When a Liberal Bedouin Woman Confronts Tradition

Gili Izikovich
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Kamil Shiraf, director of Channel 33's Arabic-language drama 'Salma'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gili Izikovich

In one of the opening scenes in the first episode of the drama series “Salma,” the heroine stands outside the family car and gazes at the desert landscape. She’s wearing fashionable jeans and her long curly hair blows in the breeze – not exactly the stereotypical look of a Bedouin woman. Later in the scene, she’s joined by her husband Zidan and their two adolescent children Suha and Rami. To commemorate the occasion, a cellphone is soon pulled out and the four pose for a selfie.

Up to now the family has lived in Haifa, where they had an independent, secular and modern life, and now for the first time since they married, Salma is returning with Zidan and their children to live near his extended family in the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev. And if all this sounds like a recipe for trouble, the inevitable clash does indeed arrive.

Compared to the old, religious, traditional and conservative Bedouin family, Salma is the perfect other: female, independent, educated, opinionated; a social worker who insists on working in her profession and far from falling in line with the existing traditions. A total outsider.

Salma, the IBA Arabic-language channel’s first drama series that is an original and local Arabic-language production, is very well made. Photo by Courtesy

Just about everything that can be said about the character Salma (beautifully played by Rasha Jahshan, alongside Jawad Abd Elghany as Zidan) can also be said about “Salma” the series. For several weeks now, without any fanfare surrounding it whatsoever, the series has been showing on Saturday nights on Channel 33, the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Arabic-language channel. This is the channel’s first drama series that is an original and local Arabic-language production, and it is very well made. As a cultural phenomenon, “Salma” is a real breakthrough. And that’s before we’ve even said anything about its content and the messages it conveys.

“Salma” is the creation of director Kamil Shiraf, who co-wrote it with Dita Guery and Shahar Levy, as part of a first-ever tender to produce original programming for Channel 33. The 47-year-old married father of three now lives in Lod, but was born and raised in Hura. He’s an experienced director of documentaries, whose films include “A Cry from the Desert,” shown on Channel 1, about the generation gap in Bedouin society, and “Behind the Veil,” which was shown on Yes Docu and on HBO in America, about the lives of Bedouin women.

Shiraf sees himself primarily as a social entrepreneur and speaks passionately about the ills of Bedouin society and his desire to effect changes in it. Movies and television are just a means to effect a small change, he explains. More than anything, it seems that Shiraf himself is like Salma – an observation that makes him immediately nod and smile in agreement. Yes, he does think that. And thus he chooses what topics to work on and what films or scripts to create.

Few television series have dealt with the Bedouin - a society in transition - in such detail. Photo by Courtesy

“I wanted to examine that saying about the chain only being as strong as its weakest link, and women are the weakest link in Bedouin society,” he says, explaining his decision to return to the subject of women. “As long as the weakest link is in a bad situation and unable to get out of it, then the situation of the society as a whole is bad. I believe there must be full equality between a woman and a man, but I understand that it can’t come through drastic change. Change has to happen through a slow process, otherwise there will be chaos. We saw it in the aliyah of the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent] in the 1950s, we see it now in Bedouin society. Societies with conservative outlooks come apart when change happens too fast, and in the case of Bedouin society, there’s also the political matter of discrimination.”

As we’re sitting and talking, a child laden with baskets comes into the coffee shop. He’s selling clothespins and cleaning cloths, and pleads with Shiraf to give him a few shekels. After he leaves, clutching his spoils, Shiraf sighs and says he comes across such cases, kids begging for charity, every day.

“The source of this is in the society that doesn’t value knowledge. As soon as the society he comes from values knowledge and education, this kid won’t be here anymore,” he says.

Was that part of the inspiration for the story of Salma?

“In the beginning I wasn’t thinking about Salma, I was thinking about family. I thought about what I wanted to say. At the time I was reading Mukhtar Mai’s book and was fascinated by it. [The book “In the Name of Honor” is an autobiography that Mai wrote about the horrifying gang rape she was subjected to in 2002 at the command of the elders of her village in Pakistan, after her brother was suspected of having an affair with the daughter of a distinguished family and the family’s honor was deemed offended). The society she came from is similar in its tribal structure to Bedouin society, and women’s status is similar too. I wanted something lighter and I wanted to show another side that’s not tin shacks, demonstrations and land disputes, which is all that people know about Bedouin. I had to have a clash, a woman who is different, rebellious in a sense but still part of the society.

‘Salma’ depicts the dynamic of a traditional Bedouin family when one of its fold returns with a different outlook on life. Photo by Courtesy

“Salma is really me. I am the one who clashes, and she was created nearly in my image. She’s a woman, a social worker who just by working is clashing with conservative values in terms of openness. She’s also an educated and liberal woman who lives in the wider world. Like me, Salma is sometimes angry at her society and her world, and doesn’t understand why things have to be the way they are.”

Shiraf got into film and television almost by chance. At the school where he’d begun studying graphics after high school, there was also a film studies track, and he became more and more drawn to the medium. He then studied filmmaking in London for a year and returned to Israel imbued with desire to effect change. Now, in addition to his television work, he is busy working on an ambitious project to build a Bedouin heritage center that will promote learning, progress and profound societal change.

In this sense, “Salma,” which he hopes will continue for two more seasons beyond the 12 episodes that have already been made, is a tool for change – and not only because of its message. Other Bedouin were involved in the production, as well as actors from Arab and Bedouin localities, together with Jewish Israeli professionals.

Is there a thirst in the Arab public to see local and original dramas?

“We’ve gotten very positive feedback on how the show touches on things that speak to the public that I come from, on things that hurt it – government corruption and internal destructiveness that comes from having divisiveness and tribalism instead of thinking about the community as a whole.”

Can this be changed through television?

“Media has tremendous power in shaping people’s behavior and I believe in long-term processes. This show won’t change the reality but perhaps it will be a trigger, a starting point. If more artists decided to do something, then I’ve already succeeded. If others will be ready to put the truth on the table, if they’ll decide that we can take a critical look at ourselves, then I believe we’ll succeed. The criticism you hear today is mixed with general frustration against the establishment: ‘They did this to us,’ ‘They want to make us fail.’ That’s not dealing with the real problems. When this little Salma stands up and says ‘no,’ when she’s able to change things, to object to unfairness, to corrupt decisions, maybe the whole picture will change a little. Maybe women will think that they can run for election, that they can demand change. Hopefully, ‘Salma’ will be the opening shot.”

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