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Meet the Palestinian girl who speaks Bollywood

Aya Abassi, 26, lives in East Jerusalem and runs a YouTube channel where she talks about Bollywood and teaches Hindi to speakers of Arabic.

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 11, 2018 08:34 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times
Palestine,Hindi cinema,Bollywood
‘If you say the word ‘Palestine,’ the first thing that comes to mind is war,’ says Aya Abassi. ‘This is something I want to change with my videos. I want people to know that we live like anybody else… We have people who learn languages, make great films, we have books that have been translated into a lot of languages around the world. We have a normal life, we want to live a normal life.’

Every week, Aya Abassi, a 26-year-old Palestinian Indophile sets up a camera in a corner of her room— or more recently, at her new office — in East Jerusalem and records videos for her YouTube channel, where she talks about Bollywood and teaches Hindi to thousands of Arabic speakers. She learnt the language by watching the movies.

“It’s not about me,” she says, of her channel. She’s sipping warm tea at a bookshop in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. Behind her are books on Israel, Palestine, Occupation and the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. “I’m an average Palestinian. If you say the word ‘Palestine,’ the first thing that comes to mind is war,” she says, “This is something I want to change by these kind of videos. I want people to know that we live like anybody else… Of course, it’s a war zone. We’re Occupied, but that doesn’t mean that anything can stop us. We have people who learn languages, we have people who take photos, we have people who make great films, we have books that have been translated into a lot of languages around the world. We have a normal life, we want to live a normal life.”

The videos are all a medium-close up of her — big brown protruding eyes, a long dimple on her right cheek, and a colorful hijab stylishly draped around her clear makeup-less face. In Hindi, she talks about newly released trailers of upcoming movies. In Arabic, she teaches Hindi: she chooses lines from films she likes — Chalte Chalte, Hum Tum, Cocktail, her favourite “Sallu Bhai” movies, that long “Zindagi main kuch banna ho, kuch haasil karna ho” dialogue from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, you name it — and translates them into Arabic, word by word. Most of her videos have been watched a few thousand times, but her first lesson was viewed 906,464 times.

Aya has never visited India, but learnt all about it through a decade of relentless pursuit of Bollywood. It began on a boring summer afternoon when she decided to watch Taal, and fell in love with the movie, the music and the beauty of Aishwarya Rai. She watched more Hindi movies, because, she says, “I had to see, do they all look like this?” She started humming the songs. And then she and her sisters started picking up Hindi words and replacing them with Arabic in conversation.

Aya has never visited India; she’s learnt all about it through a decade-long, relentless pursuit of Bollywood. She watches Koffee with Karan, Bigg Boss, and four Hindi films a week.

Aya was glued to the television for nearly two years. She would watch as many as four films in a row. (The average Indian film runs a little longer than three hours.) Her mother was alarmed.

No more TV, she warned Aya.

“Mom, I really can speak Hindi now,” Aya argued.

“Walk away from the screen. If you tell me exactly what the translation says on the screen, you can come back here and I’ll bring you more DVDs.”

Aya did, and she got her DVDs.

Her younger sisters, Israa and Afnan, felt left out. They couldn’t speak Hindi yet. So they made up a game. They would watch a Bollywood film and reenact the scene in gibberish.

When they watched Asambhav, the two girls decided to play Priyanka Chopra and Arjun Rampal to practice.

“I’ll be Priyanka, and you be Arjun.”

“Ho Rabba Na Na Na,” Issrat uttered a stream of nonsense words. “This means,” she said decidedly, “I love you.”

“Oh, okay,” Ehfaan said. “Ho Rabba Na Na Na too.”

They ran to Aya, “Look Aya, we talk Hindi.”

Aya rolled her eyes. “This is not Hindi.”

In a year, the balderdash turned into the language.

A Palestinian reveller participates in a Holi celebration organised by Palestinian activists in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Bollywood’s popularity in the Middle East is not a new story. Zee Entertainment launched on Arab satellite television in 1994 and in 2008, Zee Aflam showed solely Bollywood films with Arabic subtitles. Saudi Arabia’s MBC launched MBC Bollywood, another full-time channel showing Indian films and TV series, in 2013. The films are loved by Emiratis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians… and written about in essays and news reports. But Palestinians’ love affair with Bollywood is largely undocumented.

In Jerusalem, Arab cab drivers burst into Hindi songs when they discover the passenger is from “Al Hind” (India).

In Ramallah, young men declare that, “Indians are more beautiful than even Palestinians.” And in 2015, young Palestinians got together to celebrate Holi in the city (Aya says she was pleased when she watched a Holi episode of Qubool Hai and realized that Muslims celebrate Holi as well. “I want to celebrate Holi so bad,” says Israa.)

In Nablus, Amir Abu Alsaoud, a 27-year-old tour guide, says that when he watched Border, “it reminded me of how Israel is controlling all the borders here, and more than 500 checkpoints in the West Bank. Some scenes reminded me of the terrible era when there was a blockade around Nablus, nobody could enter, nobody could leave.”

