Students Respond to the Novella “Returning To Haifa” in Advance of Opening

Here’s the first of what’s sure to be many comments from students in the University of Michigan’s “Michigan in Washington” Internship program, and the University of California (at Berkeley and also Merced) DC Program. They’re enrolled in a Political Theatre class I teach for them, and you’ll be hearing a lot from students on our blog this semester. This first posting comes from Marsheda Ewulomi. Look for other responses to this in the COMMENT section.

As anticipation mounts for the new stage production Return to Haifa , students of theater and life may experience conflict when reading the novella from which the play was adopted. I will not give an in-depth background (go see the play and read the novella).

One often reads history and may only take away a two dimensional picture or the winners and losers, the oppressors and the oppressed. However, are these lines ever so simple? Are there more consequences and sentiments involved with this notion of winners and losers? It seems that Return to Haifa in either play or novella form creates a dialogic sphere for the discussion of these questions and those like them.

After 20 years of a closed border, Palestinians, Sa’id and his wife Safiyya are returning to their old home, Haifa. Haifa, now a Jewish settlement is not only the place from which they were thrust out, but where they were forced to leave their infant child. The story grapples with notions of home, entitlement, identity, and displacement where this child/man is the battle ground.

I will not go further than that. Instead I will go on a selfish tangent derived from my exposure to the novella.

What I have the most trouble dealing with in the novella is how Said writes off his son Khaldun at the end of it. He gives a long impassioned speech about the notion of wrong and somewhat incapsulates his disdain for the outcome of the war in his son. Did he not expect a human being to grow and change the same way he expected Haifa to never change? Although the son read as somewhat arrogant, how come Sa’id never apologized for leaving him? Maybe my relationship is different with my family but I would think that my father would take arms to come to me. Did either side attempt to empathize with the other? Notions and inquiries such as these lead me to conclude that I do not buy Said’s last action completely. I do think culturally disowning one’s son is highly possible, but losing sentiment towards that individual seems impossible. I use the phrase “loss of sentiment” because Said makes the statement that he does not feel any sentiments for Khaldun/Dov. That seems like an extensive load of waste to me–beyond this being a story about a conflict, this is a story about people, about human nature. Though expressed and dealt with in different manners, love, and the power of it does not differ from culture. Love is a thing of life, not an item limited to cultural practice.

I acknowledge that I could be completely wrong. I am not Jewish. I am not Palestinian. Nor have I been displaced. Maybe only someone who lives with this history everyday is entitled to have a valid opinion. However, as an English major I have yet to find a writer who does not want his or her story told to the world. Why do any of us write, other than the fact that we have something to say? I see political and world issues when I read the novella, but they do not overshadow the issue of human. At our barest levels, regardless of race, sexual orientation, political party, gender, height, age, ethnicity, or whatever, we are human. I am not sure of the author’s intent, but I am sure that I don’t buy the loss of sentiment for the child that one’s dreamt about in every breath taken for twenty years.

13 thoughts on “Students Respond to the Novella “Returning To Haifa” in Advance of Opening

  1. Marsheda makes some interesting comments, most notably about how by the end of the novella, Khaldun is entirely forgotten by Said and forsaken as a casualty of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. However, Marsheda’s analysis of the character development of both father and son fails to take into account both the physical and psychological changes that the 1948 war had on the Palestinians.

    The infant country of Israel not only defended against attacks from five surrounding Arabic countries, but they in fact pushed them back and gained more territory than was expected. While this shocked the Arabic countries of the Middle East, it also had an added disparaging effect on the Palestinians who had to flee their homes once again.

    Palestinians were hoping for a territory to call their own, just as the Israelis were, but after the 1948 war, the likelihood of Palestinians and Israelis living side by side seemed quite dim. Palestinians had to start over yet again, even after they had built homes for themselves over the last 20 years in what was now considered Israel. To make matters more difficult, Israel had established themselves as the militarily superior state in the Middle East, and were quite effective in resisting armed movements mounted by both displaced Palestinians and established Middle Eastern states.

