No laughing matter?

For the first time, a prime-time slot is dedicated to a provocative dramedy focusing on an Arab family.

clara khoury 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
clara khoury 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tomorrow night, for the first time in Israel, a mainstream network is dedicating a prime-time slot to a provocative bilingual dramedy centered around an Arab family. But are audiences here ready for an Israeli-Arab 'Cosby Show'? His wife doesn't understand him. His boss drives him crazy. His father thinks he's an embarrassment. The daughter he'd do anything for sometimes drives him nuts. Sound like another one of those insipid American situation comedies debuting on Star World? Guess again. Get ready for Avoda Aravit (Arabs at Work), the first series to hit Israeli prime-time commercial television whose main characters are all Israeli Arabs, and one whose creators promise will revolutionize not only our screens, but how Israeli Arabs and Jews see each other. Riding a wave of multiculturalism which has seen Israeli Arabs grab the spotlight in film (The Bubble) and music (Mira Awad), at 10 p.m. Saturday, Keshet viewers will be invited to sit alongside Amjad, his wife Bushra and his daughter Maya as their car is flagged down at a Jerusalem-area roadblock in the opening scene of the program, featuring Hebrew and Arabic dialogue and subtitles. That's just the beginning of the series, written and co-created by Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua, which tackles thorny subjects from Shin Bet interrogations to deeper questions of identity certain to ring true with Arab audiences while opening the eyes of Jewish ones. In fact, Udi Lion, Keshet's director of special programming, also thinks the Amjad character is "very Jewish. He's the other in society who wants to assimilate more than anything, but society won't let him... I think it's a very Jewish series." But living on the seam line is more than just a geographical challenge for Amjad. His cross-cultural dance has him desperate to fit in with the Jewish majority, if only to better his family - even if it means making sure they're ready for the Seder they're invited to by his daughter's classmate. And don't even ask about the "border line" test results on the baby Bushra's carrying, which improve once Amjad moves the couple's bed away from the Green Line that happens to run through their bedroom. Meanwhile our hero's busy defending Israeli Arabs, serving as what Kashua once called "the pet Arab" for media colleagues eager to hear his opinion on almost any issue, from road accidents to drownings in the Kinneret. Too close to the headlines? That's the whole point - tackling real situations, but with self-deprecating humor and warmth, while breaking some TV taboos along the way. Kashua says Amjad's antics represent his "interpretations of events that took place, but most of them didn't really happen. It's based on my cynical and comic interpretation of these events... an interpretation of experiences." But are Israeli audiences ready for an Israeli Arab TV family? Lion says it's "a huge gamble" to give the show its prime-time spot, but one he and the network are determined to take. And co-creator/producer Danny Paran - whose bet on Kashua's ability to write for TV proved itself when Avoda Aravit garnered the prize for Best Israeli Television Drama at the recent Haifa Film Festival - believes the ratings will come in because it "can't be compared to American shows or anything else." "Sayed... has this self-deprecating humor," he says. "He's the Woody Allen of the Israeli Arabs. He's willing to look inside, not outside... It's the first time - go look - in 100 years, the first guy to come out and be willing to laugh at his own people, at himself, at his daughter, at his tradition. I mean, somebody had to look at this conflict with a sense of humor, for God's sake." FOR A SHOW that has no sacred cows, lambs or sheep and is willing to lampoon Id al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, or the selling of hametz by the chief rabbi to an Arab (Amjad's father, who promptly tries to sell it on eBay), its basic premise hardly seems revolutionary - a family-based comedy. Amjad lives in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. His scheming father and loving mother live nearby, and his best friend, photographer Meir (popular comic Mariano Idelman of Eretz Nehederet), keeps him current on how to avoid roadblocks (trade in his old Subaru - a dead giveaway to border policemen there's an Arab driving it - for a Rover) and his love life, which eventually includes Bushra's best friend. However, the show's formulaic frame is one the US-trained Paran - who's won an Emmy for the documentary Kapo, a Kinor David prize for Shminiyot Ba'avir and who introduced Israeli audiences to Hebrew-speaking telenovellas (Laga'at Ba'osher) - swears by and even has some people calling the series the Israeli Arab Cosby Show. Lion insists "it's much more like a Spike Lee movie," with even a dash of Seinfeld. It was Paran who had the initial vision for the program, after being dazzled by Kashua's writing. "I saw a completely refreshing, new approach to this conflict," he recalled recently at his Neveh Ilan office. "This guy