Dancing at two weddings

In his film "Dancing Arabs", Israeli director Eran Riklis presents us with a subtly nuanced study of social exclusion and the snares of cultural assimilation. In contrast to his previous works, however, Riklis has this time steered clear of any folklorisation of his Palestinian subjects and delivered a work that is utterly devoid of pretentiousness. By Viola Shafik

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Viola Shafik

It is 1982, the year of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Eyad, a highly gifted young boy, is growing up in the predominantly Arab city of Tira in northern Israel. His contact with Israeli society is restricted to radio and television news broadcasts, the strict regime of his opportunistic headmaster, Jewish exchange students and the police who arrest his father after breaking up a demonstration. However, his life changes drastically when he earns a place at a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem. Suddenly everything is strange and unfamiliar: eating habits, clothes, taste in music, the forbidding security checkpoints and the public hostility. Strangest of all, however, is the language.

But there is a silver lining in the form of the pretty and feisty Ashkenazi (European Jewish) Naomi, with whom he falls in love, and the friendship of Yonatan, a boy of the same age as himself to whom Eyad is assigned to help with schoolwork. Yonatan, who lives with his single mother Edna, suffers from muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair.

Part of the family

Poster for the film "Dancing Arabs"
In "Dancing Arabs" (also known as "A borrowed identity") Israeli director Riklis highlights the issues of social exclusion and cultural assimilation for Israeli Arabs. It was the opening film at the 31st Jerusalem International Film Festival. However, the screening was put back a week due to rising tension in the region as a result of the war in Gaza

It is the sarcastic humour of the invalid, when he makes fun of his Arab friend – in particular his ethnic and cultural background, which he describes as a congenital disorder – that quickly breaks the ice between the pair. Indeed it is the verbal exchanges between the two that play a decisive role in the film's undermining of common prejudices. Eyad soon settles in as part of the little family.

However, the story of Eyad's first love suddenly takes a dramatic turn. When Naomi tells her parents about Eyad, they decide to withdraw her from school. In response, Eyad decides to stop attending school as well, much to his father's dismay. Nevertheless, his sacrifice proves to be in vain when Naomi abandons him for the sake of her career.

Left to fend for himself financially, Eyad is able to make use of the now bedridden Yonatan's Jewish identity card to find a lucrative part-time job. Edna gives her approval, particularly because Eyad passes his school examinations with flying colours in her son's name. The film's final surprise comes when, after his death, Yonatan is buried with Eyad's identity card. This final transformation, which gives Eyad the Arab his new Jewish-Israeli identity, is anything but a joyful victory, just a sober tableau of the defeated, sad young man trudging wearily behind the coffin in the company of his deceased friend's mother.

Language as a key to other cultures

There are shades of Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" about this film; the tragic figure, who, disowned by the family, finds refuge on a desert island. Credited with magical powers, Prospero's true gift lies in his rhetorical skills, his ability to influence others. In the end, however, he renounces "magic" and destroys his own books.

In his book "Black Skin, White Masks", Frantz Fanon made use of this story to illustrate the relationship between colonised peoples – in this case the black creoles of the Caribbean Antilles – and the language of their French colonial masters. "To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is," wrote Fanon.

This is also Eyad's story. In Jerusalem, he is ridiculed because of his poor command of Hebrew and has to accept that no one is going to pronounce his name correctly; Ayid instead of Eyad. There comes a time, however, when he is more proficient in what is for him a foreign language than any of his Jewish classmates are.

In a key scene, Eyad, questioned by his Hebrew teacher on the plot of Amos Oz's "My Michael", lists all those Israeli writers who have described Arab men as being dirty or having a threatening sexuality. Referring to his girlfriend Naomi, who at first disowns him in front of his school friends, he asks whether it is possible for a Jewish girl to sink any lower than to have an Arab boyfriend.

In another scene, the film examines the ambiguity of words and the uses they are put to. There is, for example, the question of what it is that Eyad's father does for a living. Is he a terrorist, as Eyad tells his Jewish guest pupil, a resistance fighter, as his father claims, or just a fruit picker, as his headmaster would have it?

Multiple dances

The title "Dancing Arabs" is an allusion to the expression "to dance at two weddings" and refers to the dilemma of an Arab population forced to live with both its Arab identity and its Israeli nationality. It also serves as a reminder of Arab-Israelis dancing for joy on the rooftops of their houses when Saddam Hussein fired long-range rockets into Israel in 1990.

It is this event that also provides one of the film's most absurd scenes. During a rocket attack we witness the ludicrous spectacle of some people seeking refuge in cellars, while others, ignoring the danger, rush enthusiastically up onto the roofs. It is hard to imagine a more fitting illustration of the ambivalent attitude of Israeli Palestinians or one that shows more starkly how difficult a task they face in searching for a national identity.

According to Benedict Anderson's idea of the nation as a symbolic "imagined community", its preservation will depend on the linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity that exists within certain, often arbitrarily drawn state borders, being reduced, often violently, to a single denominator. For Arab Israelis, this in effect means their Arabic language, culture and history being viewed by the Israeli state as essentially alien elements and ones that are difficult to integrate.

Our protagonist Eyad resolves this dilemma through complete assimilation, that is, by destroying or rejecting his former identity, not unlike the author of the book on which the film is based, Sayed Kashua. Born in 1975, Kashua became known in Israel for his articles and novels, including "Second Person Singular" (elements of which also find their way into the film), and the sitcom "Avoda Aravit" (Arab Labour). The fact that he chose to write in Hebrew was not to the liking of some of his fellow Arabs.

Despite all his attempts to adapt, he was finally forced to throw in the towel. Following his criticism of the 2014 war in Gaza, Israeli hostility towards himself and his family became so great that he decided, according to "The Guardian" newspaper, to move to the United States. For the sake of both himself and his children, it was said, he hoped to leave the past behind and to learn a new language.

Viola Shafik

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Ron Walker