Monday, September 01, 2008

eating ice-cream on gaza beach

Londonders get a taste of ice-cream from Gaza
Susannah Tarbush

Earlier this year, the artistic director of Britain’s National Youth Theatre (NYT), Paul Roseby, approached the playwright Shelley Silas to ask if she would write a play about Gaza for the NYT. The resulting work, “Eating Ice-cream on Gaza Beach”, is currently being performed at London’s Soho Theatre as part of the NYT’s ‘Worlds Apart’ season.

It was never going to be possible for a play (perhaps especially one lasting only around an hour) to explore the complex issues around the Palestine-Israel issue to the full satisfaction of all members of audiences. The play does not directly convey the full misery that the Palestinians of Gaza are enduring. One rare allusion to recent political events is news that a football match offstage has ended with “Hamas three – Fatah two.”

But the engaging script and characters, the vitality, talent and commitment of the cast (whose ages range from 17 to 23), and the flair of Anna Niland’s direction make the play a thought-provoking, enjoyable and unusual theatrical experience.

Silas did not want her play to be a piece of ‘verbatim’ theatre, based on what real people have actually said or written. Rather, she wanted to write a play of stories based on characters she created. And she stressed her right to artistic license during the writing.

Silas is a well-established British writer of plays for stage, radio and TV. Her plays include “Calcutta Kosher”: she was born in Kolkata to a family of Iraqi Jewish descent. Although her father has Israeli nationality, she has not visited Israel for 20 years and has never been to Gaza.

She recalls that when she was asked to write the play “I really didn’t want to take sides...I wanted to give a perspective of both sides of the argument. My main issue was, how do I write a play about one of the most political areas in the world for an audience who generally don’t know what the situation is and don’t have the historical context.”

She says: “I wanted people to go away and actually think about what was happening in the Middle East. I didn’t want to put my own opinions across because, although there are of course elements of me in the play, the characters are not me.”

The play opens with the arresting sound of a muezzin’s cry (performed by the half- Iranian actor David Mumeni). A group of women dressed in colorful headscarves, tunics and trousers stamp across the stage in the style of the Palestinian national dance, the dabke. The woman at their head, Maryam (Bathsheba Piepe, centre of picture above), sings a piercingly anguished Palestinian lament.

A young British Jew Adrian (Christopher Hawes), traveling in his gap year between school and university, arrives on Gaza beach. He is befriended by affable ice-cream vendor Rami (Oliver Hawes), a Christian Palestinian. The naïve Adrian has come to Israel and Gaza to see the situation for himself. He tells Rami that his grandfather fought in Israel in 1948. “So did mine. Grandfathers fight” is Rami’s response. Adrian is surprised that Rami knows Boris Johnson is the new mayor of London. Rami tells him: “We do know what’s going on in the world. It’s the rest of the world doesn’t really know what’s going on here.” Challenged later by Palestinian activist Muz to say what side he is on, Adrian replies: “Both sides. I’m on both sides. I can see both points of view.”

The play’s scenes shift between Gaza and Israel. The change of location is signified by the turning round of the ice-cream van by members of the cast, to change it from a van into a small building.

Adrian has crossed over from Israel and an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint, Danny (David Mumeni pictured with Zakarya Daliri (L) and Andrew Kaye), has been friendly and offered him water. Danny asks him about his visit to Gaza. “You wanted to see if it’s as bad as everyone says? It’s worse. Really, it’s worse. You can’t imagine how people live.”

Danny has only with great reluctance taken up his posting to the Gaza checkpoint for the last three months of his military service. He had always vowed never to serve in occupied territory. But his feisty girlfriend Ruthie (Laura Kirman), who is only now entering the army, is thrilled to be given a gun and is eager to use it.

Before taking up his post at the checkpoint, Danny consults his brother Shai (Mark Weinman) , who tells him: ”When you make your decision, don’t just think about the people we kill, don’t just think about the hours we make them wait without food and water, sometimes for no reason at all.” Danny should “think about the fact that most of them hate us as much as we hate them”.

The dramatic focus of the play is a planned human chain to protest against the expansion of Israel’s wall in the West Bank, through olive groves belonging to Rami’s brother Zaki. Muz (Ciaran Owens), smoldering with anger, urges Rami to take part in the demonstration.” But Rami does not want to get involved. “It’s a choice I make. To do nothing. It’s a choice. My choice.”

None of the cast speaks with an Arab or Israeli accent. They speak with English accents with the exception of Muz and his sister Ameena (Parissa Barghchi below), who have broad Northern Irish accents. This is as if to accentuate the fact that Muz comes not from Gaza but from Israel, where his Palestinian family still live. His sister Ameena comes to visit him from there.

The group of women led by Maryam are eloquent in their movements, expressions and sounds, and form a counterpoint of mixed sorrow and defiance to the action of the play. The music is provided by the Palestinian singer and musician Reem Kelani, and comes partly from her CD “Sprinting Gazelle”. Choreographer to the production is Ahmed Masoud, a literature PhD student at Goldsmiths College, University College, who comes from Gaza and is founder of UK-based Al-Zaytouna Dabke Group.

Maryam is grieving for her son who was drowned, and constantly gazes towards the sea seeking him. There are hints of a special connection between her and Rami, and the disclosure of a secret stemming from this is a turning point in the play.

The play moves inexorably towards its tragic conclusion at the demonstration, ending with Rami being shot dead by Danny. The characters seem trapped by circumstances, doomed to play out a certain scenario. The ending, though it might have been anticipated, delivers a visceral punch.

The deep engagement of the young cast with the Palestinian-Israeli issues was clear at the post-performance discussion when they talked about the their roles and the process of preparing for the play. Anna Niland explained that during the creative development of the play, the cast met Palestinians for “an incredibly informative, passionate day”. They then had a day with Israelis, which “was again extremely important”. A third day was dedicated to researching and looking at ‘back stories’ and characters and creating two new characters, Ameena and Shai. The actors’ research into the issues is continuing.

The NYT’s administrative assistant Mervat Shallouf, who is from Gaza, was the play’s research consultant and advisor. She recalls how Gaza beach was “the only place you feel peace; you can just go out into the open and there is another world behind the sea. Every time Maryam goes there and sits there I see myself. “ But she adds that although the beach is beautiful, it is sometimes terrifying because of Israeli shelling and bombing from the sea. She would never tell her mother she was going there.

One member of the audience disagreed with Silas’s insistence on not taking sides. “It seems to me that if 20 years ago there had been a play about South Africa, and about the apartheid government, there would have been no question about which side you were on I would hope... It seems to me we can’t just say there are two sides, that it’s all very complex, it’s very contentious and so on. In the end it seems to me we have to take sides or this outrage will go on a lot longer.”

Saudi Gazette 1 September 2008

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