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'We're born with our shame, like a cloud hanging over us'

On bold TV show, Palestinian-Israeli director takes apart her society’s taboos

Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin’s Israel TV series, ironically titled ‘No Offense,’ tackles the hitherto unspeakable in Arab Israeli society… and her audience is growing

Ibtisam Mara'ana-Menuhin, a film director from Fureidis (courtesy)
Ibtisam Mara'ana-Menuhin, a film director from Fureidis (courtesy)

The format of Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin’s television series “No Offense” is simple enough: Arab-Israeli interviewees sit in front of an off-white backdrop on an otherwise dark set and answer questions about some of their hardest, most painful, most intimate experiences.

Her subjects draw the questions from a stack of cards before reading them aloud. These are real questions gathered from the general public, Mara’ana-Menuhin tells them, representing what people really think about the sensitive subjects they are about to discuss.

The queries are sometimes tactfully expressed, but just as often are deliberately blunt, accusatory, naïve, or downright rude. The responses range accordingly from the dryly humorous to the agonizing.

“Did you think about throwing your son or daughter out the window?” a young woman in a stylish hijab reads off a card in one episode focusing on postpartum depression among Arab Israelis. She smiles sadly: “Not at all, just myself.”

“Is homosexuality contagious?” Mara’ana-Menuhin asks a group of queer Arab Israelis — a marginalized minority within a minority — in a subsequent episode.

The question is offensive in a way that goes beyond provocation, but her subjects don’t miss a beat, a nod to both deeply ingrained prejudices that remain in some fringes of the community she is attempting to probe, and the confrontational style of the program.

“Obviously not, otherwise I’d have tried to infect every man I ever had a crush on,” shoots back gay rights activist Khader Abu Seif, who identifies as a Palestinian citizen of Israel and lives in Tel Aviv.

“No Offense,” which airs on the Kan public broadcaster’s Arabic channel, deals with an endless array of divisive and sensitive subjects in Arab-Israeli society, including but not only: interreligious marriage, femicide, eating disorders, divorce, and racism

The same episode also shows the power of familial love in the face of a society’s harshest taboos. “This is your home, please don’t be a stranger, we are your family — I just want you to know that,” lesbian filmmaker Samira Saraya recalls her mother telling her.

“No Offense,” which airs on the Kan public broadcaster’s Arabic channel, deals with an endless array of divisive and sensitive subjects in Arab-Israeli society, including but not only: interreligious marriage, femicide, eating disorders, divorce, and racism.

But rather than chase viewers away by touching on taboo subjects, Mara’ana-Menuhin — who hails from a Northern Arab Israeli town, but identifies as Palestinian — is drawing them in. The show’s episodes have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. On Facebook, a channel which shows clips and episodes of the show has 1.3 million followers.

Each week, thousands of people tune in as Mara’ana-Menuhin, 45, and her subjects wrestle with the community’s demons, part of a larger project that she hopes will create change by pushing them into the open.

“Our shame [in the Arab community] is a collective one. We’re born with it, raised on it, like mother’s milk. We’re ashamed of our bodies, of our reality, of any and all behavior,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

“It’s like a cloud hanging over us, which I — and the person sitting across from me in the interview — try to dissolve, bit by bit,” she said.

Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin (courtesy)

A seasoned documentary filmmaker with several movies to her credit, Mara’ana-Menuhin has long been drawn to some of the toughest, most controversial issues in Arab Israeli society. She has directed films about Druze beauty contestants who fled murderous family members seeking to preserve their family’s so-called honor, “exchange marriages” where two brothers and two sisters marry one another, and her own decision to live in Tel Aviv as an unattached Palestinian woman.

She grew up in the Arab town of Fureidis, the daughter of poor, illiterate parents. Her parents, neither educated nor well-connected, were looked down upon in the tightly-knit, conservative community. To make matters more difficult, her mother worked as a cleaner in Jewish homes in adjacent Zichron Yaakov, one of Israel’s best-heeled towns.

“If you had a shop in Fureidis, you had class, you were successful,” Mara’ana-Menuhin recalled. “And we weren’t like that. My mother was proud of what she did. But that my mother worked to clean Jews’ houses — what did that mean to our Arab village society? It was a disgrace.”

Fureidis, about thirty minutes from Haifa, was far poorer than Zichron Ya’akov. The generational poverty of Arab Fureidis contrasted sharply with the quaint atmosphere and wineries of the northern Jewish town.

“Fureidis was rotting houses, broken streets, the sewage flowing in the roads. I worked with my mother cleaning the homes of Jews from a young age, and I learned the difference between a wealthy, Jewish home and our poor, Arab one. The Jewish towns were wealthy, and the Arab towns were poor. This was how I lived and [learned] that there was another life, others’ lives,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

At the height of the First Intifada in the late 1980s, she began taking the bus to Haifa along with her siblings to attend high school, as there were none in Fureidis. Haifa, like other mixed cities in Israel, felt the shockwaves of the violent protests and civil disobedience emanating from the West Bank and Gaza. Political graffiti began peppering the sides of walls and buildings, she recalled, and magazines from the roiling territories began circulating even in far-off Fureidis.