    Given all of these historical factors, not to mention that in the first 20 years of their existence, Israel was very protective of their borders and quite restrictive of immigrants coming from other Middle Eastern countries, it is not surprising to me that Said did not take up arms to reconnect with his son. The physical limitations Israel set up, as well as the psychological ones that Said had to deal with clearly made his decision very difficult to make.

    I do enjoy the way the novella ended, because it seems to capture the vitriol that Palestinians had for Israelis, especially in that time period. The novella perfectly describes the desire to return home and the despair in finding that Israelis have effectively coopted their memories and made them their own in a way. This amalgam of two sides of the conflict was a terrific way to portray the story.

  2. First, I’m excited for Theater J’s upcoming performance of Return to Haifa. Ghassan Kanafani’s novella presents the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a brand new and profound way. His juxtaposition of two families forced together rather than apart by the seemingly endless conflict creates a new forum for discussion to debate just what everyone is fighting for, and what is really being lost over time.

    Having said that I would like to play devil’s advocate to Marsheda’s argument (which I believe to be articulate and thought provoking). I truly believe that a part of Said has been able to convince himself that he had no choice in the matter when he first left his son behind. This has been one of his emotional defenses to survive the entire horrific ordeal. In many ways he has already given up on his son; when he leaves the memory of his son continues to stick with him forever, but the actual physical existence of his son is no longer a presence. He has become yet another casualty of the constant violence and war that has dominated the Middle East. Therefore, when he finds his son, now an enemy combatant, he no longer recognizes him as his son. His son was already stolen away from him by a conflict twenty years ago.

    I would argue that Said still loves Khaldun as much as he did decades ago when he fought against the crowds to find his wife and son. He still feels that human emotion. However, the human he reserved that love for is no longer with him. The tale is heartbreaking, and gives a unique insight into what I believe is one of the core issues at the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

  3. I, like Marsheda, had many of the same questions/concerns regarding Khaldun after I read the novella (both alone & again in class). However, with my first blog post I wanted to bring up something I am not so sure everyone may have picked up because it was not a main focal point in the story or the most major event that took place. I do believe it is important to discuss though.

    There was one scene, in particular, that grabbed my attention, but only after I re-read the novella: the scene going back to 1948 involving the recollection of events that Iphrat Koshen and his wife Miriam experienced during the same time Said and his wife were being taken from Haifa.
    The scene shows some ideas that I thought were very interesting. Iphrat states he had no idea what Palestine looked like, saying his only vision of Palestine came from children’s’ books. Also, Iphrat had not seen an actual Palestinian until he came to Haifa. I know Iphrat and Miriam were European Jews, but I would think most Jewish families wouldn’t be so “secluded” or “distant” from the “Arab world”. I believe this scene is supposed to show what life, thinking, and personal mentalities were like before the conflicts between Israel and Palestine. It is almost shocking to see an episode among a Jewish family and among an Arab family before the conflict then see the 180 degree turn after the conflicts. It really shows how the conflicts starting~1947 completely reshaped thinking among the region. Even today it is clearly evident to see how the conflicts have shaped Israeli and Palestinian thinking. All you need to do is turn on the news and see the conflict continuing to this day.

    Furthermore, Iphrat and Miriam bring up the sight of an Arab child being killed in the streets and being thrown onto the back of a truck. Miriam says that a Jewish child would not have been treated that way. So even when the scene shows pre-conflict attitudes, it also portrays a sense of divide between Arabs and Jews. And finally, I am curious at the fact that a Jewish couple would so openly take in an Arab child as their own. Did they do it to simply appease the government? Did they want to live in Haifa that bad? Was it due to the fact Miriam couldn’t have children? Or was the conflict not bad enough where Jews and Arabs couldn’t integrate with each other? These questions popped in my mind and any opinions are welcomed. I look forward to answering other people’s questions, along with my own after I see the play and continue with this topic.

