<i>Return to Haifa</i>: Whose Narrative Is It Anyway?

, based on a novella by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, is not a cultural product of our age of globalization.
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It sometimes gets confusing in the global village, where technology, finance, cross-cultural interactions, and expanding ethnic diasporas are tearing apart the relationship between borders and making multiple identities possible. Hence, Ang Lee is a Taiwanese artist who directs American films, but he is also an American film director of Chinese movies. As a member of the Sinosphere, enlarged by fifty million overseas Chinese, Ang is not only a creative individual who makes our world more interesting and prosperous. He also helps to bridge between nations and cultures and to produce a Sino-American synergy that is more conducive to peace than a contingency of Chinese and U.S. diplomats.

So how about the following bi- or tri-national cultural synergy? How about an Arab-language novella by a Palestinian author who was affiliated with a Palestinian guerrilla group and assassinated (apparently) by Israelis that is adapted into a Hebrew-language play by an Israeli writer and produced by a premier Israeli theatre company - with Jewish and Arab actors playing in the leading roles? And now consider that this play is being performed in Hebrew and Arabic - with English subtitles - on the stage of a Jewish theater in Washington, DC. Sounds like an American-Israeli-Palestinian co-production heralding a new age of Mideast cooperation?

But don't get the wrong impression. Return to Haifa, based on a novella by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, adapted by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon and produced by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv is not a cultural product of our age of globalization. The production directed by Sinai Peter runs this month (January 15-30) at Theater J in the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC). To apply Thomas Friedman's metaphors, its subject matter and the atmospherics it creates have to do less with the "Lexus" (Friedman had in mind a bunch of Israeli and Palestinian kids launching an Internet company) and more to do with the "Olive Tree" (Friedman's representation of Israelis and Palestinians killing and getting killed in the name of cherished tribal legacies).

Unlike the recent Israeli-German film Ajami, in which Arabs and Jews co-exist in the crime-and-drugs milieu of a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Jaffa (much of the dialogue in the film is in a Palestinian vernacular of Arabic that is cluttered with many Hebrew words, a kind of Arab-Israeli version of Spanglish), Haifa does not celebrate any postmodern multicultural themes. If anything, the premise of the drama reflects a romantic or "organic" sense of national identity in which the Land of Israel/Palestine is made metaphor in the body of a flesh-and-blood human being.

That persona takes the form of a baby boy (Khaldun) born to a young Arab couple (Sa'id and Saffiyeh) in 1948, against the backdrop of the establishment of the State of Israel. He is then raised by a Jewish couple (Miriam and Ephraim), and as a young Israeli (Dov) he fights in the 1967 war. Is Dov/Khaldun an Israeli or a Palestinian? As Kanafani saw it, Palestine/Israel -- not unlike Khaldun/Dov -- cannot be split between Jewish and Arab mothers. The conflict between the adoptive mother and the natural mother becomes a zero-sum-game, and in with Solomon's Judgment, only one of them can end up with the child. The solution does not lie in an Israel and a Palestine living side by side -- along the lines of the two-state solution. Instead, the young man has to choose whether to re-join his biological parents or to remain with his adoptive family. The choice is either Israel or Palestine. It's a winner-take-all market.

Which was the ideological perspective held by Kanafani, who was born in Acre in 1936, grew up in Jaffa, and who with his family fled to Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Kanafani, a renowned Palestinian writer considered to be the founder of the modern Palestinian novel, was a secular Arab nationalist and a Marxist activist who had served as the spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He was killed in 1972 by a car bomb in Beirut, in what was believed to be an Israeli reprisal for the killings of 26 people by three Japanese terrorists linked to the PFLP at Ben Guroin (then Lod) airport in 1972.

A year after the 1967 War, Kanafani wrote the novella that highlighted the Palestinian predicament as a people displaced from their land, a nation of refugees. During the inter-communal fighting, Sa'id and Saffiyeh (played by Raida Adon and Suheil Haddad) flee their house in Haifa, leaving behind their baby, and settle in a refugee camp in Ramallah. Miriam and Ephraim (played by Rozina Kambos and Nisim Zohar), who lost their son in the Holocaust, take over the Palestinian couple's house and raise their abandoned son as their own. Twenty years later, immediately after the 1967 War, Sa'id and Saffiyeh decide to visit their house and what they left behind, including Khaldun/Dov (played by Erez Kahana).

Said and Saffiyeh return to Haifa and ignite emotional encounters with Miriam and Dov/Khaldun that recall some of the heart wrenching scenes in Sophie's Choice. But Kanafani was not trying to dramatize a universal human experience -- the tragedy of a mother losing her child. Return to Haifa, like much of Kanafani's writing, is a form of agitprop that is recruited to serve a cause -- in this case, the Palestinian cause of the time. Not that there is anything wrong with that: Many Israeli writers were playing a similar role in trying to serve the Zionist cause. Or to use a more contemporary term, artists on both sides were hoping to mobilize national and international support by dramatizing their respective national "narrative."

In fact, reading Kanafani's original novella, the Palestinian narrative reflects many of the themes - some would describe them as "clichés - that dominate the "resistance literature" of many third word national movements during their wars of liberation: European settlers - greedy, calculating, cold - stealing the land and culture of the natives - authentic, proud, sensitive - and in the middle, the one European who rejects his people and identifies with the natives. (Sound familiar? Think Avatar: "How do you feel about betraying your own people?"). Hence, in Kanafani's version the Jewish couple is unsympathetic, and they certainly didn't lose a child in the Holocaust. The reader expects Khaldun to return to his Arab roots.

At the same time, Gaon, the Israeli playwright, attempted to use his version as a way of providing the audience with a more balanced view -- the duel of the Palestinian and Israeli narratives, if you will, which goes back to 1948 and Israel's War of Independence and the Palestinians' Nakba (Disaster) That may explain why Gaon has been criticized by both Palestinians and Israelis. (Kanafani's family, including his Danish widow, Anni, gave the Cameri rights to the story).

There are these competing narratives - but then there is the real reality. On one level, one could make the argument that the narrative dramatized by Kanafani - a secular Palestinian who was affiliated by a Marxist group led by Palestinian-Christians and committed to the liberation of the whole of Palestine - is outdated. In the aftermath of Oslo and the two Intifadahs, and at a time that Islam has replaced socialism as a central ideological component in Palestinian politics and culture, things look quite different than they were in 1948 and 1967. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza dominates the Palestinian experience, while Israelis regard the Palestinians as a terrorist threat. And then we have the two-state solution.

If anything, if we try to imagine a conclusion to Kanafani's plot, Said and Saffiyeh and their family should be living happily ever after in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the independent State of Palestine (after receiving some compensation as part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement), while Dov is residing and working in modern Haifa where a shopping mall now occupies the area where the old house had once stood. This would have been a political reality in which a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict creates an environment that provides for an evolution of a common narrative of co-existence.

But instead we seem to be "returning to Haifa," in a sense that a depressing political reality in which the growing power of radicals on both sides is turning the two-state solution into a distant dream, raising the possibility that Jews and Arabs will continue fighting over the whole of Palestine/Land of Israel for many years to come as they continue marketing their mirror-imaging and somewhat tedious narratives of victimhood. My own idea for a Happy End: Khaldun/Dov bids farewell to both his kvetching adoptive and natural families and sets himself free.

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