Arab-Israeli model takes on critics... in a bikini

As make-up artists and hairdressers circle her, Huda Naccache calmly discusses the media frenzy sparked by her appearance, clad in a skimpy bikini, on the cover of an Arab-Israeli magazine.

The long-limbed 22-year-old, who comes from the mixed Israeli and Arab port city of Haifa, doesn't see the cover shoot for Lilac magazine as anything out of the ordinary.

For her, it was simply another part of a campaign in the run up to the Miss Earth competition in Thailand this December, where she will represent Israel.

But the cover shoot was the first time an Arabic magazine here has put a model in a bikini on its cover, and the first time an Arab-Israeli model has been featured on a front page in so little clothing.

The image in question featured a defiant-looking Naccache in a black-sequined bikini, an open white shirt draped over her shoulders and her thumbs hooked in the sides of her bikini bottom.

"Miss Huda Rocks This Earth!" blared the caption in English.

The media buzz was immediate, but Naccache brushes it aside with a flick of her long, dark hair.

"I have a family that supports me very much and had no objections whatsoever to me appearing on the cover in a bikini," she says, seated in front of a mirror in a white and red string two-piece, prepping for another shoot.

"My father was very pleased when he saw it for the first time," she adds. "He said it was very beautiful and wished me good luck."

Tall and willowy, with strong eyebrows and graceful cheekbones, Naccache easily fits the profile for the modelling world.

But much of Israel's Arab minority still holds deeply-traditional values, so even though Naccache has appeared on the cover of Lilac magazine in the past, it wasn't until she stripped down to a bikini that the media began to pay attention.

After the edition hit the newsstands, it prompted a string of articles and a lengthy television report on Israel's Channel 10 news station.

Some in Israel even dubbed it the "Arab bikini revolution," in reference to the wave of uprisings that have swept the Middle East, suggesting Naccache was taking on conservative Arab social norms.

The Channel 10 report featured lingering shots of Naccache's multi-page spread in Lilac, before asking the mother of another Arab-Israeli model what she thought about the pictures.

The woman shook her head. "I would never let my daughter have her picture taken in a bikini," she said.

Naccache has mixed feelings about the attention.

"Even though the media coverage was great, it all had a certain point of view they wanted to prove," she told AFP. "They cut out all the parts where they didn't like what I said."

Much of the coverage focused on the fact that Naccache is Christian, suggesting a Muslim model would have faced greater cultural hurdles. It is a charge she roundly dismisses.

"I am the first Christian to wear a bikini on the front page, but there were two Muslim models who did it," she said. "That says it all, and there's really no need to elaborate."

Lilac's editor Yara Mashour defends both Naccache and the cover shot, saying her magazine has been pushing boundaries since it was established in 2000 in Nazareth, home to the biggest Arab-Israeli population in the Jewish state.

"Huda, in my opinion, is probably the only Arab model in this country who is a true professional. She has world-class qualities," she told AFP.

"We both liked the idea of having a new sort of cover for the magazine, with a different look," she said, adding that Naccache's religion was irrelevant.

"It had nothing do with religion at all," she said. "And since her cover, Arab girls from all sorts of different backgrounds have been coming to me and offering to do something similar.

Mashour said despite the buzz, the reaction from the Arab-Israeli community had been fairly positive.

"The Arab community accepted it in a democratic fashion. I know there were debates about her appearing as she did, but it happened in a modern way: some were in favour and some were against, but there were no problems," she said.

Indeed, some of the most strident criticism of the shoot was directed not at Naccache, but at the Israeli media's coverage of her.

Feminist Arab-Israeli writer Areen Hawari said the Israeli media had devoted airtime to the subject, rather than any number of other issues affecting Arabs in the Jewish state, because "it satisfied the desire of the Israeli viewer to peep at Arab society while affirming and reassuring them of their own superiority."

Naccache brushes aside such comments, saying she is focusing on her future.

"My life's dream is first to finish my degree in geography and archaeology," she said.

"And then I want to be successful, to be a world famous model."

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