“There were words in those magazines that I’d never heard before, about stone-throwing and Palestine and identity,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said. “I began to write…I had a chemistry teacher who couldn’t stand me, and I couldn’t stand him, but every Friday morning he would sit down with his newspaper and read my column.”

After graduating from film school, Mara’ana-Menuhin began working professionally as a filmmaker. Her best-known movie, “Write Down, I Am An Arab,” recounts Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s affair with a Jewish Israeli woman.

Director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin at a screening of a 2017 documentary film which she produced (courtesy)

Mara’ana-Menuhin was moved to make the film, at least partially, by her own personal history. About 10 years ago, she fell in love with — and married — a Jewish Israeli, Boaz Menuhin. The two have a daughter, Sofia, whom she describes as “100% Jewish and 100% Arab.”

There’s an episode of “No Offense” that holds a special place in Mara’ana-Menuhin’s heart — one that features several children of interreligious marriages speaking about their lives and families and hopes. She had been worried about her daughter’s future in a country where the difference between Arab and Jew was emblazoned for decades on every identity card.

“Are you mad at your parents?” interviewees read aloud. Fortunately for Mara’ana-Menuhin, none of them were. Many expressed their gratitude at having grown up in families that celebrated Christmas and Ramadan, Druze holidays and Jewish ones.

“I wanted to make an episode that would allow me to see how the world might look to my daughter,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said. “When I made it, I had the opportunity to see my daughter 10 to 15 years from now. I saw that she would be fine, that the choice I’d made was legitimate.”

Jewish Israeli society has more than a handful of its own red lines, Mara’ana-Menuhin acknowledged. Her show is based off of a Hebrew-language show with the same format, “Sorry for Asking” (which is itself based on the Australian show “You Can’t Ask That”).

But she maintains that there are deep differences between the willingness of both communities to openly discuss the knots of shame that fill their inner lives. The Hebrew show can plunge headlong into taboos around sex and mental health with relative freedom, while the Arabic version faces far clearer and harsher red lines, she said.

“In the Hebrew show, there’s enormous freedom to dismantle all the taboos. You can talk about sex with teenagers, about drugs, you can talk about the world in which they really live, without losing them,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

While a recent episode of the Hebrew-language show asked teenagers honest questions about sex and dating, “No Offense” shied away from it.

“No way,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said, wagging her finger. “Everyone in this community understands the limits: sex, religion, and mental illness. These are things I simply can’t deal with. But I must deal with them, because we can’t remain silent — but I deal with them in other ways,” she said.

The title shot of director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin’s “No Offense” at a public screening (courtesy)

To deal with them while not dealing with them, she explained, is a complex balancing act: Opening the conversation without “losing” either her viewer or her interviewee. She approaches issues obliquely, seeking the angle that can crack open the terms of the debate.

“When I did the episode about the first generation of mixed families — those with parents of different religions — I’m talking about religion, but I’m not talking about religion directly. In the episode about eating disorders, I’m talking about enormous emotional pain. But I’m not talking about mental illness as such,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

Some episodes sparked serious backlash. Mara’ana-Menuhin seems to take it in stride, saying that she knew from the outset that the show would be controversial. But the furor with which some of the episodes were received took her aback, especially the episode on LGBT Arab-Israelis, she said.

“We saw extremely harsh reactions to that episode. I got upsetting messages about it. I’m not the victim, and I’m happy to pay the price…but many talks I would have given in Arab circles were refused because I was standing with the gay community. I was really depressed by the response,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

One of her interviewees, renowned dancer Ayman Safiya, drowned off the coast of Atlit in late May. Charming and popular in life, his funeral drew thousands of mourners despite his sexual orientation and the socially conservative bent of many Arab-Israelis.

Ayman Safiah (Courtesy)

His untimely death was just one of several events that has shaken Arab-Israeli society recently, reopening the conversation about the queer Arabs in their midst: A controversy over a tahini company that donated funds to a gay rights charity, and a bill in the Knesset that would outlaw so-called ” gay conversion therapy” also split Arab Israelis.

The reckoning was charged and painful. In an interview with Kan after a preliminary vote on the conversion therapy bill, which was supported by Joint List head Ayman Odeh but opposed by the faction’s more conservative flank, MK Walid Taha asserted that the “phenomenon of gays is almost nonexistent in Arab society.”

“I thought our society — my society — was capable of handling the issue,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said, pausing to blow out a cloud of cigarette smoke. “But no.”

But she said she is pleased the series is sparking conversations among Arab Israelis, as it was intended to.

“People now come up to my mother and compliment her on my work, all because of the show,” Mara’ana-Menuhin laughed.

As for Jewish Israelis? They’re welcome to watch — as long as they understand that they’re peeking into the Arab community’s internal debates, she said.

“Come for a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, you’re a guest here. Come get to know this community. But these conversations are not about you — you’re not a part of these arguments,” Mara’ana-Menuhin said.

“The Palestinian community in Israel has internal criticism, it has controversy and argument. We are far from silent. True, we are a patriarchal society, a conservative society — but we have among us many who are seeking to force our society to look itself in the mirror and speak to itself,” she added.

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