Continuing Coverage, Continuing Controversy

The Washington Post continues its spot-on coverage of RETURN TO HAIFA with this behind the scenes feature, describing The Cameri Theatre’s work in bringing the Kanafani novella to dramatic fruition. The piece represents just half of the reporting that Peter Marks has done on this project, which is a big project involving a lot of stake-holders. He’s also asked a lot about the internal process by which a show like this comes to the fore on a DC stage — how the play made its way toward the approval process at the DCJCC. In the end, Peter must have thought, by opening night certainly, that any controversial tumult that must have gone on behind the scenes had resulted in a seamless public presentation, generously supported both from within the Jewish community (as it is) and from outside it as well. In his review, the critic chose to praise the DCJCC (and he was right to) in bravely supporting this project–and hopefully many others like it–and it remained quite true that any other voices of disapproval were so quiet and polite as to be not heard at all in the run up to this show.

The controversy that’s brewing now is something I’m not supposed to talk about. And I’ve been here before, knowing that holding the tongue and refraining from a complete divulging is not only the better part of valor, but also a producer’s job — to know when things are sensitive enough not to say anything. You don’t disclose contract negotiations in the middle of a discussion, and you don’t discuss notes to an actor from a director, so one gets trained by the profession not to share.

But it’s a matter of public record that my friend at the Embassy of Israel, Cultural Attache Sarit Arbell, is struggling with this play and this production. She said as much at a post-show discussion from the audience on Wednesday night during the panel, “Controversy or Complacency: The Shrinking Space for Public Dialogue” in partnership with Washington Hebrew Congregation, featuring Rabbi Bruce Lustig (Senior Rabbi, Washington Hebrew Congregation), Naomi Rosenblatt (educator, psychotherapist, author of “Wrestling With Angels”), Jacques Berlinerblau (Head of Civilization Program at Georgetown University), Paul Mason (Co-Chair of the Theater J Council), and myself. Sarit wasn’t alone in her critique of (some aspects of) the play. Naomi Rosenblatt, while appreciating the play’s pathos and denunciations of war and the suffering of children, accused the play of historical inaccuracies, trading in untruths regarding the abandonment of Haifa by its Arab inhabitants in the days leading up to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Sarit’s problems with the play, which she shared with the cast, with me, and on her facebook page, concern how many times a character in the play (generally Sa’id) will accuse the Jewish characters in the play of being thieves or liars. The play, she believes, is a dangerous platform by which to denounce Israel. Never mind that the play preserves Kanafani’s generally sympathetic and empathetic portrait of Miriam, the Holocaust survivor whose pain at losing a first child in Europe–and her concerns with losing a second, adopted child now–is treated with sensitivity. Never mind that Said, the angry accusing Palestinian who warns that this conflict will not end except by force, is conceived to be a dramatic and dynamic figure who evolves and changes during the course of the play, and so that his theatrical utterances aren’t to be taken as political final statements, but as emotional outbursts that get mollified and, to a degree, pacified during the course of his moving journey–during the course of a moving evening’s encounter between all the characters. The drama is a series of subjective memories and feelings that represent a character’s rendition of memory; that can’t be taken to be emphatically factual, nor as carved in stone. They faithfully reflect a point of view and a telling of history — what panelists have been calling, perhaps excessively, a “narrative.” Narratives are stories we tell about our past. They may or may not be factual. But if they are told and told with an authenticity of detail, they can truthfully be described as legitimate narratives, even if they are hard to accept. Sarit and Naomi are part of an audience that has “rejected” the Palestinian narrative as articulated by the characters in the play. And from that rejection stems the question: “Why would a JCC present this?”

The Washington Post had its own answer to this question in their January 16th review:

The 95-minute piece, performed in Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles, confronts the trauma of displacement on both sides, Jewish and Arab, so starkly and shatteringly that only the hardest of hard-liners could fail to be moved.

The drama by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, adapted from the book by Ghassan Kanafani – who was assassinated in a 1972 car bombing in Beirut – comes to Washington in a production of simmering emotionality by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s premier companies. The cast of Jewish and Arab actors, guided by the intuitively gifted director Sinai Peter, embraces the combustible complexity of the story as if character and dialogue were elements meant to be inhaled.

Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, and the organization that sponsors his company, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, are presenting an authorized version of the work for the first time in this country, and unlike the Tel Aviv version, scenes of the play between the Palestinian characters have been translated into Arabic. For hosting Cameri – which demonstrates with this offering that it is indeed a troupe of international stature – Roth and the DCJCC deserve enormous credit. That the novelist’s life included a connection to a group deemed a terrorist organization in much of the West might for some institutions have been a deal-breaker. Wisely, though, Theater J saw that Gaon’s treatment of Kanafani’s writing as a conduit for peace and compassion, not hostility and division.

The Washington Jewish Week has its own response as to why it might be of use for a Jewish community based professional theater would be moved to show such a work:

The most affecting moment arrives late in this confrontation, when, finally, ultimately, no more words can assuage the suffering of two mothers. They embrace, clinging to each other, providing a sliver of solace in this vast and unconquerable tragedy played out in a fraught landscape where the only answers have been those of might, strength and bloodshed, rather than reason, reconciliation and hope.

Return to Haifa is a dramatic fiction, not a salvo in the never-ending on-again/off-again peace talks. That an Israeli company can draw source material from a Palestinian bent on the destruction of the state and work toward dialogue, onstage, and, perhaps, beyond, is a remarkable feat in a time when so little hope remains in negotiating rooms.

For all its subjectivity, the play reflects a balance; it presents a message both of hope and of candor; it preserves the voice of grievance, complaint, and accusation — on both sides — as it seeks to administer the beginnings of a repair. That’s what audiences have been feeling. The opening of the heart that comes when experiencing the pain of each of the characters occasions an emotional reckoning; first with the audience and his or her own feelings, and then with the audience with respect to better wanting to understand the history of 1948 and the future of addressing the issue of the title, of the right of “Return.”

In our next posting, more from the Tuesday discussion moderated by Stephen Stern of our Theater J Council in partnership with J Street DC Metro featuring Daniel Levy (Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation); Jamal Najjab (Director of Operations, United Palestinian Appeal), and Hadar Susskind (Vice President of Policy and Strategy, J Street) — as well as our perhaps most moving panel to date, this past Thursday on “Interpreting a Dual Narrative, Adapting RETURN TO HAIFA” featuring Boaz Gaon (adapter); Ronit Avni (Award-winning filmmaker of “Burdus” and Founder/Executive Director of Just Vision); Dr. Yuval Benziman (Visiting Professor at the Joseph & Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland); Gregory Khalil (President & Co-founder of The Telos Group, educating America’s faith communities for Holy Land Peace) again moderated by Stephen Stern with a little assistance from me in drawing out 24 students from the Universities of Michigan and California at Berkeley and Merced. More soon…


One thought on “Continuing Coverage, Continuing Controversy

  1. Does disagreement (let alone difference of opinion) =
    conflict and controversay? Need it??

    From Israel this past summer, two articles — a report and an opinion
    piece — may completment DC discussion of discussing (sic) “Return to Haifa” and the possibility it hints at for sharing in the present, whatever
    has or has not been the past.

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