Imagine my disorientation the day I flew home to California for Christmas and found my parents watching "Arab Labor," my most-loved sitcom (and, I thought, best-kept secret) from Israel.
Alas, the show was too good to hide from America for long. LinkTV, an indie satellite network with a heavy focus on the Middle East, picked up the series back in 2008, only a year after its Israeli premiere, and started airing it for Dish and DirecTV subscribers (aka, my parents).
And now its U.S. audience is going proletariat. Starting next month, the five-and-a-half million households in Southern and Central California with basic digital cable will be able to watch Israel's best sitcom — from Episode One of Season One through to the end of Season Four — on KCETLink, the new merger between KCET and LinkTV. (Click here to find out which channel that is for you.)
Episodes will air every Tuesday night at 9 p.m., beginning on May 6.
"Just generally speaking, there’s a huge Jewish and Arab community here; it’s kind of a melting pot," Ayn Allen, a spokeswoman for KCET, told me over the phone. "So we thought ['Arab Labor'] would be a home run for Southern California audiences." And Lorraine Hess, head of acquisitions for KCETLink — the woman who first brought "Arab Labor" to America — said in a press release:
“We are confident this series can help enlighten viewers to some of the nuances around the Arab/Israeli experience that perhaps aren’t evident from mainstream news reporting.”
The show's L.A. drop will be a much-needed refresher from the current Israel-Palestine news cycle. Over the latest (failed) round of peace talks, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been stuck in a high-profile bicker so petty and predictable that I hear their narratives like mosquitos in my sleep. If I were to believe my Twitter feed, no Israeli and Palestinian could possibly sit in the same room together post-Kerry, let alone share an inside joke.
But "Arab Labor" makes the quarrel into one of brothers. It gives warm blood to this historical divide between Jews and Arabs in the region, in a way that few peace orgs or conflict-resolution conferences have been able to do. Via KCETLink:
"Arab Labor" (translated from the Hebrew “Avoda Aravit” which colloquially implies “shoddy or second-rate work”) focuses on Amjad, a Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen in search of his identity as he seeks high status in the society into which he was born but where his car is searched everyday when he drives from his neighborhood to his job at a newspaper in Jerusalem.
The main character, a cuddly klutz and hopeless people-pleaser, appears to be created in the likeness of Arab-Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua, whose main gig (besides creating and writing the show) is as a columnist for Israel's farthest-left daily, Haaretz. In "Arab Labor," Kashua delves fearlessly into the struggles and stereotypes facing middle-class Palestinians living in a Jewish state, and — without trivializing, for the most part — exposes the everyday ridiculousness of life in this twisty, conjoined twin of a country.
From a profile of Kashua for Tower Magazine called "The Greatest Living Hebrew Writer Is Arab":
I asked him if he has a message he is trying to deliver to the Israeli people. After all, he has spent his entire adult life working in Hebrew and living among Jews, an Arab Japheth on the chaotic train that is the Jewish state.
“No, no, I don’t have a point,” he says. “I just want everyone to love me.”
Just try not to love him. There are some choice clips from Season One and Two posted to the LinkTV website, and full episodes from Seasons Three and Four. But I recommend waiting for the full run to start on May 6 — because a sitcom this golden is best enjoyed with a TV dinner at a reasonable hour in the family room, like "Seinfeld" weeknights of old.
Also: If you're sick of watching "Arab Labor" alone in bed with no one to shake by the shoulders and riff to about its brilliance, and you'd rather converge with dozens of bed-watchers just like yourself and celebrate "Arab Labor" together for a change, you're in luck. KCET will be launching the series with a community screening and panel discussion at 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 4, at the Harmony Gold Preview House on Sunset.
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the panel will include Los Angeles Levantine Cultural Center Director Jordan Elgrably, "Arab Labor" actress Clara Khoury, Palestinian-American comedian Aron Kader and USC computer scientist/Israel critic Yigal Arens.
We can only dream their conversation runs anywhere along the lines of the bomb-shelter scene at the end of Season Three.