Palestinian-American comedian Aron Kader and Jewish-Israeli actress/philanthropist Naomi Ackerman shed some light on what you may have missed in the latest episode of "Arab Labor."
This episode reveals that nearly all the Arab characters, with only two exceptions, can't swim. As a Palestinian, I didn't know this stereotype existed. It strikes me as similar to the stereotype about African Americans in the U.S. Low socio-economic status, lack of access to pools, and having parents that don't realize the importance of being able to swim could attribute to Arabs being averse to swimming.
For many Muslims, going to the beach or a pool and getting half naked in public is immodest. However, I think there are plenty of Arabs that know how to swim in Akka and other coastal areas like Gaza.
Amjad feels so much anxiety over his inability to swim that it makes him crazy. He takes lessons hoping to learn the sport before anyone realizes he can't do it.
While trying on bathing suits, Amjad gets a compliment from Bushra that he has a nice body. So he tries on a red speedo and struts out of the dressing room with it on, only to run into Timna and Natan. Natan mentions he's surprised Amjad can swim, while Timna is impressed. Timna says it's great that there are Arabs like him to debunk stereotypes. Timna and Natan later get into a big fight about whether Amjad can actually swim or not. Timna wants him to apologize for insulting Amjad and Natan thinks Timna made him look racist when he was simply being honest. Now Natan wants to prove that Amjad really can't swim to prove his point.
Amjad's mother never let him swim while he was growing up. In fact, she would hold his hand and not let him enter the water. Amjad later learns that his mother was exposed to a tragic drowning incident as a child. Amjad never knew that he was named after his mother's deceased cousin who drowned 50 years ago. His father tells him about his namesake for the first time: Amjad was a tall, athletic, muscular man. He was fast and strong; he could outrun everyone in the village until the day he learned to swim. He tells the story of how everyone that attempted to save him ended up drowning one by one. "Half of your mother's family drowned on that awful day," he says. Abu Amjad starts explaining what a terrible death drowning is, "Your nose fills up, you can't breath, your lungs explode and you look death in the eye." Then he adds, "Burning to death is no picnic either."
Amjad signs up for swim lessons and gets denied based on his Arabic name. He tells Meir to inquire about the class and he gets accepted immediately. Amjad is overjoyed because he has the conversation on tape and can prove that he was discriminated. The pool manager apologizes then offers him free lessons and family passes to the pool. Then the pool manager makes another jab by saying that everyone must shower before going into the pool. We later see Bushra and her daughter jump fearlessly into the water, proving that inability to swim isn't genetic but cultural.
Amjad gets overwhelmed at the swim lesson and tells the teacher about the drowning in his mother's family. The swim teacher tries to justify why Arabs can't swim in the most racist way possible. He says, "Certain races, especially Palestinians, they have historical issues that make it hard for them to float." This teacher thinks he has a scientific approach to help Arabs learn to swim. Amjad says Arabs can't swim because of the government's ongoing neglect of infrastructure. The coach says it's genetic and tells Amjad to wrap himself in water wings to "fool the water into thinking you're a normal person."
When we see them next, Amjad is wrapped up in floatation devices. The teacher is trying to teach him how to come up for air while swimming when things go horribly wrong. Amjad freaks out and starts kicking, grabbing, and wrestling with the teacher. He climbs on top of him to keep from downing and accidentally holds him under for so long that it kills him.
It's later reported on the news that the death wasn't politically motivated based on security footage that caught the lesson on camera. Natan smiles as he watches the program because he now has proof that Amjad was lying and couldn't swim, after all.
Aron Kader is a Palestinian-American comedian and founding member of The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour that debuted on Comedy Central in 2007. He performs regularly in Hollywood at his home club, The World Famous Comedy Store.
Arab Israelis drown every summer in Israel. Many Arabs don't know how to swim, yet still go into the sea, and when they drown, family members who don't know how to swim go in after them and drown as well.
This show has established that Arabs in Israel are second-class citizens. They don't have access to the same resources that Jewish Israelis have. At the same time, some Arab cultural behaviors are old-fashioned and not always clear. Parents that do not know how to swim don't teach their children to swim so the fear of children drowning ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Arabs may never learn to swim because of traditional and religious reasons, but primarily because they don't have anywhere to swim. Swimming lessons are not a priority because they are very expensive. It's not engrained in their culture; it's simply an issue of Arabs not having access to or being welcome in facilities that teach swimming.
Of course, this doesn't mean all Arabs can't swim. As we see in the show, Amjad can't swim, but his wife and child jump in the water and swim with no problem at all.
This episode shows blatant racism in Jewish society, including the desire of segregation. Amjad tries not to take it personally, but everything is personal. Instead of just saying he can't swim, he decides to prove that he's upper class so he lies, once again trying to keep up with his neighbors, and once again getting himself into a bind.
It's ironic that water, which is a symbol of purity for both Jews and Arabs, is the center of such chaos and turmoil.
Naomi Ackerman is a Jewish-Israeli American. She is the founder and executive director of The Advot Project -- a non-profit organization that uses theater for transformation with incarcerated youth. Naomi draws upon her vast experience as an actress in theater, musicals, films, and television to develop programs that promote peace, change, and encourage self-empowerment.
Click here to watch the full episode, and Kader and Ackerman recapping the ep.