Arts & Culture

Last Summer War, Next Summer Laughter

It's the year of Arab-Israeli comedy. Comics are the new rock stars and, in lieu of major stadium concerts for peace, we have stand-up, sitcom, and movie hilarity taking on the bitterest simmering geopolitical conflict of the past century (with … Read More

By / June 16, 2008

It's the year of Arab-Israeli comedy. Comics are the new rock stars and, in lieu of major stadium concerts for peace, we have stand-up, sitcom, and movie hilarity taking on the bitterest simmering geopolitical conflict of the past century (with India-Pakistan a close second). The Israeli Palestinian Comedy Tour is out again making the rounds, and Israel's Channel 2 just finished its first season of a sitcom about Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Avoda Aravit. Heading the list, however, in terms of both finances and audiences, is Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan: the first comedy about the Arab-Israeli conflict to get a major release since Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979.

People always ask whether it's too early to make a joke about recent disasters. It's the wrong question. Wars and terrorist events, in themselves, are never funny – 9/11 is not funny per se, now or ever. Yet, at a certain moment-say, the moment of Team America: World Police in the case of 9/11 – the event becomes susceptible to a certain type of comic analysis. You don't want to test the funny bone with a broken arm, but as with a physical trauma, surgery and other interventions are possible and necessary immediately, while rehab and detailed diagnostics of the wound must wait until a certain amount of healing has occurred.

The wound in the case of the Middle East is not borne of a single discrete trauma. You can point to the Declaration of Independence of Israel in 1948 as that moment, as many Palestinians do, but there are a number of other possible starting points. Some would start with Napoleon's 1798 arrival in Egypt from the first European nation state, others to the establishment of the British Mandate separating Palestine and Transjordan from the French Mandate of Syria. Abdelrahman Munif starts Cities of Salt with the arrival of the Americans looking for oil in the 1930s, and it seems to be taken as a given by most commentators that the contemporary era really begins in 1967, with Nasser and the Six Day War. The truth is that the complex of issues that are captured by the phrase "Israel/Palestine" have been created by ongoing racial, cultural, religious, social, ethnic and military conflicts that have served both to fix the general locus of the difficulty and to re-sensitize the affected populations in a continuous way.

None of this makes any simple sense for the citizens of the United States.

In the United States, power relations for the past century have generally been stable. The legacy of genocide and slavery has been relegated to a legal footnote and, with its geographical manifest destiny achieved, it's only Michael Moore who is questioning the border on the 49th parallel (and his yearning for the north is cultural, not expansionist). For a country in which (perhaps ironically for a former colony) the only real challenges to the seemingly natural centralized power of the state are a tug between states' and federal rights, the real, nuanced, and historically complex conflict happening in the Middle East is unfathomable. Americans wonder why these Middle Easterners can't, their admitted religious and political differences notwithstanding, just make love, make money, and eat hummus in peace?

This is the underlying point of Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan if "point" is not too strong a word. Zohan makes a lot of love, including to his obligatory beautiful Arab wife; he ends up with his own successful store; and there is more hummus in the film than sperm in a porn movie (an instructive parallel for your second viewing of the film). Zohan's American dream is to reverse the macho Zionist transformation of the effete European scholar Jews into laborer soldiers of the thorny Holy Land. Zohan wants to escape his superhero counter-terrorist Israeli persona to come to America and make hair "silky smooth." The number of times he gets called a "feigele" (Yiddish for "homo") for admitting this dream is exactly equal to the number of Jews he tells about it. Only at the end, with his financial and personal success, do his parents accept Zohan.

There's a joke about God failing to get tenure at an Israeli university that sheds some light on the nature of Israeli insecurity. According to the joke, the committee expressed threefold reservations: He only wrote one book, it was in Hebrew, and some people claim that He didn't even write it Himself. Sandler turns that inferiority complex around into a specifically American superiority complex and says "your superhero is good enough to be our superhairdresser." The American's burden is to relieve immigrants of their historical and tribal baggage and transform their faith into belief in consumer culture. Until then, like the native Africans in the eyes of nineteenth century Europeans, you deserve what you get.

Despite certain nods at outrage the film is quintessentially conservative. The plot of the film buys into the "we're all the same" philosophy so clearly that Zohan's arch nemesis, Phantom (John Turturro) has an exactly parallel dream to Zohan's – of opening a shoe shop. And on the level of casting, the color blindness is so strong that Emmanuel Chriqui and Rob Schneider – both Jews – play the two key Arab roles (Dalia and Salim) that aren't played by the Italian American John Turturro. Jokes about homosexuality not being set aside, Zohan establishes his hetero-masculinity through his counter-terrorist exploits and through his flaunted and vaunted sexual prowess. His maturation process is shown by how he replaces the childish craziness of the Middle East with the sanity of the United States (New York serving as cipher for "diverse nation") and his adolescent promiscuity with monogamous marriage. We end up with the bourgeois, monogamous, hetero businessman, the hero of every American dream.

The real conflict in New York is not between Arabs and Israelis but between the rich white Walbridge who wants to knock down the neighborhood and build a mall, and the working middle-class towelhead/kyke coalition of hummus-eating swarthies who currently occupy the real estate. Through a narrative deus ex machina, the coalition is in the end able to appropriate Walbridge's plan but without his ownership – they build their own mall where each can live out his own flavor of the bland American dream. Malls are good, religious and racial difference is illusory or superficial, blanket bigotry is the province of Midwestern white men, and heterosexuality and monogamous marriage are natural parts of growing up.

