On Syed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs and Borrowed Identity


I teach a course on Middle East and Israel in Film. Often, I read the book on which a film is supposedly based (or the book based on the film). only after I show the film in class.

I screened A Borrowed Identity with a screenplay by Syed Kashua (Directed by Eran Riklis), and then read the book, Dancing Arabs afterwards.

I read the book in English, not Hebrew, so I cannot tell whether Kashua used Arabic dialogue where appropriate in the film (as he does in the screenplay).

The book is very different from the film; one could hardly say the film is based on the book at all, as the book lacks the main narrative focus of the film, the “borrowed identity” story with the Jonathan character. Instead, it is a series of short episodes from the life of an unnamed main character, based (loosely, I imagine) on Kashua himself. Certainly the character, never named in the book, is from Tira, went to a prestigious private school in Jerusalem, and lived in Beit Safafa with his wife, all things that are also true of the author. (By the way, the school is not named in the book either, although another school whose students taunt the narrator in the film, is. And the narrator’s high school years do not play that much of a role in the book; his Jewish girlfriend figures only briefly. Indeed, Jewish Israelis do not play major recurrent roles in the book’s essays–unlike the film or Kashua’s TV hit series, Arab Labor.

The short chapters remind me of newspaper columns (I am thinking of E. Kishon or Y. Gefen, Israeli humorists who wrote for newspapers), or themes for TV show episodes; they carry a connected narrative but most of them also are designed to be able to be read independently of each other. Some of the chapters of the book become scenes in the film. Some entire sections of the book are not represented in the film at all, such as the narrator’s early life, or his post-high school life, including marriage and baby.

Religion, or at least references to aspects of religious observance, plays more of a role in the book than in the film. The narrator’s family is not religious, but the film’s local closed-cable TV show with the quiz is in the book—and it is described as a Ramadan special, with the deadline on Id al-Fitr. The narrator has a Muslim friend from high school who is religious. There is some discussion about religion and religiosity as it relates to the secular Arab Israeli narrator.

But the most striking change from in tone from the book to the screen—tone, not storyline—is the way some of the political issues are expressed. In the film, Eyad speaks eloquently to critique both the representation of Arabs in Israeli literature and classroom discussions of this issue, and part of the story line is illustrated by his troubles getting a job with an Arab identity. In the book, there is more about identity cards, about Israeli Arab vs. non-Israeli Arab identity and status, about the Ministry of the Interior, and other such issues. On the other hand, the young narrator is not so politically aware; he does not express pride in the father’s career as a “terrorist” and notes his naivite about these issues. The book paints the young narrator as actually friendly with the Jewish visitor to his elementary school class from Seeds of Peace–and recounts that his elementary school paid a return visit to the Seeds of Peace partner school in the nearby Jewish city Kvar Sava—only for the narrator to find his Jewish friend and his class was sent by mistake to his school the same day.

Only a very few of the chapters in the book are in the movie, which has a much tighter narrative focus.

One more thing: I am still not personally convinced about who the “Dancing Arabs” are. Seeing the film with the class, (not the first time I saw it) I thought perhaps it was a reference to dancing on the rooftops while Saddam Hussein was bombing Israel in 1991. Reading the book—which after all, is known as Dancing Arabs,–I am less sure. Perhaps it is this rooftop scene, or a scene in a bar where Arabs are dancing, but it is most likely that readers should assume the Dancing of the title refers to an elaborate yet clumsy dance through a number of identities and highly diverse worlds of Israeli Arabs—family, village, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, spouse, father and many more.



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Wyoming High School Graduates

My colleague Paul Flesher posted an interesting map of US. High School Graduates by county, in which Wyoming appears to be the only state with only the top two categories, i.e., no counties fall below 85%. I saw it (for better or worse) at a time when I was uninterested in doing more urgent work…. I was not aware that Wyoming had a top ranking in high school graduation rates (it does not, see below), so I quickly looked for some additional data.

The map URL was for an image on a blog. Finding the blog was easy but finding the context in which it was copied by the blogger was tedious; the search-terms I tried were not successful so I had to look for it historically (i.e, look through many postings; the URL of the image suggested it was posted in September 2015, but there are many pages for this month).

