Israeli-Palestinian author and journalist Sayed Kashua visited campus on Thursday evening to discuss the personal challenges of bringing Arabic-speaking Palestinian characters to Israeli primetime television for the first time.
A crowd of 94 people gathered in Luce Hall for the event, which started with a screening of the first episode of season two of “Arab Labor,” a breakthrough Israeli sitcom television series written and created by Kashua. The sitcom’s characters speak in Arabic and Hebrew.
According to event organizer Shiri Goren, director of Yale’s Hebrew program, Kashua’s visit was initiated and organized by the Hebrew and Arabic programs at Yale.
“Given the current hostile atmosphere on campuses around the nation between advocates of the different sides of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it is very uncommon to have such events jointly hosted by the programs of Hebrew and Arabic,” Goren said. “It’s even more uncommon to see students of these languages come together in a series of academic events.”
At the screening, Goren introduced the episode — which is called “The Shower” and takes a humorous approach to exploring the issue that Arabs do not have equal access to running water in Israeli society — by emphasizing the thematic overlap between Kashua’s life and his creative body of work, namely Kashua’s movement between Arab and Jewish, and now Israeli and American cultures.
The comedy in “The Shower” is undeniably entertaining. Throughout the screening, the audience burst into laughter, chuckled quietly or snorted in disgust. The screening was an interactive experience, and a community-building exercise amongst complete strangers.
When the screening was over, the audience murmured in anticipation as Kashua made his way to the front of the room and casually leaned back against a table. He proceeded to launch into a long meditation on his time working on “Arab Labor” and why he couldn’t continue working on the project.
“I wrote ‘Arab Labor’ in a naive period of my life,” Kashua said. “Humor is the weapon of the weak? I wanted to subvert that through popular media.”
At that point in his life, Kashua still subscribed to the saying, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh.” He thought he could bring the politics of Arab discrimination into Israeli living rooms, as long as he was “soft and easy,” with “lots of humor.”
“My first goal was to bring an Arab family to primetime television in Israel,” Kashua said. “It is very clear that Israeli TV is against [Arabs].”
With “Arab Labor,” Kashua really believed he could humanize Arabs and their painful process of assimilation into a largely Hebrew-speaking, Jewish society.
Once the show aired, Kashua constantly questioned whether Jewish people were laughing with him or at him.
“I was shocked when I realized I was using humor as a shield,” Kashua said. “It was a way of telling the police ‘hey don’t shoot me — I can tell you a joke.’”
Kashua said it became impossible for him to continue with the comedy when Arabs clearly didn’t have the social or political power in Israel to support what he was addressing on popular television.
Cam Aaron ’21 said her first-year advisor encouraged her to attend the screening.
“I thought the show was really funny,” Aaron said. “It broached the ideas of discrimination very well, in a way that I’ve seen a lot of shows about Black people mediate discrimination in America.”
Additionally, a young woman in the audience thanked Kashua because she had used the show as a tool to talk about the Palestinian conflict when she taught at a Jewish school in Israel. Initially frustrated by her students’ participation during her admittedly “dry” history lectures, she said her students changed their tune when she began to play clips from his show.
In addition to the formal talk Kashua gave on Thursday, Goren also organized a more intimate conversation with him on Friday at 10 a.m. for Arabic and Hebrew students. That conversation drew about 40 attendees, and was conducted in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Bianka Ukleja | firstname.lastname@example.org