Meet Amjad

Norman Issa: 'There's no doubt that we Israeli Arabs are limited by the circumstances under which we live.'

nomran issa 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nomran issa 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's just a two-minute hop for actor Norman Issa from his home in Jaffa to the coffee shop sandwiched alongside second-hand stores selling seen-better-days furniture in the neighborhood's flea market, where the Israeli Arab actor is meeting an interviewer. But the quantum jump his career is about to take from a well-considered if relatively unknown stage actor with tight roots in the community to nationwide Saturday night TV star is one he's still digesting. Between sips of kaffe hafuch, the wavy-haired Issa - who is far less naïve than the character he plays - explained how he carries the part around with him, how his career took this new turn and what he thinks his new show can do for relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews. So who is Amjad? Amjad's is an Israeli Arab journalist, a bit of a nerd, who tries to be more Jewish than the Jews. But it doesn't work and he gets screwed by both sides, the Arabs and the Jews. He's a poor slob who never seems to get it right. So Amjad wants to be part of the elite, but he can't. There's no doubt that we Israeli Arabs are limited by the circumstances under which we live. Wherever you go, there's always a ceiling that limits how far you can advance. We talk about this in the show. Amjad is very optimistic, he thinks it's possible to overcome this. He believes everything people tell him to do. He's really innocent in this regard. I personally am not nearly as innocent as Amjad in the way I live my life. I've already understood how the game works here. So we have to live with this situation and one has to fight for one's place; no one's going to give it to you on a silver platter. What other similarities do you find - how else do you see him? We have a great deal in common - this whole matter of the Israeli Arab who often tries to find favor in the eyes of the Jews, or on the other hand criticizes his own people, and we show both of these sides of his personality. I do this a lot because after all, we make plenty of mistakes ourselves... So there's a lot we have in common except, as I said, this innocence. I already have learned who I am. He hasn't. Amjad has no boundaries... he thinks if he creates a Haggada, for example, then somehow he will benefit from it... He wants to have what the Jews have, and that's what makes him look so ridiculous, and that's what those I showed it to surprisingly identified with. And there are many in our community like him, both Arabs and Jews. Do you think Muslim Arabs or Christian Arabs will receive the show differently? I don't think there's any significant difference. They're both Arabs and feel the same way. This is something artificial that the Jews created - that the Christians are one way or the other - I don't believe it. What kind of responses did you get in your own community? I showed it to friends from Jaffa, and they laughed a lot, really loved it, and I didn't hear any criticism. They wanted to know when it would be on. They treated it like a comedy, and a comedy can convey a message - it's not just funny. It also has a message, often a painful message, under all the jokes. And what is that message to both sides, Arabs and Jews? Stop all this nonsense and let's make things better. Both sides are idiots, so stop it and start talking. So if he could go to Annapolis, what would Amjad say to the two sides? He'd say: Kol hakavod, keep it up. Anything else about the series that spoke to you that will speak to the viewers? I think everything will speak to Israeli Arabs, because basically you're taking small incidents and magnifying them. And many people will identify with it. Like the roadblocks? They'll identify with the roadblocks. The whole thing with the matzot because it's true - my parents also love matzot. They'd buy them and we'd eat them without our even knowing what they were connected to. How familiar was the roadblock scene, where Amjad insists everyone speak Hebrew so they aren't stopped? This happens a lot to Arabs, that they are afraid to speak in Arabic because people will think they are dangerous or something. It happened to me - I was on the train and my father called on the cellphone, and I don't give a damn what people think, I answered in Arabic. What, I should speak to him in Hebrew? And the looks I suddenly got from people around me. So I said to myself: 'What are you staring at? Go ahead and stare. If you have a problem, that's your tough luck. I'm talking to my dad, it's my right, it's an official language in this country.' Arabs should be more confident about speaking their language, that they have the right to do so, and to speak to the Jews eye to eye, and not as if they're better than us somehow. So how did you get to the point where you're going to be on the cover of all the magazines - how did you get this role? I know Sayed from this part that I did in an adaptation of his book Dancing Arabs, and I know Roni Ninio, the director, from the theater. Roni said that he pushed for you and that Keshet at first had reservations. At the beginning I think they wanted a recognized star, and Roni insisted on the one it seems was the best for the part, and he knew what he was doing. Theater performers generally aren't as well known in the television world. But all it takes is for one of them to make a small commercial and he becomes a big star and returns to the theater world a star, and we other theater people suddenly have to stand aside. It's a shame that that is what happens here in Israel. I've also been working at the Haifa Theater and we were all recently told to go home because of a lack of funds, or maybe politics. What interested you about this part? I think it was the character, it's a wonderful role. Because I come from the theater, such a character really intrigued me. I don't like static characters; this character is interesting, that you can play with, and that's what drew me to it. There have been hardly any series about Israeli Arabs on TV. Why do you think that is and why is the timing right now? If you want to know why it's taken so much time to do something that should have been done long ago, you'll have to ask those in upper management at the TV. It's all backward. Why now? I say why not. It's something that just has to be. After all, people pay TV license fees and regular taxes. They deserve it; we are 20 percent of the population, so we deserve a place in prime time. The TV channels also get money to create series about Arabs, so that money needs to be used. I just hope they will continue to do so without any pressure having to be put on them. What were the most fun parts - you mentioned the horseradish at the Pessah Seder? We did it for real. I like to feel everything even when I'm being filmed. So I took a very large spoonful of the this spicy stuff, and it was strange because I'm used to eating spicy food all the time; I eat harif all the time, but not like this which made me feel like my eyeballs were burning. I thought they were going to pop out. I also had to eat steak tartare in one of the episodes, which I must tell you is absolutely disgusting. But I had to take a bite. This is the sacrifice one makes for art and to get across the real feeling. Anything else stand out that you enjoyed? The truth is I enjoyed it all. I would come early to the set, it was so much fun. I would put on my costume early, like in the theater, like when you're doing a role you love to do. I didn't care about staying late, to sit on the set, it fascinated me. Judging by your rendition of it in the show, you seemed to have enjoyed rehearsing singing Dayenu for the scene when you and your family are invited to the Seder? It was a lot of fun to sing. I knew the Haggada a little bit; I knew about the "shfoch hamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yeda'ucha" - I knew it was there. I had heard the song Dayenu, but never understood what they were singing. So I really got into it. [Here, he sings it lustily.] Were there any issues too painful you thought shouldn't be discussed? For example, there are references to the Park Hotel terror attack, and there's one episode that deals with an interrogation by the Shin Bet. Do you think it was necessary to go all the way in choosing what to include in the series? I think that you need to go all the way to show how ridiculous the situation is. I do think that one needs to keep things in proportion. Because if we continue blaming each other, we'll never get to the end of it. We have to look ahead and see how we can move forward. Any other scenes you filmed that especially moved you? There was one scene that I felt strongly, where Amjad tried to register his daughter for all kinds of kindergartens and they kept rejecting him and insulted him. So he sits in his car and says: "I feel like dying." And this really touched me, really spoke to me, because it was a very realistic moment, very painful moment where this character is just broken. Where suddenly he realizes: "Wake up, you innocent one, wake up. The situation is not as you imagined it. Not everything is gold." And that really moved me. - A.D.C.