Guess Who

Arab? Jew? Mizrahi? Palestinian? Two young and promising artists are set to delve right into the center of all this identity mess with an intriguing new project.

Hilal Jabareen (left) and and Ohad Hadad (photo credit: OMER KAHALON)
Hilal Jabareen (left) and and Ohad Hadad
(photo credit: OMER KAHALON)
Have you ever found yourself wondering what you started, whether things may have gotten a little out of hand? Ohad Hadad says he fully identifies with that sensation of surprise, but he is not at all unhappy about it. What started out as a college assignment appears to have bloomed into a full-scale online entity.
Two years ago Hadad was a final-year student in the visual communications department of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, as was Hilal Jabareen. The two had known each other for a while and, during the course of their degree studies, become fast friends. That then-28-year-old Hadad has Yemenite roots and hails from Ashkelon, while Jabareen, then 25, is a Muslim from Haifa whose family has lived in these parts for several generations, did not bother either of them. In fact, it brought them together.
“I am the immigrant,” says Hadad with a chuckle. “Hilal has deeper roots than me here.” That sort of observation, presumably, may ruffle some feathers in various parts of the Israeli political spectrum.
I met Hadad to discuss a neat little Headstart project he and Jabareen have running at the moment. They are looking to raise funds to share the fruits of their fourth-year student labors with as many members of the general public as possible. The final project they conceived comes in the form of a deftly designed book by the name of Aravi Ma’aravi – Western Arab – and they are looking to publish it as a bona fide tome.
They were initially looking to raise NIS 20,000 so that they could print 120 copies of the book and, in fact, made that target within one week.
The book includes dozens of color photographs with a modicum of text, although, as Hadad keenly points out, Aravi Ma’aravi is not just a picture book.
“The words are very important,” he says. “A lot of thought went into that.”
One of the first literary excerpts plainly conveys that sentiment. The paragraph sets out the creators’ stall and describes the twosome as “two Israeli designers; one Jewish, one Muslim, both of Arab ancestry.” They term their project as “a conversation: without manners, etiquette, without being politically correct.”
That sets the tone for the whole exercise, which clearly follows a tongue-incheek ethos, although the bottom-line message should not be mistaken for anything but serious. The two then-students conjured up a wide array of settings in which to strike up various poses and adopt all kinds of mannerisms, don various costumes and incorporate different sorts of props – often of a distinctly wacky nature – in imparting their feelings and thoughts about how we might all go about our interpersonal, cross-ethnic business in this part of the world.
Then again, Hadad intimates that he and Jabareen were not looking to lay down the law to anyone, and that the content of Aravi Ma’aravi is designed solely to present their take on things – naturally, in the hope that as many people as possible would at least empathize with their human-political stance.
And while he would like Arab-Jewish matters to proceed on a more even keel here, the Ashkelon-raised designer is aware that he, too, also falls short on several counts.
“I don’t speak Arabic,” he admits when I ask why all the texts in the book are in Hebrew. “We speak in Hebrew, everything at Bezalel happens in Hebrew. I thought about studying Arabic, but it began and ended with that.”
That is a shame, especially considering Hadad hails from the right ethnographic roots.
“When I hear Arabic, I feel I know the language,” he notes. “It’s in the blood, in the history. And at home, my parents know Arabic, although it’s Yemenite Hebrew. But my parents never speak Arabic.
When my grandparents spoke to them in Yemenite Arabic, they would answer in Hebrew.”
Hadad believes, paradoxically, that linguistic abstention paved the way for a new sociocultural approach, in which people of all ethnic backdrops can relate to one another on a better-balanced footing. “We, the members of the newer generation, have the right to choose. We received something new, without roots.”
As visual communications students, Hadad and Jabareen were conscious of the power of aesthetic presentation and the ability to relay their intent by employing universally recognizable symbols.
In several frames we see the protagonists munching on some snack. “That’s Bamba,” says Hadad. “Everyone eats Bamba.”
Gold also makes frequent appearances.
In a couple of pictures both cover their faces with gold-colored fabric, which obscures their facial features and any hint of their ethnic origin. Mind you, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the Yemenite-rooted Jew from the Muslim anyway.
“I probably look more like an Arab than Hilal,” laughs Hadad.
When the project was evolving, Jabareen sported dreadlocks and an impressively proportioned beard, giving him the appearance of a funky-looking Russian.
When you embark on an artistic venture with someone, it can help to have established personal common ground between the creators. That was certainly the case with the students.
“We’d known each other for nearly four years at that stage,” says Hadad, “and the project was a sort of summation of our friendship up to that point.”
It was an eye-opener for both.
“We sat down for coffee and we talked about all sorts of things we hadn’t dared bring up until then,” Hadad continues.
“Hilal was my first Arab friend. There aren’t any Arabs in Ashkelon. There are Russians, Ethiopians – a Jewish melting pot, but without Arabs. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was an Arab. He looks more like a Russian. When I discovered he was an Arab, I was delighted and excited. I had an Arab friend.”
Since Jabareen grew up in ethnically fused Haifa, presumably he had less of a mind-set divide to negotiate, although, as Hadad notes, Jabareen’s Jewish social integration largely tended toward the Ashkenazi sector.
“I was his first Sephardi friend,” Hadad laughs.
Serious intent notwithstanding, Aravi Ma’aravi makes for entertaining perusal.
The players appear in both Arab attire and Western dress, cocking a snook at the electoral process in this country – or possibly any electoral process – and even referencing the infamous Bus 300 incident in 1984, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed after they were captured alive. Sticking to the identity confusion theme of the book, Hadad and Jabareen take on the identities of different characters in the photo taken by Alex Levac at the time, and which caused a political storm, both here and abroad.
At the end of the day, Aravi Ma’aravi is a visually alluring, intriguing and fun work which, Hadad, says, is not meant to be taken as a finger-wagging exercise. As Hadad and Jabareen point out in the book, “I don’t represent anyone,” as they maintain the ethnic identity blur.
“I am not ‘Mizrahi’ [a Sephardi Jew], I am Arab,” reads one sentence near the beginning of the book. Presumably that comes from Hadad, although the quotes are intentionally not ascribed to one or the other. That is shortly followed by another thought-provoking observation, from Jabareen: “People tell me I don‘t look Arab. It’s unfortunate that I take that as a compliment.”
Other quotes are less easily credited.
Take, for example, “I always enter the Old City of Jerusalem through the Arab gates, because at the Jewish gates cops always search me.” Then there’s “I am not held up at the Israeli airport. I also pass security without problems at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. I don’t get checked; maybe just for drugs. Pisses me off. Sometimes I try to provoke them, giving hints by talking with an accent.”