was smart, funny, cynical and on top of everything, he was willing to laugh at his own people. I said: 'This guy is different, challenging... He's doing things that can be transferred to television.'" They met in a Jerusalem café, Paran trying to convince Kashua he had the right stuff to write for TV. "He's very cynical, not optimistic about his abilities," says Paran. "I said to him: 'Let's start the journey - it's going to take four years. We're going to fight, we're going to fail, but we're going to do it. I will lead you to the Promised Land.'" The pair vowed nothing - not even serious violence between Jews and Arabs - would deter them from making the first Israeli Arab television series on prime-time commercial television. "We shook hands and started working." The self-deprecating Kashua is still not so sure he's reached the Promised Land. "In my opinion I'm still stuck in the Sinai Desert and it will take at least another 40 years." "He still hasn't convinced me to write for television, but I'm happy that it happened. He was a nudnik; he just wouldn't give up," recalled Kashua in a telephone interview from France. "And in the end he was right. He managed to bring me to a good place, which initially seemed like some kind of delusions, and in the end we managed to make them come true." ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENTS in commercial TV soon lent a helping hand. The Channel 2 tender loomed, and candidates were only too aware of the governing council's requirements to include more programs about minorities. Lion, an observant Jew who was behind Me'orav Yerushalmi, says this gave Avoda Aravit another push. "It set everybody to thinking about special programming. But I must also say that Keshet decided from the beginning to look more in this direction, but only for things that were really good." Avoda Aravit's director and co-creator Roni Ninio, whose Merhak Negiya for Reshet featured a story about Russians and haredim which also fit this niche, says: "There was an effort to look to the periphery for audiences, lead characters and stories. The tender went along with a mood in the public more open to pluralism and multiculturalism. Keshet came out ahead by not interpreting this only as more shows about the religious public. Merhak Negiya and this show were born directly as a result of the tender." Meanwhile, Paran and his staff were mentoring Kashua, who had honed his Hebrew while attending Jerusalem's prestigious High School of Arts and Sciences and the Hebrew University, and who's written two novels, Dancing Arabs and Let It Be Morning. "I told him start from the family. Let's take the American formula, like The Cosby Show - we don't have to invent the formula." Write about your wife, your family, he urged him. "He wrote it and it was very funny. 'I said: 'Thank you very much, go rest. Let me start pushing." The transition from columns to TV wasn't easy for Kashua. "They're really two different languages. I think the main fear is that you can't be in control of the final product," he says. "This is my first time also having to rely on actors, directors and producers - and I grew up in a home where I was taught never to trust anyone who says: 'Trust me.'" At the end of 2003, Paran began pitching the show to network execs. "They said: 'Smart, good - but you want this on prime time?' I said: 'Excuse me, I didn't hear that; what's your problem?' They said: 'You know, Israeli Arabs - there could be a terror attack here, and you want prime time?' I said: 'That's the problem? Your problem should be whether it's good television or not. That's all.'" Ultimately, Keshet director-general Avi Nir "thought it would be good, with the tender pending. That certainly was in the background." Keshet approved a pilot in 2004. The pilot was more Saturday Night Live than The Cosby Show, Ninio recalls. "We called it Hareviya Ha'aravit (The Arab Quartet), a la Hahamishiya Hakamerit (The Cameri Quintet, a stinging sketch comedy that was a resounding success). There were two men, two women, and it was sharp and funny and even more political, and we had a few songs. Then there was the tender, and Avi Nir said: 'This is good, guys, but let's make a dramedy out of it.'" "We had a satirical stand-up group, but it was ahead of its time," says Paran. "Remember, it's a business, not just a message. At the end we decided to go back to the formula and got approval for 13 episodes." There were pressures from the network: It wanted Yousef (Joe) Sweid from Ha'alufa (The Champ) for the role, but Paran resisted, insisting it was important to surprise the audience with new faces. "And then we found Norman [Issa]. We did the pilot, and they said: 'No Norman.' And I said: 'Listen, it's Norman or nobody, OK?'" The producer and director insisted, and the 40-year-old Jaffa newcomer got the part. That wasn't the end of the wrangling, however - the network wanted a Jewish writer to work with Kashua. Again Paran fought back, explaining: "A Holocaust survivor cannot write for the Nakba survivor. It's not going to work." The network backed down. Indeed, Kashua's vision was so special and biting that another Arab writer brought in by Paran asked to be released. "This is too advanced thinking, politically, culturally, traditionally - I live in the