  4. Despite the controversy that Returning to Haifa brings, I feel that it provides a lens and speaks to many immigrant experience beyond the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The idea of identity and definition of a “homeland” provides a strong message, which is depicted through this displaced or abandoned character Khaldun or “Dov”. In which Khaldun as a character is symbolic for Saiid’s lost identity. It is beautiful that this play speaks to many immigrant experience in that individuals who are forced to leave their homeland due to some conflict, and decide to return where upon their return they feel familiar to a place while all at the same time feel estranged. Individuals are faced at a crossroads, where they do not feel a sense of belongingness anywhere.

    I disagree with Marsheda that Saiid writes off his own son, but in fact he is struggling to cope with his emotions of leaving his son, which is symbolic to leaving behind a part of his identity. I think the contrary and in fact feel that Saiid’s speech was far from impassioned but it was in fact passionate. His speech shows Saiid’s defense mechanism because he is paralyzed by the situation coming back twenty years later and understands that he cannot undo the neglect he has caused. We cannot disregard the sentiment that he expressed leading up to the meeting with his son. The fact that he was sympathetic towards his wife’s pain and acknowledged her void due to the neglect of their son shows the risk he was willing to take to come back to a place that does not welcome him. Furthermore, to be rejected and denied by his son perpetuated and affirmed his initial feeling of feeling unwelcomed. Saiid’s closing speech may appear insensitive and it is misunderstood. Saiid himself is a symbolism of human nature, one that is imperfect and flawed but beautiful in its attempt.

    I am looking forward to watching Returning to Haifa at Theater J to observe the execution of the characters emotions and how well it touches audiences.

  5. After reading both the novella and play of “Return to Haifa” I think that these two works acknowledge the good and bad that can result from major conflict.

    I was intrigued by Said’s ability to write off his son at the end of the novella. After 20 years of separation, it surprised me that he and his wife would even attempt to find their son again. Ultimately I would have to agree with Dan’s interpretation that for Said, Khaldun becomes a casualty of the war; lost forever like so many soldiers. Although this ending is heart wrenching and unhappy, I believe this to be a more realistic account of the relations between the Arabs and Israelis during the 1960s.

    As for the play, I feel that Boaz Goan did a fantastic job of taking a story and transforming it into art. When people come to the theatre they come to be entertained, to think critically about the work, and to experience something new. The Arabs and Israelis come together for the sake of their child to complete the performance with a happy ending. Although this may not be realistic or a symbolic account of the lives lost in the war, the play does something more. The audience is left with a sense of optimism. Despite war, hatred, and the differences that tear us apart, the characters look past everything to do right by their child. As much as the novella depicts emotions and actions of the time, the play teaches us to learn about the conflicts of the past in order to come together to have a more peaceful future.

    I look forward to witnessing this wonderful story come to life on stage.

  6. My opinion may be biased, being a Jewish American who visited Israel a couple months ago and believes very strongly in the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region, but I believe that the novella plays too strongly on the point of view of the Palestinians and makes the Israelis seem apathetic to the Palestinian situation. It does not put Miriam, her husband, or Dov in the best light and shows very little compassion for the circumstances which brought the parents to Haifa in the first place.

    I think Said and Safiyya feel defeated when they come back and see that Haifa, and their son Khaldun, has moved on without them, and see what the Israelis have done with their city and their son. The animosity I believe that Said feels towards Miriam and her husband can be translated onto an entire people who feel that, even though they lost a war and the land was won by the Israeli Army, they are still entitled to live their.

    This novella can be seen as the start of a conflict between the Palestinian people and the State of Israel. I take the ending, Said and Safiyya leaving their relationship with their son and their city unfinished, as proof that the conflict between these two peoples is deep seeded and will take compromise on BOTH sides to fix the issue, which the Palestinian people are unwilling to tolerate. This can be seen when Said says “you may stay in our house temporarily, it will take a war to settle that.” Just like Said says a war will decide whose house it really is, I believe the author believes, even in the 1960s, that the conflict is not over between these two peoples. Khaldun or “Dov”’s role in this novella can be seen as a metaphor for the land itself

  7. I am not well-versed in plays, literature, or the details of the Israeli conflict with Palestine. Therefore, it is difficult for me to comment on some aspects of the novella. However, I find Emily’s interpretation of Khaldun in the novella as a metaphor for the land at the center of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict compelling.

