The Bilingual Message of Ajami

Ajami is an Israeli film set in an Arab ghetto in Jaffa, an Israeli city adjacent to Tel Aviv and filled with Israeli Arabs, illegal Palestinian immigrants, Christians, and Jews.  It was co-written by Scandor Copti, an Arab Israeli, and Yaron Shani, a Jewish Israeli.  The film relates the story of the accidental murder of an Arab teenager and the events that ensue through the perspectives of the victim’s brother, an illegal Palestinian working to pay for medical treatment for his mother, and a Jewish police officer.  Ajami addresses the vast differences in the lives led by Arab Israelis as opposed to Jewish Israelis, but perhaps more importantly highlights the times when when these lives converge.

I was particularly struck by one scene when Binj, an Arab Israeli, tells his friends that he plans to move in with his Jewish Israeli girlfriend in Tel Aviv.  This scene is salient with a number of aspects of Israeli and Palestinian media that we have discussed in class.  First, we can see a degree of what Livia Alexander has named role switching.  As we learn more about Binj, we see that he is the true embodiment of an Arab Israeli.  We see him speak Arab fluently with his Arab friends and family, and yet he speaks Hebrew with his Jewish Israeli girlfriend when he frequents clubs in Tel Aviv.  He has been straddling a divide for the majority of the movie, and when he announces his imminent move to Tel Aviv, he seems to be leaning to one side of the divide, emphasizing the Israeli half of his identity as an Arab Israeli.

What I found most interesting about this particular scene, however, was how the purposeful use of Hebrew and Arabic addresses the more subtle issues that are carried within the message of the film as a whole.  The scene begins with Binj, his Arab friends, and his girlfriend watching Israeli news broadcasted in Hebrew.  He asks one of his friends in Arabic to borrow his car so he can move his things to his girlfriend’s apartment, a request that is not exactly welcomed.  His friends immediately begin barraging him with questions in Arabic, telling him that he’s abandoning his family and essentially his Arab side.  One of his friends eventually walks out saying, “Talk Hebrew with your kids, make them Jews, I’ve nothing to say.”  All the while, his girlfriend sits there asking repeatedly “What is he saying?” and “What did you say?” and trying to diffuse the tension by assuring Binj’s friends that they’re “welcome to visit”.  This scene’s use of language brings up many issues, the most obvious is perhaps that Binj is romantically involved with somebody who does not speak his native tongue and thereby misunderstands why his move to Tel Aviv is so controversial.

This film can be found on reserve in Tisch.

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2 Responses to The Bilingual Message of Ajami

  1. Interesting post! I think a key point is that this is not exactly the kind of role switching discussed by Bardenstein, in which individuals intentionally and definitively switch their identities for a particular period of time. Instead, for Palestinians inside Israel, everyday life involves bilingualism and moving almost seamlessly from one cultural context to another. Does this mean their identities switch too? In which case are they playing a “role”? Are they always performing, whether they are speaking Arabic with their friends or Hebrew with their girlfriend? Do we all do the same?

  2. Matt–this is really interesting! I’ve always been interested in certain aspects of linguistics and the linguistic choices that people deliberately make, and the issue gains all that much more complexity when we place it in the context of Israel/Palestine. These decisions are especially telling with regard to film, and your choice to analyze Ajami through this lens seems highly appropriate.
    I also might venture to say that the comment that the main character’s girlfriend makes (“You’re welcome to visit!”) goes beyond just a simple cultural misunderstanding–it makes her sound downright condescending. Though she is likely acting out of naivete, I’m sure that most of Binj’s friends did not take that possibility into account. Perhaps in this scene the film is suggesting that this vast lack of understanding between Israelis and Palestinian-Israelis creates a cycle of misinterpretation the breeds only more separation. Does the film offer anything by way of a solution to this problem?

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