Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lucy Aharish: 'People don't imagine I'm an Arab'

Lucy Aharish is one of a growing number of Arab-Israeli media personalities, criticised by both the Jewish and Arab communities for her high profile. But, as Rachel Shabi discovers, these are battles she has faced all her life, from being bullied at school to surviving a suicide bomb. When Lucy Aharish turned up to audition for the role of newsreader on Israeli commercial television, she saw 10 other women awaiting their turn for the screen test. "They were all blonde and blue-eyed, very Tel Aviv, like the typecast of the channel," says the 28-year-old Aharish. "I thought there was no way that I'd be accepted but that I'd just give it a try." She was accepted - and became the first Arab-Israeli newsreader on mainstream Israeli television.

That set off a frenzy of interest in this Arab-Israeli journalist who speaks fluent, unaccented Hebrew and constantly flummoxes Israeli cab drivers when they discover, mid anti-Arab tirade, that their canny female passenger is a Muslim. In her role as newsreader and West Bank correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 TV, Aharish was the bright new female on the block and one of the key players in a circle of young Arab-Israelis blazing a trail into Jewish salons through TV sets, movie screens and glossy magazines.

"I'm an Israeli Arab, a Muslim girl who speaks fluent Hebrew," says Aharish. "People don't imagine when they see me, that I'm an Arab - that's an advantage and it has opened doors." Arab-Israelis - Palestinians who remained in Israeli after its creation in 1948 - form just over 20 per cent of the population of the Jewish state. In theory, this sector is supposed to enjoy equal rights, but in reality there are grave limitations to that in a society where "Arab" is practically synonymous with "enemy" and the Arab population is constantly viewed as a potential fifth column.

In this context, it is no wonder that Lucy's appearance on popular Israeli TV caused such ripples of interest. Now, nearly two years after she made her glittery debut on prime time news, she has a lower profile - but can still be seen and heard all over Israeli broadcast media: she co-presents a morning radio show, is newsreader for youth TV, reports for a television magazine programme (short documentaries on news issues), and presents entertainment features for a music TV channel.

It has been, by her own admission, a fairy-tale experience for someone who definitely does not tick the right boxes in one of the most elitist professions in Israel, where white, European-Jewish men still dominate. "I still don't let myself forget that just a few years ago, I was this Arab girl from Jerusalem, who was working as a receptionist in a restaurant," she says. Nor, it seems, can she forget the constant tightrope walk required of a high-profile Arab woman; criticised, scrutinised and constantly critiqued by both Arab and Jewish societies within Israel.

Aharish was born in 1981 in Dimona, a desert town in Israel's periphery - famous for being the site of the Jewish state's openly secret nuclear facility, and a typically right-wing, rally-round-the-flag kind of community. The Aharish family moved from their hometown of Nazareth, in northern Israel, seeking better work and a different life in the desert town. Her father is an engineer and was employed at the dusty desert town's Dead Sea mineral plant. But it was an odd choice of address: they were the only Arab family in Dimona.