Monday, February 7, 2011

Arab Labor: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Checkpoint

The cast of Arab Labor (Season 1).

Watching great foreign television is often a multilayered pleasure. It gives the viewer access to a whole new world of talent – writers, actors, and directors – and the stories and themes that other cultures choose to explore are often surprising in themselves. Television is too often a generic art form, and even its innovations sometimes seem to be confined to variations on familiar, well-trodden situations. Not only can the best of foreign television be refreshingly unique in its execution, but watching these shows can also reveal heretofore unknown or unobserved aspects of our own domestic television. Our most basic assumptions about character, plot, and human interaction (presuppositions that can function as a kind of storytelling shorthand, and therefore often pass without being perceived) can become visible, precisely in their absence, in these new programs. This is a fact that cinephiles have known for decades, which is why foreign language films are watched with such dedication and enthusiasm by movie lovers. But foreign television – especially foreign language television – has never been as accessible as foreign film. While cinephiles have long been able to enjoy movies from all over the world, telephiles (why isn’t this word in the OED yet?) haven’t been quite so lucky.  

For decades, networks like PBS and the CBC have been bringing us the best of British television, but the TV powers-that-be rarely, if ever, broadcast non-English programs in North America. More often than not the North American TV viewer’s sole access to foreign television is indirect, by way of domestic adaptations of the original shows. I’m sure there are some well-intended reasons behind this practice: the very nature of TV storytelling, be it drama or comedy, often relies on cultural cues and references which can be obstacles to new audiences, even when language isn’t an issue. In the past month alone, US cable networks have launched three high profile remakes of British series, all of which are still in production in the UK: Being Human, Shameless, and Skins. And, as touch-and-go as remakes notoriously are, that is not to say that US networks haven’t had some stunning successes in the past: often as much can be gained as is lost in translation. Still, for every All in the Family (based on the BBC’s working-class comedy, Till Death Us Do Part) and The Office, there are tone-deaf failures like NBC’s Coupling and ABC’s recent Life on Mars. An avid TV viewer has more than enough reason to approach these new efforts with some caution. But if you want to watch original non-English TV, even in our current 200-channel universe, you’ve got to program them for yourself. Fortunately for us, each of us individually has access to more television than ever before, and even if the shows aren’t airing with any regularity, Internet streaming (from services like Netflix and from international websites) and DVDs from Amazon can more than make up for it. Today I want to talk about Arab Labor, a series running on Israeli television which recently completed its second season.

Norman Issa and Salim Dau in Arab Labor.
Israeli TV has been generating a lot of attention lately. HBO’s popular and critical success In Treatment was very closely based on the innovative Israeli series BeTipul (literally “In Treatment” in Hebrew). And premiering tomorrow night is FOX’s relationship comedy, Traffic Light, based on the Israeli sitcom Ramzor (“Traffic Light”), which won an International Emmy for Best Comedy Series this past November in New York. The adaptability of some shows notwithstanding, the main reason I want to speak about Arab Labor (which has generated international attention in its own right) is precisely because of the sheer untranslatability of the series. Notably, Arab Labor is the first show to depict Palestinian characters speaking colloquial Arabic on primetime Israeli television. The linguistic nuances of the every episode are impossible to imagine in any North American series: characters slip in from Arabic to Hebrew and back again, often within a single sentence, subtly denoting small cultural and political cues. If ever there were an object lesson in the inherent value of watching foreign television on its own terms, Arab Labor is it.