    The ending of the novella, which Emily described as “unfinished,” demonstrates not only the mood of both peoples in the 1960s, but one that has persisted into the present. A conflict that is deeply rooted in
    history, and continues to run through the veins of those involved on a daily basis. Because of the conflict’s nature, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians find it easy to partake in compromise with one another,
    which is the only way the conflict can be resolved, or the novella could be considered “finished.”

    Due to the continuing relevance of the conflict, the opening of Return to Haifa at Theater J is sure evoke thought in audience members who know little about the conflict, such as myself, but may also evoke deeper, possibly controversial, feelings in those who relate directly to the conflict, such as Jewish-Americans like Emily. Therefore, I look forward to hearing the different reviews of the play by my classmates, and also how their opinions relate to not only their religious affiliations, but how their opinions compare to their thoughts prior to seeing the play.

  8. The Arab-Israeli conflict has long afflicted the Middle East, and the brilliance of Return to Haifa allows for a captivating literal interpretation and underlying message; most literature of our day only allows for one or the other. The struggles of Sa’id and Safiyya in their solemn return encapsulates so many of the feelings of Palestinians—the Israeli occupation really did take a piece of their culture that is irreplaceable.

    When Sa’id gives up, however, I clash with the novella. Israel and Palestine are still fighting over territory, just as both parties should continue trying to win Dov. The author allowed Sa’id to give up on this quest, however, and to me seemed to say that only another enormous event (like war) could accomplish peace.

    What I find particularly interesting is that Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon adapted this novella—which was written by a Palestinian author. While the original author Kanafani portrayed Miriam and Ephraim and greedy and inhospitable occupiers, I would not expect to see the same in Gaon—it will be much more balanced. The Palestinian novella is quite compelling because the anti-Israeli slant dissolved at the end: One would expect that in Kanafani’s world, Dov would return to his biological parents. I suppose that Kanafani would rather depict an ongoing struggle than an unlikely success.

    As my classmates and I am completely removed from the struggle in the West Bank and Gaza, I think the humanization of Haifa will prove invaluable to our knowledge. We are victim to “American exceptionalism,” whether we like it or not, and a struggle thousands of miles away is exactly that—thousands of miles away. I look to Haifa for a drama that unfolds not with the opening of a newspaper, but the opening of the hearts of Dov, Miriam, Ephraim, Sa’id, and Safiyya.

  9. Boaz Gaon’s “Return to Haifa” and Ghassan Kanafani’s “Returning to Haifa” posit an interesting comparison not for the literatures’ similarities, but rather the subtle differences. Most notably, Kanafani’s emphasis on a particular phrase was curiously left out of Gaon’s script. In the novella Dov cites Ralph Emerson’s famous line, “man is a cause”. Throughout his discourse with Sa’id the two characters reference this phrase as a point of agreement, as well as a point of contention.

    Initially, Dov says that man is a cause as an explanation for resisting his birth parents. Dov states that he has no connection to Sa’id and Safiyya because he alone decides what way to live, and does not necessarily have connections to his Palestinian background. Ralph Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, that originally discusses this phrase, goes on to state that “a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things”. If Dov and Sa’id agree that a man is independent of all things then I must disagree with their sentiments. Clearly, Dov shares ties with his surroundings due to his Jewish upbringing. The character even claims that he practices Judaism and eats kosher food; values ingrained in him by his Jewish parents. Thus, a man lives his life through connectedness be it his family, heritage, social ties etc.

    Gaon omits this phrase in his play, and in doing so effectively diminishes Kanafani’s theme of isolation. While Kanafani emphasizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s ability to tear apart blood ties, Gaon reflects on the capacity humans have to self-heal. The absence of the phrase, man is a cause, in Gaon’s script illustrates the playwright’s focus on a cathartic discussion of human suffering. Both the novella and the script provide compelling depictions of love lost, family, tragedy, and confrontation. It will be interesting to see how these themes unfold in tonight’s performance.

