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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2 Responses to On Syed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs and Borrowed Identity

  1. I saw the movie A Borrowed Identity at the Jewish Film Festival in Dayton, where I live. That prompted me to get the book Dancing Arabs, which I just finished reading. I too was struck by the differences between the book and the film.

    Had the film hewn more to the book, I don’t think it would have been chosen for the festival. Movies about Arab Israelis or Palestinians have been shown in prior years but ones that did include significant interaction with Jewish Israelis. For example, in 2013 the festival opened with the film Le fils de l’autre, about Israeli and Palestinian boys who were accidentally switched at birth.

    What I found interesting about the film’s ending is that Eyad is willing to assume a new identity, presumably one he considers better or at least more privileged. The protagonist of the book sometimes tries to pass as Jewish in order to claim some privilege but ultimately at the close of the book is still an Arab Israeli living amongst his family, in particular at the end alone with his Grandma.

    I enjoyed both the film and the book, but they did have somewhat different stories to tell.

    • drsethward says:

      Thank you for posting your reactions. Sorry I did not respond sooner.
      I thought the same about the ending–but also note that the protagonist is shown, at the beginning and at the end, in Tira. We are left to assume that the new identity–which involves burying the old one after all–is still borrowed, and that Eyad has merely “borrowed” the identity, not completely assumed it.

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