Israeli-Arab Star Abu-Warda: Public Just Wants Entertainment

Article Summary
Yussuf Abu-Warda’s latest role in a hit Israeli TV series has made him into a national celebrity. He discusses his career, beliefs and identity as an Arab Christian in Israeli society with Elkana Shor.

Yussuf Abu-Warda, whom you may know as "Amram Bulldog" from the Israeli crime TV series “The Arbitrator,” is not just the "Bulldog" that he portrays in the series. He has an impressive track record of almost forty years as an all-around stage actor. He has performed in the Beersheba Theater, the HaBima National Theater and, mostly, in the Haifa Theater. In between, he appeared onscreen in the movies “Kadosh,” ”Year Zero” and “Lost Islands,” among others, and on TV in the series “The Ran Quadruplets,” “Case Closed” and “Pillars of Smoke,” to mention but a few of them. A year ago he returned to the theater stage after a four-year absence. In the course of those four years, he savored another medium, that of television. Most of that time he dedicated to “The Arbitrator,” which turned him into a local celebrity.

However, most of the public is unaware of the name of the actor playing the character of Amram Bulldog.

“Look here,” Abu-Warda says, “I have been playing on stage for a long time. Whoever knows me has come to know me as a theater actor. However, I can tell you that 70% of the public whom I come across identify me as Amram Bulldog and have no idea that I am an Arab. They are taken aback when they discover it. I can see their countenance as they change color. ‘What'd you say! What’s your name again? Yussuf?’ They are sure that Bulldog is making fun of them. ‘Are you really an Arab?’ So we find ourselves in an embarrassing situation.

“It does something to you,” Abu-Warda says. “One minute people are smiling at you and enveloping you with love and sympathy and the next, once they realize who you really are, their attitude changes. Well, it’s a bit confusing. That’s the situation, and I don’t think that I, personally, or any TV series can change it. It is a matter of history and high politics.

“The truth is, I didn't realize myself that TV watchers were unaware of my identity as an Arab. When I was playing on stage, I was always recognized as an Arab, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Some time ago, I was just idling, playing poker on Facebook, when somebody with a typical Israeli name joined in and sent me a message: ‘Ahlen! Bulldog? Isn’t it?’

"‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘that’s me.’ So the guy tells me: ‘Come on! Let's go and beat them up, those gentiles!’ As if I would go for it with him. So I tell him: ‘But I myself am a gentile.’ He then writes me back: ‘Yes, but you are a different type of gentile.’

"He apparently didn’t know the truth.”

Don’t embellish us

However, it's more than just random encounters of this kind with the local public. Abu-Warda, a Maronite Christian, has appeared in numerous roles over the years. Some of the characters he played were quite Jewish. He is a versatile actor, capable of playing a large variety of roles. However, he has a well-defined red line that he would never cross. Two years ago, he firmly refused to take part in a certain Israeli TV drama series. He wouldn’t say which one it was, but judging by the context, you can guess that it was “Prisoners of War” [adapted into the acclaimed American TV series “Homeland”], which recently returned for a second season.

“I was offered the role of the Arab in the series; however, I am usually careful about such roles,” Abu-Warda says. “I am not fond of and have no interest in playing Arab characters that are presented from the point of view of an Israeli script writer. It’s my self-respect that is at stake here, and I wouldn't compromise on it. I have no problem with portraying Jews or ‘Bulldogs’ or whatever, you name it. But I would never agree to be put in a situation where I am used to serve a narrative and legitimize things that are unacceptable to me politically or more generally, as a human being. I refused to do it even before I read the script, and when they told me what it was all about, I told them that I was not interested. It can be really humiliating at times.”

But Israelis are playing the role of Palestinians — that is, corpses of terrorists.

“Israelis are playing the role of Palestinians, terrorists and the like in second-rate American movies. To that, I’ll never agree; no question about it. You see, it’s not only that I am not ready to play an Arab character that is intended to demonize Arabs. Naturally I wouldn’t agree to it. But even when there is supposedly something positive about the character, it isn’t a real character. It serves some function in the narrator’s ideology. Over-embellishing doesn’t serve the purpose, either.”

You mean “Prisoners of War,” for instance?

“I haven’t seen 'Prisoners of War.' I am not watching this series.”

Does it upset you that other Arab actors are playing in TV series of this kind?

“No. It’s just me, my own choice. And it’s not only on TV. I ruled out roles that were offered to me in HaBima [theater], too. They tried to interest me in some show with two Arab characters, a father and a son. The father is a lawyer who is regarded as a ‘good Arab;’ he is a collaborator. The son, on the other hand, has national aspirations and is therefore seen as a ‘bad Arab.’

"The mere idea of playing in a show with such characters, whether it’s a ‘good Arab’ or a ‘bad Arab’ — I just don’t want to be there. I am not interested in it. It is supposed to serve some function. It isn’t a real role. It has no substance beyond this issue. It’s the sort of character that has no life of its own, no history of its own, no personal love stories, no dreams or desires. It isn’t a complete character; it’s just some meaningless figure.”

What about [the Israeli sitcom] “Arab Work,” have you seen it? 

“Not all of it. I liked the last season and the previous one, when it became more of a satire and less of a comedy. The truth is that in its first season I agreed with those who were critical of the series. It was a comedy of sorts then. In the second season it became more of a satire. They raised tough topics that concern Jewish-Arab relations and inter-Arab relations and made fun of them. It isn’t just a comedy that says nothing. It started like that, like a light comedy that doesn’t really say much. In the second season — beyond the butt of the satire — I would say that artistically, it was done much better than in the first season. No matter what you said or to whom, as long as you said something of meaning.”

Kafka for the masses

You cannot talk with Abu-Warda without talking politics. All through his career, the issue has surfaced time and again. When he was a novice in the Beersheba Theater, he became acclimated, as he himself says, but he couldn’t find an apartment to rent. That’s in a nutshell the place he occupied in the Israeli cultural DNA. He became acclimated, but was not truly integrated. I remind him that years ago, in an interview to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, he said, “There will never be an Arab [Robert] De Niro. Identifying with an Arab screen actor isn’t really something the [Israeli] public can fall for.”

Was he right? Well, in part, at least. TV drama series and reality shows, blockbusters and comedies — they all feature today familiar Arab actors known in every home.

“Twenty years ago, I felt that there was much more willingness, among Jews and Arabs alike, to discuss problematic issues, to talk with each other, to get closer,” Abu-Warda says. “However, ever since, I have felt more and more alienated. Regardless of what you say, I feel alienated. Let’s put it straight, it’s true that you can find more Arabs now in various roles in the media; however, there is less interest in one another; there is less eagerness to talk about controversial issues. There is a sense of weariness and complacency. We don’t want more of the same thing we have on the news programs. It’s as if they told you: ‘Leave me alone, I don’t want to hear about Arabs and Jews anymore.' I myself felt like that once; I had that feeling of ‘leave me alone, I’m tired of hearing about it.’

“I want to tell you something. The marketing departments of our theaters are taking all this into account. When I take part in a show, the fact that an Arab actor is in the cast directly impacts the sale of tickets for the show. And it isn’t just a hunch. I know it for a fact. And it doesn’t matter what role you are playing in the show. It has been years since we had a political theater here that can stir up debate. But it’s all irrelevant. Something has changed here. In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was an active member in the theater, the public was more curious, more willing to deal with controversial issues. We have now reached a point where all that the public wants is entertainment, the further removed from reality, the better. Just don’t remind it of painful issues. And an Arab is going to remind it of matters it would rather not think about. An Arab is a problem.”

Found in: television, israeli-arabs, israel, identity, film, arab-israelis

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