The final selection in the 19th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was Eran Riklis’s A Borrowed Identity, originally titled Dancing Arabs, based on the 2004 novel by Sayed Kashua of the same title.
It is a provocative film that sensitively portrays the alienation of Arabs living in Israel, as they are subjected to legal obstacles, border crossings, and prejudice. It is also discomforting to watch Jews being the oppressor. However, it is a well-crafted piece of art.
The protagonist, Eyad, is a young Arab Muslim boy who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in Jerusalem, after a humorous incident in which he solves a complicated riddle posed on an Arab show on cable television. The social isolation and public humiliation of being an Arab in a Jewish state impedes his progress. Along the way, he is assigned to visit a disabled Jewish boy, Jonathan, as part of the school’s community service requirement.
After an initial dismaying interaction, the two boys develop a bond for each other, as well as the mother for Eyad. The conceit of the film is the boys are similar in looks — although not to us cinema viewers — so it is a bitter humor that Eyad would face discrimination identifying as himself, but not as Jonathan. It plays to the subtle point that Arabs and Jews are both descendants of Abraham (as made in one song sang on screen), so the negative traits attributed to each other are actually self-reflective.
Eyad’s first friend at the new school is Naomi, who sees the person behind the Arab name. They eventually become lovers, but neither could declare their love openly, and especially not to their families. Much later, Naomi reluctantly reports that her mother could sooner accept that she were a lesbian or dying of cancer than her Arab boyfriend. In a tragic move, Eyad decides to withdraw from the school, so that Naomi could return. This is after he learns that Jonathan is withdrawing from his school because of the stigma and humiliation of being confined to a wheelchair with an increasingly dire prognosis.
Eyad’s father kicks him out of the family home for this failure in resolve — the father had been jailed and prevented from returning to his university studies because of his political activism (and bombing his school’s cafeteria) — so Eyad moves into his own place, with his mother’s help. Eyad has to find work to support himself. He learns that as Eyad, he can only get work as a busboy, but as Jonathan, he becomes a waiter (who could earn more in tips). He continues to study on his own. Eyal and Naomi re-unite but it’s ultimately futile, as Naomi cannot reconcile her family’s wishes with her love for Eyad.
Jonathan continues to decline, so his mother, Edna, invites Eyad to live with them, to mitigate her despair and to help Jonathan at night. Eyad cares tenderly for Jonathan. A high-power lawyer, Edna mistakenly opens a letter from the bank declaring the waiter-salary deposits being made in Jonathan’s name. After much internal debate, she tells Eyad that no one needs to know of his deceit. Eyad takes the final exams for himself and again for Jonathan. They both graduate with honors, although the grades are lower in civics than any other subject. (There is one classroom scene in which Eyad reluctantly articulates his view that Israeli novelists all portray a Jewish prejudice of Arab stereotypes.)
Eyad moves to Berlin to continue his studies and Jonathan dies. When Edna picks him up at Ben-Gurion Airport, nothing is spoken of their plan: Eyad goes to the Palestinian Authority to report the death of an Arab boy, Eyad. The burial is conducted in Muslim tradition, with the body wrapped in a white shroud. The shrouds had been bought in Mecca by Eyad’s grandmother, but she was buried before he could return home to fulfill his promise to her. Eyad assumes Jonathan’s identity with Edna’s discreet cooperation.
In a Q&A with the director, Riklis was asked why the original title. He offered two explanations, although he is not the author:
- There is a Jewish saying that you cannot dance at two weddings, and
- Arabs and other minorities always have to dance and weave their way through life in a dominant culture.
This is true for any immigrant community, but the political tension heightens the difficulty for integration of Arabs into Israeli society. In defiance of a common Hollywood practice, he does not cast any Jew in an Arab role or vice versa. As a secular Jew, the director made one error on screen: the scene in which Edna recites kiddush for the Shabbat meal, she then proceeds to serve the meal without reciting the ha-motzi bracha (blessing) for the two challot, which remain covered.
This excellent film deviates from the plot of the semi-autobiographical novel, which is very itself very moving. Here is one excerpt:
After a trip to Egypt, his father gives up on his dreams of liberation and statehood. He was stopped at a border crossing for hours and something in him broke. Now he doesn’t want to fight any more. He hates Arabs: “It is better to be the slave of your enemy than to be the slave of a leader from within your own people.”
I look forward to the 20th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia next March.
By Hannah Lee, reprinted from her blog, A Cultural Mix.