Theater: Preserving Iraqi mores onstage

Sigal Shaul's hit comedy, ‘Lashcheinim,’ meaning ‘to the neighbors,’ is peppered with juicy Iraqi colloquialisms and subtle innuendo meant to entertain, if not enlighten, Israelis of all backgrounds.

Sigal Shaul's 'Lascheinim' 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sigal Shaul's 'Lascheinim' 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sigal Shaul freely admits to having soap-opera aspirations. “It’s what life is all about,” says the 39-year-old mother of two young children. “In real life we have all these emotions, even though we don’t always express them.”
Shaul certainly wears her heart on her sleeve, both on the stage and over coffee. The former is abundantly evident in her black comedy, Badallak Lashcheinim: Beit El Jiran, which is currently being performed up and down the country.
The name of the show, like the script, is a mixture of Hebrew and Iraqi Arabic. “Lashcheinim” means “to the neighbors,” which alludes to the play’s main circumstantial theme, but the linguistically complex word in the title is “badallak,” which has highly charged cultural connotations and conveys much of the work’s spirit.
“Badallak is a bit like ‘kapara,’ a sort of expression of emotion, or love for someone. It’s like you love someone so much you are willing to take on all their difficulties and suffering, and to put everything right in their life,” says Shaul, struggling to translate the Iraqi concept into everyday parlance.
“I once said that to my 81-year-old grandmother, Habiba, but she was appalled at the implication, and she told that me that she could say badallak to me, but that I mustn’t say it to her – that an older person could say it to someone younger, but not the other way around.”
By now, some of the intensity of emotion that runs through Shaul’s family, and much of the Iraqi community here, has become apparent. It is a central theme of the show.
“The character I play in the show is based on my grandmother,” explains the writer-director-actress. “I’d go to visit her and she’d start moaning and groaning about something, and I’d take out my notebook and jot things down. She’d get angry with me and say things like, ‘I’m suffering here, and all you can do is take notes.’” But there are no enduring hard feelings.
“She has seen the play and likes it very much,” says Shaul.
“That means a lot to me.”
Shaul, who is steeped in Iraqi culture, says she wants to do her utmost to preserve the customs, mores and color of her grandmother’s generation – Iraqi Jews who made aliya in the early ’50s and brought with them a way of life that is gradually disappearing from the social fabric of modern-day Israel.
“There are lots of Iraqi Israelis who are much older than I am who don’t know half the words in Iraqi Arabic and Iraqi customs that I know,” she says. “I am third-generation here, but lots of the second generation just didn’t take in the language.
I have this thing about language in general. I was always top of my grade in Hebrew language. I’d get into the nitty gritty of things like phonetics and punctuation. I have always been pedantic about that.”
That can be both a blessing and a curse.
Shaul’s linguistic leanings enrich her plays, but it also means she takes extra pains with her writing.
“You know there is a special rhythm to scripts, especially with comedies. I tell friends exactly where the audience will laugh, and I leave pauses there. They say I can’t possibly know where the laughs will come, but when they come to the shows, they see I got it right. One said to me that I’m a genius, but I find that embarrassing. I’m no genius. I just love what I do.”
Considering the rough road Shaul has traversed to get this far, she would have to be devoted to her craft. Even though she was bitten by the acting bug at an early age, when she starred in a school play at the age of eight, her thespian evolution was a long time coming.
“After the play, one of the teachers at the school told my mother I was very talented, but my mother preferred that I go for one of the more mainstream professions. She didn’t think acting was a good thing to do,” recalls Shaul.
It took some time for her to set her sights on the stage. “I had all sorts of jobs, and got a degree in tourism and economics from Bar-Ilan University, but eventually I realized that I had to get into acting. I couldn’t bear the thought of being 60 and regretting not going for it.”
While Shaul has had her fair share of peaks and troughs, she says she uses the downside of her fortunes to spur her on in getting her art out there, rather than venting her spleen on an unsuspecting public.
This determined streak is a constant for Shaul and has taken her through several minefields, in both her personal and professional life.
“I have two small children, and I separated from my husband two months after the younger one was born. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s no point in letting things drag on,” she says.
That must have taken some courage, knowing she would have to care for a tiny baby, and a toddler only a year older, by herself. She has also done her darnedest to create vehicles for her own artistic expression, in between changing diapers and taking her kids to their respective day-care facilities.
Shaul didn’t have much of a head start in her writing and acting career. “I didn’t study at any of the prestigious drama schools, like Beit Zvi, or with [acting studio owner] Yoram Levinstein.”
In fact, her theatrical aspirations were inspired by one of the country’s iconic comedy teams. “I’d listen to Hagashash Hahiver sketches on the radio. I didn’t know I could write. Later, when I wanted to get into acting, I had to earn a living, so I looked for evening classes.”
Eventually she ended up going to an amateur dramatics class.
“It wasn’t a place for people with any serious intentions of doing acting professionally,” she notes. “Anyway, you can’t teach comedy, you have to feel it. It has to come from natural talent. As a kid I always made my friends or my family laugh.”
Even so, comedy was not Shaul’s first choice. “I really wanted to be a dramatic actress, you know, one who knew how to cry on stage properly.”
