Art at Breakfast

The following is a blog entry written by one of our Literary Interns, Frank Disalvo. Frank comes to us via Catholic University, where he is currently pursuing his MFA in playwriting. Frank  served as dramaturg on two of the readings in our 2011 Voices From a Changing Middle East Reading Series. Here, he describes his experience working on IN SPITTING DISTANCE, a solo show by Taher Najib.

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Where’s Zuzu?  In Spitting Distance and the Search for Identity

“Zuzu . . . Come, Zuzu . . . Zuzu’s gone and I have no idea where she is.

Here, Zuzu.

Here, I said.  Please, Zuzu . . .

Come, my precious, come.  What else must I do to make you come back? . . .”

So the protagonist of Taher Najib’s In Spitting Distance calls out in the first five minutes of the piece.  But what does a lost cat have to do with a Palestinian man questioning his identity?  A lot, actually.

This past Sunday morning at 9:30, a few dozen people gathered at Busboys & Poets in Hyattsville, Maryland to hear a staged reading of this poetic and bitterly funny one-man show.  Performed by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and directed by Richard Stein, the reading is part of Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” reading series.

The play is a dramatization of Najib’s experience in the early 2000s, leaving his hometown of Ramallah during the beginning of the Second Intifada, living in Paris for six months, and returning to his homeland on the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

A crowded street in Ramallah.

The play begins with the protagonist (we’ll call him Taher, as the play is semi-autobiographical) setting the scene for us in Ramallah in 2002.  On either side of Rukab Street, “around two thousand youths” gather and do nothing except spit.  Every day.  It is a symbol of the hate they must constantly expel, the rage that builds because of the Israeli occupation.

He calls for Zuzu.  Where has she gone?  She’s prone to running away, but Taher is especially concerned tonight.  She is nowhere to be found.

With the possibility of violence erupting on the streets at any second, Taher decides to leave the country.  It is not only the chaos that frightens him, but it is the powerlessness—he does not want to live in an occupied city.  He leaves for Paris.

Six months later, Taher is ready to leave the safe haven of Paris.  He finds, ironically, that he must return to the chaos of occupied Ramallah.  “Otherwise, it will get the better of me, crush me, and drive me crazy.  At regular intervals, I need to go back home to pay my dues to the chaos.”

It just so happens, though, that he tries to get on a plane to Tel Aviv on September 10th, 2002—not the best time for an Arab man to go through airport security.  He is turned away because the name on his ticket doesn’t match the name on his passport.  He spends another day in Paris with his French girlfriend, who tries to convince him to remain with her instead of returning to the violence back home.  But all he can think in response is:

“Zuzu . . . “

Airport security at Charles de Gaulle airport in 2002.

The next day, September 11th, 2002, he manages to get on the plane back to Tel Aviv, but not without numerous hold-ups.  He keeps his cool, though, as he has made a point not to lose his temper in the face of this discrimination.  Yet it is while he is being detained temporarily in Tel Aviv that he witnesses, for the first time, footage of the 9/11 attacks.  Suddenly he is presented with the reason for the discrimination he has experienced.  He begins to understand the fears of the Israelis.

In Tel Aviv, Taher reflects on his occupied hometown.  He thinks of how spitting is how his fellow Palestinians survive; and yet, he says, “If I’d known that I would survive only to find myself in this huge void, surrounded by gobs of spit, I’d definitely stopped [sic] trying to survive.”  Their means of survival only contributes to the conflict.

In Spitting Distance was brought to life last Sunday by local actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, under the direction of Rick Stein.  They emphasized the inherent irony of the piece—the dark humor of a man whose identity is in question, who “was asked to prove who I am and what I am . . . and failed, miserably.”  Mr. Ebrahimzadeh’s performance found a sympathetic way of communicating a situation that many of us have never experienced.  The performance wrapped the subtle political statement of the play in the pathos of a confused man trying to figure out who and what he is, and why.

Mr. Stein, a director active in Orange County, California, has a close familiarity with the play.  He wrote the article “Who Can Speak for Me?” in the May/June 2008 issue of American Theatre, discussing several plays that make up the landscape of contemporary Israeli Theatre, especially in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  At the time, Stein found that “on Israeli stages today, [In Spitting Distance] is the only play written by and from the perspective of a Palestinian.”  Certainly, this is a vital piece of drama in Israeli Theatre today.  During the rehearsal process for Theater J’s reading, Stein was in contact with Taher Najib, asking questions and gaining insight that illuminated the text for the audience on Sunday.

After the reading, the floor was opened up for a discussion of the play.  Mr. Stein shared with us that some Arab critics have called the play “too apologetic.”  Indeed, the play does not assert any kind of obvious pro-Palestinian political statement.  Najib’s piece is less concerned with political statements than with questions of identity and where one calls home.

Generally, the response to the piece was positive.  Many of those who responded latched on to the theme of identity, sympathizing with the protagonist who leaves his homeland and obstinately insists that home is “wherever I lay my pillow,” but ultimately returns to the chaos.  A few  people, including Mr. Ebrahimzadeh, spoke firsthand about the experience of the emigrant, and the question of true home: Is it where you came from, or where you are?  Even those of us who have only moved within the U.S. can relate to this question.

Despite the overall positive reaction, there were some in attendance who did not receive the play well.  One audience member, critical of past offerings in our “Voices” sereies, found the play’s static plot to be “boring,” professing that she was “utterly astounded that others found the play so interesting!”  She hit upon a potential weakness of the play: it is not structured with constant forward motion.  Najib takes us on several poetic and symbolic side-streets, which are illuminating—but have the potential to stall the movement of the story.

Another member of the audience found the protagonist’s darkly humorous outlook on airport security to be offensive, as though the protagonist were dismissing the seriousness of 9/11 and mocking the real fear that it instilled in many.   The play does have dark humor, no doubt; yet it is important to note that Najib never makes light of the 9/11 attacks.  In fact, his character reacts with horror to the footage, cursing Osama Bin Laden.

So what about Zuzu?

I consider this to be the most interesting symbol of the play, and for an English-speaking audience it is a symbol that is easy to miss without the friendly help of a dramaturg to guide you (you’re welcome).  In Spitting Distance was originally written in Hebrew, as Najib intended it primarily for an Israeli audience.  To a Hebrew-speaking audience, the lost cat Zuzu would be a more readily grasped symbol.  “Zuzu” is similar to the Hebrew word “zehout” which means “identity.”  Once you know that, the seemingly random element of Taher searching for his lost cat becomes striking, poignant.  Even in Paris, six months after having left Ramallah and Zuzu, his thoughts turn to his lost cat—his lost identity.

In Spitting Distance provides a vibrant voice in the continuing dialogue of Middle Eastern voices.  It succeeds because it is universal.  One need never have been to Ramallah or lived in an occupied city to sympathize with Taher’s questioning of who he is, or where his home is.  Poetic and humorous, In Spitting Distance represents a man’s determination to hold on to himself in the midst of upheaval and violence—if he can figure out who he is.

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An editor’s note:  Theater J’s delegation to the 2011 “IsraDrama Festival” this December will have the pleasure of seeing IN SPITTING DISTANCE performed in Arabic at the El-Maidan Theatre in Haifa, in a production originally staged by Ofira Henig and overseen by El-Midan’s Artistic Director, Riad Masarwi.  Should be a fascinating experience; to have experienced the play first in Hebrew in 2007 (see our blog posting from 4 years ago), and then in English in Hyattsville, and then in Arabic in Haifa!