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Inside and outside Israel

By Paul Adams
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Sayed Kashua in Beit Safafa
Kashua's show is popular with Israelis but has been criticised by fellow Arabs
Spend a day with Sayed Kashua and the complex, uncomfortable status of Israel's Arab population comes crackling to life.

"I'm an Arab, a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen," he says, deliberately resisting a single definition.

In Kashua's hands, the predicament of Arabs living in the Jewish state is the stuff of rich, mordant comedy, with a prime-time slot on Israeli TV. But the humour of this 32-year-old writer is fuelled by deep uncertainty about the future.

In Beit Safafa, an Arab village marooned in Jewish Jerusalem, I join him as he takes his feisty daughter to one of only three schools in the country where students are taught in Hebrew and Arabic.

Kashua admits his belief in this unusual model of coexistence may be naive.

"I'm sometimes scared that my daughter thinks that this is real life," he tells me. "But actually, no, she's not equal and she's still an Arab in a Jewish country."

Uncertain welcome

It's the inequalities, and the absurdities of this existence that Kashua has chosen to depict on TV.

Avoda Aravit, or Arab Labour (Hebrew slang for a botched job), depicts a hapless Israeli-Arab journalist, Amjad, going to sometimes absurd lengths to gain acceptance in Israel.

Grab from Avoda Aravit
Bushra and Amjad's story is meant to reflect struggles of everyday life
"He's trying to do all his best to feel welcomed in Israeli society," he says of his anti-hero, "and he fails all the time."

We drive to Tel Aviv, where the final touches are being put to a special show to coincide with Israel's 60th anniversary. In it, Amjad's wife, Bushra, gives birth to a child just after midnight on Independence Day, thus qualifying for a million-shekel reward from a Russian-Israeli tycoon.

Horrified, the tycoon changes the rules, declaring that the child must be called Israel to qualify. Amjad's first instinct is to agree, while his grasping father is prepared to go even further and name the baby after the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl.

Sayed Kashua takes inspiration from what he sees around him. In a move that sounds like an episode from the show, villagers in one Israeli-Arab town in the Galilee recently painted the dome of their mosque in Israel's blue and white national colours.

Daily problems

Israeli Arabs, descendants of those Palestinians who did not leave their homes or were not driven from them when Israel came into being in 1948, now make up more than 20% of the population. Some have found success, in business and even in politics.

But Arab unemployment levels are much higher than the national average and even for those who succeed, there is the feeling that Israel, founded by and for Jews on the land once called Palestine, is not for them.

Sayed Kashua with his daughter
Everybody is so sure that the other just wants to kill him. Nobody is facing the real problems
Sayed Kashdua

Kashua's show, which lampoons Israeli attitudes almost as much as Amjad's foibles, is popular with Jewish viewers, but Kashua has been criticised by fellow Arabs for allegedly pandering to popular stereotypes.

It's a charge Kashua rejects, even though he understands where it comes from. He says he simply wants to show Israelis "we're talking here about human beings that struggle with daily life problems like anyone else".

He says people are simply not asking the right questions.

"We don't have doubts," he says. "Everybody is so sure about the other. Everybody is so sure that the other just wants to kill him. Nobody is facing the real problems."

Painful recognition

Back in Beit Safafa - part of which lies in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and part in Israel's 1948 territory - Kashua shows the latest episode to a private gathering of well-to-do Arab professionals. Judging by the raucous laughter, it's a hit.

Afterwards, Shafiq Masalha, a clinical psychologist, says the laughter comes from a dark, confused place.

"The painful part of ourselves is being without identity," he says, "being without a clear sense of who we are."

And, with Israel's 60th birthday festivities just around the corner, Masalha says his five-year-old son is distressed.

"This morning, my little son... came home crying because he didn't have a flag."


This is the second in a series of articles by Paul Adams from around Israel and the Occupied Territories as Israel marks its 60th anniversary.

You can hear his radio reports from Israel on the World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 BST on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and he will host a special BBC Debate for Israel's 60th anniversary on BBC World Service Radio (bbcworldservice.com) on Saturday 10th May at 1800 GMT.




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