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Nov 2013 Journal

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Letter from Israel

I was sitting on the patio of Jerusalem’s YMCA building enjoying a cup of coffee and a croissant one morning, waiting for my French class to begin, when someone with a friendly smile approached me and thrust a brochure into my hand. This was an advertisement for a play to be given that evening featuring Israeli and Palestinian actors. The play, written mainly by its participants, represented the culmination of two years’ work on the project and purportedly tackled the issue of Palestinian-Israeli relations in a new way.
It seemed a worthy cause and, since we weren’t busy that evening, my husband and I decided to attend. When we got to the YMCA we found a handful of people, all of them Israelis as far as we could make out, waiting outside the hall for the doors to open. This was done eventually, albeit somewhat belatedly, to the accompaniment of complaints by some of the people who had been standing there for a long time.
The YMCA auditorium has room for an audience of around 600 so it wasn’t difficult for the 30 or so people who had turned up to find good seats. The stage was already adorned with assorted plastic bottles, old newspapers and other debris, confirming what we could learn from our programme (in Hebrew, English and Arabic) - that the play was set in a rubbish dump. Two actors, a man and a woman, on separate sides of the stage, were busy forming little figures from the debris or wrapping bottles in plastic film, both concentrating in silence on what they were doing. The sound of traffic, rubbish collections, and helicopters overhead could be heard. At one stage, the couple began to speak to one another - he in Arabic, she in Hebrew - and they seemed to understand one another. So far, so very metaphorical.
A woman dressed in outrageously fashionable clothes then appeared on stage, her stance, actions and speech all serving as a caricature of the ‘nasty Israeli’. After launching into an animated monologue (in Hebrew) about the real-estate potential of the site, she offers money to the man, which he apparently accepts. She disappears and the two characters begin to quarrel, still each in their own language. In addition, at one point a grandmotherly figure appears and adds her contribution (in Arabic speech and song) to the dialogue. The Hebrew-speaking girl then gets into the rubbish bin that dominates the stage and proceeds to offer paper sandwiches and rat tail soup to the others - hence the play’s title Take-Away.
Anyone who like myself doesn’t fully understand both languages lost out on half of the dialogue, but at one point we were given to understand that the man and woman undress and make love offstage (as shadows behind a screen), then come back and quarrel some more. Finally, the two begin to fight physically. This was actually the best part of the play in theatrical terms, as it involved some beautiful balletic and athletic movements without the intrusive sound effects that constituted the backdrop to the first scene. At the end, however, the stage was left in a sorry state, with both sides dead or injured and rubbish strewn all over the place.
At this point, a young man with a guitar came along and sang a sad song in Hebrew and Arabic about the futility of a situation in which people are in conflict with one another instead of co-operating.
All very noble and true, we thought as we filed out - but also how naive and over-simplified. Still, it’s important to try and get the message out into the world. It’s a pity, though, that there were so few Palestinians in the audience.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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