The blogger posted it in an essay connecting “high religiosity” with all sorts of negatives, and includes a number of maps supposedly indicating that US regions with high measures of religious belief correlate with poor scores on all sorts of other measures, including high school graduates: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/the-correlation-of-high-religiosity-in-america-with-everything-bad/

I read a few of the posts on the blog; it’s a fascinating blog, with many interesting (and overwhelmingly negative) observations about religion. I found the material about Islam especially interesting. Although it is overwhelmingly negative, postings include very well-written reviews of Quranic materials (including a new study-Quran edited by Syed Hussein Nasr), and there is interesting dialogue-related stuff. Nevertheless, I find the author highly opinionated, and an exemplar of how “Atheist Triumphalism” is often just as dogmatic as religious triumphalism can be.

Returning to the map: There was no descriptive material on the blog, but the map is apparently prepared by the Rural Assistance Center and was a little easier to find on their website. But the only descriptive information is this: “Printable map that shows the percent of population attaining at least a high school graduate education or equivalent by county. Data source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2009-2013 ACS 5-year estimates. (2015), Resource Type: Map”. https://www.raconline.org/search/search_results.php?keyword=graduates

So the map is based on US Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) data. From the ACS pages, I think the data refers to percent of persons, 25 years or older, with at least a high school diploma, listed by county of residence: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/meta/long_EDU635213.htm

So the map appears to show something quite amazing: Wyoming in fact appears to have no county with fewer than 85% high school graduates. And it is the only such state in the country! The State can do much better with graduation rates: Wyoming is only in the middle 20% for high school graduation rates, at 79% (this is something called the “four year adjusted regulatory graduation rate”), a statistic that is not so surprising. http://eddataexpress.ed.gov/ (and this report is consistent with Wyoming state education data as well).

The “by-county high school graduate rate” is curious, as Wyoming usually is not touted to business investors, say, as a state with a better-educated population than others. I’d like to think that our superb university plays an important role in attracting and retaining high school graduates. Nevertheless, the extent to which the Wyoming population has at least an Associates or at least a Bachelors-level degree is probably far more important in today’s world.

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Talk on Rabin’s 20th yahrtzeit

This is a talk I gave at the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue on the occasion of the 20th yahrtzeit of Yitzhak Rabin.

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Discussion of the large stone tablets of Deut. 27

Discussion of Deut. 27:1-8, largely based on Moshe Pinchuk’s book Kankanim.The images are my late father Aba Ward; this d’var torah was given earlier this year on the occasion of his yahrtzeit (Elul 16). The first image on the video shows my wife, brother and niece as well as my dad. There’s a photo of Dad with Rabbi Schudrich; these photos are from Warsaw. The other two photos are Mom (<i>ad meah ve-esrim!</i>) and Dad in the center, at a family gathering, and a photo just of Dad.
May Dad’s memory be a blessing.

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Chichester at 50! Preconcert Talk and program link

A pre-concert talk I gave mostly about Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Paul Ben-Haim’s Kabbalat Shabbat, Nov. 14 2015.

Program and words for the concert:


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My friend and co-board member of the Society for Crypto Jewish Studies and editor of its newsletter La Granada, Debby Wohl Isard, sent me the Uncle Jed’s Barbershop announcement. I am happy to repost it here.

This is lightly edited from what she wrote me about the piece:

My brother David Wohl is the composer for “Uncle Jed’s Barbershop” opening this weekend for a limited time run in Denver.

The storyline may be based on events within an African-American family, yet the encompassing theme is one of TESHUVAH, returning and repairing. Great music representing several decades situates scenes in time and carries the show through its narrative. Ken Primus, whom you may recall as the Broadway original character ‘Old Deuteronomy’ from CATS plays the lead. It is a treat to be in his presence and hear him on stage as Uncle Jed.

The official press-release is attached and you can find more about the show on Facebook through FB page, set up in the name of the show.

I urge you to get tickets soon and even inquire about group sales for your choir members. Also, on a personal note, if you know anybody who knows somebody in the theatrical production business, please share this with them. This show is Broadway bound as soon as they have the means to take it there….


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Women and the Islamic State

Here is a streaming version of a talk I gave at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne, WY. Many thanks to Robin Papaleka of the Laramie County Public Library for organizing this series. There are several more items in this series–if you are reading this in Sept. 2015, please consider coming to the library for the other talks.

Please contact me if you would like the PowerPoint or the narrated PowerPoint on which this talk is based.

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