Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Arab author, screenwriter and journalist, has made a career of self-mockery. The “Dancing Arabs” screenwriter is perhaps best-known to Israeli auds as the mastermind behind “Arab Labor,” a successful comedy series that debuted in 2007. It made history in Israel not just for being first primetime program with primarily Arabic dialogue, but also for proving that Israeli viewers could fall in love with, and be loyal to, a sitcom about an Arab family.
The series, whose name cheekily refers to a Hebrew slur for shoddy handiwork, enjoyed four seasons backed by local media powerhouse Keshet. But when the time came to write a fifth season, Kashua refused. The writer, who has made no secret of his battles with depression, drinking and perpetual self-doubt, was marooned in a massive midlife crisis, one that led him to question everything from his career to his marriage to his commitment to ever-fractured Jerusalem.
The upheaval was so extreme that he fled Israel for the U.S., a decision he chronicles in his weekly Haaretz newspaper column. So rather than write a fifth season of “Arab Labor,” he offered Keshet an alternative — a sort of spinoff, in which he is the main character, and his inability to continue writing “Arab Labor” is at the center of the plot.
“ ‘Arab Labor’ was personal, but this one is really personal,” Kashua says in a phone interview from Illinois, where he is living. “For me, it was writing in a completely different language.”
Lensing on the 10-episode first season wrapped this summer just before Israel’s war with Gaza. This time around, says helmer Shai Capon — who also directed “Arab Labor” and who plays himself in the new series — there was no cushion of humor to protect the actors.
“ ‘Arab Labor’ was light, snappy,” he says. “We got emotional over things, but from a safe place, from the terrace. In this program, it’s more brutal. There are no borders, so shooting it, we were dealing with reality unfiltered.”
The program, which will air later in the year and remains untitled, follows the author of “Arab Labor” — obviously Kashua, but referred to as simply the Writer — as he wrestles with the temptation of a divorce, his own self-doubt, and the creeping realization that despite being born and raised in Israel, it will never be his true home.
It’s heavy stuff, and Kashua knows there is a risk that viewers won’t swallow it. But he is so beloved in Israel, and his work so hotly anticipated, that Keshet feels confident.
Kashua, too, adds a positive note, in his unique way. “I’m completely convinced,” he says in his dry deadpan, “now that I’m focused only on myself.”