The chaotic language evaluating ‘Fauda’

This essay is a critique of Sayed Kashua’s recent negative review in Foreign Policy of the Israeli TV thriller Fauda. In it, I argue that Kashua’s evaluation of the show is chaotic, disordered and misleading – ironically embodying the very meaning of the show’s Arabic title.

AN ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN journalist, humorist, and sometime academic, Kashua may have lost his bearings. But then again who in his place wouldn’t have? Exile does that to you; the Middle East does that to you; a charming enchanting place that renders men – even the wary – bitter, embittered, tormented, prisoners of old wounds. The dignity and heartbreaks of Kashua’s Levantine playgrounds can be soul-crushing, even to the old-hand, the stoic, the optimist. For a long time the prominent byline of a popular weekly satirical column in Israel’s liberal Haaretz, Sayed Kashua finally called it quits, on July 4, 2014, leaving his Jerusalem home behind, “for good” as he put it, explaining his motivations in a now iconic third-person editorial, “Why Sayed Kashua is Leaving Jerusalem and Never Coming Back.”

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Like many Near Eastern Muslims, Christians and Jews before him, battered by the obduracy of their vying identities, their contested claims, their competing victimhoods, Kashua came to the realization that an Arab-Israeli coexistence as he had yearned for it, was in the end a pipe dream. In his own telling, to a Jew, Kashua would always remain an Arab – just as to the Arabs, Jews will always be Jews, usurpers of Arab rights. What is more, Kashua had grown tired, as he put it, of writing about “children being shot, slaughtered, buried and burned.” His July 2014 references were to the persistent casualties of the Arab-Israeli conflict raging very near to his Jerusalem backyard. But he might as well have been writing about the horrors visited on today’s Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the sad lands of the Middle East; a theater beyond the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a theater that had since 2010 produced over a million dead and 15 million displaced and refugees.

In this, the Arab-Israeli conflict may pale by comparison and be deemed arguably the least lethal of the Middle East’s chambers of horrors. Yet the Arab-Israeli conflict persists as the only battleground that matters; the only one that captivates; the only one that commands the world’s attention and galvanizes its righteous in indignation toward one party’s transgressions and before another’s tribulations. After all, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not one pitting Arab against Arab, or Muslim against Muslim as are the cases of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the rest. No! There is an “alien” Jew in this brew; a defiant self-reliant non-exilic Jew; an affront that doesn’t sit well with our times’ moralizers who, without the faintest pang of conscience could overlook a Syrian genocide to spotlight alleged Jewish violations of Arab rights.
It is in this context, in a recent Foreign Policy review criticizing the popular Israeli television thriller Fauda (“Chaos” in Arabic) that Sayed Kashua would come to point his accusatory finger at Fauda’s producers, charging them with normalizing and banalizing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and otherwise “obscur[ing] the dark realities of Israeli rule.”

As with everything Israel (and Palestine), there is certainly a fair amount of blame, finger pointing, and indictments to go around. No one is immune to scrutiny in the Arab-Israeli conflict. No one is bereft of responsibility. No one is an angel in the Middle East’s predatory universe of identities in conflict. And no one in this context has a monopoly over righteousness, victimhood, basic goodness, corruption, or brutality. One cannot begin to make sense of the Middle East morass without an equal measure of empathy (for all sides), openness (to all sides), and discernment (of all sides).

The body of Kashua’s work often took great pains to highlight such nuances and sensitivities. In his past incarnations, both Israelis and Palestinians were victims; both were perpetrators; both were shapers of their own fates; both were equally to blame for the ailments afflicting them; and both were capable of unspeakable cruelty to each other and their own, just as they might both have condensed the noblest of what is human, humane, and humanist in the human spirit. In the words of famous Palestinian revolutionary-novelist Ghassan Kanafani, “The Palestinian people’s future is with Israel; it is neither with Europe and America, nor with China and the Soviet Union [sic.], nor even with the Arab states – who, whether individually or together as a nation, were never concerned with the lot of the Palestinians, and never lifted a finger to accomplish anything decisive on their behalf.”

THIS IS the overriding message of Fauda that Sayed Kashua might have missed; a complex choreography between Israeli and Palestinian, revealing both as intricate complicated delicate mosaics, flawed human beings capable of both goodness and evil, compelled – by destiny, history, geography, or mere expediency – to “work together,” even as they might “fight one another.” Jews and Arabs must realize, says one of Fauda’s Israeli characters, that neither of them will get everything they want.

