Hebrew takes the Arab stage

The Al-Midan Theater will perform for the first time in a new language.

Einat Weizman and Mahmoud Abu Jazi, the two-member cast of ‘Oved Shabbat.’ (photo credit: WAEL WAKEEM)
Einat Weizman and Mahmoud Abu Jazi, the two-member cast of ‘Oved Shabbat.’
(photo credit: WAEL WAKEEM)
They say acting and, for that matter, directing require a well-developed sense of timing. If that is the case, then Sinai Peter and the cast and technical team of Oved Shabbat (“Quieter Days”) and Salwa Nakara and the staff of the Al-Midan Theater in Haifa certainly chose an interesting juncture in regional political developments to work on their new play.
The work in question is the first Hebrew- language play to be hosted by the Al-Midan Theater which, for the past 20 years, has presented shows exclusively in Arabic. For now, the play will be performed on September 12 and 13 (both at 8:30 p.m.).
The rehearsals with the two-member cast of Einat Weizman and Mahmoud Abu Jazi continued unabated throughout Operation Protective Edge.
“I have worked on all sorts of things, including plays that addressed the Arab- Israeli conflict, and events outside the theater have filtered in through the doors of the rehearsal room,” says Oved Shabbat director Peter. “You can’t completely shut things out. I think that rehearsing this play during the war in Gaza did two things: It accentuated the allegorical meaning of this [theatrical] encounter, and it made us escape further into the intimacy of this coming together. I don’t remember ever discussing the situation with the cast and crew while the war went on. It was very interesting that we concentrated almost exclusively on what happens with this man and woman [the characters] in the play.”
Peter is full of praise for his hosts.
“I congratulate the theater general manager Adnan Tarabsheh and the artistic director Salwa Nakara for their courage in making the decision to tell the story to the Jewish public too, the Palestinian story or part of the Palestinian story.”
This is not just any Palestinian- based tale.
“This is a very complex story, involving a Jewish woman and a Palestinian Arab man, so there are all sorts of aspects and issues here,” the director explains.
Oved Shabbat tells the story of a Jewish Israeli woman who, one Friday evening, takes her car to a garage that specializes in repairing IDF jeeps. The garage is run by a Palestinian man, and events take off into all sorts of unexpected and intriguing directions.
The director says he was wary of straying into political minefields and allowing that to overshadow the storyline.
“The political side of things has always been part of my artistic passion, but our great challenge with this play has been to delve into the human side of the two characters so it doesn’t just come across as a political cliché. We all want the same thing – that there should be two people on the stage and that something real happens between them, that they find themselves in a very uncomfortable, painful and vulnerable position. That’s what we’re working on, outside the political context,” he says.
First and foremost, Peter says he was drawn to the quality of the material.
“The play is very well written, and it is also challenging. It requires the director to find solutions for each and every moment of the play. It is based on one moment leading to another, moments of truth, discovery and exposure,” he says.
There is a deeper guiding principle to the work with as well, which Peter feels is all-important.
“This isn’t my story. It is the story of [playwright] Hana Idi, and I very much want to bring this story to Jewish audiences because this issue bothers me. It bothers me as a Jew, as an Israeli, as someone who wants to achieve coexistence and peace. This work doesn’t allow people like myself to take a back seat. It challenges people with good intentions. It tells them, ‘Take note of where the boundary of good intention lies. Your good intentions have a limit.’ I wanted to share my disquietude with the audience, and I hope I manage to do that. I expect this play to prompt dialogue,” he says.
While the English title of the play implies hope for a better future, the Hebrew name has other, religious connotations. “Oved Shabbat” could easily conjure up the image of a Shabbat goy, a non-Jew whose services a Jew engages to circumvent the danger of committing a transgression by carrying out an act that is prohibited on Shabbat. Peter adopts a different, more positive, viewpoint.
“You could look at it as a desire to help each other and to cooperate.
‘Oved Shabbat’ could also be a gentile who becomes a partner,” he suggests.
Peter is no stranger to the Al-Midan Theater, although this is his first hands-on experience there.
“I have followed the theater’s work for a long time, and I have seen quite a few of its productions,” he says.
This despite not having more than a smattering of Arabic.
“I always read the synopsis of the play before I watch it, and I then I follow the action on the stage,” he explains.
Nakara also feels that the language barrier can be overcome.
“Language is artistic coloring,” she declares. “Language is not a matter of coexistence. Language is a tool for creating art. You can create art in any language, and you can create a partnership even without language. Art is something you create together, regardless of the language you use to create it.”
Even so, there must be some significance behind the decision to put on the first Hebrew-language production at the theater.
“We want the Hebrew-speaking public to come to the theater and see what we do here,” says Nakara. “We want Hebrew-speaking Israelis to listen to the material we offer and to the issues we raise. That’s our objective.
This is not coexistence or an attempt to dream of a partnership. All that already exists. The very fact that we create art, that we create theater – all that already exists.”
It should be interesting to see what sort of attendance the two shows, which will take place in Haifa, the country’s most integrated city, attract.
“We want people to come to us. We [Palestinians] are conversant with Israeli theater, literature and cinema.
We want Israelis to take that first step to get a taste of what we have to offer,” says Nakara.
For tickets and more information: (04) 864-1871