When ISIS Meets Netflix on an Israeli Author's Smartphone

A writer friend who has arrived in the United States makes a shocking discovery when she goes to buy a smartphone

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IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

“You won’t believe what happened to me!” said novelist Dorit Rabinyan, moments after our warm embrace. She’d pulled up seconds earlier in a taxi at the entrance to the university’s hotel.

“What happened?” I asked as I helped drag her suitcase through the revolving glass doors, escaping the cold that has already begun to hit the Midwest. Dorit always travels on her lecture tours with two large suitcases. “I can’t do it any other way,” I remember her saying to me once at a festival in Berlin. “I can’t understand how Etgar [Keret] always takes nothing but a little bag for a two-week trip.”

Etgar, an author/scriptwriter who is a master of wandering expeditions, once told me he’d learned from his father that if you invest in a good deodorant, even a single shirt can last a week. And also that people, no matter what they wear, will always look the same. Somehow, when it comes to packing suitcases for book tours, I adopted the middle path – somewhere between Dorit and Etgar – and have traveled with a single suitcase of indeterminate volume. Sometimes they let me bring it onboard as carry-on; sometimes they insist it’s too large and make me send it with the other checked luggage.

“So what happened?” I asked Dorit, who had landed in New York a day earlier, on her way out to us. We were the first stop on her three-week book tour through North America.

She said that as soon as she got into the taxi at JFK airport, she noticed her smartphone wasn’t turning on.

“At first, I thought the battery was dead – even though I knew that didn’t make sense since I’d gotten on the plane with a full battery and the phone had been turned off throughout the flight.” She decided the problem was the battery. Upon arrival at the hotel, she tried to recharge the phone, in vain.

“The phone’s dead,” she said. “That makes sense – it really is pretty old.”

“Well, your timing was good,” I said. “Phones in New York are a bit cheaper than in Israel, so it was a good opportunity.”

“Exactly,” she said, explaining that she left the hotel once she realized her efforts to resuscitate the phone were to no avail, and went to Sixth Avenue and into the first phone store she came across.

“There was a salesman from Bukhara, I think, it was something like that. I looked at the phones and asked for a new Samsung. I paid over $500 for it. And he’s going through the motions of removing the phone from a box, he shows it to me, and everything seems cool. It’s brand new and fresh out of the box. Hey, Sayed, where did you get the water from?”

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “The receptionist brought it to me while I was waiting for you in the lobby. Want some?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll get it.”

“Don’t you want to check in first?” I whispered after her, as she got up from the couch in the lobby and walked to the counter.

“Soon,” she said.

“To cut a long story short,” she continued, after returning, “I go up to my room, turn on the phone and guess what I discover?”


“A shahid ["martyr," in Arabic] app!”

“A what app?”

“Shahid, shahid!” Then she spelled it out: “S-H-A-H-I-D.”

“Wow! There’s such an app?”

“Are you listening? I was in shock. And the plug on the charger was a British one.”

“And you didn’t take it back?”

“No,” she said, swigging some water. “I didn’t have the strength, the jet lag was catching up with me, and it was just such a mess I didn’t want to get into it. So it turns out he sold me an old phone belonging to some Saudi. Can you believe it?”

“What a shame,” I said. “They would have refunded the money right away. I don’t know how it is in New York, but around here there’s no such thing – they never try to fool customers in the stores. What sort of store was it?”

“I really don’t know, what can I tell you? At first it looked like an absolutely normal store that sold cell phones.”

“Never mind,” I said, trying to comfort her. “Are you hungry?”

“No,” she said. “I’m mostly jet-lagged.”

“It’s nearly 10 P.M., and soon there won’t be anything to eat,” I told her. “Maybe it’s worth buying something in case you’ll be hungry later on.”

“No,” Dorit said stubbornly, “I’ll be fine. It’s so nice to see a familiar face on these trips – going from hotel to hotel and from city to city. We always feel so alone, don’t we?”

“Yes, but you get used to it,” I said, going on to remind her of something she once said to me, along the lines of, “Isn’t it true that these book tours give us the illusion we actually have a career?”

“I said that?” she said, surprised.

“I swear you did. It was about 15 years ago. But you said it to me at Ben-Gurion airport, just before they took me away for some security inspection.”

“How lucky you didn’t have a phone with a Shahid app on it.”

“What does someone do with such an app?” I wondered out loud. “What, is it an ISIS-support network?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a twinge of sadness in her voice, and I felt sorry for having reminded her of the fact that she'd been deceived. “The problem is I can’t delete the app: It’s as if it’s built into the hardware of the phone. You know the ones you can’t delete? The most I was able to do was disable it.”

“Oh, so you still have it. Can I see?”

“Sure,” she said, and pulled the phone out of her coat pocket. She showed me the Shahid.

“The phone looks brand new.”

“You see? It was as if he opened a new box, all wrapped up in cellophane, and put on a whole ceremony for me.”

“But it isn’t Shahid.”

“What do you mean, not Shahid?” she protested. “Read it.”

“I’m reading it,” I told her. “It’s Shahad. You can see that in the Arabic it is written Shahad, not Shahid.”

“And there’s a difference between the two?”

“Yes,” I replied, asking Dorit’s permission to activate the Shahid app, so I could show her that it’s software for viewing Arabic-language films and TV shows. “Shahad is Arabic for ‘to view.’”

“Shahad?” she asked, as I typed the word into Google. “You mean like they used to say ‘Eazizi almushahidin’ (‘Dear viewers’) on the Israeli Arabic-language TV channel?”

“Exactly,” I replied. “You see, it’s written here that Samsung has signed a collaboration agreement with the MBC network. It’s a sort of Arabic Netflix, called Shahad [Samsung actually does call it Shahid].”

“No way!”


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