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Yet Kashua chose to overlook Fauda’s saving graces. Among his criticisms was the allegation that Fauda depicted all Palestinian women as Hijab-clad chattels of Muslim fundamentalist men. Likewise, Palestinian men were portrayed as terrorists and Israelis as victims of Arab machinations, violence,and intransigence. For good measure, Kashua took a swipe at a scene where Israeli agents – a commando unit known as musta’aravim, or “those impersonating Arabs” – commiserated over the bleak horizons and the traumas of their troubled part of the world; in the process, they supposedly poked fun at the Arabs’ (the Palestinians’) inability to pronounce the letter “P” in speech. Hence, “post-traumatic stress” disorders would become “bost-traumatic” stresses in Palestinian Arabic – assuming Palestinians could become prey to such first-world ailments, suggested the musta’aravim. This, in Kashua’s telling, was a low blow, a base “gratuitous” lampooning of Arabic phonology that was nothing short of racist.

Granted, this may be a fair criticism; especially in a modern world where no satire could go unpunished, no joke can’t be deemed an offense to one group or another, no affront isn’t racialized, and no one – no one – should be denied his God-given right to a “safe space” free from the challenges of everyday life. The problem, however, is that Kashua himself, in his own work (Dancing Arabs, for instance) spends a fair amount of time lampooning his own Arabs’ inability to produce the “P” sound.

In one such instance, the narrator of Kashua’s Dancing Arabs resolves to pass himself off as a Jewish teenager. Thus, during his second week at an elite Jewish boarding school where he was the only Arab on scholarship, he shaved off his mustache (a marker of manly Arabness it is suggested) resolved to learn to pronounce the letter “P,” and succeeded thanks to a tip from the Bible class instructor. Adel on the other hand, the narrator’s Arab friend, was persuaded that there was no difference whatsoever between the letters “B” and “P,” that they sounded exactly the same to his ears, and that it was all some figment of the narrator’s imagination (or perhaps a Jewish conspiracy) to suggest the two letters sounded different. “Hebrew was a screwed up language,” noted Adel, and “he didn’t see why [the Jews] had to have two different letters for the same sound.” This is of course all satire, poking fun at both Arabs and Jews. But presumably this is admissible satire when issuing from Kashua himself; it is vicious, “mean spirited,” a holy mess (fauda) when attempted by Jews. Or could it just be a grammaphobia?

As regards Fauda’s depiction of Palestinian women as submissive hijab-clad chattels of Muslim men, Kashua also misses the mark. He surely ought to have noticed that not only were the series’ Palestinian females not all the dutiful personal effects of patriarchal males, but that indeed most of them came across as complex, liberated, independent, unorthodox, irreverent even – and often very scantily dressed. Shirin, the French-educated physician for instance, who is a love interest of one of the Jewish musta’aravim’s squad leaders, whose Palestinian mother seemed to belong to an era where women were still shackled to patriarchy and misogyny, was herself “emancipated,” self-reliant, even brassy and heretical, often flaunting more skin than orthodoxy and the limits of television nudity would otherwise tolerate. So, Kashua loses – not to say misleads – on that count as well.

But then again, the character of Shirin was played by Franco-Lebanese actress Laëticia Eïdo; so perhaps in Kashua’s telling, Shirin could not have possibly been taken seriously as an Arab character. And given the troubled relationship with Arabism that many Lebanese still maintain, then perhaps there is no love lost in that landscape, and Shirin can’t possibly be representative of your “typical Arab.”

Fauda’s saving grace is indeed its complexity and its humanization of both Israelis and Palestinians in all their triumphs and their failings. True, the series depicts the musta’aravim as Israeli patriots trying to stay one step ahead of Hamas characters intent on inflicting physical harm on Israeli society. True, also, that the series at times portrays Palestinians as much the casualty of Israeli contumacy as victims of their own – often harassed, intimidated, extorted, and finally murdered by cruel Hamas types. Indeed, the realism of the series’ representation of Palestinian Christians, at times priests in churches for instance, as dhimmi archetypes groveling before, making the case for, and contributing to the instruments of their oppression and bondage to Muslim masters, is a taboo topic in Middle East quarters that very few works of art, fiction, or non-fiction would dare air out – on television or elsewhere.

BUT FAUDA does not shy away from uncomfortable questions, pointing so to speak an accusatory finger of its own. Yet Fauda is not a documentary. It is entertainment; an Israeli television series, not a Palestinian one. As such, not only would it have been odd for it to come across as “whitewashing” Hamas’s Islamism, “making the case” for the Palestinians, or bemoaning the exclusivity of the “other’s” victimhood while at the same time “calling to task” one’s own. Indeed, expecting the preceding would have been silly. Yet Fauda, in spite of Kashua’s unfavorable affidavit, remains remarkably humanizing, calling to task its characters and their subject matter, subjecting its viewers to an emotional roller coaster forcing them to identify with both Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Arabs, depicting all not as homogenized monolithic “others,” but indeed as complex human beings with failings and qualities, with flashes of both dignity and indecency.
Kashua could have criticized – and would have been justified criticizing – the hodgepodge of “kitchen Arabic” garbled by some of the Israeli musta’aravim and passing for authentic Palestinian Arabic. He could have indicted the Arab actors (or the actors playing Arabs, and even those Israelis speaking Arabic) for sounding like a hybrid of Palestinians, Bedouins, Lebanese, Frenchmen and other users of a collection on unintelligible Arabic registers, rather than “Palestinians” with a distinct “standard” speech form. But that might have been the series’ creators’ purpose, bringing to the fore the complexity and multi-layered nature of Palestinian society – a complexity reflected in a bevy of spoken languages and quirky localisms that are mutually-unintelligible even to native “speakers of Arabic.”

