In this film, a Jewish girl and an Arab boy fall in love, as political, ethnic boundaries, history and war stacked up against them. The Dancing Arabs is about this love story and about being different in a world that continues to be torn by decades of war, violence and a fight for survival.
Eyad (the young protagonist played by Razi Gabareen and the teen by Tawfeek Barhom), is believed to be a child prodigy, as he demonstrates high intelligence and a razor sharp mind. His father Salah (played by actor Ali Suliman), is a Palestinian freedom activist who used to study at a school in Jerusalem, when during a political demonstration he was arrested and forced to quit school. He returned to his hometown and slowly gave up on his dreams to study and change the fortunes of his family. Salah now looks to one of his son’s to take the family forward.
Eyad is accepted at a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, a rarity for an Arab. He leaves home to embark on what he hopes will be a life changing journey. With the expectations of his family, the confines of his ethnicity and the politics that surrounds him, Eyad begins to show great promise at school. Self-identified as different, he stands apart from his peers in his understanding of concepts, ideologies and doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind.
As part of his social work, Eyad volunteers at the home of a young person who is confined to a wheel chair, suffering from muscular dystrophy. The young boy Yonatan (Michael Moshonov) and Eyad hit it off instantly and become very close friends. They both share their experiences of being outsiders and confined by their respective natural conditions. All of their conversations, their moments of brotherly bonding are tender and high points of the film. They help each other cope and hold each other’s hands as comrades.
Eyad’s luck continues and he falls in love with Naomi, a Jewish girl. Naomi and Eyad start this forbidden relationship, unbeknownst to either family. Obviously, this is a ticking time bomb. As Eyad and Naomi’s relationship blossoms, the conflict that surrounds them intensifies. The filmmaker uses background images playing on TV, to talk about wars that have ravaged the region for decades. From the early 1980s and the conflict with Syria to the first Gulf War in 1991, the Salah family sits around the TV and talks about the mistakes Americans make when they chose to partake in these wars. Comparisons with Vietnam are thrown in, only to drive home the well-known sentiment of Anti-Americanism, and how they are and remain an unwelcome presence in any place that isn’t any of their business. It’s telling that in one scene, the Salah family stands atop their roof watching Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein landing in Tel Aviv. They cheer, as Saddam is their torchbearer against Israeli and American aggression.
Eyad enjoys a very touching relationship with his grandmother, who remains his moral and emotional compass. Their relationship is special and beautifully depicted. The narrative remains simple and has an essentially slow pace.
When Naomi’s parents find out about her Arab boyfriend and she is forbidden to leave home or even go to school. Eyad decides to make the greatest sacrifice and quits school, allowing Naomi to come back without her family worrying about Eyad’s presence there. The Salah family is devastated, Salah more than anyone. Eyad leaves home and starts working as a waiter in a restaurant to make ends meet. Soon Naomi comes to a realization that this is not what she wants and the hiding and lying is not going to be her life. She doesn’t see their relationship going anywhere, with all the family restrictions that surround them.
While the teenage romance ends tragically, the underlying message of the film is the assertion of one’s identity. While Salah is seen doing that throughout his life, no matter what the struggle, Eyad’s character is the product of his generation and the realizations of his life experiences.
Eyad makes a life altering decision at the end that leaves one with mixed feelings. There was a part where I understood why he did what he did; however the sadness of his changed reality stays and speaks to the suffocating dilemma people living in that region face. The film has Riklis endeavoring to talk about the struggle for identity trapped in the history of violence and chaos and does so without indulging in any violence himself. While he ends up with a less than emotionally charged film, his message isn’t lost in the least.
The Dancing Arabs is in theatres now.