On Monday, March 31, Vassar hosted award-winning author and journalist Sayed Kashua. Kashua, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was the guest lecturer for the Frederick C. Wood lecture series, a presentation by the Department of Religion and Program in Jewish Studies. The series is held in honor of senior lecturer in Religion Tova Weitzman.
Kashua is the author of several novels, including “Second Person Singular” and “Dancing Arabs”, and writes columns in Hebrew for Hagretz newspaper and a local Jerusalem weekly, Halr. Born in the Arab village of Tira and currently living in a Jewish area of Jerusalem, Kashua’s work focuses on capturing the life of Arabs living in Israel in a way that both educates and entertains his audiences.
Audience members were given the opportunity to watch the first episode of season two of the television sitcom created by Kashua, “Arab Labor.” The award-winning show uses comedy and satire to portray the life of Arab families in Israel. Taking place in Jerusalem, the story follows the work and family life of an Arab-Israeli man, Amjad.
“Arab Labor” broke ground as the first show in Israel to have Palestinian characters speaking in Arabic (with Hebrew subtitles) on primetime television. In addition to its wit and humor, the show brings to light the everyday difficulties faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel: for example, having a car checked by police every day on the way to work. The name of the show, “Arab Labor,” or Avoda Aravit in Hebrew, is a commonly-used slang term to describe work that was done badly.
In the episode shown at the lecture, Amjad wants to move his family to an all-Jewish neighborhood when he finds out that they have better water pressure than his all Arab village. The dramatic and amusing obsession with the showers in an all-Jewish apartment building provides an entertaining backdrop for talking about discrimination against Arabs and Arab villages in Israel and the importance of identity and culture.
“As a history major currently studying the Palestine-Israel conflict, viewing it through a comedic lens was definitely new for me,” said student Brielle Brook ’16.
Brooke continued, “‘Arab Labor’ provided an accessible platform to see how regular people cope with the issues prevailing in the region. It’s not often that we get to see how these issues are affecting life on a smaller scale, like familial dynamics. I really appreciated that.”
The show has the same effect on the viewers in Israel. Arab newspapers greatly attacked the show and Kashua when it was first announced, but once it aired, the views about it quickly changed. Kashua is pleased that Arab people now have a firmer stage in Israeli television. In fact, despite cultural divides and stigmas, fans of the show are rooting for the touch-and-go relationship of Jewish-Israeli Meir and Arab-Israeli Amal to succeed.
In many ways, Sayed’s life parallels the life of main character Amjad. Brought up in the Arab village Tira, Kashua originally moved with his wife and children to Beit Safafa (also an Arab village) before moving to a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. The move was a difficult decision for Sayed, who questioned how his three children might come to understand their identity as Palestinians.
His two older children attended bilingual schools, where both Arabic and Hebrew were spoken. However, his youngest son began school after the move and attends a Jewish school where only Hebrew is spoken. Kashua jokes that he worries what his son will do “when he finds out he’s an Arab,” but the importance and difficulty of maintaining identity remains a constant theme in “Arab Labor” and in the lives of many Palestinians living in Israel.
Kashua emphasizes that culture and ethnicity are only one part of the many divides between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis. He laments that while he and his family are technically citizens, their ethnicity frequently impedes them from receiving the benefits that being a citizen should grant them. According to Kashua, the Arab villages have little structure, are overpopulated, and are frequently neglected by municipalities.
Kashua stated that he believes that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be thankful for the benefits they have (such as health care) compared to Arabs in many Middle Eastern countries, but that Israel needs to start making changes to prevent severe clashes between citizens. For this reason, he isn’t opposed to the recent boycotting of Israel. Because he is desperate for peace, he believes any form of pressure on the government is good.
“We are paying the tax of the war all the time,” said Kashua. “This is the only citizenship that I have…I criticize Israel because I want to make it a better country.”
Kashua paints a picture of Arab life in Israel that isn’t always talked about in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is very much a mixed society, and Arabs make up about 20% of Israel. Being able to understand what life is like for families and for neighborhoods is extremely important in coming to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.