Arab Labor

'Arab Labor,' Season 2, Episode 7 Explainer: 'Music'

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."

Aron Kader:

This episode opens with Amjad behaving almost Homer Simpson-ish. He's on the couch watching TV with his daughter Maya when their pretentious neighbor Timna drops by the apartment to invite them to her son's cello recital. She unintentionally sparks Amjad's feelings of cultural inferiority when she mentions that her family got rid of their TV in an effort to promote quality family time. Amjad predictably removes his TV from their household for the same reason.

Amjad has low expectations at the music recital, but is completely blown away by the boy's talent. This opens a wound that never healed for Amjad. He later tells Bushra a story of his father robbing him of the opportunity to pursue a life in music. He thinks his father ruined his musical aspirations and squandered his potential because he didn't want to pay the music teacher. It's later revealed that Amjad was so untalented that it was his music teacher that quit teaching, not his father who quit paying for lessons. Abu Amjad actually tried to protect Amjad's feelings by letting him believe that he had talent all these years.

So now the impressionable Amjad decides to be more cultured like Timna and the elite Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis who came from Europe. He decides to force his daughter Maya to learn to play the violin, even though she has no desire to do so and actually prefers playing the oud, a Mediterranean guitar. Amjad dismisses the value of the instrument by stating that "No one in Europe listens to the oud." This is actually inaccurate since the oud is a cousin of the European lute and both are still used today in Southern and Northern European music, respectfully.

As usual, the sensible Bushra comes to her daughter's defense to point out Amjad's irrational reasoning to enroll Maya in violin classes. Although Amjad's thought process for doing so is absurd, it's also hilarious. During their argument Amjad says, "All the Ashkenazi that complain are successful." He goes on to explain that he believes that the the Jewish people in Israel are successful because they suffered.

He explains that children who were forced to play classical instruments by their parents go on to thrive in life because they suffered. He makes an even more outrageous leap by explaining that all he wants in the future is for Maya to be a part of the conversation when her Jewish friends complain about their suffrage as children forced by their parents to learn a classical instrument. The whole argument between Bushra and Amjad is hilarious, but it is also deeply rooted in his desire to give Maya a chance to be accepted as an equal by her Jewish peers.

When he is enrolling Maya in a music lessons against her wishes, the teacher asks what kind of music Maya enjoys and she replies with Farid al-Atrash and Oum Kalthoum, both classical Arabic musicians. Amjad is quick to cut her off and add classical composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, whom Maya has never heard of.

While the west may be are unaware of Oum Kalthoum's music and who she is, she is arguably the most famous singer in the history of Arabic music. She lived during the early 1900s and used traditional orchestras mixed with Arab percussion and stringed instrument, including the Oud, and created an operatic sound that Arabs still love to this day. It's difficult to compare her to any musician in the western world, although her biographer Virginia Danielson told Harvard Magazine that she was "a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis."

Kalthoum passed away in 1975, but lives on today through her music and is considered a quintessential traditional Arabic musician.

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.

Naomi Ackerman:

There is a Chinese proverb that says something around the lines of "Make sure to give your children strong roots and wings to fly."

Amjad Alian desperately wants his children to fly, but isn't interested in giving them roots. Actually, if he could uproot them from their past, he would. Being an Arab in Israel doesn't make flying easy. You must be strong and able to spread your wings wide against racism and bigotry.

Amjad thinks that his daughter must be like the Jews in order to be able to fly, and not just any Jew, but the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jew.

The late 1800s marked the second immigration of Jews to Palestine. This group of Jews from Europe brought classical music, literature, and an air of sophistication with them that shaped the country. Eastern European cultural traditions still carry an aura of elitism, even though there have been many other cultural influences in Israel.

Music, dance, and poetry from Arab countries, Spain, South America, India, Ethiopia, and other places in the world are celebrated, taught, and monumental in the cultural identity of Israel.

It's very old fashioned of Amjad to think that a classical violin will give his child an air of superiority. There is also something charming and funny about the fact that he wants her to have something to complain about from her childhood.

Amjad is trying to give his child an opportunity he thinks was taken away from him. In reality, the opportunity was given and his perception of the past is all wrong. How many of us rewrite our history? How many of us tell a story based on our dreams and not veracity?

In a country where there are two nations that have such a different narrative of history, examining the past to explore facts could be an important exercise.

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.

Watch Kader and Ackerman recap the episode.