Hisham Suleiman now hears calls of “Abu Ahmad” when walking down the street — a sign of the popularity of a television drama that dares to present a complex view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The show “Fauda,” or chaos in Arabic, sees Arab Israeli actor Suleiman portray Abu Ahmad, a Hamas militant being pursued by an Israeli undercover unit.
Its first season captivated viewers by showing the more human aspects of characters often portrayed in black and white, while at the same time keeping them on edge with tense storylines.
It is the first Israeli television show in both Hebrew and Arabic.
A second season is now in preparation, and Netflix has also picked it up, with the first season available with English subtitles and dubbing.
Avi Issacharoff, co-creator of the show and who for years covered the Palestinian territories as a journalist, said: “We tried to show both sides of the story.”
“We wanted to show that even the bad guys are very different from what the average Israeli thinks.”
– ‘Honest and nuanced’ –
The series follows Doron, a retired member of the undercover Israeli unit who breaks with the peaceful family life he had transitioned into and rejoins the fight at the request of his former chief.
Suleiman’s character — the member of the Palestinian Islamist movement — is behind a series of suicide attacks that killed more than 100 Israelis.
Doron thought he had killed him, but it turns out he is still alive, so the former agent returns to finish the job.
The 12 episodes of the first season depict the pursuit that follows, with the story portrayed in meticulously constructed scenes reflective of the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
That includes pervasive security constraints, attacks and nighttime raids by the Israeli army in Palestinian territory.
Two-thirds of the show is in Arabic, with the characters played by Jewish and Arab Israelis.
In 2016, it won six Ophir prizes awarded by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, including best dramatic series.
It has also gained fans globally both due to its availability on Netflix and its appearance at international festivals.
American writer Stephen King has been among the fans praising it.
Issacharoff said it was difficult at first to garner interest in the show.
“At first, everyone said ‘no’ because it was too expensive due to numerous action scenes and because everybody here is tired of the subject,” he said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The power of the series comes across in its realism.
While “Fauda” was written for an Israeli audience and Hamas can be seen as the “bad guys”, all characters are portrayed with a rare complexity.
“The way in which the screenwriters have illustrated the conflict is very fair, honest and nuanced,” said Einav Schiff, television critic for Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot.
In one episode, Amal, a young Palestinian woman whose fiance was killed at their wedding ceremony by a member of the Israeli undercover unit, decides to take revenge.
She brings a bomb in an Israeli bar where the girlfriend of one of the Israeli agents works.
Inside the bar, while holding the bag with the bomb inside, Amal hesitates, her eyes darting, seemingly staggered by the kindness of the waitress, the agent’s girlfriend, who asks if something is wrong. A harrowing scene then follows.
– ‘A kind of catharsis’ –
Suleiman, who comes from the northern Israeli city of Nazareth and, like many Arab Israelis, sees himself as a Palestinian, said he appreciated that the show’s creators allowed him to play a Hamas member more complex than the typical “violent and macho” portrayal.
He says he has been inundated with messages from fans from a range of backgrounds.
“Jews, Christian and Muslim Arabs, people from the left and right, even settlers from Kiryat Arba,” he said, referring to a hardline Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Suleiman says that the show’s blurring of lines is another sign that the conflict may not be as intractable as it seems.
Issacharoff called it “a kind of catharsis for all post-traumatic Israelis and Palestinians”.
“It gives them the possibility to be both inside, since it is their story, and outside at the same time, since it is only a series — to look at reality in a detached way,” he said.