Fatma Dina, a 14-year-old girl from Jaffa, is sitting in her living room, watching television and waiting to see herself on the screen. Her large, curious eyes brighten as she seeks quick answers to my questions. Apparently she likes being interviewed for a newspaper. For her, it’s yet another step on the way to fulfilling her main objective: becoming famous.
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Since Dina began to participate in this season's teen program “Habanim Vehabanot” (The Boys and the Girls) on the HOT cable television Children's Channel, her exposure has skyrocketed: In the mall girls ask to be photographed with her for a selfie, thousands of people have started following her on Instagram and now she’s being interviewed for Haaretz.
Fatma's mother Ayat, 45, is preparing lunch in the kitchen. Between frying onions and herbs for roasted chicken, she listens very attentively to her daughter’s answers. Once in a while she gets a word in and tries to support what Fatma says. Before her daughter's appearance on the show, Ayat herself was seen on TV when she participated in the “Master Chef” reality cooking program last year.
Already during the initial audition for the show, Ayat told her life story – about the transition from life in the Gaza Strip to Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish locale next to Tel Aviv; the match with a drug addict; the ensuing pregnancy; and how she helped her husband, the father of Fatma and her four siblings, to overcome his addiction.
When Fatma received an offer to participate in “The Boys and the Girls,” a summer show that is very popular with Israeli children, her mother supported her – despite opposition from her husband and her other children, who were afraid that such exposure would harm the family’s honor. In the show a group of boys competes against a group of girls to win the most points after participating in a variety of games and challenges.
Ayat herself greatly enjoyed the spotlight and says “Master Chef” was the best experience of her life. She says she hopes her daughter will blossom outside the boundaries of the Jaffa neighborhood in which they live. It’s important to her that Fatma succeed, that she receive a platform, that she be loved. On the other hand, Ayat is already apprehensive that her daughter will develop too many expectations and too much independence.
“The world of television will take you very far, we still don’t know where,” the mother tells the teen, half-joking and half-worried.
Fatma raises her voice a little. “It’s not as though I’m going to model bathing suits or anything like that,” she says, making it clear that the thought that someone would try to stop her on her path to fame is totally unacceptable to her. This verbal ping-pong continues, with Ayat telling her daughter that if her father doesn’t stop her from fulfilling her dreams, her brothers will.
“The fact that they’re not used to it is their problem,” replies Fatma. “If you didn’t want me to get into this, you wouldn’t have let me go.”
Over 30,000 teens signed up to audition for the current season of “The Boys and the Girls” – an almost inconceivable number, which reflects the success of the program and the fact that it has become a jumping-off point for teens who are interested in breaking into public awareness. Past participants have become stars on the HOT kids' and youth channel and competing stations.
After 27 years of broadcasting, Fatma Dina is the first young Muslim person to participate in any show on the HOT Children's Channel.
“I always had a dream of being on some kind of TV program, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” says Dina. “Finally it came from my sister: A good friend of hers is a casting agent and she recommended me. At the audition I had to talk about myself, about who I am and what I do, a little about my friends and mainly about the fact that I’m an Arab. That’s the main thing the casting agent wanted to get to.
"At first it embarrassed me because he wanted me to speak about that immediately, and I didn’t want to. Suddenly I really felt pressured, because it was also my first time in front of a camera and I don’t know how to talk. I went with the expectation that I wouldn’t be accepted and in the end I was. I was very surprised.”
She says that during shooting of the show, which is currently being aired, she was treated in a pleasant and friendly manner by all the participants and the production team, but at the end of filming she received the first shock.
“I have never encountered hurtful reactions because I’m an Arab, not even in school. Nobody ever said a word to me to hurt me, but after the shooting, one girl who was my best friend [on the show] made a birthday party in her house and didn’t invite me because I’m an Arab.
"She didn’t invite Romy either [Romy Abergel, a transgender girl who also participated in the program], because she underwent a sex change. To her we’re different. It really hurt me because she was my best friend. Until then I was always accepted and suddenly she of all people didn’t accept me. Like, who does she think she is?”
When you go out with girlfriends, does it make you nervous to speak Arabic in the street?
