An Interview with Clara Khoury

Clara Khoury

After a prolonged process of painful maturation, actress Clara Khoury now declares: "Something inside me has calmed down." Her green eyes are dreamy. "For many years I was very confused about the issue of identity. I was angry. Now I am in a more relaxed period. I've reached conclusions and it seems to me I've made peace with it all. With myself, with society, with this place. The clashing identities still exist, but while I used to feel alien and was angry about it - today I think [experiencing such clashes] is something of an advantage."

A few years ago you said in an interview: "I've been screwed in every way."

Khoury: "Things like that provide loud newspaper headlines more than anything else. The fact of the matter is that I have many identities and I am many people, but I have come to terms with this. It used to be difficult, now I accept them."

A month ago the beautiful 35-year-old Christian actress, the daughter of Israel Prize for Acting laureate Makram Khoury, was awarded the Israeli Academy of Film and Television prize for best actress in a comedy for her role as Bushra in "Arab Labor" - the television series that also won the prize for best comedy. On Monday last week the series returned to the screen for its third season, the first episode chalking up its highest ratings ever. In addition to the series, Khoury is appearing in Jonathan Sagall's film "Lipstikka," due to come to local screens next month.

Khoury has not been around to enjoy all this: About two months ago she left with her husband for a long vacation in the United States, the declared aim of which is "to recover, to calm down and to rest up from this year."

There is no date yet for her return, but when she does, she says, there will be new things on her plate: projects she will write or organize for herself. All of them are part of the change she has undergone in the past year. In contrast to the evasive answers and double messages Khoury excelled at giving in the past - wavering between the urges to express herself, to busy herself with her career, and yet also to keep quiet a bit so as to slide smoothly down the viewers' throats - now she gives clear answers. Even when they concern that same duality. "The analysis is correct," she laughs. "I wanted to express the criticism I had and I also wanted to succeed, but my feeling is that today I am voicing this more. Suddenly things became clear to me: all the psychological states I got into then, the confusion, [not knowing] where I belong. Like an endless tunnel with no light in sight."

'Responsibility for myself'

In an interview held just before her trip abroad, Khoury looks especially happy when she talks about her new husband, an American of Irish and Egyptian descent named Sean Foley, whom she met in Israel through mutual friends in the film industry. As she talks she twists the beautiful wedding ring he designed for her.

In interviews in the past she spoke about opposing the institution of marriage - perhaps because of the baggage that often accompanied the romantic side of her life. Khoury had long-term relationships with Jewish-Israeli partners (for example, chef Maoz Alonim).

Khoury's brother Jamil, who is also an actor (and appeared in the Israeli adaptation of the comedy "The Office"), married a Muslim woman, which led to shunning and condemnation on the part of the extended Khoury family, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox community in Haifa. Khoury refuses to comment on her husband's religion.

"Both of us are nomads, traveling the world together" she explains. "Religion is something forced upon you, without you having asked for it. So we have discarded 'how life is supposed to look.' When we got married we went to Cyprus and we had a small and amazing ceremony, without our families. Intimate. We announced it was going to happen, and that was it."

How does your family accept him?

"He and my father are best friends. His mother and I are friends and I am grateful to her for the son she raised."

About three years ago, she relates frankly, "I experienced a big decline. I distanced myself. I went to London, I acted in a movie there and I had a lot of time to sit with myself and think. I went through various changes and answered a lot of questions for myself there. I understood what I needed to do in order to forge ahead - otherwise I would have really fallen."

What did you understand then?

"I understood that I had to take action and not remain passive. I decided to take responsibility for myself, to go for counseling. I have a lot of reasons to thank Sean as well, because I developed on my own, but also with him. I realized I couldn't keep on thinking about my bubble, life in Tel Aviv, one theater, one production, a mortgage. I realized I would be miserable. I decided I don't care how I look any more and what people think of me. This doesn't make any difference to me any more because I take responsibility for myself."

What has changed?

"I have stopped searching. I have decided to come to terms with Clara the confused. In every place there are stereotypes. Even in America you will always be 'a black' or 'an Arab' or 'a terrorist.' If I am an Arab woman I will play roles of Arab women - that's just how things are. This used to be discouraging; now it isn't any more. This has always been the case - you have to work with it and carry on without begging for a role."

It's understandable why that is annoying.

"So, now I am telling myself that it's okay. It's okay that I have anger at this country where I live and where I very much want to succeed. The main thing was to ask: How do we proceed from here? How do I move ahead from this at last?"

Moreover, Khoury explains, she tried "to understand what I want and not to be afraid of it. An artist needs to be free and I don't like frameworks and that's okay. I don't want to be a white-collar worker for Habima - for them to make me go into a certain production. I want to choose by myself with whom I am going to work, to whom I will be connected. There are a lot of artists who inspire me and I want to work with them."

It sounds like you have reached the conclusion that you are not a victim.

"Right, not a victim and not passive. I have decided to look beyond. To be a victim, to be inferior, to wait for something to happen - that's a very annoying place to be."

In the past she complained about being typecast in the role of the modern but restrained Arab woman (Bushra in "Arab Labor," Manar in the series "Parashat Hashavua," Amal in the drama "Good Intentions"). In contrast to the TV roles, in her films, especially recently, she has branched out to different sorts of characters: In "Lipstikka," a feature film, she plays Lara, a Palestinian who has immigrated from Ramallah to London and is trying to build a new life there, but then an incident from her past surfaces. In another yet-to-be-released film, directed by Khoury's friend Hiam Abbass, she plays a woman who loses her sanity. Other outstanding films in which she has appeared are "Rana's Wedding" and "The Syrian Bride."

Sagall relates that he chose her for the role in "Lipstikka" without an audition, because when he met her, "She had such an amazing presence that it was hard not to remember her. It's hard not to look at her. She is so fascinating, just the way she is, almost without doing anything. Her quiet is both vulnerable and violent. There is nothing she isn't able to do. I've called her an 'acting machine' because she is simply amazing in her precision."

Khoury defines Abbass, who lives and works in France, as "a role model, with an inspiriting professional path." Abbass also has played a part in another, personal aspect of Khoury's life.

"Hiam isn't just a performer," Khoury explains, "but also a creative artist in her own right, and she is building a narrative that is influencing society. She is always dealing with identities, showing the audience something more. That is what I want to do, that is what bothers me and preoccupies me. We are made up of very many identities, everyone is and certainly I am. That is what I would like to examine: whether I am here or there, whether I am living in Israel or somewhere else. I feel that this is my role."

It is a bit frustrating to wait for a complex role and in the meantime to play the modern Arab woman.

"I feel I've been blessed with every role I have been given and I am developing. The more I develop from within, the more those roles come. Also, you mustn't just sit and wait, you have to do things, to create roles for yourself."

Still grieving

Two of Khoury's close friends died during this past year. One died of an illness and the other was actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was murdered in Jenin last April. Her eyes grow moist when his name comes up in the conversation.

"We worked together during the previous two years," she relates. "We did the production of 'Death and the Maiden' together (at the Al Midan Theater in Haifa). Juliano called me in to replace an actress only two weeks before the premiere. It was a revolution for me to work with him. That was the first time I'd worked with him and with a talent like that - a director like that who gets into your gut."

On the night before the murder they celebrated in Ramallah into the wee hours after the premiere of a production Mer-Khamis had directed. A few hours later, when she returned to her apartment in Tel Aviv, someone told her Mer-Khamis had been shot and wounded. "I didn't believe it because I still felt warm after his hug. And then there was another phone call that he had been murdered, that he had died. I lost it completely. I phoned him - I didn't believe it. That was a very difficult period. You lose trust entirely."

Had you believed something like that could happen?

"My feeling was that someone had murdered him, from inside, from within my people. A people I'd worked for, in order for them to change, to be able to create, to adopt a new image for themselves, to free women in their society. This was also the loss of a great talent.

"This sounds selfish, but he was an anchor for me," she continues. "A good friend, someone who told me: 'Don't be afraid, go with your heart,' and without being critical. The person who tells you it's okay to commit suicide on the stage and it's okay to commit suicide in love. He changed a lot in me. He gave me a lot. Until now, I've been trying to think in a mystical way and feel he's here, still, with me. I see him all the time. When he was here he extracted violence from me, pain, courage and depth on the stage."

The conversation about Mer-Khamis and the investigation of the murder, which is still at a dead-end, prompts Khoury to speak in a unusually politically critical way. And this is directed, among other thing, at Palestinian society and the Arab world. In the past, when she played in the film "Forgiveness," which included a nude scene, she was, for example, severely criticized by Palestinian society.

"One must develop oneself," she retorts. "I am a free woman. All the infantile men who lock up society and women can make revolutions as much as they want, but ... until the revolution enters their homes and they agree to liberate women from the veil, from the conventions, a real revolution - nothing is going to happen. It's naive to think things are about to change. There is no revolution until it happens from within. A new leader or a new state means nothing until there is a deep change. Politicians are politicians everywhere, the same miserable players. Even if there is a Palestinian state, if there isn't an internal change it's not going to happen. Change from within - acceptance of the other, gays, women. Give them the freedom they deserve and recognize their rights. From there the revolution will start."

Does all this make you think about the rest of your life? About where your family will live?

"I'm thinking about a family now, about children, and this will happen, gradually. My children will be free wherever they are in the world. They will grow up and be raised like that."

Is it possible that you will not raise them here?

"Yes. I have no problem with that. I haven't thought about it seriously yet but in the meantime I think about freedom as a way of life. Hiam, for example, left everything and went to another continent by herself and built herself up from zero there. She is cosmopolitan. For me it has happened differently and I have been blessed with what I have done here. I've built myself up in a dignified way, I think, and I am satisfied. My family, my parents, raised me to freedom. Not to divide people on the basis of religion, opinion or color. The pressure came from society, from all around us."