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September 9, 2003

Palestinian-Born Playwright Offers Insight and Hope for the Peace in the Middle East


by Michael Austin

In a tiny downstairs room in San Francisco, there is a play being performed that, in true theatrical (and San Franciscan) spirit, confronts not one but two hot-button socio-political issues facing the world community today. The somewhat ironically-named New Conservatory Theatre is already known nationally for the frank exploration of homosexual themes present in much of their work. With this new production of Salam, Shalom...A Tale of Passion, the theatre company takes on an entirely new explosive topic: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian born playwright, actor and dancer Saleem, (who also plays the lead character of Nabeel in this production) won a GLAAD award, as well as the Harvey Fierstein Award for Best Original Writing for a Stage Production for this play, which has already provoked hope, ire and interest in thousands during successful tours in Southern California and Australia. Saleem and New Conservatory director Mike Ward have now re-worked the play for a strong, intelligent and provocative Northern California premiere.

The setting for the first act of Salam, Shalom is the common room of an apartment at the University of California, Berkeley. Sparks fly from the first moments, when Palestinian native Nabeel, the college's new visiting instructor of Arabic, is placed by the University's staff in the apartment's second bedroom, only to find the first is occupied by Yaron (Bradford Cooreman), PhD Candidate in Retail Marketing, and a Jewish native of Tel Aviv. Nabeel immediately requests another assignment of the University staff representative, the charming and bubbly Californian Liza (Danielle Thys), but there are none to be had. Forced to learn to live together, Nabeel and Yaron argue for awhile, but start to open up to each other after Yaron witnesses Nabeel's speech before the school's Arab Student group calling for a cease in Palestinian retaliation against Israel. As they learn to get along, their attraction to each other grows, and despite the strongly voiced objections of Nahed (Sheri Bass) and Malik (Nafees Hamid), two members of the Arab Student group, the roommates become romantically involved.

Following the intermission, the play's action moves to the Middle East, where both roommates (now dedicated lovers) have returned home – Yaron to Tel Aviv, Nabeel to East Jerusalem. Yaron's brother David (David Kirkpatrick), an extremely militant Second Lieutenant in the Israeli Army, is not shy in his disapproval of Yaron's new love, but their American-born mother Mira (Ann Kuchins), seeing her son happy, gives her uneasy blessing to the relationship. Nabeel's traditional Palestinian father Abdul-Kareem (Robert Cooper), told of his son's homosexual relationship with a Jew by Malik before Nabeel returns home to explain, is unable to confront his own shattered illusions about his son's future or overcome his own prejudices, and practically disowns Nabeel. At first Nabeel wants to escape back to Berkeley, but Yaron convinces him running from their homes is not the answer. The two stay together, finding refuge in each other, until Nabeel is jailed by David on trumped-up incitement charges after some violent Palestinian suicide bombings. Yaron changes his mind about running away, makes a deal with his brother to get Nabeel released in exchange for a false confession, and buys plane tickets back to San Francisco. But this time, it is Nabeel who decides he must stand on his principles and protest his innocence, even if it means sacrificing his love. He stays in jail and sends Yaron away once and for all.

First and foremost, the play is (as the full title suggests) a love story. But Salam, Shalom so far surpasses that genre with its intensity and socio-political philosophizing as to leave such labels and generalizations behind.

Almost every element, character and opinion in Salam, Shalom is balanced by an equal and opposite parallel element, character or opinion. Act I takes place in the tolerant, free and relatively safe society of Berkeley; Act II takes place in the prejudiced, militaristic and relatively hazardous community of the Middle East. At the top of the play, Nabeel is Palestinian, open to peace but scared of his own sexuality; Yaron Israeli, with a chip on his shoulder about peace but open in his sexuality. David is a narrow-minded Israeli militant; Malik is a narrow-minded Palestinian militant. Both of the parents portrayed in the play are loving, sympathetic characters, but Mira is an open-minded, modern mother, most concerned with her children's happiness, while Abdul-Kareem is a closed-minded father from the old world, most concerned with his traditions and the opinions of his society. Some want peace at any cost, while some want revenge and their nations' superiority proven at any costů

This perfect balance may, on one hand, be viewed as an over-simplification of the world, yet it also provides an excellent illustration of the true duality inherent in almost every situation. Most of the characters in the play (and through them, the audience) face the incredible difficulty of making one clear choice or joining one clear side, when there is clearly no one right answer, or one clear side in the right. It simply depends on one's point of view. If one is able to step away from their personal prejudices and truly consider multiple points of view, this is obvious.

The genius of this, of course, is that it also demonstrates the beginning of the actual solution to the entire problem of the Middle East, at least in the eyes of the character Nabeel (and, it seems, the playwright Saleem). Salam, Shalom postulates that if only the people of Israel and Palestine would just let go of their own anger, pain and self-righteousness and listen to the complaints and feelings of the other side with an open heart and mind, the violence and conflict would cease immediately, because each would inevitably realize the folly of their own ways, and recognize their own pain in that of their supposed enemy. They would realize neither one of them is more "right" or "wrong" than the other.

