Think About It: ‘In our name’ – a play about refugees

I cannot help wondering if a play dealing with the status of the African refugees in Israel, with the participation of African actors, would have any chance of being given a fair run here.

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November 29, 2015 20:04
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Syrian refugees shelter in a makeshift tent in the Bekaa Valley, part of the 1.15 million refugees being hosted by Lebanon. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)

 
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The Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin is known as a provocative, experimental theater, which is not afraid to test intellectual boundaries.

On November 13 it opened a play entitled In Unserem Namen (In Our Names), which focuses on the treatment of the refugees constantly pouring into Berlin from the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere, full of hopes and dreams for a better future, only to discover that they are not really wanted and be subjected to a seemingly senseless runaround by the authorities, all too frequently finding themselves detained, deported and criminalized.

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What director Sebastian Nübling tries to do in this play is to touch upon the emotions of the audience rather than its intellect, by attempting to give it a sense of how the refugees – played by actors many of whom come from the refugees’ countries of origin – actually feel. His goal is to convince the audience that a democracy should treat refugees in a manner different to the cynical and unfeeling way that they are being treated today by official Germany, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s positive attitude and thousands of good-willed individuals. They should simply be treated as human beings, he says.

Unfortunately for Nübling the night that his play opened was also the night of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which raised all the fears and prejudices associated with the refugees – especially those arriving from Muslim countries – which can deliver a death blow to the best of intentions.

The play takes place in a theater hall, which has been gutted of all its seats, with the audience sitting and standing on steps where the stage is usually situated, and on the floor where the seats are usually placed, with the actors moving about, frequently in a frenzy, in their midst. One nimble actor actually runs across the theater, from wall to wall, and up for well over a meter on each wall before plummeting back to the floor, giving the term “climbing walls” a very physical connotation.

The play is made up of texts from Aeschylus’ play The Suppliants, Elfriede Jelinek’s text Die Schutzbefohlenen (The Wards), the minutes of a Bundestag Interior Committee meeting on new, limiting legislation on the status of refugees and other texts, some contributed by the actors themselves.

The Aeschylus play was written in 470 BCE in Greece, dealing with how the city of Argos had to decide whether to grant asylum to 50 women from Egypt, who were begging for protection from forced marriages, while risking war with the women’s persecutors, or to deny them asylum and avert war. While the King of Argos is inclined to refuse to grant the asylum, the people of Argos decide otherwise, and thus the women are allowed to stay in the city. A situation that seems contrary to what is going on in Germany today.

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The text by Jelinek – an Austrian Nobel prize winning author and playwright – was written after a boat carrying African refugees sank off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy in October 2013, with over 360 persons drowning and 155 surviving. This occurrence is repeating itself today on an almost daily basis. Jelinek’s text opens with the words: “We live, we live, the main thing is that we live.” She was referring to the heroic survivors turned hapless refugees.

One of the actors had a rather “amusing” monologue in which he mocked the antagonistic reaction of the Germans whenever refugees came knocking at their door, including the French Huguenots in the 17th century and some fish that emerged from the ocean 400 million years ago.

The Jews – who are one of the reasons why the current German government appears to feel a commitment to allowing large numbers of refugees to enter Germany, even though it doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea how to deal with them – are not mentioned at any time in the performance. The only “Jewish” element in the play is Israeli actress Orit Nahmias, who speaks English throughout, playing a reporter who asks “naive” cynical questions, or makes shrewd comments. She does not represent her country of origin – namely us.

I must say that the director failed in my case, insofar as the play worked on my intellect much more than on my emotions. I felt that he was trying to manipulate a captive audience with a very partial presentation of the facts, problems and risks involved in receiving and absorbing an unending flow of refugees whose exact identity and loyalty to Western ideals and values are not always clear, and by physically involving the audience in the performance, but without giving it an opportunity to express discomfort and reservations, either with or without compassion for the refugees.

Anyone who does not feel compassion seems to be labeled a villain. But since no one in the audience seemed to disagree with the play’s message, and almost everyone cooperated with the production, I couldn’t help wondering how a hostile audience would have reacted, and how the self-righteous actors would have reacted to the hostility.

But is any of this relevant to us? I believe it is. In Israel there are many – mainly from the opposition – who feel that the state, as a democracy made up of a population that knows a thing or two about being a refugee, should be dealing with its own African refugee problem in a totally different manner than it is currently, first and foremost by treating the refugees as human beings.

In fact, the situation of the African refugees in Israel is much worse than that of the refugees in Germany, where authentic refugees, especially those arriving from Syria, have a good chance of eventually getting permission to stay and receiving an official status, even if very few really want to embrace them.

I cannot help wondering if a play dealing with the status of the African refugees in Israel, with the participation of African actors, would have any chance of being given a fair run here. It certainly would not receive any public funding, and I expect that each performance would have to contend with hecklers and interrupters from the political Right. Anyone who calls for approaching the refugees as human beings rather than as potential criminals is considered in Israel a dangerous, bleeding-heart leftist.

And what sort of texts would an Israeli version of the play be made up of? Genesis1:27: “And God created man in His own image” – emphasizing that “man” refers to all men? Texts relating to Jewish history – or doesn’t Jewish history relate to non-Jews? The minutes of the Knesset Interior Committee deliberating the refugee issue when its chairperson was MK Miri Regev, who referred to the refugees as a cancer? Perhaps the rulings of the High Court of Justice when dealing with petitions regarding the government’s policy of detaining African refugees at the Holot detention camp? With all my reservations about the Berlin performance, and about young and able-bodied men who with or without their families seek democracy and all its benefits in foreign lands rather than fight for them in their own lands, letting religious zealots, psychopaths and power intoxicated dictators be, or be confronted by foreign forces – how I wish I could experience what I experienced at the Gorki theater here in Jerusalem, without having to conceal my reservations for fear of playing into the hands of those who insist on regarding all non-Jewish refugees as an affliction or a plague, and do so “in our names.”

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