Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The urgency of Returning to Haifa lies in the fact that, although it depicts scenarios dating seventy-five and fifty-five years ago, the echoes of these events continue to provoke violence, stoke terrorism and undermine Israel's claim to functioning as a democracy. In 1948 the Battle of Haifa, in which the Haganah–a Jewish fighting force that predated the founding of the modern state of Israel–stormed the Arab Palestinians who made up roughly half the population of Haifa, forcing them out of the city and reducing their estimated population from 65,000 to 4,000. Most fled by the only open pathway, the Mediterranean Sea upon which Haifa sits. Many migrated through Lebanon and Syria, settling as refugees in the portion of Palestine ceded to Jordan by the United Nations plebiscite.
For twenty years they were unable to return to their homes in Haifa or elsewhere in the portion of Palestine that had become Israel. Then, in the Six Day War of 1967, Israel defended itself against attacks by its Arab neighbors and seized that portion of Jordan, referred to as the West Bank. Though not officially incorporated into the state of Israel, that territory has ever since been occupied by Israel. As such, the gates that separated Palestinian refugees from their former towns and cities were opened and many chose to make the journey to see what had become of their homes.
Against that background, in 1947 we meet Said and Safiyya, a newlywed Palestinian couple in Haifa. Said is from the city, bookish and more worldly than his playful wife, who grew up in the country and scoffs at his sober nature. Safiyya becomes pregnant, and they gush over the name chosen for the child who both feel certain will be a boy: Khaldun. The next year, Khaldun is five months old when the attack on Haifa begins. Said and Safiyya become separated from Khaldun, unable to break through the crush of humanity pushing toward escape at the harbor, and they are forced to leave without him.
Twenty years later, Said and Safiyya are settled in the West Bank, with their fifteen-year-old son, Khalid. Khalid is drawn to a revolutionary band of Palestinians who aim to free themselves from Israeli occupation and regain their homeland, but vigilant Said directs him to focus on his studies. When the gates open and a visit to their old home becomes possible, Safiyya yearns to go, and eventually Said gives in to her. In Haifa they find their old home, much as it was. They are greeted at the door by Miriam, a Jewish woman from Poland who survived Auschwitz, left with nothing but the rags on her back. After three years in displaced persons camps with her late husband, they came to Israel. They were assigned by the resettlement agency to live in the house from which Said and Safiyya fled, and Miriam has been there since.
The transaction between Miriam, who clearly has discomfort at facing the rightful owners of her home, and Safiyya and Said is fraught, to say the least. The Palestinian couple still think of it as their house, though they no longer have claim to it, at least not any that the Israeli court would respect. The strain between them intensifies when they meet Miriam's son, Dov, dressed in the uniform of the Israeli army. Their heated conversation raises questions without answers, at least not answers that different sides can agree upon. And where does the notion of "sides" originate? What flaw in human nature causes people to diminish others, which leads to distrust, which leads to hate, which leads to the ability to inflict pain without remorse?
Wallace and Khalidi wrote their adaptation several decades after the events, but the calamity caused by those events remains. The sense of the drama being absolutely of the moment stems from that reality, and from Kanafani's novella, written only a few years after the 1967 war when the opening of barriers keeping West Bank refugees from visiting their former homes must have had the painful sting of salt poured on a wound, and yet, would be extremely hard to resist.
Pangea is to be commended for choosing this play. It brings forward complex issues that desperately need to be discussed and understood. It is certainly worth seeing for the insights it can offer and the conversations it will provoke. That said, the staging itself is somewhat lacking.
The narrative veers back and forth at times between the young and the old Said and Safiyya (played by two sets of actors), and sometimes has them observe and comment on one another's predicaments. This reads very effectively in the script, but the immediacy of their connection, that the two couples are one and the same people, though markedly changed by their fate, is too often not felt in this staging. This may in part reflect a difference among the performances. Ernest Briggs as older Said and Rasha Ahmad Sharif as older Safiyya deliver deeply felt performances, giving an authenticity to the feelings they convey, roiling between fury, regret, sorrow and resignation. In contrast, Mohamed Jahi as young Said and Sayli Khadilkar as young Safiyya come across as "lightweight," giving little reason to regard them as serious individuals. Later, the horrific attack which the younger pair experience is actually very tautly written, but neither the actors nor director Dipankar Mukherjee find a way to bring clarity to the action, or to fully create the sense of horror that surely was present.
Mohamed Jahi also portrays Dov, the young Israeli soldier, and in this role he is so full of pointed venom, it is hard to generate sympathy for him. As Miriam, Esther Ouray is unsettlingly subdued, as if working so hard to contain Miriam's discomfort with the encounter that we get no sense of her investment in these circumstances. The exception to this is in her account of her capture by the Nazis and the horrors she witnessed at their hand.
The simple two-level set does little to evoke the feeling of Palestine. Sheets of drapery strung toward the rear of the stage are sometimes pulled back one way or another, but it is never clear to what end. Mike Grogan's lighting design and Eric M.C. Gonzales' sound design add atmosphere and mood, with sounds that at times are signifiers of dangers that can strike at any time. Mary Ann Kelling's costumes are well suited to the characters. Our first introduction to young Said and Safiyya is through dance movements that convey their loving affection for one another. These are moments of loveliness with credit to performers Haji and Khadilkar and to movement coach Leila Awadallah.
In spite of the shortcomings in the production, I am extremely grateful to Pangea for bringing Returning to Haifa to light. It is noteworthy that it was originally commissioned by the New York Public Theater, which was intent on producing it, but abandoned those plans under political pressure. Instead, the play premiered at the Finborough Theatre in London. I commend it to you, and hope that it is widely produced and seen, and can help its audiences see the seemingly intransigent problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations in a new light that sheds compassion on all.
Pangea World Theater's Returning to Haifa runs through May 6, 2023, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $18, general admission, $15 students and seniors (additional credit card transaction fee). For tickets and information, please call 612-822-0015 or visit pangeaworldtheater.org.
Playwrights: Adapted by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi, adapted from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani; Director: Dipankar Mukherjee; Set Design: Orin Herfindal; Costume Design: Mary Ann Kelling; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Eric M. C. Gonzales; Movement Coach: Leila Awadallah; Assistant Director: Sir Curtis Kirby III; Stage Manager: Suzanne Victoria Cross; Assistant Stage Manager: Winona Honey.
Cast: Ernest Briggs (Said), Mohamed Haji (Young Said/Dov), Sayli Khadilkar (Young Safiyya), Esther Ouray (Miriam), Rasha Ahmad Sharif (Safiyya).