'Return to Haifa' crosses borders of war

architect of hope: Noam Semel of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv brought its production of Boaz Gaon's play to Theater J.
architect of hope: Noam Semel of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv brought its production of Boaz Gaon's play to Theater J. (Astrid Riecken)
By Peter Marks
Saturday, January 22, 2011

Arab literature, Israelis say, is not exactly rife with acknowledgments of the horror of the Holocaust. So when Israeli playwright and journalist Boaz Gaon was introduced to the work of the late Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani - who had treated a Jewish survivor with a level of compassion in his novella "Returning to Haifa" - he felt compelled to devour it.

"I went to read the novella and I was shattered," Gaon says. "It hit me in the stomach. The way Kanafani portrayed the Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, that was very, very brave and exceptional of him. I was completely blown away by it and, immediately, I wanted to do an adaptation of it for the theater."

Gaon's project, which resulted in "Return to Haifa," a 95-minute play based on Kanafani's 1970 story, was itself exceptional, and not in the least because of Kanafani's provocative resume. Before his assassination in 1972 in a car bombing in Beirut, Kanafani had been a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which Western governments including the United States and Canada categorize as a terrorist group with links to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But through Kanafani's literary output, Gaon says, he found a man of more subtlety than is revealed in the words of a propagandist. "I think he was able to make a distinction between his literature and his political essays," the playwright says. "Having read a lot about Kanafani and spoken to many Palestinian writers, I think what he wanted to do is say to the Palestinians, 'We have a right to talk about our grievances, the tragedies that have come on to us, without minimizing the tragedy of the Jews.' "

Partly because of the story's acceptance of Jewish suffering, Israel's largest theatrical enterprise, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, accepted Gaon's script, negotiated the rights with Kanafani's survivors through a Parisian intermediary and in 2008 staged the world premiere of "Return to Haifa." Now the company of Jewish and Arab actors is ensconced until the end of the month at Washington's Theater J, for the American premiere of the authorized stage adaptation of the novella, which had its official opening Sunday night. Performed in Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles, Gaon's play comes across as a milestone in the effort to synthesize the pain of two peoples through art.

"I believe that theater cannot solve all the problems," says Noam Semel, the Cameri's director-general, who traveled to Washington with Gaon for the premiere. "Theater cannot replicate the politicians. But theater can be a vehicle. We are in the theater and we can dream."

"Return to Haifa" concerns the visit in 1967 - just after Israel's victories in the Six-Day War with its Arab neighbors - of a middle-aged Palestinian couple to the home they had been forced to abandon in 1948, after Israel won independence. They left behind in the chaos not only their belongings but also a baby boy, who was then adopted by Jewish Holocaust survivors, Polish refugees who'd lost their only child to the Nazi genocide. Much of the play is the back and forth among the Palestinian couple, Sa'id and Saffiyeh, and the Israeli adoptive mother, Miriam, as they sort out what the boy has meant to each of them. The explosive climax comes in a scene in which the son, now an Israeli soldier, is reluctantly forced to meet his Palestinian birth parents for the first time.

The power Kanafani conferred on that moment in the novella propelled Gaon into his own adaptation. "It was so strong - I remember where I was when I read it," he says. But not everyone in Israel had such a viscerally positive response. Although Kanafani might have been a hugely popular writer in the Arab world, his political activities did not earn him a big fan base among Jews. Gaon says that a number of prominent theater people turned down offers to participate in "Return to Haifa," and later, so did some of the smaller but vital theaters around the country to which the play might normally have moved after a Tel Aviv run.

Even though it was on the agenda for the Cameri - with 40,000 subscribers and a $30 million budget, Israel's theatrical leviathan - the reaction of some in the theater world was that the piece was inviting problems. "Some actors and directors that were approached, they didn't want the headache," Gaon notes.

Eventually, the script reached the desk of Sinai Peter, a director who had run a theater company in Haifa (and has directed Theater J's own productions of "Pangs of the Messiah" and "The Accident," by Israeli playwrights Motti Lerner and Hillel Mittelpunkt, respectively). "I know he tried several theater directors who rejected it - I think they tried to avoid a very hot potato," says Peter. "I was so glad he turned to me."

In rehearsals, the passions of the Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab actors sometimes could not be contained by what was on the page. "There were many instances where the actors said, 'I have to have a line now, because I have to respond!' And we said: 'Say it!' " Gaon recalls. Some of the improvisations made their way into the script.

"Every side wants all of its story to be told, all of it," the playwright adds. "And that's the whole deal, that's what the play is about: It's very comfortable to be surrounded by your own story, but what do you do when you find someone who is opposite to you?"

Israeli demonstrators showed up during rehearsals and a few performances, but the run of "Return to Haifa" proceeded without disruption, according to both Gaon and Semel. Through the company's "peace endowment," a fund for efforts to forge connections between Palestinians and Israelis, 5,000 high school students were brought in to see the show, Semel says. And some adult audiences seemed to be profoundly affected by what they saw.

"One of the most moving nights of my life was when we did the show for an amazing organization of Jews and Palestinians who lost loved ones during the conflict," Gaon remembers. "They came to the play and got it immediately. They stood outside the theater and just cried."

In Washington, the hope is that the work's impact can go international. "This is showing a really unique cultural collaboration between a dead Palestinian novelist and a living Israeli playwright," says Ari Roth, Theater J's artistic director.

Semel's dream is for Cameri's "Return to Haifa" to someday play in Arab capitals. For now, he'll have to settle for encounters like the impromptu one he had earlier this week in his hotel lobby with a group of visiting students from Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza. He told them about the production; when they expressed disbelief, he produced the program.

So in another bridge-building effort, Semel invited them to see the show. "They couldn't believe," he says, "that an Israeli company was in Washington, doing a play from the work of Kanafani."

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