North among my brothers and sisters. I don't want any conflicts. It's hard for me," he said. Paran let him go. Keshet execs approved six episodes and told Paran the show was "your ticket to paradise." "I told them: Do me a favor. I'm doing television and nothing else. Remember - I'm not for Jews, I'm not for Arabs. I'm doing television," says Paran. Costs cut the total number of episodes from 13 to 10, with nine approved for broadcast. Paran promises to share the 10th with Internet viewers. ARAB AND Jewish test audiences reacted differently to the program. "When you are too close to the suffering, you can't really laugh about it, but when you get a little distance it's easier," explains Lion. "Overall we still see enjoyment among the Arabs, but it's different. In the subtext of their reaction, it's more 'Look how we stuck it to the Jews.' They say: 'OK, we're also taking some hits, but it was worth it, because we also got in some good ones.'" "I'm not sure about the Arab audience," says Ninio. "They say: 'You're showing us like this? Show the years we have been mistreated and racism, etc.' And we say: 'Certainly, you are right. But it won't go over that way.' That's what Udi said. And here Sayed, in what he writes, gets a lot of criticism." He recalls the episode which pokes fun at Id al-Adha in particular. "On the day of filming, I understood from the actors on the set that making too much fun of that holiday could hurt many people's sensibilities. So I toned it down a little, and Sayed got angry at me. 'No, we should've gone even further,' he said." "I think that just as there are no sacred cows when it comes to satire [on Jewish issues] on Israeli television, there needn't be any boundaries here, and I think this was still inside those boundaries," says Kashua. Asked whether he was concerned about feedback on this episode and other lampooning of Arab tradition, he said: "I'm worried about reactions in general. Since the groups I will hear from first are Israeli Arab viewers, their opinions will be important to me as well, but I'm always afraid of reactions. I always throw stones and then run and hide." Lion recognizes the program faces challenges, but believes changing the way Israeli viewers perceive Arabs is worth it. "What's the first association many Jews make with the word Arab?" he asks. "A certain recoiling - it's something unpleasant, difficult... If I were looking for the word most opposite the word Arab among Israeli Jewish viewers, it would most likely be 'fun.' After all, they wouldn't say: 'I want to have some good fun tonight - let's watch some Arabs. So we want to get people to the point where they want to have fun with Arabs. And this is 10 times more important than any ideological message, because it runs deeper... the emotional experience that comes from the gut, where you say: 'Hey, it was fun watching these Arabs,' to me is the great thing, and here the two meet: the commercial [desire for ratings] and the ideological." WILL IT WORK? Not only make Israeli Arabs and Jews laugh, but also better understand each other? "Once we captivate the viewer, I very much hope that the significance of the story will get through - why it's funny," says Ninio. "The trick here is to amuse with comedy and satire - that means having to think a little. "What we tried to do is to create a warm program that comes from love, not from meanness. It's built around human error, little screw-ups that happen, with no relation necessarily to Arabs and Jews. And it basically is meant to tell everyone: Folks, we're all human beings." Palestinian stand-up performer Ayman Nahas, who works with his partner Hanna Shamas, insists, "It's got to be without stereotypes. I know an Arab wrote it, but an Arab can have a stereotyped view of Arabs himself. Anything that can lead to mutual understanding - which is a precondition for two people existing here - must include the ability to lead to understanding of the Arabs' pain. "It's always more acceptable for us to laugh at ourselves and our own culture - that's what my partner and I do. Humor can create a connection between anything, between enemies - humor can bring many people together. I'm not sure it's going to suddenly make Jews and Arabs love and understand one another - it's not easy. But it can lead to better understanding." Palestinian-American comic Ray Hanania, who's performed here and entered comedy after, as an Arab, he felt people treated him differently following 9/11, says humor "can help break through rigid stereotypes and feelings people have about each other. In the proper context, laughter forces people to change. They don't even realize how they are changing and how that change impacts animosity they may have, or, more likely, fears of others, strangers, the unknown or a long perceived enemy." Kashua, ever the cynic, says that "I'm certain money can open far more doors than humor in most cases. I think changes in people's socioeconomic situation and political decisions will be what will bring about change, and not such a series. I think the maximum I can hope for is that the two sides will laugh at themselves, which is a good thing. I hope I have created a series I would praise in my TV column, but I'm not at all sure." Paran, the man who put Avoda Aravit in motion and