In Gaza, an Indian-American civil rights attorney Radhika Sainath who spent three months there in 2011, wrote about the omnipresence of Bollywood. It was assumed in Gaza that Sainath and her husband must have had a great love story because Indian people, the people of Gaza had watched in movies, all had great love stories.

Everywhere in the Palestinian territories, the names of Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif follow you.

But they wouldn’t know who Nawazuddin Siddiqui is, says Aya, and “that Salman dated Aishwarya before and that she was with Vivek, and then she got married to Abhishek.” She watches Koffee with Karan for the gossip, Bigg Boss to learn different Indian accents and about watches four Hindi films a week.

At a wedding-wear boutique in Ramallah, an entire floor is devoted to lehengas, anarkalis and bridal outfits sourced from Delhi.

The reason cited for Bollywood’s popularity in the Middle East is that the conservative family values and restrained romances starring Indian Muslim actors seem familiar to Arab audiences. But it is a more complicated relationship, which entices just as much by its foreignness.

“One of the things when I was younger, I was really looking forward to see, but every time, I just didn’t: a kiss!” says Alsaoud.

Aya’s sisters weren’t allowed to watch ‘kissing’ movies – “I used to tell them, if Emraan [Hashmi] is in the movie, you’re not watching it,” she says.

“We used to see a hug and be like, ‘Oh My God, no, don’t hug in front of us’,” says Israa, her 23-year-old sister who works at a travel agency. “And now you see Varun and Alia and Siddharth and they’re going crazy. They’re doing it all. And I’m like, okay, do whatever you want.”

“And in every single movie, there is a new religion!” says Alsaoud. “I used to joke with my friends: every single person in India has their own religion.” This religious diversity – particularly inter-faith marriages – puzzles Aya too. Muslim residents of East Jerusalem are subject to Israeli marriage law – and interfaith marriages can only take place abroad.

“So Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim, Gauri is not. Hritthik is Hindu, Suzzanne is not. How is that possible? Is it a religious wedding?” More confusing still was when she learnt that Shah Rukh Khan “taught his children that you choose whatever you want. Like, if you want to be a Muslim, you can be Muslim. If you want to be a Hindu, you can be Hindu. That’s why they have a Masjid and Mandir they go to both.”

Bollywood has infiltrated Palestinian weddings, where brides rent lehengas for 5,000-6,000 Israeli shekel (Rs 90,000-1,00,000 approx) and dance to Hindi film music at their henna ceremonies. The most popular dance numbers for brides are Mashallah, Pinga and Dola Re.

Trueblue is a large three-storied store in Ramallah. On its top floor, it stocks le-hengas and anarkalis. Mohannad Ezzat Adhami, the owner of the store, makes a trip to Delhi every year to buy two dozen lehengas. The new ones are rented by brides. Friends and other relatives rent cheaper older lehengas – the worn-out ones are available for 500 shekel (Rs 9,000 approx).

Nedal Jameel Alia, the manager of the store and Asma Musleh, a saleswoman, are both fans of Bollywood. A YouTube video of Badtameez Dil plays on the computer on the counter. Helwa Al Bazar, a Palestinian-Brazilian saleswoman swipes through pictures on her phone in which she is posing in a pink lehenga. Duah, Helwa’s 17-year-old daughter who drops in the shop after school, has been watching films since she was 12. “I told my mother,” she says, “When I marry, I will wear lehenga.”

“Now, every home, all the time, watch Indian series and films. This encourages people to wear these kind of lehengas,” says Alia. In the summer, they rent out as many as 50.

Aya’s older sister wore a yellow and gold one for her henna party.

When Aya first started to make videos, it was to reach out to Indians. In 2012, she posted a video on Indian Independence day, “Main saare Indian logon ko wish karna chahti hoon, ke bohot khushiyan manayein, aur yeh din har saal aajaaye tumhari country mein. Aur mein wish karti hoon ki yeh din humaari country bhi aajayega, Palestine mein. Taaki hum or tum log saath-saath mein khushiyan ma-nayenge. (I want to wish all Indians, many celebrations, may this day prevail every year in your country. And I wish that it will come to our country too one day, in Palestine. So we can all celebrate together).”

Her fluency in Hindi drew comments from UAE and Egypt asking for lessons. She wasn’t quite sure what the language of the movies was called – is it Hindi? Or Urdu? Or Hindi-Urdu? “When you search on Google there’s not actual definition for it. Some people call it Hindi, some people call it Urdu, some call it Urdu/Hindi, it’s so messed up. I thought the ‘proper’ way to say it was Urdu.” She got heckled by desis in India, Pakistan and the diaspora.

Last summer, Diwan Videos, a Dubai and Cairo-based digital aggregator of Arab videos, which according to Forbes last year, “is the most popular YouTube channel in the Arab world,” signed her on as an influencer. They host and promote her videos, and help her strategize.

And although many of her videos are in Arabic, Aya, with about 62,000 subscrib-ers, continues to target her desi audience – nearly a fifth of the world’s population. “If I can show them that there is a place called Palestine… we have a lot of people who are interested in movies… that’s enough for me.”

First Published: Mar 10, 2018 18:35 IST