Israel’s African migrants seek refuge on stage

Hundreds of Israelis, Sudanese, Eritreans gather in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv to watch 1st public performance of “One Strong Black.”

By TIFFANIE WEN
June 24, 2013 15:18
“One Strong Black” performers

“One Strong Black” performers . (photo credit: Tiffanie Wen)

When the war is over, you can come to Sudan. And we won’t ask you why you came.

So opened “One Strong Black,” a satirical play written and performed by six illegal Darfurian migrants that depicts the “typical” story of an African asylum seeker struggling to survive in south Tel Aviv.

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Nearly a thousand people, including hundreds of Israelis, hundreds of Sudanese and Eritreans migrants, and a few intrigued directors keen to bring the show to their own stages, gathered in the warm twilight of Levinsky Park on Saturday to watch the first public performance of “One Strong Black.” The title is a literal translation of the common Hebrew phrase used for ordering a Turkish, or “black” coffee.

Sponsored by the Garden Library, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 by ARTEAM that has evolved into a full-blown educational and cultural center, the play tells the story of a clueless new migrant from Darfur bumbling his way through the refugee reality in Israel.

In a combination of Hebrew, Arabic and English, we watched as our protagonist, played by 33-year-old Musa Salkoya, arrives in Levinsky Park and learns where he falls on the park’s social hierarchy; he gets hired as a janitor in a restaurant over his Hebrew-speaking peers so that his employers can more easily take advantage of him; later, we laugh along as he attempts to mime a painful ailment at a Health Fund, only to be told by the doctor that if he “drinks more water,” he’ll be fine.

“It’s written in such a beautiful way, and it’s full of humor,” Yael Tal, who, along with Naama Redler, acted as an artistic consultant for the play, said in a recent phone interview. “With political art it’s easy to point your finger and lecture the audience. But the show is not like that. It has so much honesty.” Tal described the experience of watching the play as having an intimate conversation with the performers. “When you watch them, you love them,” she said.

Tal was right. In one of the opening scenes of the play, Salkoya, along with several others, waits patiently to apply for a visa at the Ministry of Interior. The visa agent, portrayed brilliantly by 29-year-old Babi Ibrahim, is more interested in having an obnoxious cell phone conversation with a friend than helping anyone waiting in line.

Just like that, the gap between the Israeli experience, and the Sudanese experience was suddenly bridged. Who among us hasn’t dealt with some frustrating form of Israeli bureaucracy, or a grocer who wouldn’t hang up the phone to assist us? Sudanese, Eritreans and Israelis found themselves laughing side by side—every member of the audience was decidedly in on the inside joke.

“The scene at the visa office was so powerful because you laugh about it at first and then stop and cry a little bit inside,” said 25-year-old Tel Aviv resident Shauna Ruda. “The scene illustrates the randomness of the visa process and the dire nature of their situation here.”

Despite the near-constant doses of comedic relief, addressing the reality of the refugee problem in Israel is, of course, an inseparable part of the show. Earlier this month, news broke that Israel was negotiating with an unnamed African country to repatriate thousands of Eritrean infiltrators currently residing in Israel. This time last year, hundreds of illegal migrants were deported to the newly independent South Sudan and hundreds more were detained in facilities in the south of the country. A recent report stated that 22 of those who were deported last June have died in the last year.

In south Tel Aviv, complaints of crime made by local Israeli residents, including two high-profile cases of rape, has led to demonstrations against asylum seekers and increased police presence in the area. According to Police Spokesperson Mickey Ronsenfield, recent police efforts include extra units around Levinsky Park, circulating patrol cars, border police and undercover units.

With seeming inadequate action by the government, the atmosphere in south Tel Aviv and other areas of the country with high numbers of asylum seekers has gotten so tense that some have suggested that the migrant situation is reaching an explosive boiling point.

Ibrahim said that he understands why some Israelis don’t want asylum seekers here. “If I was Israeli, and there were new people coming in who I didn’t know, I wouldn’t treat them very well in the beginning either. But maybe once they know us, they will find us worthy of their respect.”

Ibrahim hopes the show will break some deep-rooted stereotypes the public has about the Sudanese in Israel. “People think that Sudan is a jungle, that we lived like animals there. But five of the six of us studied in university, and advocated for democracy,” he said. “The differences are not so great—really the only difference between you and me is that I lived in a country that was torn apart by war and I had to leave. Our dream is that one day it will be safe enough to return home.”

If there’s one criticism that can be made of what was an otherwise compelling hour of satire, it’s that the show didn’t offer any solutions or alternatives for the Israeli government. But perhaps, this is intentional. Repeatedly, the members of the group alluded to the notion that the Israeli government was out of reach.

“We don’t think this will change the government,” Suliman said. “But for the regular people who don’t know anything about us, about African people living here, maybe this will change their minds’ about us.”

Ibrahim added: “The theater is just a tool to convey a message, to reach out to Israelis in the hopes that they’ll get to know us, where we have come from, and why we are here. We only want to give the audience the tools to get to know us. If Israelis decide at the end of the process that they don’t want us here because they’re not convinced, or they don’t have the space, or they have too many problems, then that’s okay. That’s their decision. But we are here to start the conversation.”

If the show finds it way onto Israeli stages—and it seems likely that it will—we might soon discover if the Israeli public is interested in communicating back.

For more on “One Strong Black,” visit http://www.thegardenlibrary.org.

Tiffanie Wen is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter @tiffaniewen.


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