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Dancing Arabs / A Borrowed Identity

Only Escape Remains

Love, friendship and your own future: The coming-of-age story of a Palestinian in Israel shows life under occupation from a personal perspective. Unfortunately “Dancing Arabs” shows that the personal cannot be transcended. By Phil Butland

DancingArabs_Poster_DEF-20154241524Eyad is the only Palestinian in an Israeli élite school. He falls in love with his Jewish classmate Naomi and she with him. Can their love prevail against social and family pressure? Eyad befriends the disabled Israeli Yonatan, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. Can the two outsiders learn from each other and be accepted by a discriminatory society?

Such questions often end lead to clichés and superficial “solutions”. Indeed, other directors and screenwriters have produced respectable, but ultimately uninteresting, films from similar dilemmas. Director Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree”) and screenwriter Sayed Kashua (author of the autobiographical novel “The dancing Arabs”, on which this film is based) are more ambitious. They highlight the social roots of these problems, and refuse to offer us a “Romeo and Juliet” story, where all conflicts could be resolved if only parents listened to their children and we all loved each other.

No “Romeo and Juliet” Story

All of the film’s protagonists are affected by the Israeli occupation, but they are not affected equally. For Eyad, life under occupation means being attacked at a bus stop, or being controlled by soldiers when he speaks a sentence in Arabic. Naomi must choose between her feelings and a good job in the army.

As director Hany Abu-Assad showed in “Paradise Now”, light-skinned Arabs can be perceived as Jewish Israelis, and so can escape much everyday discrimination. Yet “Dancing Arabs” shows that this comes at the price of giving up their own language and culture and renouncing their friends.

In one scene, workers in the kitchen of a restaurant are listening to Arabic music. As soon as the head waiter arrives, they turn off the music and suddenly begin speaking Hebrew. They are all Arabs, using Jewish names to find work. Their dream is to become a waiter – a job that is only available to Jewish Israelis.

Individual solutions

The occupation does not just affect career opportunities and your love life. Armed soldiers and racist graffiti and stickers are everywhere. In front of the “Dome of the Rock” in Jerusalem the only flag flying is Israeli. But the occupation also acts much more subtly than on this symbolic level.

In literature classes Eyad and his classmates read a novel by Amos Oz, one of the most famous representatives of liberal Zionism. Eyad eloquently shows the Orientalist thinking central to even supposed anti-racists like Oz, who consistently depicts Palestinians as dependent and childlike second-class citizens, waiting to be freed by progressive Israelis.

“Dancing Arabs” rejects the liberal view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between two equally powerful nations, and is clearly on the side of the oppressed. This commendable partisanship makes it regrettable (albeit fully understandable) that it only sees individual solutions out of the terrible situations.

Jewish Israelis always have the limited choice between adapting to the racist sate, or resisting – knowing that resistance could isolate them from their friends and family. Arabs are denied even this choice. The only way out is to leave their family and their culture, either by assimilation or by flight (Eyad experiences a small personal liberation when he flees to Berlin). Yet even if individuals find a small personal solution, the system of repression remains.

Hoping for Saddam Hussein

Other solutions are conceivable, and yet offer a very limited vision of freedom.  The film takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, when the region was at war, first in Lebanon, later in Iraq. For a short time, the desperate Palestinians hoped that Saddam Hussein could free them. But it becomes quickly clear that the Arab leaders are too weak – and are not interested in the fate of the Palestinians anyway.

The film sees the possibility of liberation – but only in the past. Eyad’s father was a communist resistance fighter in the 1960s. Because of his politics he lost any chance of an education or a career. Now liberation appears to be only possible from outside Palestine – if it is at all possible.

In fact, in 1987 – within the time period in which this film takes place – we saw the first Intifada, where Palestinians tried to shape their own destiny. The Intifada was ultimately unable to shift the balance of power in the colonial state, but it did provide Palestinians with a new self=confidence. This feeling and experience of liberation is largely absent from this film.

Having said this, it would be unfair to condemn “Dancing Arabs” for not being optimistic about the situation of the Palestinians – this situation is indeed as bleak as depicted in the film.

All the more reason to fundamentally change the situation.

“Dancing Arabs” / “A Borrowed Identity”. Director: Eran Riklis / Israel, Germany, France 2014. In German cinemas from May 21 2015.

The original version of this review appeared on the marx21 Website on May 26, 2105:

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