THEATRE: “Tennis in Nablus” by Ismaili Khalidi 10Feb10 February 12, 2010

Debunking the Palestinian stereotype

by Ismaili Khalidi  -  Atlanta Journal Constitution -  10 February 2010

Achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East is for the United States not only a matter of national security but a moral calling. The United States is the designated third party in this protracted conflict, both because we are the world’s only superpower and by sheer dint of our billions in tax dollars invested in Israel’s security every year.

But to live up to this responsibility and to truly act as honest brokers in the region, we must address the fact that our policymakers, and many of us as citizens, are woefully ignorant of who the Palestinians are.

Despite America’s deep involvement in the region, many Americans are unfamiliar with Palestinian history and the decades-long tragedy of their dispossession.

It is my hope that the Atlanta premiere of my play, “Tennis in Nablus,” which takes place in Palestine in 1939, gives audiences a glimpse of Palestinian humanity, humor and tragedy, and that it serves to provoke a discussion about the past and present.

There is no shortage of allusions to Palestinian violence in our mass media. From the evening news to our summer blockbusters, the very word “Palestinian” has through the years become synonymous with violence.

And in recent months both President Barack Obama and global rock icon Bono have wrongly intimated an absence of Palestinian practitioners of nonviolence. The apparent implication of their statements was that Palestinians have only themselves and their violent ways to blame for their miserable lot in life and the impasse in the peace process. This, sadly, is not an uncommon refrain here in the United States.

If we took the time to learn about the Palestinian people, we would find they are quite different from the Palestinians we tend to meet in films, and in so doing, our country’s chances at helping broker an end to the conflict would increase dramatically.

As a Palestinian-American playwright, I am deeply committed to challenging the myths and distortions about Palestinians that abound in American discourse.

In my plays, I try to bring to light some of the often obscured human dimensions of Palestinian identity. My work attempts to challenge the stereotype of the Palestinian as a violent, barbaric and inherently anti-Semitic opponent of modernity.

But “Tennis in Nablus,” despite its examination of pertinent and timeless themes such as the use of violence versus nonviolence, is not enough. No play is. And neither is discussion alone. But it is a start.

And it is high time that we, as Americans, engage in an honest, compassionate and informed discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The current situation, where Israeli teenagers are sent to Palestinian “homelands” to militarily control millions of Palestinians and their land is not only unsustainable, but is morally corrosive to both Israeli and Palestinian society. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us: “This madness must cease.”

In fact, there is a growing nonviolent movement against the occupation and the illegal “separation wall” that Israel has erected. This wall rises higher and stretches farther than the Berlin Wall ever did.

The protests against the wall are led by villagers who have been cut off from their land and their relatives by the omnipresent concrete and barbed wire barrier. In the villages of Bil’in and Na’alin, weekly protests are regularly met with rubber bullets, tear gas and handcuffs.

Visitors, Israelis and locals alike are subject to such repression, and over the past several years dozens of marchers have been killed and injured.

In the past five months, four grass-roots leaders of the nonviolent protest movement have been arrested by the Israeli army and held for weeks, even months, often without charge or trial.

First was Mohammad Othman; then, Abdallah Abu Rahmeh. