General 6-19-2004

Theater Review: The Other Side of a Story

"With Love From Ramallah" showed at the Mixed Blood Theater, produced by Mizna, an Arab American forum.

"With Love from Ramallah"

This play, written by Kathryn Haddad and Juliana Pegues (and directed by Pangea founder Dipankar Mukherjee) is the tale of doomed lovers who deserve a chance and struggle for a way to create it.

Ziad (Ayman Balshe) goes to the United States on a student visa, and works at a convenience store in a gamey neighborhood, our own West Bank in Minneapolis. He’s selling junk food, cigs and lotto tix to the poor. Amal (Dina Khanat) struggles to maintain her sanity in an ever tightening circle of oppression in the “occupied territories” of the West Bank of Palestine. She is desperate to be with Ziad, but cannot bear the idea of leaving her family alone. Her father is trapped in another town, her brother has gone underground after a two-year imprisonment that included torture; her sister is starting to defy the authorities and violate the curfew.

We see the couple meet, separate, and dream of being together again. Every second of their lives, they must ask: stay and struggle, or leave and live?

Hadaad and Pegues workshopped this script with former residents of Palestine and currant immigrants to the New World. They state in the program, “We felt (and still feel) that the struggle in Palestine is crucial for any person wanting justice, but particularly for those in the US because our government is the primary supporter (militarily and financially) of Israel’s colonial repression of Palestinian rights to land and sovereignty.”

The show has an air of authenticity, of words spoken from the lips of real people. Quotes are torn from the realpolitik of West Bank battles. Amal recounts trying to save the life of a patient in her ambulance who is bleeding to death after giving birth, but is stuck at an Israeli checkpoint with teen-aged guards who are toying with the permission to go through. Amal screams at them, “Are you not the sons of mothers? Or have you killed that part of yourself as well?”

The Arabs stuck in low-paying, isolating jobs are speaking eloquently as well. Ziad wastes another day at the superette, longing for the community he left behind. “The language of my heart is not spoken here,” he mourns.

But what can this mean to Americans raised in the shadow of the Holocaust? We are rarely exposed to the daily life of those Palestinians trying to hang on. We don’t know what it looks like, without a show like this. Here we see the mother waiting for her husband to come home, for her son to appear, for her daughters to lay claim to some semblance of peace and sanity. She tries to make a home for them, but it is being chopped away.

Would we understand this better if we hear “American-made bulldozers destroyed twenty homes today” or “American-made Apache helicopters were used to assassinate a Palestinian leader today”? Or would that make any difference? Probably not. When a friend of the family, a mourning mother, asks “Who will see my tears?” we know that no one will.

The homeyness of the play is accentuated by the actors, many of whom are acting for the first time but most of whom are of Arabic descent–Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Egyptian. A community has gathered to make a statement about how real life is lived, and they are presenting it in the hopes that telling the truth may actually matter to someone.

The two leads deserve special credit for breathing life into these roles. Ayman Balshe is the guy who fled to Minneapolis, and all he wants is a chance to live. Balshe plays Ziad with modesty, but at the same time is a tenderhearted good-guy, the kind of guy that you know would haul water and chop wood to make a marriage work. Dina Khanat as Amal is razor-sharp as a woman who knows what she is giving up by not joining her lover in America. She loves her people with a ferocity that burns her up, that warms her sister to the cause and scorches her family with her unyielding dedication. They make this story very real. You want them together so badly you can taste it with them.

Will this play influence American policy? Chances are slim. Will it make a difference? Miracles can happen, but that is what it would take.

Lest everyone put their anti-Islam blinders up, Haddad is a Lebanese Orthodox Christian. Religion is not brought up in this play, because in reality it doesn’t matter. Christians in Palestine suffer the same fate as their Muslim brothers and sisters, a fact that Christian Zionists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell forget as they cheer on the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. In Ann Hafften’s book Water From The Rock we hear numerous Christians describe the grinding down of life in occupation.

Christian educator Viola Raheb grew up on the street of the Church of the Nativity, hearing Christmas carols all year long. “The most difficult thing is to make people understand what the occupation really means. It’s about living in a country where you can’t go back to your home unless you have a permit to do so… It is about people who cannot get medical attention because Israeli checkpoints prohibit them from reaching hospitals in Jerusalem. You wake up wondering, will my children come safe home from school?…. It makes me sad to see that people don’t know what we are going through.”

“I think there is no other solution,” continues Raheb, “but to have both nations and all three religions find a way to coexist, to accept that wanting the right of existence for one’s self is directly connected to the right of existence for the other.”

Everything in this play is supported in Haften’s interviews. This is a well-documented story. Don’t doubt what you are seeing and hearing. But the tin ear of the American public may take another 20 years before they hear what has already happened. There are no signs on the Jewish-only highways that say “Welcome to the Occupied Territories.” Israel is no longer a Jewish state; it is 4 million Israelis dominating 5 million Arabs. It is no longer a democracy, which is the American justification for pumping billions in weapons and billions in aid into the country’s economy. It is now a system of apartheid, where the settlers claim whatever land they want, and the indigenous peoples are pushed into smaller and smaller pieces of land that cannot support them. Christian shrines that have been there almost since the time of Christ are destroyed with the same impunity that meets the destruction of Palestinian olive trees and orange groves, which take decades to foster.

Patrick Scully did a piece in a recent return to the Cabaret, regarding the prison scandal of raping, torturing and killing Iraqis. “We don’t have the same excuse the Germans had, of not knowing what is going on,” said Scully. “We know. And the blood is on our hands.” The same is true of the rubbing out of Palestinians. These expatriates in this play are telling us what is happening, and a few concerned individuals will be shamed. And, I fear, the American-made bulldozers will continue to destroy homes, uproot ancient olive trees, and give Palestinians these choices: diaspora, starvation, or prison.