A search for identity with Mira Awad’s ‘Muna,’ a new Kan series

There are a lot of truths lurking in this eight episode show about a young Arab woman living in Tel Aviv

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

It’s impossible not to fall hard for Muna, the eponymously named character of “Muna,” Mira Awad’s eight-chapter Kan series about a young Arab woman seeking answers between her life in freestyle Tel Aviv and the conservative northern Arab village where she was born and raised.

Mouna Hawa, the actress with the glorious mane of curls and slim, silver ring-adorned fingers, plays Muna, a talented photographer with a complicated personal life. She has an Israeli boyfriend (Yaniv, played by Roy Assaf), who isn’t quite yet divorced from his tough, blonde newscaster wife, and a best friend and business partner, Rani (Ala Dakka) who also loves Muna and mirrors many of her personal conflicts. There are other complex relationships with her parents and her best friend.

The drama, with dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew, is primarily set in Tel Aviv, in the apartments and studio of Muna and Rani. It’s a story told against a backdrop of rockets shot from Gaza, an escalating war that throws the characters into heightened tensions and reactions.

It was ten years ago that Awad, better known for her music and activism, began writing the series. Five years ago, “Muna” was chosen as one of six new series for development by Channel 1 — now known as Kan — for production.

It was only when they began shooting — and then when the show aired in January (the eighth and final chapter aired Monday night, February 25, and the entire series is available on YouTube) — that Awad believed it was actually happening, this televised tale that had unfolded in her head for so long.

Mira Awad, singer, actor and activist, can now add screenwriter to her list of credits, with ‘Muna,’ her eight-part series on Kan (Courtesy Mira Awad)

“I knew what I wanted to say, I wanted to say it all, and of course that didn’t happen, what happened is this ‘Muna,’” said Awad, sitting recently in her favorite neighborhood cafe in Tel Aviv. “But you always think that in the next project you’re going to say it all, you’re going to be so good, so focused, so great, but you know what, if we’re able to say it all then we’re finished. It means you get another day to fight and another day to tell your story.”

And Awad has been telling her story for some time now. She first emerged on the Israeli scene as a singer and studied at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. She moved around onstage, performing in plays and the small and large screens with several series and films, including TV series “Arab Labor.”

She has also collaborated with Achinoam Nini, and the two represented Israel in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.

But writing her own series has long been a goal, and her Muna is a fairly fully-fledged character for all that there are only eight 30-minute episodes to tell her story.

Mouna Hawa plays Muna, the eponymously named character of ‘Muna,’ the new Kan series (Courtesy ‘Muna’)

Muna is an Arab woman in her twenties, on the cusp of fame, partially due to the pushiness of her Israeli producer boyfriend, but also thanks to her romantic portraits of the gnarly olive trees that grow in the hillside groves of her village.

She’s torn, between the love and attraction she feels for Yaniv and for the ease of life as an Israeli, and the loyalty and love for her parents, and all they represent of her heritage and community.

It’s a life that some of those involved in this production recognize from up close.

Hawa, of course, is not Muna. Neither is Mira Awad. But there’s more than a little of Awad’s personal life — and that of the actors, as well — in this brief snapshot of an Israeli drama.

“The character is not me, but some of the conflicts are exactly my feelings in moments in my life, but I guess I can say that about anyone in Israel,” said Awad. “The character just grew and what released me is she’s not a singer, she’s not me, I’m not writing a biography so that liberated me.”

The character of Muna, said Maya Hefner, the show’s scriptwriter, “is loved.”

“We all fell in love with her during the making of the show, first with the character and then with the actor Mouna Hawa,” wrote Hefner in an email. “I deeply believe if you as a creator love the characters you write, the audience too will fall in love with them. It’s pure energy.”

Eng bellow العربيه ادناهמחר (שני) בשעה עשר בכאן 11 גם אתם תפגשו את הקאסט המרהיב של מונא שהיה לנו העונג הצרוף לעבוד…

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Hefner, an experienced TV and screenwriter, first met Awad when she acted in “Noah’s Ark,” a 2009 show that Hefner wrote. She was hesitant at first to work with Awad on “Muna,” unsure if she was the right choice to write about young Israeli-Arabs. She ended up choosing to write about the questions of identity from the basis of gender, identifying with Awad and Muna as women.

