Two Nations, One Pain (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The line between fact and fiction blurs when an Israeli bereaved father portrays a Palestinian one in a Tel Aviv theater production At first glance, the two men have little in common. Shlomo Vishinsky is an actor and a well-known figure in the Tel Aviv arts scene. Bassam Aramin is a prominent Palestinian peace activist from a small village near Hebron, who spent seven years in an Israeli prison for militant activity. Yet when Vishinsky portrays Aramin in the monodrama "Don't Act Miserable 'Round Here," he is giving expression to an integral aspect of himself. The two men are bound by shared tragedy - the loss of a child in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Vishinsky's son, Lior, a 20-year-old soldier, was killed when an anti-tank rocket hit his armored personnel carrier in Gaza in May 2004. Aramin's 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed, allegedly by Israeli forces, outside her school in Anata, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, last year. The play, written and directed by Idan Meir, previewed at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater on May 28. "Don't Act Miserable 'Round Here" invites the audience into the heavy, somber reality of 40-year-old Aramin, who believes that Abir - a "smart, fun-loving and beautiful little girl" - was killed by a rubber bullet fired by a member of a Border Police patrol that claimed to have encountered demonstrators. This conclusion is supported by a pathologist hired by the Aramin family and by several Palestinian witnesses to the incident. However, the army denies that the police opened fire and an official autopsy concluded only that Abir had been killed by a "blunt object." The case was subsequently closed by police investigators due to "lack of evidence." The title, "Don't Act Miserable 'Round Here" comes from the comment to Aramin made by the driver of the border police jeep who was allegedly implicated in firing at Abir. Meir explains that choosing it as the name of the play is meant to be both a reminder of a cynical lack of empathy but also "a call to break free from this destructive cycle of victimhood." The play, which was originally shown at the "Teatronto" festival in Jaffa, was picked up by the Cameri because it starred the theater's in-house actor, Vishinsky. Cameri officials say there will be repeat performances in the future. In the play, as in real life, when his daughter is killed, even as he is regularly meeting with Israelis to discuss coexistence, Aramin is thrown into a world of chaos and despair. Although neither appear on stage, his wife copes silently with her pain and his eldest son, Arab, is seething and incommunicative. Aramin is left wondering how he can continue on his path of peace and how his broken family will ever begin to heal. The play opens on the eve of a trip to Europe, shortly after Abir's death. Aramin is slated to receive the European Parliament Peace Prize for his work in "Combatants for Peace," an organization of Israeli and Palestinian former combatants who are now dedicated to a united, non-violent struggle for peace. As he is getting ready for the trip, his son Arab, presents him with a gun and a list of the names of the soldiers who were in the jeep from which the bullet that allegedly killed Abir was fired. It is the father's job to avenge his daughter's death, Arab says, and if Aramin is not prepared to do so he will have to take matters into his own hands. The plot continues by drawing the audience into the inner world of Aramin, his dilemmas, his pain, his hopes, dreams and nightmares, and his quest to reconnect to his angry son. In real life, Aramin says, he is worried about his son's anger and desire for revenge, but clarifies that the boy's emotional state never reached the level of extremity depicted in the play. At age 17, Aramin was also angry. He was arrested for possession of weapons and membership in the then-banned Fatah movement. He spent the next seven years in Israeli jails. In one prison, Aramin began a dialogue with a settler prison guard that lasted for months and ultimately transformed the way they viewed each other. In 1992, upon his release from prison, Aramin renounced violence completely. He married Salwa, and together they had six children including Abir, their third. In 2005, Aramin co-founded "Combatants for Peace," an organization that has grown from 10 members to more than 400, with a relatively equal number of Israelis and Palestinians. Today, Aramin, who walks with a limp left by childhood polio, works at the Palestinian Authority national archive. In the play, as in real life, Aramin grapples with the difficulties of bringing up his children to share his values when their daily reality is so harsh. "I always dream for my children," he tells The Report, "but I worry because they do not have options like children in other places. Their surroundings are very difficult. So I try to teach them values of peace and dialogue, but then they are faced with checkpoints and army. They see things very paradoxically. It is not easy to raise children in this environment." "Abir was something special," Aramin recalls with a faraway look in his eyes. "She was the smartest, most special girl. She was always learning. She loved to dance and to draw. I always said she would complete all her schooling. It was as if she had been especially chosen. She went twice to summer camp with Israeli girls. But she couldn't speak Hebrew, so I would translate back and forth for them when they would talk on the telephone. She wanted to learn Hebrew so she could talk to them." Then, on January 16, 2007, Aramin and his family were suddenly thrown into a helpless world of darkness and despair. "On the day that it happened, Abir was mad at me. She wanted to go play with friends after school and I told her she must come home to do her homework. So that day she didn't kiss me as she usually did. She didn't hug me. She just left for school. On my way to work, I passed her school and saw a Border Police jeep outside the school, patrolling as they often do. I looked for Abir and her sister Arin to tell them to go home, but I did not see them, so I continued on my way. A couple minutes later I received a phone call [telling me] that Abir had fallen. I didn't understand. I called home and Arin answered, crying and screaming. Then a classmate of Abir's got on the phone and told me that Abir had been shot in the head." He met his wife at the army checkpoint and they rushed to the hospital. "As soon as I saw Abir, I knew I was going to lose her." "I knew it was dangerous for her outside. I should have kept her at home where nothing could happen to her," Aramin laments. "I feel as if she is asking me why I didn't protect her. I talk to her often. I have apologized. I hope that she forgives me." "Am I playing Bassam?" asks Vishinsky, 61, reflecting on the experience of portraying Aramin. "Really, I am playing myself in a certain reality. I hope to present his message, but I don't come - for example - with an Arabic accent, I come with myself," he tells The Report. "And though the circumstances were different, the pain, the grief, that is the same" Sgt. Lior Vishinsky was a member of the IDF Engineering Corps when he was killed with four other soldiers while transporting explosives destined to destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels near the Gaza-Egyptian border. Vishinsky speaks of his son with the same wistful look that descends upon Aramin when he speaks of Abir. "Lior was a kid who loved life," recalls the soft-spoken Vishinsky, lighting a cigarette. "He was a great tennis player, a champion motorcyclist and most of all a great brother. He had an incredibly strong relationship with his sister Dana. I always had the feeling that I lived under Lior's roof, and not he under mine. And still, he is with me in everything that I do. I wake up with him every morning. And every Friday I find myself sitting by his side. I have so much to tell him. But the most important thing is that we love him so very much." "When I look at Shlomo," says Aramin, "I see myself, one hundred percent. We have the same pain, a pain I wish upon no other person in the world. We go to bed at night, but we do not really sleep. Bereaved parents never sleep at night." Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.