Meet Sayed Kashua, Israel's most popular writer, comedian, critic -- and Arab.
TEL AVIV, Israel — It’s very hard to tell when Sayed Kashua is being serious.
For a hard-drinking comedian, Kashua is still baby-faced at 37, but the bags under his eyes and the nervous flicks of his cigarette show signs of wear. He fidgets a lot and sometimes ends his sentences by mumbling. His strait-laced demeanor is a bit surprising — after all, Kashua has made a career skewering every element of Israeli society, from the secular to the Orthodox Jews to his fellow Arab Israeli brethren, who must bear the tensions inherent in their Palestinian identity and Israeli passport.
A journalist and novelist, Kashua is also the visionary behind Avoda Aravit (Arab Labor), a sitcom on Israel’s Channel 2 that has enjoyed three strong seasons and is in post-production on its fourth. The show, one of the five most successful comedies in Israeli television history, follows the stumbles of a hapless Arab Israeli journalist named Amjad as he contends with married life, fatherhood, and his intense need for the acceptance of Israeli society.
Amjad embodies an exaggerated version of Kashua’s own troubled identity. In Israel, a nation plagued by xenophobia and casual racism, Kashua is the quintessential good Arab, the Arab who passes, who dares not to offend.
"I like to deal with the characters that I know best," says Kashua. Without even pausing for a beat, he adds, "I’m totally in love with myself."
We are sitting in his smoky studio office in the small Jewish village of Neve Ilan, just outside Jerusalem and a stone’s throw from Abu Ghosh, the Arab Israeli town famous for its hummus. Kashua has missed the deadline on his weekly column for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and he is agitated. He has only recently returned from a whirlwind three-week book tour in the United States and Canada for his latest novel, Second Person Singular, about two very different Arab Israelis who are both desperate to escape their outsider status.
Now he is knee-deep in editing work for Avoda Aravit‘s fourth season, and the expectations have never been higher.
"Sayed wouldn’t accept my saying it, but I think that the series made a great change in Israel society," says Shai Capon, director of Avoda Aravit and one of Kashua’s closest confidants and drinking buddies. "It’s the first time that you see an Arab as a vulnerable human on Israeli television. Not as a terrorist and not as a victim. It took the first fear out of the title ‘Arab,’ and the audience, the Jews, could see … someone who just wants to be loved."
Aside from reality fare, Avoda Aravit is the only show on Israeli TV featuring Arab characters, and it’s certainly the only one with a majority of its dialogue in Arabic. The Israeli media group Keshet admitted that it was taking a major gamble when it decided to run with the show in 2007, and in the show’s early days, Keshet braced for backlash.
When the show first aired, there were grumblings in Israel’s Arab media — Kashua was accused of indecency, stereotyping, or even treason toward his people. But Israeli Jews, whom Keshet feared would be in an uproar, for the most part just laughed and tuned in.
"Imagine Chris Morris, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron-Cohen let loose together on the region’s most open wounds, and you will begin to grasp the equal-opportunity chutzpah of Kashua’s comedy," reviewer Boyd Tonkin recently wrote in the Independent.
The show was commissioned to do a second season and then a third, when it really took off. Viewership in the third season jumped 40 percent over the previous run. Seventy-two percent of Jewish Israeli households tuned in at least once, and according to Keshet, Avoda Aravit‘s average share of viewers in its time slot was 40 percent. At the annual Israeli Academy of Film and Television awards in January, its third season picked up five trophies: best comedy, best lead actor in a comedy, best lead actress in a comedy, best director, and best screenplay. Kashua quipped at the fete, "We get about 20 percent of the prizes, just like our percentage of the population."
He was referring, of course, to the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who define themselves as Palestinian. The vast majority of this community lives in Israel’s Galilee region and in an area known as the Triangle, a swath of clustered towns and villages in the eastern Plain of Sharon, straddling the Green Line that separates Israel proper from the Palestinian territories.
It was here, in the Triangle city of Tira, that Kashua grew up. In 1990, when Kashua was 15, he was accepted into the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA), a Jerusalem boarding school for highly gifted teens. Pushed by his parents, he left the Triangle and plunged into the heart of Jewish Israeli society, creating the existential paradox that confounds him to this day. He realized quickly that his very presence aroused suspicion.
"I hated the city as soon as I entered it." Kashua wrote of moving to Jerusalem. "On my first bus ride, a soldier got on and immediately pegged me as an Arab: a boy leaving his village for the first time, with an Arab’s clothes, an Arab’s thin moustache, and most tellingly, the frightened look of an Arab. That was the first time I was taken off the bus and searched. It took me a while to blur my external identity."
At IASA, Kashua says, he learned how to look and act Israeli. He was immersed in Hebrew, as well as all the cultural ramifications that came with it. Since then, he has undeniably become the most prominent Arab writer in Israel — and has done so by writing only in Hebrew.
