Return to Haifa – finding empathy on embattled ground

Starting Saturday, January 15th, Theater J will host a two-week run of Return to Haifa, an adaptation by Israeli journalist and playwright Boaz Gaon of Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella. Discounting a plagiarized version done by the Next Theatre Company in Illinois, this will be the play’s first production in the United States.

Presented by Israel’s premier Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and its talented cast of Arab- and Jewish-Israeli actors, the adaptation will likely be an American audience’s first introduction to the works of Kanafani. Among the foremost writers of Palestinian and Arab fiction, Ghassan Kanafani was also a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His ties to perpetrators of the 1972 Lod Airport bombing, committed by Japanese Red Army members on behalf of the PFLP, may have led to his assassination that same year in Beirut – in all likelihood by the Mossad.


Some Palestinian activists and their sympathizers have objected to the Israeli co-optation of a work by one of their foremost writers, even as the occupation he resisted continues. Similarly, other Israelis have protested the adaptation of a work by a PFLP activist, not to mention an alleged terrorist.

But despite his political convictions and the recentness of the events about which he wrote, Kanafani is often distinguished by the sympathetic humanity he bestows on his Jewish characters. This particular work is perhaps the best example. The novella imagines a day-long encounter as a displaced Palestinian couple, Sai’d and Saffiyeh, return to their erstwhile Haifa home some 20 years after being forced to leave. There they meet Miriam, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who moved into their house with her husband Ephraim.

The emotion intensifies as viewers discover that the Arab couple was forced not to leave only their home but their infant son Khaldun, who was adopted by Miriam and Ephraim and raised as their Jewish son Dubinka, or Dov. What follows are heart-rending arguments about who can claim the boy, now an IDF paratrooper – and perhaps the land of his birth. But in the course of these discussions, each family begins to explore the unbearable losses underpinning the stridence of the other. Miriam shares her story of the Holocaust, while Saffiyeh implores her to understand the tumult of 1948 from the side of the displaced.

Like the novella, Gaon’s Hebrew adaptation makes skillful use of non-linear storytelling to withhold information and compound emotional intensity. But Gaon also takes a few liberties of his own. Where Kanafani’s Miriam loses a brother in the Holocaust, Gaon’s loses a son. This particular liberty bolsters the traumatic provenance of the Polish family, but it also levels the plane on which the bereaved mothers Miriam and Saffiyeh encounter each other. Notably too, Kanafani’s story closes with Sa’id declaring that only another war will resolve the matter. But Gaon ends his play much more ambiguously. “Our play opened in 2008,” he writes, “four decades of war later, with thousands of Israelis and Palestinians paying the price of this enduring illusion; that War is the Solution.” Kanfani’s estate, which approved Gaon’s adaptation, apparently agrees.

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The play, whose 2008 debut in Israel coincided roughly with the Jewish state’s 60th birthday, is perhaps most remarkable for the historical context of 1948 in which its characters’ lives first begin to intertwine. Such a backdrop – unavoidably political but ultimately human – permits, in the words of Theater J’s artistic director Ari Roth, “an almost forbidden dialogue… critically examining a foundational narrative from when Israel became a state.” While “triumphing in its actualizing of the Zionist dream,” he continues, the play somberly acknowledges “the displacement of families and the unfolding of the Palestinian refugee crisis.” Return to Haifa is thus a most unlikely spectacle: Israel’s premier public theater commemorating the birth of the Jewish state by affording an irrevocable role to al-Nakba, an Arabic reference to the “catastrophe” that fell upon Arab Palestinians in the founding of Israel.

Right-wing Israeli parties like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu have sought to criminalize Arab commemorations of al-Nakba. Even among less strident Zionists, the very term “Nakba” evokes perceptions of anti-Semitism; such a notion would paint the arrival of Jews themselves as the catastrophe, rather than the catastrophic violence and displacement that ensued.

From the original production of Return to Haifa (Photo: Moshe Shai)

Return to Haifa challenges this prejudice. It showcases the most personal aspects of al-Nakba for one particular family – a home, a child – in a way that strips away all but its most relatable contours. Its Palestinian characters too, despite their own personal hardships, come to recognize and sympathize with the plight of Holocaust survivors like Miriam. Whatever their doubts about how to proceed, whatever their anguish or frustration, they inch toward an understanding of the people who call their former house home.

Thus realized by a public Israeli theater company, the play becomes a peculiar collaboration across decades between a Palestinian activist and the government that assassinated him. This collaboration reflects upon, rather than celebrates, the inception of the Israeli state. The Holocaust and al-Nakba become two sides of the same coin – two irrevocable histories linked to a plot of ground and a historical moment. The political project of those who would seek to eliminate one of these narratives in favor of the other suddenly appears untenable in light of the mutual recognition among the play’s characters.

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It is fair enough to look upon Dov, or Khaldun – his name, of course, much like that of the land of his birth, is a matter of some dispute – as an allegorical character for Israel-Palestine itself. Relinquished by loving parents caught up in political trajectories against which they are powerless to stand athwart, the child and his homeland become wards of recent arrivals seeking freer lives for themselves and their progeny. The panic, the shock, and the inner conflict Dov experiences as he learns of his life as Khaldun all too readily approximate the condition of modern Israel as it struggles to embody its own interlocking histories.

But perhaps this is only to scratch the surface of Return to Haifa’s deeper political project, if it can ultimately be said to be political at all. In adapting Kanafani’s novella for the stage, Gaon explains, “We did not want an intellectual experience – but a heightened emotional one.” It may be that grafting the story of Dov onto the story of Palestine, while certainly a justifiable interpretation, may prematurely subordinate an electrifying emotional narrative to a political one.

An effective work of drama, reflects director Sinai Peter, recognizes that “audiences really have the desire to feel empathy for a story. And it can overcome the fact that this empathy might have political consequences.” In other words, nothing need be political about the story itself; perhaps its historical setting merely prescribes it an audience. After all, no claim to land or child can so easily be cast aside among those who recognize in each other the agonizing pangs of love and loss. It is in this moment of recognition when those claims that appear most irreconcilable, be they to parentage of land or child, may suffuse into the deepest reservoirs of empathy – or so we like to think. It may do little to advance a political solution, but it traverses across the decades to embrace a political present.

Return to Haifa runs from Jan 15 – 31, 2011 at Theater J, 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC.
Details here.
Buy tickets.

Return to Haifa opens Theater J’s 2010 – 2011 Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival: Portraits of Home, which continues with 9 readings between January 21st and Feb 27th, 2011.

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