“The truth is that I’ve never been afraid. In school, for example, I speak Arabic with the Arab children and sometimes with the Jews too. They understand me. Even when I go to the mall and I’m with the family, we speak Arabic. Nobody can make me not leave home so that people won’t think I’m an Arab. I’ll speak Arabic as much as and in any way I feel like doing. On the other hand, there will always be this thing that you don’t want to speak Arabic because you don’t want to be different from the others.”
You’re the first Arab Muslim girl to star on the HOT kids' channel. In a way you’re a trailblazer for other girls. What message would you like to convey to them?
“I said it at the audition too: We’re all human beings and there’s nothing in me that’s different from you, and there’s nothing about you that’s different from me. I think that I managed to convey my message. I’ll give you an example: When I started to participate in the show, I had about 1,000 followers on Instagram; today I have over 8,000. I get posts from people who saw my ID card on the program and are sending me posts about how happy it makes them to see an Arab girl on a show like that. Many girls write me that the message I sent to other girls went over well. It really makes me happy to hear that – that it got into their heads.”
Are there negative reactions?
“No. I log on to the comments and I don’t see negative ones. If I see them I erase them, but meanwhile it has hardly happened.”
What did you think the first time you heard Romy Abergel’s story?
"The first time we did a round of introductions and she talked about herself and about the change she underwent, I didn’t know how to approach her. Everyone got up and hugged her and I just remained at the side because it was the first time I was meeting someone like her. In the end we managed to connect. We had a lot of discussions about what she went through. I asked her what she was called when she was still a boy and she told me. She wasn’t ashamed of it. If she wants to come to my house, she’s invited.”
Did you feel that there was a connection between you because of being different?
“Yes. She always came and said to me: ‘I’m not alone here, I’m not the only one who’s different.’ And I always told her that she isn’t different and she’s like everyone else, but she said [about me]: ‘Yes, but still there’s another girl here who’s different from all the others.’ And we were together all the time.”
No modeling allowed
Perhaps “The Boys and the Girls” will indeed mark the beginning of Fatma Dina's foray into the world of stardom. When asked who her role model is, she mentions Israeli model Neta Alchimister, who has posted revealing selfies and has over 800,000 followers on Instagram, and is now a swimwear designer and businesswoman.
Although Fatma’s mother isn’t familiar with Alchimister’s name, she makes her view of Fatma modeling clear: “If she wants to enter the world of modeling, her brothers won’t let that happen. She’ll grow up soon, she’ll be an 18-year-old girl, and then we won’t have any control over her, and that’s what I’m afraid of.
"I don’t want her to lose her direction in life. I pushed her to join the program on HOT's kids' channel because I wanted her to have exciting experiences, to meet other children and to experience what television is. After all, I was there too. It's something that's out of this world. People know you via the screen and recognize you on the street. It’s amazing. I received a lot of love.”
And what if you daughter wants to be like Israeli Arab TV presenter Lucy Aharish?
“If I knew that she’ll be like Lucy and will be a presenter, I would be very happy.”
Fatma, what do you want to do when you’re more famous?
“I don’t know. Everyone wants to be famous. It’s not that it will give me something in life. It’s only in order to feel different. I don’t know what will happen in future. I don’t want to develop expectations and then to be upset afterward.”
Dina mentions Aline Cohen, a past participant in “The Boys and the Girls,” and the star of a new docu-reality program on the Yes cable TV channel, as another especially beloved figure. She adds that she would like to be an actress too, although “I think it’s very hard to learn all those texts.”
She grasps that fame also comes with a price, and says, “There’s a lot of envy and I know that when I go back to school it won’t be easy for me at all. Kids will always say to me: ‘Why are you showing off? All you’ve done is participate in some program.’ I won’t pay attention to that but it will bother me in some way.”
Soon many children will recognize you on the street. Are you afraid of that?
"There are girls [on the show] who get negative reactions. That shocks me, but I don’t get that and to see it happening to my friends who participated in the program – that’s really surprising. I thought that those reactions would be aimed to me, because I’m an Arab, but that didn’t happen.”
Do you think that the fact that you’re pretty will help you in life?
Ayat, Fatma’s mother, answers first: “You get respect when you’re dressed well and you look pretty. Because she’s an attractive girl, I watch over her a little more. My husband also tells me that he’s afraid to let her go out because she’s so pretty.”
“Maybe it really would have been good if I had turned out ugly so they would let me go out,” says Fatma, laughing. “I’ve always blamed Mom for everything so I’m also blaming her for the fact that I'm pretty.”