hopes to see it run four to six years, dreams of the day the show will be passé, "and we can go back to working on Saturday Night Arab, or Friday Night Arab." He has mixed feelings about whether Amjad will be able to take down the roadblocks between Israeli Arabs and Jews. "Television will have an effect only if there is a systemic change - educationally, culturally, newspaper, public opinion, the army, writers... Then television will not create the change but follow it, because it sells well and brings ratings, and it will join the effect. It will lead high-school classrooms and universities to talk about it, digest it on a systemic level, and then maybe it will have some influence." After all, he asks, "What's behind good television? Good-tasting ingredients. If they taste good, it's positive and leaves people with a good feeling. This show is sensitive, dramatically good and funny and shows some intrigue, while being self-critical and smart - you come away from the show thinking and smiling. What's better than that? Do something with it - take it and do something with it and I would feel great. That would be fantastic; I would feel proud of myself." Supplying the missing face Amjad may work for a newspaper in the sitcom Avoda Aravit, but he's a rare bird indeed - an Arab working in the Israeli media in Israel. Truth be told, despite increasing calls for multiculturalism and examples seen in more movie roles for Arabs and now in a prime-time TV comedy, according to a new study the odds of encountering an Arab TV newsman or even an item about Israeli Arabs not related to the Israeli-Arab conflict on non-Arabic broadcasts are very, very small. Moreover, chances are that if Israeli viewers do see Israeli Arabs on TV, there's better than a 50 percent chance it will be an item related to the conflict, presenting them as a potential threat. According to the study conducted by Agenda - the Israeli Center for Strategic Communication, a non-profit organization based in Tel Aviv which helps peripheral groups penetrate the media and the media better understand such groups, Arabs were presented in interview and news programs (not dramas and reality shows) in only 0.69% of the items shown between June 2006 and May 2007, despite being 19% of the population. Even worse, the representation of Israeli Arabs in the media workforce stands at only 1%. The study, which dealt only with electronic and not print media and was conducted for Agenda by Dr. Gadi Wolfsfeld of Hebrew University, included Channels 1, 2, 10, Israel Radio's Second Channel and Army Radio, along with the YNet, Walla and NRG Web sites. "There are almost no Arab media personalities, which also impacts upon the subjects covered in the media," explained Agenda executive director Vered Livne. "We don't see or hear from Arabs. My child, who watches a lot of TV a day, could get to a very advanced age without seeing any Arabs, or only see them in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israeli-Arab conflict - they have no idea there's anything else." The numbers regarding Arabs employed in the broadcast media are particularly staggering. Take all the HOT channels (except its HOT News and Arabic news service), the Sports channels, Channel 4, Channel 6 and Channel 8 and the sum total of Israeli Arab employees is zero. At Keshet and Reshet, the two main Channel 2 franchisees, there is a total of one. Channel 2 News has eight Arab employees, but only one reporter - the one who reports from Gaza, where no Jewish reporter can go. Radio isn't much better, with no Arab workers at Kol Yisrael in Hebrew, the study found. The Web? None at NRG or Walla, two at YNet. "The picture we get is catastrophic, not just bad," says Livne. "We say two things: The Israeli public tells the Arabs to give us a feeling that you are part of us. The Arabs say: 'You can't ask us to be a part of the tribe when you won't even give us a place in it, not even a seat at the campfire.' "To a large extent, the media are where our reality is formed, what's important and what's not, what's on the agenda and what's not. And when something doesn't exist, and where it does exist it's connected to a very serious stigma, you just can't make an impact," explains Livne. Why aren't there more Israeli Arabs on TV? Language is one problem cited by the networks, but Livne rejects it. "As you and others know, we can get over this. But Israeli is a country that's very intolerant of accents... We're talking about a country where every third person on the street speaks with an accent, but if you look at the TV, there's this intolerable sameness about the way people look. They all look alike, same accent. There's no room for immigrants, very few observant people, not to mention haredim, very few Ethiopians, very few Arabs. They all sound like they grew up in the center of the country." Norman Issa, who plays Amjad in Avoda Aravit, says Israeli Arabs don't get jobs on TV because the stations "don't want them there, although according to the law they are supposed to. You need to check with those responsible and give them a smack on the head and say: What's going on here?" Issa says that for TV news jobs "maybe they think they need better Hebrew, or other professional reasons... But it's also wrong that there's no station that