A moment arrives in the harrowing and absorbing “I Shall Not Hate” that is so unbearably sad you may want to hide your eyes. As this monodrama by Izzeldin Abuelaish and Shay Pitovsky, in Arabic and Hebrew, with English surtitles, is flashed on the walls of a theater inside the Atlas Performing Arts Center, looking away would be the only method for most theatergoers of avoiding the play’s account of an unfathomably horrifying incident in devastated Gaza.
But even if you were to avert your gaze, the tragic countenance of Israeli Palestinian actor Gassan Abbas would be waiting when you looked up again. Stocky and middle-aged, with a thick shock of silver hair and a permanent air about him of anxiety tempered by fatigue, Abbas seems an ideal embodiment of Abuelaish’s story of suffering, tolerance and grim forbearance.
It is a story, in short, that you do need to know.
Abuelaish (pronounced Ah-boo-lye-ish), a Palestinian obstetrician and fertility expert, is one of those remarkable contemporary figures who manages to stand astride a seemingly unbridgeable divide. Born in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, he won admission to medical school in Cairo, then did a long residency in Israel — the first Palestinian doctor in the hospital that took him in. Although indelibly tied to Gaza, he has also developed deep emotional links to Israel, so much so that even after the unthinkable happens, he cannot bring himself to revile the nation whose weaponry inflicted it.
“I Shall Not Hate,” directed by Pitovsky and based on a memoir by Abuelaish that has been translated into 23 languages, is a stark and lucid first-person survey of Abuelaish’s extraordinary life. Indeed, it is one of the most effective one-person bio-plays I have ever experienced. Staged by Pitovsky with an unadulterated, intuitive grasp of the blunt-force impact of Abuelaish’s memories, and performed by Abbas with an understated dignity, the 75-minute piece is one of those eloquent pleas for understanding that speaks louder than 100 manifestos.
The fledgling Mosaic Theater Company, headquartered at the Atlas, has made the solo show the fourth entry in its freshman season and the second of five offerings in its Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. Artistic Director Ari Roth brought the festival along with him to his new company, following his long tenure at Theater J. A work such as “I Shall Not Hate” asserts the ongoing importance of the territory Roth has staked out in Washington — perhaps even American — theater, as a recurring platform for the urgent forms of political drama being generated in and about Israel and its neighbors.
Niv Manor’s set in the Paul Sprenger Theatre for “I Shall Not Hate” — produced in an earlier version at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv in 2012 — could not be much simpler, or more apt. The audience sits around three sides of a performance space strewn with bits of debris: some charred, broken stones and a couple of pairs of ladies’ slippers. To whom did they belong? A leather suitcase sits in a corner, a reminder of Abuelaish’s nomadic career that will later be used, in a sharp and effective gesture, to symbolize the collapse of everything.
The story begins with Abuelaish’s Gaza childhood, but it is more anecdotal than historical; aside from allusions to the tumult of the First Intifada and Second Intifada, there is no attempt to pinpoint specific dates, or even years. This is a strength, rather than an unfortunate omission. Our only secure reference point, the only one we require, is the gut of an unusual man of rare broad-mindedness.
Of necessity, his life in medicine has been a nomadic one, repeatedly compelling him to leave behind in Gaza his wife and their nine children. To its credit, the piece never resorts to platitudes to explain Abuelaish’s worldview. Nor does it seek to gloss over the doctor’s blind spots. Why, you are compelled to wonder, with all of the hardships his family faced, would Abuelaish leave them in Gaza for a whole year while he pursued postgraduate work at Harvard?
He is shocked, he tells us, that upon his return to Gaza, his young son refers to him as Uncle. Far more wrenching events await him, though, as he gains in stature in the Palestinian community, forges relationships with Israeli journalists and high officials, and still discovers how heartbreakingly caught in the middle his family can find themselves , in the war between Israel and Gaza’s governing Hamas organization.
You will like Abbas’s Abuelaish for his folksy sense of humor, admire him for his reflexive candor — and mourn with him over his terrible losses.
I Shall Not Hate By Izzeldin Abuelaish and Shay Pitovsky, based on Abuelaish’s memoir “I Shall Not Hate: A Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.” Directed by Pitovsky. In Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles. Set and costume, Niv Manor; lighting, Ziv Volushin; sound, Hilit Rosenthal; translation consultant, Tami Rubin. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $20-$40. Through Feb. 14 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Visit mosaictheater.org or call 202-399-7993 Ext. 2.