Field Trips to Jerusalem and Haifa

from Ari’s Facebook status: December 8, 2011 – Day #2:  Great long day journeying to and from Jerusalem. Tour the ole stomping grounds from undergraduate days at Har-Hatzofim/Mt. Scopus, then the Old City

 (two of the four Quarters; Christian and Jewish), then arrange for a special 3 hour tour for 10 with Sarah Kreimer of Ir-Amim and spend important time in Silwan, Sheihk Jarah, encountering The Wall near Abu Dis directly in front of the proposed PA central administration building (since abandoned) at Ras al Amad.

Then dinner and coffee with the writer, theater director, and poet Michal Govrin at CafeJo near Gan Hapa’amon (Liberty Bell Park).  Finally, we see the play EATING (another revival from 1979) by Yaakov Shabtai at the Khan Theatre, staged by Artistic Director Michael Gurevitch – adapted from a lurid section of the biblical KINGS 1… An orgy of eating at an endless table of bounty as destruction is wrought in the midst of largess. An extended allegory – some love it more than others – I get the point early and tune out. Gluttony in the face of abuse of power.

I should be responding to this more than I am, but I’m not.  Jerusalem turns frigid on us – Tel Aviv welcomes us back with a balmy night time breeze. Taking it all in – the memories, the holy sites, the litter strewn streets of Silwan – the indecency of the graffiti-scared 8 meter high Wall – turning our backs eventually, and traveling home to the hotel; wine flowning in Tel Aviv bars until the wee hours. The freedom to absorb it all…

What to make of this day in Jerusalem now? First, that it’s good to tour, even when on a theater trip. Even though our festival is still just at the beginning, it’s a good thing not to be sedentary; to experience Israel in motion. We’re on an official tour, of course, but they’ve taken pains not to do the usual boiler plate beginning, starting (as they generally do) at Yad Vashem, as we did last festival back in 2007.  Yes, it was good to see the renovated exhibition halls back then, and experience anew the Valley of Disappeared Villages (of Europe) – but I had just been to Yad Vashem the trip before, so was apprehensive that we’d be getting the same visit yet again this trip. One doesn’t want to build up a resistance to remembrance — but there it is; one does — when it feels ritualized and calculated, one has the impulse to rebel.  So we appreciate part one of the group tour.  But it’s boilerplate of a different sort.  How Jerusalem was divided.  And now it is whole.  We absorb it all.  

But I’m glad we’ve made alternative arrangements too, for myself and 9 others (with permission from IsraDrama organizers, of course) to see something I haven’t seen; and that’s what’s been happening in Silwan. And so at 1:45, we leave the Temple Mount and our touching of the kotel, walk the 30 minutes to Liberty Bell Park to meet the van from Ir Amim.

We learn from Sarah and from the Ir Amim website, that Silwan is a village located in the heart of Jerusalem’s historic basin, south of al-Aqsa mosque, and has undergone an accelerated process of Israeli takeover, mainly in the area of Ir Davide, or the City of David, as it is known by Israelis, or Wadi Hilweh, as it is known by Palestinians. Silwan is home to 40,000 Palestinians. It is agreed that part of the area served as a Hebrew governmental center in the period of the late Judean Kingdom (the 6th-8th centuries BC).  It held the water supply for the ancient city.

I will also note that my wife and I courted in the Silwan Tunnels some 32 years ago when we found ourselves enrolled in an Archeology of Jerusalem course at Hebrew U. We waded in water up to our waist holding candles and spent almost half an hour traversing from one end to the other.

I find myself resisting the urge to muster up nostalgia for that moment now, even though we usually dine out on the story; how we entered into the tunnel, each of us interested in another guy–a Harvard-hailing pot-head named Josh–as I was looking for a best friend to have in Israel, and Kate was looking for an American guy to complement her bevy of strong, silent Israeli suitors.  Josh and I recited Shakespeare in the darkened tunnel, trying to impress each other and Kate, and then we did boy games and blew out our candles–and Kate’s–and made scary horror movie sounds.  Kate wasn’t humored.  At a certain point, things turned quieter, and more beautiful as we listened to the sound of water moving as we walked, and maybe now I was reciting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and thinking different thought as, legend has it, by the end of the trip, Kate and I were less interested in Josh, and more interested in each other.

But I find myself not wanting to recapitulate that history, nor reconstruct the fights that have unfolded over the past two decades in Silwan between Elad, the Jewish settlement initiative that’s been allowed to move in and make a national park out of the City of David and its tunnels, expropriating more and more land from the Palestinian residents.  There are links beyond just those from Ir Amim that can tell the story.  The reporting I want to be doing on this blog should pertain to theater (and the personal memories; well, those are permissible too, no?  But not the preaching, nor the politics; simply the witnessing).  So let me report of a theatrical work-in-progress being made about the drama unfolding in Silwan.   It’s a project taking shape in a rehearsal hall in Tel Aviv and it promises to be a well-argued, non-traditional theater piece about the history and current turmoil in Silwan.   I was going to share a bit of the mis en scene from “The Peacock of Silwan” but now I’ve been asked not to; not to give the plot or the characters away, but just to say that it’s going to be great!  The set-up is this:

“For hundreds of years, Palestinian Arab families have lived in Silwan. In the past, until the city was divided in the 1948 war, a few Jewish families lived with them and next to them. In recent years there has been a concerted effort by settler organizations, Jewish donors from abroad and Israeli authorities to settle Jewish families in the neighborhood while evicting the Palestinian families who’ve live there for generations. The next plan on the agenda is to demolish the homes of dozens of Palestinian families living next to the valley (the “Siloam Channel”) in an area called the “Bustan.”