  10. I felt compelled to comment on Marsheda and Dan’s views on the interpretations of Said’s “choice”. First, I found Kanafani’s use of imagery rather dynamic in portraying the psychological turmoil experienced by the main characters during those the formative years of early adulthood.

    The psychological remains of the past, particularly through horrible memories, are shared between Saffiyah and Said to the extent that it constantly influences both of them, and in turn their relationship. Kanafani reveals both character’s inner-turmoil rather early through Said’s keen sense of his partner’s suffering embodied in the description of terror, “buried in her wrinkles, in her eyes”.. Said’s recollection of his own past, inspired by the image of a young boy running through the street, forces him to cope with 20 years of stifled memories.
    Although damaging in terms of affect, there are times within the novella when the shared horror in fact has a unifying effect on the couple. The significance of this to the novel seems to be to show the humanity of the two, and, as Dan Ingram mentions, describe the circumstances surrounding their abandonement of Khaldun.

    In my opinion, Kanafani does attempt to excuse what would otherwise be a completely negligent and damnable act by the parents. He recalls the state of the city during the battle, with Said being moved by forces outside of his control; “swallowed up in the rushing wave of humanity, [he] lost the ability to direct his own steps”. More explicitly, the mother experiences the same oppressive resistance; “in the middle of a wave of people pushing her as they themselves were being pushed from all over the city in a massive, powerful stream”. The water metaphors are used to portray a tumultuous state in which there is no sense or time or order, hence Saffiyah hazy-minded question, “how much time had passed?”.

    The consequences of the altered mental states become clearer yet with Said’s possessiveness in “reclaiming” his home, which I felt indicated an insecure attachment to the memories of the past. The sad irony that the young man serves in the military, and has become part of the conflict that separated him from his family, made Kanafani’s moral take on things clear. “Isn’t a human being made up of what is injected into him hour after hour, year after year?”…

    As such I felt that the work tried to humanize the actions taken in times like these (war), showing how the war could overpower even the strongest of human connections to produce a rather depressing outcome.

  11. The ending to the Kanafani’s novella sheds light on how deeply rooted the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is in the personal lives of the people involved. For a man to essentially cut off all ties to his son, his own flesh and blood, is an idea that would seem unthinkable to many of us, yet an event like the al-nakba or “War of Independence” seems appropriate for such beliefs to flourish . Nationalist pride was prevalent throughout the region, and was such a point of emphasis in being Palestinian or Israeli that it is completely plausible that a father would turn his back on his own son if that son failed to adhere to the traditions and customs of his own people. Both sides were fighting for their land, a nation, and their homes, and it’s believable that nationalism would trump family bonds.

    The play removes, what I consider, the most believable part of the entire novella: that Sa’id would turn his back on his own son. A father, who 20 years earlier was violently removed from his home, returns to his son only to find him fighting for the same regime that was the cause of all his troubles in the first place. Not only is it believable that Sa’id would give up on winning over his son, but it should be expected. Instead, the play leaves viewers with an ending that attempts to convince them that both parties, although not in agreement, understand one another and the situation they are in. A panelist mentioned that this revision was done in order steer both ethnicities towards tolerance and understanding. Although an admirable goal, it simply wasn’t believable. Today, after multiple attempts at peace, five wars, and two intifadas it seems as if Israelis and Palestinians are as far away from ever from understanding one another.

  12. I may have seen a different play Saturday night. I really enjoyed the script (to the extent I could handle the superspeedytitles) and the acting. But…I am not sure all of the bloggers here and I were in the same theater.

    Yes, the (thankfully not permanent) “return” of Khaldun’s birth parents exposes their pain and loss, and what parent cannot empathize? But Said was away from home because he was fighting a war against the UN partition plan, a war which his side lost. Saffiyah somehow abandoned her son at his home in his crib. The supertitles moved too fast — but I came away with a recollection that Said declared the 20-yrs unspoken, secret story she had originally told him — that “the Jews” had murdered the baby and (she?) had buried it, thus explaining the baby’s absence on the ship to Lebanon– and if I recalled the line correctly (my wife shares the recollection) it is left unsaid how the truth, that Khaldun was not murdered by the Jews, came out. But the parents both went off to Lebanon, and somehow thence to Ramallah where, after Israel opened the border that Jordan had kept closed for 20 years, they could come back to Haifa. I’ll have to read the novella for the missing pieces….

