his life. “Here’s where we hid and smoked drugs – there were very large quantities,” he tells the viewer.

Another episode deals with Arab women who quietly had abortions, unbeknownst to those closest to them. Zaid recounts the story of an 18-year-old girl whose voice is heard as a young actress plays her on screen. “I’m from the north, not married. I fell in love with a man and had sexual relations with him,” the girl says. “Although he used a condom, that didn’t prevent me from becoming pregnant.

“My period was late and when I took a pregnancy test, the result was positive. I was extremely nervous, really scared. I was afraid of my parents’ reaction, especially my father. Honestly, I was afraid that they’d murder me.

Women sit inside a mosque in the Arab city Kfar Qasim, Israel.

“I turned to a gynecologist. I explained my story to her and she suggested that I terminate the pregnancy. That solution calmed me, because the very thought of my parents or close relations knowing that I was pregnant absolutely terrified me. I turned to the pregnancy termination committee [which oversees abortions in Israel] and they agreed to accept my request, because I wasn’t married.”

A family therapist talks about the loneliness experienced by Arab women during the abortion process. “Nobody ever asks us how we feel, nobody takes an interest in our feelings,” she says, speaking on behalf of many victims. “The only thing that was important to them was that our hymen was intact, so they could continue to be seen as a conservative, respected and clean family.”

Throughout this episode, one can recognize the director’s insistence on giving voice to a wide range of opinions, and providing women with a platform. Zaid says he aimed to let “the victim tell her story, as she experienced it at the time, and to allow her to be at the heart of the debate without any social duress. When a woman talks, she encourages other women to tell their stories.”

He explains that Arab society is not monolithic, and that the strength of a particular social taboo varies from one region to another. “It’s so complex and it’s hard to contain the stories of the victims,” he says. “In my opinion, the series is a way of fomenting change – even if it’s only 2 percent change. I hope that after women watch it, they dare to tell their own personal stories.

“The more they have a social space that encourages safe and respectful debate, the more that change can take place. There are victims who turned to me and told me the series gave them the courage and desire to tell their story. But what’s sad about the series is that it also includes reactions that blame the victims. Breaking a taboo begins with changing the way people deal with the issue. It’s a form of communication that must be taught in Arab society.”

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