broadcasts only in Arabic. There's one in Russian and one in Amharic, but not in Arabic. Not enough is invested in this." For Israeli viewers, it's even rare to see an Arab doctor giving parents advice on TV, despite the many talented ones who work here, since when such an item is prepared, the usually Jewish network staff call Jewish experts they know before they call Arabs, Livne explains. The picture isn't all black, however - telenovellas like Ha'alufa, which made a cult figure of Israeli Arab actor Yousef Sweid - the first actor considered for the part of Amjad - often feature Israeli Arabs. An Israeli Arab woman from Haifa emerged the victor in Hadugmaniot, and Israeli Arabs have also been featured in Kochav Nolad. Ofra Mor-Zwick of Agenda, who also worked on the study, said that dramas were not included because "there was no accurate way of measuring the amount of screen time a certain character had." She said that it was "simply easier" to include Arabs in dramas and reality shows. "The breakthrough is similar to that of blacks in the US via entertainment and music. So it's easier to find actors and comics and singers, like Mira Awad, and it's easier to find people for that niche. It's a process that begins on the sidelines but will ultimately pick up steam." Keshet's director of special programming, Udi Lion, who's made multiculturalism his mantra since taking the post, recognizes there's a problem and is planning to take steps to fight it. "The Arab sector's problems are partly because of the great distance from where they live to here. Most of the young people who have succeeded at Keshet either live in Tel Aviv or came to live in Tel Aviv, and made major efforts and took their opportunities. Arabs who live in the North don't have this option. "The other thing is the motivation. The feeling until now [among Israeli Arabs] was that they didn't have a chance. So to make a crazy effort knowing you don't have a chance? All these people [already at Keshet] had role models, but the Arabs don't have that role model. That's why I'm trying to see to it that there will be three or four, and they'll bring others." The role model issue is a key one. The lack of Israeli Arab presenters on the Children's Channel, for example, particularly upsets Agenda. "This only paves the way for distancing and lack of understanding," says Livne. "I just want one Israeli Arab hostess on the Children's Channel - she can wear jeans and talk slang and whatever, but let the kids hear an Arabic name." Agenda staff managed to convince the producers of the popular Hani's Room to bring on an Arab girl from Haifa during the Second Lebanon War, got the Sheshtus kids show to bring Arab classes on to compete and convinced the creators of the popular Hashminia series to at least put an Arab character in the book series that went along with it. "Any appearance by an Israeli Arab is a welcome thing," says Mor-Zwick, "but it depends on the frame. I think appearances by Yousef Zweid and Mira Awad made significant contributions. I think it's having a snowball effect." However, there's still a long road ahead. Livne says Israeli Arabs are anxious to work in the media, despite a serious problem caused by the current lack of even minor role models and the Tel Aviv clique that tends to feed most of the media positions. Some frustrated Israeli Arabs have found work at Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, or for foreign networks here. With a goal of "increasing Arab representation outside the frame of this threat," Agenda has been taking Jewish media personalities to Arab towns to get to know the subject and the people better, while advising Arab groups how to get their messages on TV and radio. Livne believes Avoda Aravit, which she calls "a breakthrough, like a lone star in the sky" and says might do for Israeli Arabs what The Cosby Show did for American blacks, can help, but "it's not enough and it won't get the job done." However, she believes both Israeli and American Jews are realizing "that the gaps, the discrimination and the distancing between the Jewish and Arab population here is bad not only for the Arabs, but for all of us. What I tell Israeli journalists is: 'Look at the international media. Open your eyes. You turn on American or British channels and you see different colored faces. It's not just because they're politically correct - they are. And it's good to be ethical. But it's because a more professional media - one that does its job well - is one in which people come from different backgrounds and can provide different views of things." At the upcoming Eilat Journalism Conference, Agenda will reveal its statistics regarding the print media. While representatives were reluctant to reveal any figures ahead of that gathering, the numbers are not expected to be much better than the electronic media figures, even though the accent barrier shouldn't be a factor. Nonetheless, while a prime-time sitcom about Israeli Arabs and Agenda's efforts to boost their presence on TV may not change things overnight, Livne is confident a new day is dawning on our screens. "Look, it's not enough," she says, "but if you try to keep your finger on the pulse and do everything you can, together maybe something good will come of it for Israeli society."