Sayed Kashua: A 'Dancing Arab,' Caught Between Two Worlds

After making his mark in Haaretz, three books and a popular TV show, Sayed Kashua will see his work featured on the silver screen.

Yanai Yehiel

The 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival opens this week with an outdoor world première of “Dancing Arabs,” an Eran Riklis film shot in Jerusalem and Kfar Kassem. Its script was written by prize-winning journalist and author Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who is one of this country’s most original voices.

A self-deprecating 38-year-old, Kashua is best known for broaching themes of identity and racism, playing around with stereotypes and taboos, and holding up what is often an unflattering mirror to both Jews and Muslims here.

Coming at a moment when tensions between local Arab and Jewish residents are running depressingly high, Noa Regev, the CEO of the Cinematheque, which organizes the international event, has found herself repeatedly emphasizing that no political considerations were involved in selecting the film that kicks off the 10-day event on Thursday evening. Nor was the Cinematheque trying to be particular provocative, she asserts. 

“We selected it out of artistic considerations, and a desire to open the festival with an Israeli film,” Regev states, describing “Dancing Arabs” as "an intelligent, gentle movie that touches almost everyone,” and one that was, to boot, “filmed right here in Jerusalem.”

That said, there is little doubt that even if the Cinematheque did not mean to be provocative – Kashua, as usual, and with a wink, probably did when making his film.

Born and raised in the town of Tira, in what is called the "triangle" region of Israel, Kashua’s grandfather was killed during Israel’s 1948 War of independence, and his father, a Palestinian nationalist, was once imprisoned for two years without trial for a supposed connection to terrorism. As for Kashua, at age 15 he was sent off to Jerusalem to attend a prestigious, and predominantly Jewish, boarding school for gifted students – an experience that exposed him to a new world.

“I hated the city as soon as I entered it,” Kashua writes of moving to Jerusalem, recalling how a solider pegged him as a Muslim villager and asked him to get off the bus to be searched. But, he readily admits, there were also parts of the city and of Jewish culture, and Jews themselves, and certainly, the language – Hebrew – that he grew to like, too. He stuck around.

Years later, with a degree in sociology and philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in hand, Kashua, by then with a wife, and eventually three kids in tow, moved from Arab Beit Safafa in southeast Jerusalem to a Jewish neighborhood in the west of the city. This was for him yet another cross-cultural and cross-religious experience which would provide deep reservoirs of material for his future newspaper stories, books and television-show themes.

Kashua started out as, and remains, a columnist, and he has been writing a weekly column for this newspaper for years. He writes, notably, in Hebrew – the language in which he says he feels most comfortable expressing himself. In his signature satirical style, he fills his columns with stories of the mundane minutiae of his life – his relationship with his wife, his struggles with fatherhood, the Jewish schools he sends his kids to, the drives back home to visit his parents in Tira, the renovation work on his house, his chats with the neighbors, his writer's block, the Jewish holidays, his family's vacation in Eilat and their plans to move to Illinois where he will be teaching during the upcoming academic year, and his general neuroses.

Underlying all these amusing stories is always an ongoing, deeper conversation about the contradictions and complications of being an Arab in Israel: someone who is caught between two worlds, trying to pass here and fit in there – but ultimately ending up an outsider.

In one column, for example, Kashua and his wife, who have gone to buy a new mattress, notice that the salesman is speaking to them very slowly, over-enunciating every word. At first they think there is something wrong with the man – until they realize he is doing it for their benefit, thinking that, being Arabs, they don’t understand Hebrew. Or, alternatively, perhaps, that they don’t understand things in general too well.

Infuriated, his wife turns to leave the store, but in the end comes back to buy the mattress, after the ashamed salesman offers them a terrific discount to make up for offending them.

“Forget about values,” Kashua whispers to his wife, as he shakes the hand of “the nice salesman.” “The man told you HA...LF PRI...CE. Do you understand?”

Tongue-in-cheek humor

Kashua is also an accomplished novelist, with three books to his name. These, like his columns, are written in Hebrew, and like all his work to date, are heavily autobiographical.

“Dancing Arabs,” (2002) on which the script for the film was partly based, is about a Palestinian from Tira who grows up in Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, finding his way in the world. “Let it be Morning,” (2006) tells the story of an Arab journalist working for an Israeli newspaper, who leaves the Jewish city where he lives to return home to the village of his birth with his wife and daughter – only to find that it too seems foreign to him.

