A hit TV series has made Kateb a star, but success has him doubting everything. His solution? Turn the camera on himself.
By
Anthony Morris

30 Sep 2021 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 30 Sep 2021 - 5:12 PM

When you make comedy on the edge, there’s always one question you can’t escape: are people laughing at you for the right reasons? Writer Sayed Kashua had a smash hit in Israel with his series Arab Labour, a comedy about an anti-hero who finds fame and fortune via reality TV. So how did he follow up his breakthrough hit? His series The Writer focuses on a middle-aged writer Kateb (Yousef Sweid), who’s become a star after creating a series titled – you guessed it – Arab Labour. Is Kateb happy with his lot in life? Here’s a clue: the answer isn’t “yes”.

We’re firmly in mockumentary territory here, though Kateb isn’t exactly a Middle Eastern Larry David. He’s suffering from a series of crises both big and small in his daily life, but there’s one over-arching anxiety he can’t escape: is he just the acceptable mainstream face of Arab–Israeli culture?

 

He’s critically acclaimed, a smart and savvy performer who brings an Arab perspective to Israeli society. But when people laugh at his comedy and praise his insight, does that mean he’s really reaching them? Or does widespread acceptance of his work merely serve to make his Israeli audience feel good about themselves for displaying tolerance? And if his success means he’s sold out, is there anything meaningful he can do about it?

Professionally he’s filled with doubts; at home, his life isn’t much better. There, he’s faced with a social worker wife and teenage daughter who are both busy with their own lives – ones in which he’s increasingly becoming part of the supporting cast. Bringing up his younger son brings with it a different set of problems. Explaining the ways of the world is one thing, but it’s clear that some social divides can’t be bridged by a snappy one-liner.

Kashua was a prominent columnist in Israel until he left for the US in 2014, and in his writings he’s often used this kind of metafiction to explore the divided nature of being an Arab in Israel. Despite the high concept of The Writer, a lot of the comedy and drama early on is more down-to-earth, coming from Kateb’s struggles to bring up his children in a comfortable middle-class society that largely rejects the culture he feels he needs to defend.

 

When he drops his son off at school, he discovers it’s closed because of a Jewish holiday he doesn’t observe. During a tense encounter with a security guard, he clumsily attempts to defuse the tension by switching from Arabic pop music to Hebrew. At home, his attempts to get his daughter to study Arabic is countered with her harsh (and yet perfectly reasonable) observation that despite his cultural concerns, now he’s a success he only writes in Hebrew. It’s tough living between two worlds.

Kateb’s concerns that the message of his comedy is being lost in transmission isn’t unique. Numerous Black comedians have publicly expressed concern that white audiences are taking the wrong messages from their comedy; Dave Chappelle was so worried about it he pulled the plug on Chappelle’s Show at the height of his fame. Kateb’s success isn’t quite at that level, but his worries are real; how can he be funny when he’s no longer sure what the joke is?

 

His solution takes the series’ meta-commentary on Kashua’s success to a whole new level. As the series progresses, Kateb decides to forego another series of Arab Labour. Despite the advice of those around him he chooses to instead focus on a series based on a character much like himself, going through the same professional and personal dramas he’s facing. Which is exactly what Kashua’s done in real life with The Writer.

Of course, everyone around him tells him his new idea won’t work. It won’t be funny, he’ll lose the audience he’s built up, he’s fenced himself into a creative corner that Israel won’t let him leave. And yet, his new idea is exactly what we’re watching. Will they be proved right? That’s up to us.

While we wait to pass judgment on Kateb – and Kashua – we’re left with a funny and deeply humane series. It’s one that across ten episodes shows a range of flawed people trying to make their way through a complex, multifaceted society where success comes at a cost and being yourself requires a flexibility that can leave you wondering who you really are. Kateb wants to be the author of his own story; that’s a hard job, even for a writer. 

The Writer is now streaming at SBS On Demand. It is also available with subtitles in Arabic.

Follow the author @morrbeat

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