    After the play Philip Farah read his prepared remarks on “ethnic cleansing” by Jews of Arabs. That may be the national origin myth of the Palestinians, but that sort of inflammatory language is not helpful in attempting (or feigning?) to advocate a just peace while he seeks to make it a blanket (or quilted?) truth, especially when it is not altogether true: In a Post article that I found while trying tolocate Mr. Farah’s contact information, an article on a “Nakba memorial quilt” event, the story told by the descendants of people who also went to Lebanon in ’48 squared more with the Israeli version of history than with the play’s or Mr. Farah’s — they left thinking it would be a vacation, they’d be back in a month or two (that is, after the Arab armies would have destroyed the Jews). See the story of the Hishmeh family — time to pack ELEVEN suitcases for their expected months-long vacation in Lebanon http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/17/AR2008051702471.html
    The Hishmehs were not forced out by the Jews, not if they expected their vacation to be over in a couple of months and took enough clothes for that. Some were expelled, surely — but Mr. Farah paints a monochromatic picture, and it’s not helpful.

    So what I took away from the play I saw (which may not have been the one you saw) was that despite that these two old Jews rescued; loved; parented by any measure (although he would not get away in our house with tossing his clothing on the floor); and raised the baby his birth parents abandoned, tribalism (What! You raised him for 20 years a Jew and not an Arab intifadist! How inconsiderate!) and irredentism (This is ours — even though Haifa was part of the Jewish state under the UN partition we Arabs rejected, we lost the war and we feel keenly the pain of our loss, and we want to take back what we lost, never mind what you invested and created from our abandoned house and son — you should have left both exactly as they were abandoned, for our inevitable return) — these thrive, and trump almost everything including both truth and gratitude.

    I have heard stories of Righteous Gentiles who rescued children of Jews bound for death camps — surely better labeled ethnic cleansing than this amoral equivalent adopted by Palestine revisionists like Mr. Farah. At least some of them were raised in the religion, and surely the culture, of their adoptive parents. Is there an analogous story of surviving parents returning years later, to find their child alive, and then showing such ingratitude? If so, the play is sadly truer to life than I give it credit for.

    During the discussion after the play I asked a young Palestininan man at our table, who bemoaned The Wall, why he thought such a monstrosity was built — he could not or would not answer, even though I gave him a hint, that on a recent visit to Jerusalem the thought crossed my mind, as I was in jammed traffic with crowded buses, that there had been bombings. I got the impression that self-recognition of fault or blame or bad behavior was not something for which Palestinians will ever be stereotyped. Ha’aretz’s newspaper sales and the peace movement in Israel indicate that there is little lack of faultfinding and blaming for some of Israel’s objectionable positions. With such differences in willingness to be critical of one’s own side, since it takes two to tango, how can there be anything but a very tall wall? Or maybe the Palestinians need to get an “Al Kheyt She’khatanu” and recite it for a few thousand years.

  13. Overall I liked the play. It was entertaining and I could relate with the characters. There were much more funny parts than the novella and I liked that. I felt that helped me understand and relate to the characters more easily. The play was less descriptive than the novella and some parts were different as well but I liked the overall effect. One part that bothered me in the play though is when Kaldun has trouble deciding between his mother who has raised him her life and his biological parents whom he has only met for a matter of hours. I think it would be a more obvious choice if he chose his mother that raised him over his biological parents whom he knows little to nothing about. I understand being touched by his biological parents love for him but deciding to live with them already is a little too fast in my opinion. Regarding the ending, I felt the ending itself had nothing wrong with it. However, I thought there was a lot of build up throughout the play and sort of led into an anti climatic ending. After the play ended I was left with a though of that’s it? I was expecting more scenes about Kaldun to further his character instead of a sudden cut off. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the play overall but if I had to point out weaknesses I think those were it, definitely not a deal breaker though.

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