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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mike Haruni's Ramallah is about a Shin Bet agent who's been living as a Palestinian in Ramallah for a decade. He's so deep undercover that his assumed identity is bleeding into his real one. When the near-inevitable reckoning comes, it's painful for all. Ramallah is one of the 10 plays that will be given as a staged reading at Bet Lessin's Setting the Stage Festival opening at ZOA House September 6.
"I didn't set out to write a political play," says Haruni from his home in Jerusalem, "the characters and the plot led the way. I look at our country and see that its character is determined by two historical forces, the Holocaust and the occupation. The play is concerned with the identity of Israeli society which finds itself lodged between the two."
The play is a fiction, "but has a basis in fact," Haruni says. Ramallah is Haruni's second play written in Hebrew. The first is Sta"m, a tragedy centered around the proper inscribing of a Torah scroll. It too was given a staged reading at the 2001 Setting the Stage. An English language version was given a reading in 2004 at London's renowned Gate Theater and was short-listed for the biannual Play in Translation award.
"As long as I remember I've had perceptions of the world that I've wanted to communicate in writing," he says.
Haruni started writing plays "because I found I have a flair for plot, characters and dialogue."
It all began during the late '70s and early 1980s, when Haruni was studying for his doctorate in philosophy at University College, London. His first play, The Stonemason, was performed at the Finborough Theater in Earl's Court, a well-known fringe venue, where Timeout magazine reviewed it as "one of the finds of the year."
Even more thrilling for the young playwright was a letter from the prestigious Royal Court Theater saying "many people at the Royal Court consider The Stonemason among the finest first plays seen in London in recent years."
The letter asked for more from Haruni, but in 1984 he returned to Israel because his mother was ill. The turn of events put his life on hold. "I didn't supply," he recalls, "and then it was too late."
Since 1984 Haruni's home base has been Jerusalem where he lives with his wife and their four children. He is religiously observant, an independent publisher and until Sta"m, wrote a few screenplays and a TV series. A screenplay and the series were bought, but never produced. All were in English. Then in 2000, "I realized that since I'm here, I should be writing plays for the theater in Hebrew."
Haruni was born and educated in England, but his parents came from Meshed in Iran, whose Jews had been living outwardly as Muslims since 1826, practicing their religion in secret. It had all started with a Jew seen killing a dog on Mohammed's birthday. That "insult to the Prophet" led to a pogrom that was halted on the condition that the Jews convert. Emigration began in the 1920s and by the 1950s, most of Meshed's Jews had left.
Haruni's father had come as a child with his grandmother and parents to Jerusalem. From there the family migrated to Bombay. When he was 20 Haruni's father went to New York, and from there to London where he met his future wife. Haruni was 18 when the family immigrated to Israel "shortly after the Six Day War."
As he tells his family's story, Haruni says, just a little astonished, "I've just thought of this. There might be a connection with Ramallah in terms of undercover identity."