Return to Haifa Confronts Holocaust Victims with Palestinian Refugees
When I first told my mother about the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, she, who was a Holocaust survivor, used to say, "I keep my sighs to myself." In the play Return to Haifa, which is now being shown at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, there is a genuine confrontation between the trauma of Holocaust victims Miriam and Efraim, and that of Palestinians Said and Safiyya. Miriam and Efraim lost their son and their home in Poland during the Holocaust. Said and Safiyya abandoned their baby Khaldun in the grim circumstances which compelled them to leave their home in Haifa in 1948. After the 1967 war 20 years later, they travel from Ramallah to Haifa to search for Khaldun, who was adopted by Miriam and Efraim. Miriam, who is now living in the house Said and Safiyya had abandoned, faces a dilemma. Should she invite the Palestinian couple into their house/ her home? Will she arrange a meeting between them and their child, who has been brought up as an Israeli and is now called Dov?
Unlike my mother, Miriam identifies with the suffering of Said and Safiyya, and with an unusual breadth of spirit, she tries to find a solution to the crisis which both families are facing. This is actually the choice facing all Holocaust victims and their second and third generations: Most of them closed themselves off within their own trauma and suffering. In their eyes, the latter justified the displacement of the Palestinians from their homes. On the other hand, many from the second and third generations feel that it was forbidden to perpetrate injustice against others, even if it was different in scope from that suffered by their parents. Thus they seek a solution to the seemingly insoluble situation that confronts them.
It must be said, to the credit of the playwright, Boaz Gaon, and the director, Sinai Peter, that they did not fall into the trap of the clich├ęs and the political provocation which could have befallen them. It should also be noted that they asked and received the agreement of the Kanafani family to tell their story on the Israeli stage, adapted from a novella by Ghassan Kanafani. The characters of Said and Safiyya are drawn and presented with sensitivity and a human touch that brought many in the audience to tears. I am not ashamed to admit that I, too, cried. As for Miriam, Gaon sometimes makes her into a stereotype of the new immigrant from Poland (she is forever dusting the furniture and is afraid of getting a sore throat). But the human touch overcomes the stereotype, and when the son Dov, who is serving in an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) combat unit, refuses to talk to his Palestinian parents, she persuades, even compels, him to do so.
"I chose to adapt Kanafani's story into a play because of the scene in which he arranged that initial meeting between the boy, who became a soldier, and his biological parents. This entry by Dov/Khaldun into the story is one of the most symbolic which I have encountered. It leaves one speechless," says Gaon. "Here Kanafani made a courageous attempt to express the Jewish pain, even though his family did not experience the Nazi atrocities. I hope that I made an effort no less courageous to express the Palestinian suffering."
Dov/Khaldun belongs to the second generation both of the Jewish Holocaust and of the Palestinian Nakba, and he has to bear the heavy burden of two traumas. In one of the climactic moments of the play, Dov levels strong accusations against his father Said, which express Kanafani's criticism of his own people: "What did you do all this time in order to take your child back? Had I been in your place, I would have taken up arms. Helpless! Don't tell me you spent 20 years weeping. Tears won't bring back the missing and won't cause any miracles."
Towards the end of the play, Dov withdraws into himself since he is unable to grapple with the impossible heritage left to him by his biological and adoptive parents. But the ending, in which the Palestinian couple stays to sleep in Haifa before returning to Ramallah, hints about the possibility of dialogue. The novella, in contrast, does not end with compromise and with the desired family union, but with the words which Kanafani puts into the mouth of Said: "Meanwhile you can stay in our house. This is a matter to be solved by war." In the play, Said and Safiyya accept the decision of their younger son Khaled, Dov/Khaldun's brother, to join the ranks of Fateh, while Dov continues to serve in the IDF.
The uniqueness of the story lies in Kanafani's courage in grappling - for the first time in Arab and Palestinian literature - with the Holocaust, and his demonstration of empathy towards the Jews in the story. At the age of 12, Kanafani fled in 1948 with his family from Acre to Lebanon. There he became one of the "resistance writers" and a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1972, he was killed together with his niece when his car was blown up in Beirut. Israeli journalist Eitan Haber later wrote that people from the Mossad admitted that his being on a "hit list" was a mistake, since he was not actively engaged in terror activities. Today his short story "The Land of Sad Oranges" is on the Israeli Ministry of Education's list of recommended reading.
Unlike in the novella, where the women are silent and their voices are only heard as an echo of the male voices, in the play the women have a central and decisive voice. The exact but reserved acting of the Palestinian couple is heart-rending. The mother, Safiyya, a character who is both sensitive and determined, is well played by the beautiful and prominent Israeli Arab actress Mira Awad. The Israeli Arab actor Norman Issa gives an impressive and convincing performance as the father, Said. Miriam, both tough and soft, whose whole life has been devoted to the principle of survival, is played by Rozina Kambus, while Yossi Kantz appears as her husband. Also, Dov/Khaldun played by Erez Cohen does well as a seemingly typical Israeli young man.
Whether or not this is a coincidence, both Mira Awad and Rozina Kambus experienced the fearful status of being a refugee in their own lives. "Everyone wants recognition of their own history, and the time has come to speak about this. There are those who deny the Holocaust and those who deny 1948, but the evidence and witnesses exist. I myself have family which found itself outside the borders of Israel," says Awad. "There are two truths here of two people fighting for what is loved and valuable. In the play it's a child. In actual life it's the land," says Kambus, who was forced to leave her country, Romania.
After deciding to stage the play, the Cameri Theater has had to contend with demonstrations from rightists and with a wave of letters of protest. "As a theatergoer, you have to directly confront the other side, without intermediaries to protect you. The most frightening thing that can happen is that you will find yourself identifying with the pain of the other side. One cannot close one eye and think that you see the whole picture. I believe that there is not one person in the country who will not be shaken by the play," says Gaon. <