Armed with a couple of years of evening-class tuition, Shaul tried to take her acting education up a step or two, but it was not to be.
“None of the fancy theaters or acting companies took me because I didn’t have the ‘proper’ educational background. I hardly got any auditions. Instead of asking me what I could do, they’d ask me where I’d studied, and that was that.”
The reality of paying her way through life meant Shaul kept putting her dream on hold until relatively late.
“I started taking acting lessons only at the age of 29,” and didn’t spread the word much, either, she says. “I didn’t tell anyone about the classes to begin with because, during my 20s, I’d changed my mind so many times about what I wanted to do. But you get that a lot with actors.”
Her theatrical move was certainly not based on any calculating thoughts of advancement. She’d actually given up a promising career in hi-tech to follow her dream. “I worked as a software sales manager, and I was doing okay. I had a company car and a good salary.”
But true to her nature, she wanted more.
“I went to India at the age of 27, to get a breather. But when I am driven to achieve something, I go for it with everything I’ve got. I’d watch TV or go to a show, and I’d analyze what the actors were doing. I kept thinking about how I would act the part. I did stuff in front of the mirror. I really became obsessive about it.”
Determination notwithstanding, she didn’t get much encouragement from her close friends. “They said I wasn’t exactly the most beautiful woman in the world, or the daughter of some celebrity who’d open some doors for me. They said I was crazy for giving up a good job when there were so many starving actors out there. I told them I knew I was talented and I could make a go of it.”
Shaul’s first stop in her acting career was to keep children suitably entertained.
“It was easier to find work in the kiddie sector,” she explains. “I had a friend who was a magician and who left the country, and I got all his gear. So I put together a oneman comedy show about a magician who can’t do tricks. It ran for quite a while.”
Even so, it wasn’t enough, and Shaul complemented her comic routine income with sales work. “I could never sit in an office all day, and working in sales allowed me to move around,” she says.
The turning point came when she and her evening course classmates were given an assignment to put together a short oneman show about a character in their neighborhood.
“I lived in Ramat Gan, and I followed this Iraqi woman around, in the streets, at the hairdresser’s, all over the place without her noticing me. I developed a comic story about her imagined character and I performed it in the class. When I finished, the teacher asked me who had written the script. When I told her I had, she said, ‘People pay money for jokes like that.’ I realized I could really write, and I haven’t stopped writing since.”
While Badallak Lashcheinim is peppered with juicy Iraqi colloquialisms and subtle innuendo, which are probably best understood by members of the community, Shaul says the theme is a universal one: “Not only Iraqis have squabbles with their mother, or an aging bachelor son who doesn’t want to get married, or a difficult tattle-tale neighbor.”
Sounds a bit like the clichéd image of a Pole. “I always say the Iraqis are the Poles of the East. I once took part in a storytelling evening with [annual Storyteller Festival founder] Yossi Alfi, which was called ‘Iraqi Grandmothers and Polish Grandmothers.’ There is a lot of common ground between the two.”
Shaul doesn’t pull many punches in her show. “There are curses and swear words in the play, but I made sure to keep anything coarse out. My grandmother got annoyed with me about [the use of swear words], but I told her I didn’t pop out of my mother’s belly swearing. I wrote this show like Hamlet said in Shakespeare’s play – that actors hold a mirror up to society.
I write about our way of life as it is. I’m not judging here, for good or bad. As far as I am concerned, swearing is all part of the fun. An Iraqi grandmother, when she gets angry about something, will throw out an oath or two. She doesn’t always mean it, but it’s part of the Iraqi way of life. People don’t always like to see how they really look, but ultimately my audiences take it all in good spirit.”
Badallak Lashcheinim is Shaul’s second scriptwriting effort, and follows a show called Anna and Marty and a Hayati Story, which she co-wrote with Uzi Basson. She also directed the production, which, like the current show, paints a highly colorful picture of the goings on in the inner circles of Iraqi society. Also like Badallak, Shaul invested a lot of creative sweat in the venture.
“I was out of work for a few months, so I sat down to write. I was very disciplined. I sometimes sat facing a blank screen, and nothing came to me for a while. But I stuck with it, and something always came up. You’ve got to work hard at life and, I believe, you do get the rewards.”
With Badallak doing the rounds of the country’s theaters and cultural centers, and household names like actor Tzahi Noy on board, Shaul has certainly come a long way, the hard way.
She hopes Badallak sheds some light on the Iraqi community for non-Iraqi Israelis as well, although she adds that at the end of the day, she just wants people to have a good time: “If my audiences go home with a smile on their face, that’s good enough for me.”
Upcoming performances of Badallak Lashcheinim: Beit El Jiran include: Kibbutz Tzora on June 18 at 8:30 p.m., Yahalom Hall in Ramat Gan on June 21 at 8:30 p.m., Krieger Center in Haifa on June 22 at 8:30 p.m., Heichal Hatarbut in Ramle on June 23 at 8:30 p.m., Heichal Hatarbut in Netanya on July 2 at 8:30 p.m., Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on July 5 at 8:30 p.m., Heichal Hatarbut in Or Yehuda on July 12 at 8:30 p.m., Heichal Hatarbut in Afula on July 13 at 8:30 p.m. and Vicks Hall at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot on July 20 at 8:30 p.m.