Arab Labor (Avoda Aravit, an ironic invocation of a Hebrew idiom that colloquially refers to “shoddy or second-rate work”) first aired back in 2007, but its much anticipated second season didn’t air until the summer of 2010, more than two years since the end of its first season. The show was created by Sayed Kashua, a 32-year-old Israeli-born Palestinian journalist and novelist (Let It Be Morning) who writes for the Hebrew daily Haaretz. The satirical and semi-autobiographical sitcom deftly and hilariously explores the daily trials of Amjad Alian (Norman Issa, The Syrian Bride), an Arab-Israeli journalist working for a Hebrew language magazine in contemporary Israel. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, and the writing skillfully walks that fine line between the dark absurdity of its situations and the humanity of its characters. Salim Dau, who plays Amjad’s perennially scheming father, steals practically every scene he is in. Itinerant gambler, amateur conman, and loving grandfather, Dau calls fondly to mind a Palestinian Alan Arkin, circa Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Mariano Idelman and Issa on the set of Arab Labor.
Issa’s Amjad is the show’s Everyman: doing his clumsy best to create a good life for his family, all the while struggling to fit into mainstream Israeli (i.e. Jewish) society. Amjad stands nervously on that line between the cynical nationalism of his father’s generation and the optimistic ambitions of an upwardly mobile professional. Not fully at home (or completely welcome) in either world, he is consistently and unwittingly the source of his own undoing. Enabling and often instigating Amjad’s persistent identity crises is his Jewish best friend and co-worker, Meir (Mariano Idelman), whose relative position of self-assurance has made him into an unthinking but big-hearted narcissist, providing a kind of ironic balance to Amjad’s neurotic naïveté. (One episode has Meir mistakenly believing he’s been taken hostage by an Arab cabdriver, who himself simply believes Meir needs a detour for an impromptu bathroom break.) At the forefront of every story are complicated issues of identity and everyday politics, both of the national and the familial variety.  Kashua, who wrote every episode of both seasons, draws fearlessly on his life and professional experience, inviting all viewers – from all backgrounds – to laugh at and with his characters. With its satirical treatment of normally delicate issues like religion and discrimination, Arab Labor has generated mixed reactions in Israel, especially from its Arab population. Admittedly it often paints broad stereotypes of both Arab and Jewish Israelis, but in doing so it succeeds in calling out many of the unthinking presuppositions and prejudices that trouble all levels of Israeli society.  Playing heretically with dominant preconceptions held by Israeli Jews about Israeli Arabs– for example, that all are either terrorists, thieves, or day labourers – Arab Labor is often reminiscent of the best of the ethnic sitcoms of 1970s television, but with a contemporary TV sensibility: think of it as All in the Family meets Curb Your Enthusiasm, set in modern day Jerusalem.

At the heart of each episode are the daily and eminently practical frustrations of second-class citizenship in a first-world nation, e.g. poor road conditions, low water pressure, infrequent garbage pick-up. An early episode in the first season turns on the efforts of Amjad and his wife Bushra (Clara Khoury) to find a good kindergarten for their daughter. It is a plotline that would be comfortable in any family sitcom, from Everybody Loves Raymond to Modern Family. But here, alongside the expected comic tensions coming from the divergent expectations of a husband and wife, Arab Labor also shows our couple negotiating a dazzling minefield of race, politics, religion, and culture unique to the complex social landscape of contemporary Israel.

Clara Khoury and Norman Issa as Bushra and Amjad
There are scenes in Arab Labor which could compete with the most exquisitely painful scenes from the best of the cringe comedy genre, from HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm, to BBC’s The Office. But Kashua’s show has one thing the other shows don’t have: Arab Labor is about something. Sure, like most cringe comedy, it splendidly depicts the personal risks of neurotic insecurity and misplaced pride, and the hazards of persistently placing your self-worth in the hands of others. But unlike the worlds of Garry Shandling, Ricky Gervais, and Larry David, Kashua’s world is the site of real inequality, daily injustices, and a cynical worldview born of tragedy. Nevertheless, Arab Labor does not pretend to resolve or even represent the current situation in Israel. Amjad is just a man who wants to be a good father and husband, trying his best to raise the quality of life of his family, but he finds himself regularly tripping over this same politics, which always come to interrupt and complicate his sincere, if awkward, efforts. What the show reveals are not objective truths, but experiential ones. This is not a TV series about politics – it is about a life lived in a world of where politics and history are inescapable facts.

This is a show that even viewers largely unfamiliar with the details and complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict should watch. Social worth notwithstanding, Arab Labor is invariably entertaining: at times shocking, often poignant, and always hilarious. It is, by any standard, simply great television.

The first season of Arab Labor (Avoda Aravit) is available on DVD, in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. For our US readers, Link TV (a US-based satellite network) is currently streaming several episodes from the second season.

A clip from the first episode of Arab Labor:

– Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. On Monday February 28th at 7pm, Mark is speaking at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto on The Wire: Tales of a Broken City.


  1. Nice post -- makes me want to watch this now!

  2. Well said. Fabulous review for a fabulous show.