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Gay Arab pokes at prejudices in Israel's version of 'The Office'

From Paula Hancocks, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israel has its own version of TV comedy hit "The Office"
  • Actress Ayelet Robinson hopes the show will break down prejudices
  • Characters include a gay Arab and a Jewish settler

Tel Aviv, Israel (CNN) -- Put an Israeli Arab, a Jewish settler and a large man with no tact in the same room and you can see the sparks fly. Put it on television and you can call it comedy.

Israel is the latest country to see the "The Office" -- or "HaMisrad" -- on its TV screens. The hit British comedy originally penned by Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant has spawned spin-off series across the world, including in the U.S. where it starred comedian Steve Carell.

The Hebrew version shares much with the British original like the awkward car-crash moments when personalities collide in an office -- but with one basic difference.

"The Israeli culture is almost opposite [to British culture]," says Uzi Weill, the screenwriter who adapted the UK version for an Israeli audience.

"Where the British would be embarrassed, the Israeli would be embarrassing. The British would be reserved, the Israeli would just say it flat to your face."

The Israeli version deals in a healthy amount of stereotypes -- Arab, settler, Russian, Ethiopian, tired old businessman. But then it starts to challenge what you think you know about that character.

"It does change the inner way you look at things, you are not as set in the way you perceive reality," says Weill.

Jamil Khoury plays Abed, the Israeli Arab who does everything he can to blend into the predominantly Jewish office. He says his character is different to Arab characters usually seen on Israeli television.

In the second series, I would like to insult some more stereotypes.
--Uzi Weill, screenwriter, "The Office"
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"Arab stereotypes are not so bright -- stupid sometimes -- but this Abed guy, he turns everything around, he knows a lot," Khoury told CNN.

Abed is also involved in an explosive storyline for an Arab character: He is gay and seen kissing his boyfriend by an office colleagues. It is a scene Khoury hopes will help to break down homophobia within the Arab world.

Khoury said: "People say shame on you, how can you do this? Just for acting it. It's not so common. I know there are a lot of Arab gays here but nobody knows about them; they stay closed."

Actress Ayelet Robinson plays Leah, an Israeli religious settler who Robinson describes as "constantly pregnant."

"She's very religious but I think also she's very jealous of the other lifestyle, the non-religious lifestyle and I think inside of her she wants to be something else," Robinson told CNN.

"It begins with the stereotype and then you discover other things inside her," she said.

Robinson said she loves the fact that the show holds a mirror up to Israeli society and hopes it will help break down prejudices.

Robinson grew up in a religious family and says she had her own built-in bias to break: "This way of looking at Arabs that I grew up with, that you have to be nice to Arabs but don't trust them, don't show your back to them, and this kind of devilish fear."

The British version of "The Office" starring Ricky Gervais as horribly embarrassing David Brent has been shown in dozens of countries worldwide.

The Israeli show, just halfway through its first season, is considered a success and a second season has already been commissioned. Weill will return as screenwriter: "In the second series, I would like to insult some more stereotypes," he said.

And the equivalent of that famous scene where David Brent shows off his dancing moves to a horrified office? His Israeli counterpart, Avi Meshulam, a rather large fellow, performs a belly dance with a silk scarf.