With that, Fauda’s Arab actors themselves would take umbrage at Kashua’s and the others’ characterization of the series as one normalizing the occupation. Hanan Hillo, for instance, an Israeli-Arab native of Haifa, who in the first season played the sometimes Hijab-clad wife of Hamas terrorist mastermind Abu-Ahmad (the Panther) said so herself.
“What I like about Fauda,” she noted “is the fact that there are no good or bad guys”; the series “doesn’t involve stereotypes about Palestinian society”; it is nuanced, thoughtful, humanizing and often deeply moving. This is apparent, noted Hillo, even in the off-camera rapport between the multi-ethnic multi-cultural multi-religious actors and members of the crew. “It’s stupid” not to do this, stressed Hillo; not to play each other’s roles, not live each other’s lives, and not to have recognition and empathy for each other’s challenges.

Although Hillo is sensitive to the objections of some Palestinians to the premise of Fauda, sometimes terming it “cooperating with the enemy,” she also stresses the unrealistic and foolish expectations that Arabs out of hand shun the Israelis and refuse to deal with them on a human level. “I have my life in Israel,” she noted; “I have to tell my story to the Jews. We need them to understand us. We are living together, my children attend a mixed school. And Fauda is an important way of showing the struggles and pains of our society to a Jewish audience.” Fauda “is about real life,” concluded Hillo; it is “our reality,” and “we cannot close our eyes to that.”

HILLO’S FEELINGS are echoed by Fauda’s Shirin – Laëtitia Eïdo – who in real life is neither Palestinian, nor Israeli – but instead a Franco-Lebanese Christian-Muslim. Her on-camera romance with the series’ chief Israeli protagonist is reflective of the conflation of emotions – one ought to perhaps say the chaos of emotions – that Fauda attempts to elicit in its audience, challenging their stereotypes, subverting their cultural paradigms, shattering their assumptions and political norms. Namely, the chaos that Fauda advances is one where an Arab and an Israeli may not only find common ground, but may indeed become complicit, kindred souls, fall in love, defy their respective cultures’ orthodoxies and hang ups.

Those are mindsets and worldviews that Eïdo claims to uphold in her own life, both on and off screen. In an interview on the margins of the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival, she noted how her aim had always been to incarnate a “spirit of freedom” in her career, her life and her life choices. The “spirit of freedom” in Eïdo’s telling meant “lending a hand, extending a hand, making like a bridge among antagonistic cultures that may be justified in their antagonisms, but that ought to overcome them.” She recognized that not everyone may be fortunate enough to be an intercultural bridge; but she was thankful for “the neutrality of the French passport” that would allow someone like her, issuing from Lebanese extraction, to work in Israel, to meet with both Palestinians and Israelis yearning to visit Lebanon; a people possessed of a burning desire to meet “the other,” she noted; a desire expressed with equal alacrity on the Lebanese side as well.

The fact remains that the Palestinians as a collective have indeed been dealt an historical injustice; perhaps an injustice of cosmic proportions too onerous to overcome, let alone correct. Yet it is also a fact that Israel is a state under siege, assaulted and demonized by all its neighbors, not only Palestinians. Both the Palestinian and Israeli sides are prisoners of endless zero-sum games, sometimes dictated by the complexities of their circumstances, often times the result of their own choices. Fauda lays all that bare before us and brings it all to bear, doing so with nuance, sensitivity and a discomforting realism. Far from normalizing the occupation or reinforcing base stereotypes as Sayed Kashua claims, and notwithstanding its many defects, Fauda gives pause and food for thought. It is, after all, a TV thriller, not a documentary.

Yet it forces us to think outside the bounds of our biases; to walk many miles in our adversaries’ shoes; to cast a painful probing introspective on the societies of Palestinians, Israelis, and spectators alike, humanizing all, empathizing with all, reprimanding all. Without this summons to scrutiny and soul-searching, without accepting a modicum of “shared responsibility,” or as one Israeli character noted “without both Israelis and Palestinians accepting that none of them will get everything they want,” Fauda suggests that chaos will remain the endgame.

The writer is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies and chair of the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures at Boston College. He is author of The Other Middle East (Yale, 2017) and a forthcoming memoir of Lebanese Jewry, “Fragments of Lives Arrested” (Palgrave, 2019).

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