Jaffa – On Thursday night in the Old City of Jaffa, I went to a place called the Arab-Hebrew Theater to see a performance of Jerusalem Stories, first in Arabic and then in Hebrew. Jerusalem Stories is an innovative idea in conflict resolution. It is a collection of Jerusalemites’ narratives, told in theatric monologue form, about their personal struggles, feelings, and losses inside the holy city.
Over three hours, six stories were recounted with much passion. Among them, there was an elderly muhajiba woman who traverses checkpoints daily to sell olives and dried fruits at Damascus Gate, a Kipah-wearing bus driver whose bus was bombed by a young suicide bomber, an aggrieved Palestinian man whose nephew was killed by the Israeli army on the day that Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, and a distraught Israeli mother who lost her young son to Palestinian suicide bombers in downtown Jerusalem.
What’s unique about these Jerusalem Stories of sadness and suffering are how they are told. There were actually two performances. First, the talented Mazin Safadi and Hiba Muffatesh delivered all six of the monologues (three Israeli and three Palestinian) in Arabic. Then, after a thirty-minute break, and to a different audience (with some exceptions), the equally strong Royi Nave and Hava Ortman performed the exact same six stories in powerful fashion, in Hebrew.
Since I stayed for both performances, I had the chance to hear, in Hebrew, about the muhajiba woman’s struggle at checkpoints and with Israeli soldiers. Similarly, in Arabic, I listened to the story of an Orthodox Israeli woman recite her favorite of the tehillim or psalms, which she reads for the victims of terror. At moments like these, the presentation was paradoxical, in a smile-inducing way, which was not altogether natural.
That wasn’t the case though for the stories of the deaths of Magdy or Assaf, young Jerusalemite boys, a Palestinian and an Israeli, struck down during the al-Aqsa intifada. As the actors playing Magdy’s uncle, first in Arabic and then about an hour and a half later in Hebrew, expressed the anger and grief of the loss of a loved one outside of the expected sequence of life, the language melted away. The story stopped being Arabic or Hebrew and it was just about the tragedy of the death of a boy. It was the same for the death of Assaf. The grief on the Arabic-speaking actress’ face and the distress in her voice as she described the absence of her son and the void in her life was moving. It wasn’t Israeli or Palestinian -- it was purely human and very sad.
And I guess that is where the conflict resolution comes to force. People identify, rather easily, with the suffering of their own kind. Carol Grosman, the project director and chief storyteller, and Mohammed Thaher, the project’s Palestinian director, have taken an innovative route. In addition to the stories there are post-performance facilitated discussions, other educational workshops, and a photograph exhibit. The stories, though, are the centerpiece, and they bring each community, in their own language, face-to-face with the horrors they know and carry around, but also with the tragedies and difficulties of the other community, which they may not have previously seen or recognized. To watch these stories recounted, in such a meaningful way, one can’t but walk away with an idea of the other’s loss and suffering as well as a sense for each people’s attachment and affection for Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Stories convey a powerful message, but I was just a few steps outside the theater when I was reminded that there is so much more than conflict, pain, and suffering here. Walking through Jaffa’s Old City, I passed sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and downtown Tel Aviv. The Old City’s cobbled streets were quiet and the Mediterranean breeze made me feel like I was in Southern Europe. On my way to my car, I passed Abu Lafya, an Israeli legend of a bakery in Jaffa.
During the day, Abu Lafya is bustling. Arabic and Hebrew speaking customers swarm the counter and order fresh pastries that are baked in gigantic fired-ovens and filled with cheese, zatar, potatoes, eggs, and other favorites. Tonight, though, Abu Lafya was still. Abu Lafya family members sat in plastic chairs behind the counter drinking tea. I ordered a potato pastry in Arabic from a youngish guy with gelled black hair. A middle-aged guy with glasses came up beside me and ordered his pastries from the same young man, but in Hebrew. We each got the same thank you and good night, but in different languages.
The pain of the stories inside the theater, the tales of personal heartbreak, spiritual commitment, national love, and justice denied are all true, but there are so many other stories of co-existence and normal daily life, that are also true and less frequently told. There are lots of stories here, of all varieties.
My stories will be interrupted, though, for a little while. I’ve got to take a break from the "Live from ..." blog to work on larger projects. Full-time work is more than full-time, and I have to ration and channel my words, at least for now.
Until my next "Live from ..." column, all the best-