People born in Israel are known as "sabras." A "sabra" (Heb "tzabar") is literally a cactus, prickly on the outside but sweet and soft in the middle. If the plant didn't live in the desert, logic might follow that it wouldn't need its prickly exterior and it would just be a soft and sweet plant. But then it wouldn't be a sabra. The same is true for the relocated Arab/Israeli conflict. Arabs and Israelis and Jews and Muslims may be able to get on with each other in the United States, and they may even be able to have an effect on the situation in the Middle East, but the model of downtown New York (as seen from Hollywood, California) does not begin to encompass the facts on the ground in the Middle East.

Despite a couple of dialogues between Arabs and Israelis that gesture to complexity – Zohan and the terrorists mention valid disagreements while he is kicking their asses, and the street coalition pays lip service to the difficulties of tolerant co-acculturation when they are provoked by Walbridge's hired thugs – neither Zohan nor its direct antecedent, West Bank Story, escape the blindness or perhaps tone-deafness of California to what is going on in the Middle East. But perhaps it doesn't matter. Zohan (and Adam Sandler) have made a comedic contribution by simply opening the door to more analytic comedies about the conflict.

One such analytic comedy is Avoda Aravit, currently between series on Israel's Channel 2. Written by the comic novelist Sayed Kashua – an Israeli Arab – it is, in format, a fairly traditional family sitcom whose premise, that Israeli Arabs and Jews are constantly interacting, competing, and working with one another, is radical in its simplicity. Kashua has come in for a lot of flak from Arabs for his work as a "collaborator" with the Jewish television station, but that is to be expected when someone works from deep within the conflicted nexus of Israeli and Arab society. More importantly, the show has met with popular success – albeit mostly in Jewish households.

Literally meaning "Arab Labor" the Hebrew phrase "Avoda Aravit" has come to mean "shoddy work" and the multiple meanings of the title include Kashua's desire to reclaim the term from ethnic derogation to an ironic allusion to the daily social, personal, and economic entanglements of Arab/Israeli life. The Jews and the Arabs in the program are all very human and all slightly crazy – nothing they do happens in a vacuum and the context is almost never mono-ethnic. When a tree falls in the wood of Avoda Aravit, it is surrounded by multiple representatives of the major two ethnicities arguing about exactly what damage was done, and whose fault it was that it fell. 

By the end of the first series, the heart of the drama of cohabitation is situated in an Arab-Israeli romance. Amal (Mira Awad), a U.S.-educated feminist lawyer has moved in with Meir (Mariano Idelman), a photographer, but she moves out again because he refuses to tell his mother – "It will kill her!" For the Independence Day / Nakba special Kashua borrows Rushdie's trope of babies born at midnight to symbolize the pressures facing the different communities within the state. The Arab Alayan family (featuring Amjad (Norman Issa)) as a comically Judeophile father) who brought the lovers together are expecting a baby and they think they have a chance of winning a prize offered by a racist Russian-Israeli billionaire (not very loosely based on Ukrainian-Israeli billionaire Arkady Gaydamak) for the first baby born after midnight on Independence Day. At the door of the hospital they bump into a Jewish family also about to give birth and, in racing for the prize, hilarity ensue

Unlike Zohan, the comedy in Avoda Aravit is granular and analytic, taking apart the strands of a life lived and chuckling at the absurd paradoxes and myriad negotiations necessary to get through the day, the month, the year. In both literal and figurative ways different communities speak different languages, and, when they translate themselves into English, Hebrew, and Arabic, they do so with accents and errors. Ceremonies and customs – such as the Seder – are seen through the eyes of the knowingly blasé and the ignorantly excited.

Attitudes to food, names, and clothing are not a shared problem as in Zohan, but a cultural minefield: Amal ditches Meir at their first date because of what he serves and the way he defends it. He makes her a stereotypical Arab spread and she feels treated like a stereotype. Upset by his actions and inability to see his mistake she refers him explicitly to Edward Said's Orientalism – Said's famous critique of western disdain for Arab culture – and Meir asks "Is that a cookbook?" On social and cultural levels both sides fear, emulate and misunderstand the other, but here to comic rather than tragic effect. On a broader level the same political/historical cues (most notably Independence Day itself) also produce widely divergent emotional responses.

As I have written before there are a number of things that comedy can do in the face of prejudice. Avoda Aravit achieves three of the main four. It mitigates the problem by providing a humorous example, it shows how the general culture works, and it decirculates – makes certain words and phrases (like "avoda aravit" itself) unacceptable or useless. Kashua has come in for criticism from the Arab community because he took care to give Arabs as well as Jews equal opportunity to appear foolish. One sitcom is not going to make peace in the Middle East, but Avoda Aravit will make the accommodations and negotiations about daily life more human and more possible by mapping out some of that lived terrain and providing a vocabulary for talking about it.

In countless media offices throughout 2007, executives measured up the public's readiness for Arab/Israeli comedy. Both Zohan and Avoda Aravit indicate that the healing power of comedy is sorely needed – and not just in Israel. It's not too soon. If anything, it's too late.