In his weekly Haaretz column, he writes with an equal mix of satire and sobriety about raising his children, negotiating fame, and dealing with his own harrowing inferiority complex. In one dispatch, he toys with the idea of running for the Knesset, so on election day he practices by dressing in a suit and kissing babies. In an entry from Montreal, written just before wrapping up his recent book tour, he reflects on both his critics and fans: "Everyone wanted to talk about identity, about nationality and foreignness, about detachment, self-determination. They wanted to hear about language, about humor and fears, and the future. And I drank a lot and thought about myself, and this thing called a Palestinian citizen of Israel." In another column, he describes the sting of a Jewish mattress salesman who overenunciates because he thinks the Kashuas must speak poor Hebrew. (They buy the mattress anyway, unable to resist a good discount.)
Like virtually all Arab Israelis, Kashua speaks fluent Hebrew. He is set apart, however, by the fact that he also makes his living off the language, more by compulsion than by choice. "My Hebrew is much better than my Arabic because I haven’t really practiced Arabic since I was 15," Kashua says. "But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t also say that I always wanted to be part of the strong people in Israel. So it was the only way."
Kashua’s connection to Jewish Israel, however, runs deeper than just language. He lives
with his family in a Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem, having moved from the Arab East Jerusalem enclave of Beit Safafa a few years ago. He and his wife, an Arab Israeli social worker, send their three children to Jewish or mixed Jewish-Arab schools, where much of the educating is done in Hebrew.
"In a way, Sayed has the weight of the entire Palestinian nation on his shoulders," says Capon, the director of Avoda Aravit. "When an Arab writes the first Arab series on Israeli television, a lot of people look at him and ask why he is doing it a certain way. I think the pressure on him is greater than on anyone else. It’s easy to make satire when you’re comfortable in your chair. It’s harder when you are in the bloody Middle East, and you are an Arab."
Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that Kashua’s own existential quandaries are given new life in Avoda Aravit‘s central character, Amjad, who struggles to be completely accepted in Israeli Jewish society. Episodes in the third season saw Amjad go on Israeli Big Brother and pretend (perhaps too convincingly) to be an Israeli Jew; create a liberal, free-thinking imaginary sister so he could prove his feminist chops; and, noting that there are no Arab vegetarians, decide to forgo meat so he could become "civilized."
The show’s finale, however, takes a more serious turn. An air raid siren sounds in the middle of the night and sends all the occupants of Amjad’s Jerusalem apartment building — including the elderly Yoske and Yocheved and the newlywed Arab-Jewish couple Amal and Meir — scrambling into the bomb shelter. It is there that the neighbors, trapped behind a steel door and with no cell-phone reception or clue as to what horrors are unfolding outside, make their true feelings known about each other.
"We really should have let them have it," one of the neighbors says to another, while Amal, Meir, Amjad, his wife Bushra, and their children watch from the other side of the shelter.
Amjad, aching from being left out, says to the group, "Besides the fact that there’s a war outside, there’s something about this togetherness, right?" They stare at him in silence. Finally, Natan, a man who outside the bomb shelter’s walls is Amjad’s good friend, snaps, "Say, Amjad, why are you attacking Jerusalem?"
Tensions continue to build until a full-on political debate has broken out in the safe room. Someone finds a bottle of vodka and suggests a diverting game of truth or dare. But the Jews in the room keep returning to the issue of loyalty: You live here, but whose side are you really on?
Maybe it was the Iranians this time, Amjad implores, reminding the group that those enemies of Israel are, in fact, not Arab. "Maybe this time," he says with a twinge of optimism, "we’re in it together."
Soon the bottle lands on Amjad, and it is his turn to tell the truth. Yoske asks him where he would choose to live if he had the choice between Israel and any Arab country. The camera frames him squarely, and at last, after three long seasons, Amjad is actually not trying to be something other than himself. The safe room, suddenly, has taken on a new meaning.
If it meant avoiding the sentence of a lifetime on society’s fringe, Amjad tells Yoske, then yes, he would choose to have been born elsewhere. Yes, he tells them, in an uncharacteristically sober scene, even if "elsewhere" meant living under the tyranny of Egypt or Syria.
Kashua, when asked whether he sympathizes with his alter ego’s wish, hesitates. "It would be very difficult," he says, "because I know another reality. I have freedom of speech." But if it meant knowing his place in society and fitting snugly into the folds of a community, then yes, he says, "Sometimes I do think like [Amjad]."
But is he happy with his success?
"If success is ratings and good reviews, then yes, we are a success," Kashua says, toying with a cigarette. "But the problem is that we were planning on changing the world. You know, I wanted to bring peace to the Middle East."
He speaks with a poker face, a classic deadpan. Once again, it’s unclear whether he’s joking.