Consider how unlikely it is for Arab Labor (Hebrew language website) to be a hit on Israeli TV. In a nation that generally scorns Arabic, 70% of the dialogue is in that language with Hebrew subtitles. In a TV culture in which 2% of characters are Israeli Arabs, this show showcases them in virtually all the leading roles. The show lampoons Israeli racism toward Arabs, not usually a laughing matter in Israel’s prickly political environment (it also lampoons Israeli Arab attitudes as well to maintain a comedic balance). The idea for the show originated with its Orthodox Jewish producer who turned to an Israeli Arab writer and journalist, Sayed Kashua who writes in Hebrew for the leading Israeli liberal daily.
So how did it happen that this show struck a nerve? Perhaps Israeli society has advanced to the point where it can look at itself and see the warts while laughing at them. Perhaps it can now acknowledge that all is not well in ethnic relations between majority and minority. If this is so, then this bodes well for Israel. Of course, this could all be a fluke as many cultural phenomena are, and the show could flame out and end up having little lasting impact. But I’m betting that won’t be the case.The title, Avoda Aravit, refers, as Isabel Kershner notes in her excellent NY Times article, to the slang term meaning “inferior workmanship.” It establishes the sly ironic tone of the entire show. No one’s ox is spared. Arab Labor is to Israeli society what All in the Family was to 1970s America. It holds up a mirror to both sides of the ethnic divide and finds both wanting. But it does so in a way that allows both sides to see the humanity of the other. In this day and age of hatred and bloodshed, there is a lot to be said for such an approach:
Welcome to Mr. Kashua’s world, which, like the series, “Avoda Aravit,” or Arab Labor, works on multiple, often paradoxical levels. The title is Hebrew slang for second-rate work, and the one that Mr. Kashua chose.
On one hand Mr. Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view — mostly expressed in colloquial Arabic — into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment. On the other, “Avoda Aravit” reflects a society still grappling with fundamental issues of identity and belonging in a Jewish state which, Mr. Kashua says, still largely relates to its Arab minority as “a fifth column or a demographic problem.”
“I wanted to bring likable Arabs into the average Israeli living room,” Mr. Kashua said.
A few days ago, I wrote about the stunning Israeli Arab actress and singer Mira Awad. It should be noted that she plays the daughter on the show and has a clip featured in the Al Jazeera video featured above.
Kashua has written two Hebrew novels, one of which, Dancing Arabs, I’ve featured here with an Amazon link.