The show, said Awad, is an opportunity to have a real conversation about identity.

“We have a chance to have a conversation about this, a longer conversation,” said Awad. “Now we have time to hear other voices and normalize in a way, normalize different characters on TV, different narratives on TV. We’ve never had this kind of mixed couple’s narrative.”

Awad, 43, the daughter of a Bulgarian mother and Arab father, grew up in a village in northern Israel and has lived in Tel Aviv for the last 15 years. She’s been married for the last six years to her Israeli Jewish husband, Kosta Mogilevych.

Still, despite her own familiarity and comfort with complicated life situations, Awad found herself surprised by viewers’ vehement reactions to “Muna,” as the eight-chapter series unfolded.

In fact, many people, including one Knesset member, Oren Hazan, reacted virulently to another well-known mixed couple, newlyweds Lucy Aharish, the Israeli Arab news anchor, and her Jewish Israeli husband, “Fauda” actor Tsahi Halevi, who married last October.

“I always knew people had difficulty about mixed marriages, I’m in one myself, but never expected the comments, the stupidity,” she said. “A lot of people think it in secret, they wouldn’t say it, but they would say they do not want their son married to an Arab woman. It isn’t about keeping their own traditions, they want to be superior to inferior beings. It was so vicious, I was taken aback.”

Awad responded to Hazan’s comment by posting a picture of her and her husband, along with a clarifying comment.

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“I think the Trump era just wipes away anything politically correct and people just have license to say whatever they want from the depths of their s****y souls,” she said. “They have no interest in filtering, filters are considered left wing, it’s becoming a curse.”

She isn’t the only one who has recognized snippets of her own life in the “Muna” storyline.

Ala Dakka, in his role as Rani, Muna’s best friend and business partner on the Kan series ‘Muna’ (Courtesy ‘Muna’)

Actor Ala Dakka, who plays Muna’s best friend Rani — a party animal who chugs from wine bottles, grows magic mushrooms to help pay the rent and clearly lusts after Muna — can point to several storylines from the show that happened to him, from awkward meetings with the parents of former Jewish girlfriends to racist attacks in Tel Aviv.

“I feel like a stranger anywhere I go here,” he said. “I grew up here, I speak this language, and I still feel like a stranger. But I don’t want to leave. I have the chance to study this feeling of being a stranger. And in so many ways, I’m not a stranger here. The fact that I still feel that is maybe because I feel like a stranger to myself, and that’s my path of life.”

Dakka, 24, was raised in Beersheba along with three sisters by his academic parents, Moslem Arabs from northern Israel. He attended Israeli schools, and played soccer with friends who were ultra Orthodox, Ethiopian and Russian. He even briefly considered going into the army, after attending a preparatory gap-year program with other Israeli Jews.

Hebrew was his main language, what he spoke with his friends in school, even with his siblings. He learned English when he went on a peace mission as part of the teenage group Seeds for Peace and had an American girlfriend.

And while “Muna” isn’t his first role — he’s currently rehearsing for a new role in the third season of “Fauda,” — Awad’s TV series is one of the storylines that he has connected to the most as an actor, enjoying his character’s lust for life and utter lack of fear.

He identifies with many “Muna” moments, from being asked to wear a yarmulke at a Shabbat dinner, to being the only Arab at the table.

“That’s what it’s like here; you meet a girl, and then a war starts and then you go to a family dinner and sit at the table, and someone says something about the war and everyone feels uncomfortable because I’m there, and this is our life,” he said.

For all of these characters and the actors who play them, “Muna” represents a lens on life in Israel, and they’re pleased they’re part of that.

For now, it’s unclear whether “Muna” will get a second season, or a chance to be viewed on Netflix. Awad is crossing her fingers for that opportunity.

“I’m realistic, I don’t believe in wishes and dreams, it’s about realities,” she said.

She spends time thinking about what surprises have emerged from the show, like having the Muna character bond with her Jewish boyfriend’s Moroccan father over an old Arabic song, or hearing from viewers who discovered a show that accesses Arabic for them.

“These are things you don’t expect,” she said. “I’m not losing viewers from the Arabic, I gain viewers because of the Hebrew. People are always afraid that it’s or this or that. I think that everything can be added in, and of course it adds complexity, but I like the word add. That makes sense to me.”

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