Kashua’s most recent novel “Second Person Singular,” released last year, is ostensibly about a top criminal lawyer in Jerusalem, an Arab, who becomes obsessed with suspicions that his wife is hiding an affair – but the book is also very much about race, and how to fit in, in Jerusalem today.

The script for “Dancing Arabs” is based on an amalgam of Kashua’s first book by that same name, and “Second Person Singular.” An Israeli/German/French co-production, the film tells the story of a young Arab village boy named Eyad, who has the opportunity to attend boarding school in Jerusalem, where, along the way, he becomes friends with a Jewish boy with muscular dystrophy, and is soon embraced by that boy’s family.

While this week will mark the first time Kashua’s work is seen on the big screen – his star has already risen on the little screen: He has also written a prime-time sitcom, which began airing in 2007 on Israeli’s Channel 2, and is called “Avoda Aravit” (Arab Labor) – a play on the Hebrew slang for second-rate work.  

The TV show, like Kashua’s columns and books is also based on his own life experiences. The plot centers around a young Arab Muslim professional couple: Amjad, a journalist working at an Israeli newspaper who is desperate to fit into what he identifies as the elite, Ashkenazi Jewish cultural milieu, and his wife Bushra, a social worker (Kashua’s real-life wife is also a social worker). The couple lives in an Arab village outside Jerusalem with their precocious young daughter.

One episode shows Amjad appearing on the "Big Brother" reality TV show, pretending to be Jewish and also a vegetarian, so as to seem more “civilized,” and spending the night with his neighbors in the community bomb shelter while playing spin-the-bottle and discussing loyalty to Israel.

The fourth season of "Arab Labor," directed by Kashua collaborator and friend Shay Capon, is now in production, and to date the show has achieved an impressive local following – especially among a Jewish audience. This, despite the fact that most of the dialogue is in colloquial Arabic (there are Hebrew subtitles), that nearly all the main characters are Arabs (which is totally unique on Israeli prime time), and that time and again the plots hammer home, albeit gently, with nuance and tongue-in-cheek humor, how prejudiced Israeli Jewish society can be.

Last year, the third season of "Arab Labor" picked up five awards at the annual Israeli Academy of Film and Television ceremony: best comedy, best lead actor in a comedy, best lead actress in a comedy, best director, and best screenplay.

“We get about 20 percent of the prizes, just like our proportion in the population,” Kashua joked in one of his acceptance speeches.

Meanwhile, however, what was perhaps even more surprising than the generally favorable Jewish reaction to the show, was the sharp reaction of Arab audiences to it. Indeed, many complained that the portrayals of Arabs were too stereotypical and insulting.

The wily character of Amjad’s father back in the village – a man, who, for example, in one early episode, was asked to take on the symbolic responsibility of buying the rabbinate’s leftover chametz (leavened bread) during Passover, and promptly tries to sell it on eBay – raised particularly great objections, with some Arab critics going so far as accusing Kashua of being a traitor.

These sorts of attacks, from whichever side they arrive – and they come from both Jews and Arabs – are not infrequent. It is rare, Kashua has said, for everyone to like what he has to say in his column, or to appreciate the plot twists in his TV show.

Just two weeks ago, for example, Kashua wrote a column about how his preschool-age son, a World Cup-crazy child who refuses to take off his Messi T-shirt, had taken to spouting out game scores – “Spain took five!” “Croatia took two!” Kashua describes a conversation he himself has with a Jewish taxi driver, describing something the tot had said.

“Palestine took three!” he told his dad. “I had to explain to him that Palestine isn’t playing in the World Cup,” Kashua explains to the driver, who bursts out laughing.

When Kashua later tried to recount the exact same story he had written about at a graduation ceremony at Hebrew University, however, he stepped on a hornets' nest. One website reported that he had mocked the kidnapped Israeli teenagers who were later found murdered, and that, after offending the sensibilities of the audience at the ceremony, students and families had walked out in protest.

“No one walked out,” Kashua insists now, adding that he had intention in any way of making light of the situation of the kidnapped Israelis. But to no avail. Soon, commentators on the website were writing that they hoped Kashua’s children would be kidnapped, threatening to break his legs and so on.

Last week, following the escalation of violence in the country after discovery of the three kidnapped youths' bodies, and what seems to have been a revenge killing of a young Arab in Jerusalem – his column was titled “Endgame." In it Kashua asserts that he is leaving Jerusalem and never coming back, since "the lie I'd told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over." 

Emil Salman
David Bachar