A genuine Ashkenazi
Yousef Sweid is everywhere these days. He stuffs himself on gefilte fish in the telenovela The Champion, he lives with the director Yaeli Ronen, and in the new film The Bubble he has a relationship with a Jewish guy. If only he weren’t an Arab, your mother would be happy for you to bring him home
The past year has been a good one for Yousef Sweid. He plays in the telenovela The Champion as Jalal, the sensitive soccer player who has a romance with the daugther of someone important, he is playing in a number of talked-about theatrical productions, and he is also starring in The Bubble, the new film by Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky.
In the film Ashraf an Arab from Nablus (played by Sweid) and a Jew from Tel Aviv (played by Ohad Knoller) fall in love. “But this isn’t a serious film about the occupation,” says Sweid. “Who really feels like seeing another film like that? What’s nice in The Bubble is that it’s a fun film that uses a light touch and laughter to deal with all the sensitive issues.”
The Bubble (PR Photo)
It’s true that Sweid has an intimate relationship with a Jewish woman in The Champion, but a photogenic romance between an Arab guy and a Jewish woman is one thing, and to see a Jewish guy lying on his stomach under an Arab guy is totally different.
The homosexual sex scenes in The Bubble are probably the most daring ever in an Israeli movie. “Both Ohad and I had quite a bit of trepidation before the filming,” says Sweid, “but I felt that the scenes were justified and that they were important from the point of view of expression, so I put my hesitations aside and I saw it through to the end. The erotic scenes were between an Israeli-Jewish guy and a Palestinian, who get into each other both physically and emotionally. I think that the courage to show this is like the courage to make peace.”
If the sex between Noam and Ashraf is a political statement, the question is, who’s screwing who?
“That is really a senstive point. I’m lucky that we didn’t have to decide that for ourselves. It was written in the script. The answer is that everyone has the opportunity to be on top. That’s important.”
What kind of reception do you think the film will have among Arab audiences?
“I’m a bit apprehensive about the Arab reaction, mostly from distant relatives. There are very intimate scenes there, and in our society we’re not yet at the point where we’re fighting for gay rights. I’m not sure that older Arabs will accept such a love story. It’s not a question of good or bad. It’s just a question of a certain culture. And just as Arab culture is too conservative on these issues, in Tel Aviv, in my opinion, there’s excessive sexual openness. I believe that there is something right about preserving values and the sacred place of sex.”
Yousef Sweid (PR Photo)
The Tel Aviv bubble is not foreign to Sweid, who is 30 years old. In fact, he’s been living there since he was 19 when he came to Tel Aviv from Haifa, where he was born and grew up, to study community directing at the university. Today he lives with his girlfriend, prominent young director Yaeli Ronen.
Ashraf never feels entirely comfortable with conservative Arab society, but he also isn’t completely comfortable in Tel Aviv. Is that something you identify with?
“Very much so. I came to Tel Aviv following a period when I'd become close to my religion, and suddenly I came to a totally different place, open, unrestrained, a place with no limits, where everyone does what they feel like doing. For an entire year I was both here - going to parties and going out and going around with girls - and also there, with my religious family in Haifa. It was impossible. I felt that I was no longer steeped exclusively in the Arab mentality, but on the other hand, the people I know in Tel Aviv saw me first of all through my Arab identity, rather than through my overall personality.
“It wasn’t like that in Haifa. No Jew makes an issue of Arabs. In Tel Aviv I feel that people want to accept the Arabs, but they don’t have this experience of living in the same building above an Arab family. I think that still, if an Arab family from Jaffa were to move into a building in Tel Aviv, the Jewish neighbors would not find this so simple. And I’m not even talking about what would happen if a family from Gaza moved into the building. That would certainly be a disaster.
"In Tel Aviv it’s pleasant, but I still confuse people. They say to me things like ‘but you don’t look like an Arab,’ and immediately they catch themselves and correct themselves. There’s nothing you can do about this. Even if you don’t mean to be racist, something always slips out in your speech. It’s in your education from an early age, and these are the messages that get stuck in your head.”
Were there girls who refused you in the past because you’re an Arab?
“Of course. On principle I don’t say right off the bat that I’m an Arab because my national identity is not important, it’s my soul that’s important. Once I was speaking to someone on the telephone, and she asked right off if I'd been in the army, which is totally nuts. I told her that I hadn’t been in the army because I’m an Arab. She asked me, ‘What, your father, your mother?’ I said, ‘Both of them,’ and then she said, ‘OK, I’ll call you in a bit,’ and hung up. I still haven’t heard from her.”
Were you insulted?
“Of course. It’s sad. Not just for her, but for all of us. I’m not angry at this girl, I’m angry at her parents and the education the country provides. A 19-year old girl shouldn't be afraid of going out with an Arab guy. Just this week Yaeli showed me an item in the paper about a non-profit organization that goes to schools and teaches girls how to avoid going out with Arab guys because an Arab guy will lie to you and beat you. She was really furious about that. In general she gets angrier and more insulted than I do at things like that. She has more confidence criticizing Jewish society because she is a part of it. I’m not. It’s like the fact that only Jews are allowed to tell Holocaust jokes.”
And your parents?
“It’s hard for my mother that I have a Jewish girlfriend. She wants me to go out with a girl who is Christian, like me. It’s true that the people around us are cool, and no one looks funny at us, but I’m sure that there are some people who think that our relationship is not a good example for their children. That it’s something not sane, that it’s assimilation, sleeping with the enemy.”