This is where every week violent clashes have been breaking out between the youngsters of Silwan and Israeli security forces, due to increasing friction between the Palestinian residents and the settlers who are gradually moving in. Meanwhile, hordes of tourists flock to the neighborhood as part of a project by the Elad settler organization, which claims to have excavated the ruins of the “City of David” between and under the homes of the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood.

The alleys of the “Bustan” – the small casbah, the hill that arises from it and all the way to the walls of the Old City – are the background for the small and large dramas being played out within and outside of the houses, the nightmares of the families slated for eviction, the endless tensions between the neighborhood children and the settler children, the sense of mission of the leaders of both communities (the local Palestinians and the Jewish settlers) and the authorities who play with the fates of the individuals on both sides in order to decide the political future of the whole city.

The play will be a work interweaving voices, monologues and on-site confrontation enacted by four or five Jewish and Arab actors. They will play the various characters and tell the story of the neighborhood.

So let that be where we leave our meditation on Silwan.  Artists close on the ground are researching the unfolding drama.  And we will return there as well, with hopes of seeing less squalor; less depression; less evidence of intimidation and battling flags from house to house, block after block.

* * *

Facebook status update: December 9, 2011

Day #3 is Haifa – Israel’s version of San Francisco meets Baltimore meets Hyde Park – and have a wonderful triple-header including two plays presented as important readings at Theater J earlier this year – Argentina by Boaz Gaon at Kriger Hall directed by Sinai Peter, In Spitting Distance by Taher Najib, directed by Ofira Hening, performed in Arabic at the El-Maidan Theatre by the incomparable Khalifa Natour, who, during the second show of the day, played the title character in the best play we’ve seen so far, Ulysses on Bottles by Gilad Evron, also directed by Ofira Hening for the Haifa Municipal Theatre. In between all of which, wonderful dinner at Fatoush with our American delegation and Sinai, followed by knafeh which is sweet breaded goat cheese that most everyone seemed to die for…

This turns out to be the best day of play-going at Isra-Drama, all three works playing as successful, hard-hitting dramas; Israeli theater doing what it does extremely well (and probably best, though we come to appreciate the nostalgia-in-the-face-of-imminent-loss strain as being another rich Israeli staple).

We learn from Ulysses on Bottles author Gilad Evron where his drama about a Don Quixote-inspired Palestinian protagonist who wants to deliver Russian literature to the children of Gaza originated.  Turns out that the play wasn’t derived from news accounts, but from an ordeal involving his son – an IDF solider who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories and, upon imprisonment, refused to wear prison clothes and so was forced to remain naked in his cell for days.  He insisted on receiving books from his library so he might retain his sanity, but his requests were refused by prison authorities. It was left to the playwright, the prisoner’s father, to write a series of letters to prison authorities explaining why it was so important for son to receive volumes of Russian literature.  From these letters, the play Ulysses on Bottles emerged.

Gilad Evron, Gad Kaynar and Boaz Gaon at the Haifa Theatre

The biggest tension of the festival thus far unfolds in the post-show talk-back after Ulysses, and it comes from a guest attending the overlapping Exposure Festival.
“There is a tendency to self-punishment in these dramas we’ve seen,” the sharp and angular woman remarks.  “Are there plays being written that show the other side? The show what’s driving Israel to madness?”

Boaz Gaon, the great and gallant and usually laid-back playwright/screenwriter who adapted Return to Haifa, Traitor, and the very fine Argentina, says he recognizes the question, not as an artistic question but as a political statement.  He’s laid back no more.  He asks for clarification.  What exactly does she mean?

“I think I’ve made myself perfectly clear, and I think you know what I mean,” the questioner shoots back.”  Lively debate about the range and limitations of Israel’s political theater ensues, until it’s cut off, and cut short.  We’ve entered a zone of contention and there’s no time explore, much less resolve the issue.  So we go to dinner.

There’ll be another great performance that night from the actor who played Ulysses.  But we’ll leave that appreciation for another time.  This report of two field trips has been exhausting to recount, let alone read.

It’s hard, writing about Israel where you’re no longer there.  There’s urgency, and then it dissipates.  That’s true about so many reports from the theater.  Better to render in the moment, when still flush and still fresh.

Guess the next time we touch that kind of intensity is when we actually do some of these plays.  And you know what: I hope we do!

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