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Arab Sitcom Becomes Surprise Hit in Israel

Every week in Israel, thousands of Jewish families open up their homes to an Arab family. The latter are only fictional characters — from the hit Israeli sitcom Arab Work — but still, many say this is a critical marker in (pop culture) history.

Although Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel's population, aside from the news, they've rarely been featured on Israeli television screens. When the show finally got on the air, after several years of planning, few expected the concept to take off the way it has: During its premiere week in December, it was the third-ranked program in Israel, and in the following weeks it has consistently remained in the top 10, according to ratings figures from Keshet, the show's production company.

The show focuses on an insecure journalist named Amjad, who lives with his wife and 5-year-old daughter and works for an Israeli newspaper.

The show's main writer, Israeli-Palestinian Sayed Kashua, 32, says the series is loosely autobiographical.

"It's just a comedy of being on one side Palestinian or Arab and on the other side an Israeli. Already this definition is comic and tragic at the same time and that's what I tried to do," he says.

The show frequently plays with the struggle to fit in. In one episode, Amjad decides it's time for his daughter Maya to go to kindergarten, instead of playing poker with his parents all day. He first tries an Islamic school where his daughter dons a headscarf, learns the Quran and tells her father he will be punished for being a nonbeliever. Maya tells her mother she's only pretending to be religious so she can go back to playing poker.

In another episode, Amjad proposes a hard-hitting piece on the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank. His editor says no and demands something hipper and lighter, so Amjad finds a sheep that's been trained to pull its owner's ID card out of his pocket at Israeli army checkpoints. Sheep prove difficult to interview, but his story makes the front page.

Although Israeli Jews and Arabs live in the same country, Jews know very little about how their neighbors live, says producer Dani Paran.

Israeli Arabs have long complained of institutionalized discrimination. In a 2006 poll released by the Center for Struggle Against Racism, three-quarters of Israeli Jews said they wouldn't want to live next door to an Arab family.

The fact that these same people are choosing to watch a show saturated with Arab food, music, cultural quandaries and language (about two-thirds of each episode is in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles), is significant, the show's creators say.

Some Israeli reviewers have compared it to The Cosby Show. Like the Huxtables, Amjad and his family are credited with facilitating cultural understanding, but they are also accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes.

"It shows us as primitive and like we want to become more Israeli than Arab," says Shadi Halileeli of the Musawa Center, which advocates equality between Jews and Arabs.

Halileeli says most of his friends opt not to watch the show, preferring satellite channels from Arab countries, where they are more than a novelty.

Novelty or not, many Israeli Jews say they are learning something.

"This is the first time that Israelis can see what Arabs think of themselves. It's done in a humorous way, but if you look through, the humor has a lot of sadness in it," says Jerusalem lawyer Jonathan Livny.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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