Imbibing the Middle East — it is too strong a brew
After years of encountering aspects of what may be an unending conflict between Israel and some of its neighbours, this writer is filled with a foreboding for the future.
This past week’s horrors in the Middle East have led me to recall my intersections with that part of the world, and what it has taught me about that part of the world – and about human nature.
Long before I began working as a journalist, I had a three-decade career as an American diplomat who worked on cultural and educational exchanges and media relations. In geographic terms, I had dedicated my time to working in or with east and southeast Asia and southern Africa. I was not especially interested in working in Latin America or Europe, let alone in the old Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, like many colleagues and friends. Instead, I had found my own niches.
Once I shrugged off a suggestion that a Middle Eastern assignment – either in Israel or one of the surrounding Islamic majority nations – might be a good fit for me, especially after years of living and working in the world’s most populous Islamic nation – Indonesia. I shrugged off considering such an assignment, perhaps because I was not sure I would be able to balance personal feelings with the specifics of government policy, or, perhaps, it was because I was simply more interested in the societies I had already invested so much time in becoming familiar with – Asia and Africa.
Thus, such an assignment did not occur, although we did occasionally become acquainted with members from Israeli diplomatic missions or their agricultural aid programmes in Africa. (Some of those people were first- or second-generation Sephardic Jews, a group comprising a majority of the country’s Jewish population, people who had been ejected from or forced to choose to leave countries across North Africa and the Middle East in the late 1940s, the 50s and early 60s, places their families had lived in for millennia. Not surprisingly, their feelings about the precariousness of their nation sometimes seemed a bit different from those descended from European Jews.)
Understanding through theatre
Years later, after I had retired and transitioned into being an arts journalist, among other projects, I had a chance to attend an Israeli drama festival taking place in cities throughout the country. Although I did have some acquaintanceship with the region’s literature, I did not know much about Israeli (or other Near Eastern) theatre, and this seemed a good opportunity to right that balance a bit – and to get a hands-on sense of the place, beyond reading about it.
I attended performances in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Jerusalem, Acre and Haifa and in venues that ranged from an inner chamber of a Crusaders’ fortress, to ultramodern arts centres and to “black box” venues. The works ranged from traditional stagings, physical theatre, experimental works and a few nearly inexplicable ones. The performers (and productions) included Arab Israelis as well as a wide range of Jewish Israelis.
One work was a beautifully executed physical theatre production of three interlinked Chekhov short stories about life in tsarist Russia; another was a hallucinogenic, one-person work in which a psychologically wounded woman, a survivor of the Holocaust, imagines she has married a two-metre-high Star of David. Yet another was a retelling of Hamlet staged in the midst of the audience, making us essentially participants in the play and the resulting slaughter that takes place.
Speaking directly to the apparently unending conditions surrounding the theatres, the country and the region beyond, two performances have stayed with me ever since. One focused tightly on the inner torments of a young Israeli border guard charged with policing who could enter Israel from Gaza for work or urgent medical care – and who could not, and how such distinctions were made at that border gate.
The other was the seemingly unsolvable predicament of a young Arab student suddenly in limbo while he was in transit in Europe between flights – on 11 September 2001. It echoed the film Terminal Man, but without a resolution at the end of the film and depicted with dark, anguished black humour.
Reluctant to let this theatre festival be the only lens through which I viewed the landscape, together with another visitor to the festival, we quietly arranged a side trip in the West Bank to spend a day with a Palestinian theatre collective that did theatre-in-a-box, children’s theatre in small towns in the West Bank, operating out of a minivan.
To get there, we passed through several of the checkpoints and gates leading into the West Bank and then made our way to the theatre company’s office. From there, we joined the group in their van for their day’s performances. It became clear this group of young actors had deep longings – for peace, for untrammelled freedom of movement, for more educational opportunities – and for at least one male actor, a deep desire to meet Charlize Theron.
The play we witnessed was subtle, like a punch in the nose. A father, over-eager to protect his frail daughter, builds a wall around his house and garden. But his daughter pines for a chance to experience the world outside the wall and as a result of his construction, his fruit trees wither and his vegetable garden shrivels. The audience of several hundred children clearly imbibed the deeper message – something for which no language skills in Arabic were required.
Another play this children’s theatre group performs was not being done while we were there, but it portrays a contemporary Bethlehem Christmas. Foreign tourist groups are doing their seasonal pilgrimages – just as Jesus returns for a second act and surveys what has been wrought in God’s name. As described to me, it is something in the manner of the South African protest theatre classic Woza Albert.
Later in the afternoon, we took a break at a hilltop table and benches under a tree and enjoyed some beverages and sandwiches, as we surveyed the panorama of the landscape. From our vantage point, off in the distance, we could see one of those unofficial, beyond-the-law Israeli settlements, an officially approved Israeli one, what was an Arab village and much older remains of what were likely Ottoman and Byzantine ruins, or maybe even Roman ones. This landscape holds more history than can easily be consumed.
As a parenthetical note, I would add that in a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, one could see that small bit of territory is also a hotly contested zone among Christian sects who all hold contested claims to the various doorways, pathways and courtyards of this tight space.
A few days later, I again took French leave from the theatre visits and headed north, back to Haifa, on my own, to meet with an Arab-Israeli cultural activist who had organised a street installation memorialising the long history of Arab life in Haifa – a community that remains in place, albeit in fewer numbers than would have been true 80 or so years ago.
One particularly poignant project of his was the painting of previous door frames on still-standing houses in a Haifa neighbourhood that had once been the homes of Arab families, but which subsequently became the homes of new immigrants, IT businesses and even restaurants and cafes. There are ghosts to be remembered in Haifa.
Over the years, as I began writing with Daily Maverick from when it began, I have had opportunities to interview and write about my conversations with many different people. Among them were Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, the late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, Arab Israeli political figures Ayman Odeh and Mustapha Abu Raiy, and one-time airline hijacker Leila Khaled.
From all of this, what lessons am I left with? Yes, it is clear many people – although not all – want to reach a settlement that will hold, even if no one gets everything they might want. Still, there are political leaders who are not particularly interested in a settlement that may require negotiations and painful compromises. Moreover, there still is little or no agreement on what constitutes such a settlement or the way it could be achieved. Sadly, smaller steps like the Camp David Accord nearly 50 years ago have not created a pathway forward for larger things.
Outside interests and nations have their own ideas of how they will shape any larger direction for their own benefit. The Israelis are determined to hold their ground and fight, echoing late Prime Minister Golda Meir’s comment that her nation’s secret weapon is that Israelis have no place else to go. As it now appears, Gaza residents feel the same way, given their own, current circumstances.
But what has become increasingly true to me is a lesson that can be drawn from an ancient story, albeit not a biblical one. This one comes from the Greek legend of Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth.
Having slain a monstrous dragon, that strong warrior was advised by the gods (or at least one of them) to sow the dragon’s teeth in the fields. Having done so, from those teeth, thousands of fully armed warriors sprang up from the ground, ready for battle. The lesson here may be that Israel, having vowed to take on Hamas amid an increasingly devastated Gaza, in response to Hamas’s astonishingly deadly, barbaric raids into southern Israel, it may well be survivors of a coming assault on Gaza who will rise up in an echo of the story of those legendary dragon’s teeth. The cycle of violence and retribution thus may continue without end. DM