Through the metaphor of Nabeel and Yaron falling in love, the script suggests that peace in the Middle East can be achieved in the same way peace is achieved between two people in a relationship. As Nabeel states: "You conquer your enemies by winning their heart, enticing them, seducing them, reaching out to them, and getting to know them. We all know it works on lovers, why not try it on enemies?" Taking this idea a step further, at one point in the first act, prior to Nabeel and Yaron's personal ceasefire, Liza refers to their constant argument as a "masturbation symphony," and demands that they swallow their pride and just try to talk – about anything! The implication is that argument, pride and anger are only masturbation, and surely it would be better to "make love" by transforming argument into discussion – "social intercourse" – and finding some form of compromise...A crude metaphor perhaps, but one that makes some sense.

The so-far insurmountable obstacle to opening up the lines of communication between the two combatant groups, of course, is the incredible prejudice each holds against the others' religion, race, even food and culture! This prejudice has been bred into them by their families and societies, and by the pain, frustration and anger which has become emotional habit after so many decades of suffering violence and aggression from the other side. Salam, Shalom recognizes this, fully and painfully, but refuses to accept it. The key, Nabeel tells us, is to separate the political actions of a country from its culture, religion and race, and people's political beliefs from their personal beliefs. He says of Yaron, "I do not 'despise' him. I just disagree with some of his political views. Religion and race are not the issue." Only after this distinction is made can there be any hope of communication, compromise and peace. Additionally, each group which is locked in this struggle has a strong loyalty to his home, his land, his country. The idea of loyalty to one's "home" is deeply entrenched in humans, it seems; all the more apparently when one feels their home is threatened. A related idea the play repeatedly questions is that of one's true home. Is "home" merely a concept? Is it family? Is it a geographical location? Is it physical comfort or belongings, or whatever "reminds you who you are," as Yaron says about his family's home in Tel Aviv? If people continue to believe they must have sole ownership and control of the physical place they consider their home, how can compromise between Israel and Palestine, both of which claim sole rights to one place, ever be reached? One solution suggested in the play is that people can find their "home" in other people, and in relationships, rather than in loyalty to a particular place, and thereby quell their need to fight so violently over a place. There is a telling moment early in the play where Nabeel moves some of Yaron's Jewish totemic objects to make room for his own Islamic artifacts. Yaron is angry at the invasion, but when Nabeel suggests they are supposed to be sharing the common space in the apartment, Yaron responds, "Ask me, and I'll make some space for you." Nabeel does, and he gets his space. In this microcosm is the suggestion that if nations exercised some courtesy towards each other, and recognized each others' rights to space and to respect, perhaps strife could be avoided.

Sadly, in the end, this ideal is not fully realized by anyone in the play. When Nabeel and Yaron return to the Middle East, they find that their love alone cannot overcome the prejudice and anger of two entire nations, and the play drives home the fact of just how difficult it is to achieve change on a massive scale. As the script states again and again in different ways, "Change is the key issue," and we all know change doesn't come easily or quickly. But it must, for as Nabeel tries to explain to the seething Malik in the play, change and adaptation are necessary for survival. You must take your pain and learn from it, for if you simply wallow in it, it will fester, grow and finally bury you, and probably others.

The play does have small faults. In places, the writing gets a bit clumsy, particularly in the most opinionated political portions. (This was most likely simply due to English being the playwright's second language, or perhaps a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth; revisions and extra dialogue added by the play's director.) I also found the myriad sequences of exposition and narration, in which the supporting characters appeared in closet-size boxes behind scrims to speak vague, indirectly related monologues somewhat distracting and largely unnecessary. But thanks to the sparkling sincerity of the author and the entire cast, not to mention the intimacy of the tiny space (seating no more than fifty in the audience), the emotional moments of connection and conflict, along with the strong philosophical messages, consistently ring true. The entire audience was visibly enrapt and invested in the high stakes of the drama, and enjoyed many moments of levity in the characters' natural humanity. The entire cast and crew deserve great laudation for their simple and graceful telling of this complex tale.

In the end, Salam, Shalom tells us that no one chooses their sexual orientation, no one chooses who they fall in love with and no one chooses to suffer pain and loss. But one can choose to accept people's differences, and to learn from pain and loss, so that perhaps we may avoid more of it in the future.

For those in or near the SF Bay Area: Salam, Shalom performs at San Francisco, CA's New Conservatory Theatre at 25 Van Ness through October 26th, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 o'clock PM, and Sundays at 2 o'clock PM.  Ticket prices are $18-$28.  Please contact The New Conservatory Theatre Box Office at (415) 861-8972 or visit their website at http://www.nctcsf.org/ for information, directions and tickets. If you have further questions about the playwright or would like to know more about his work, you can contact him at azuka@pacbell.net.

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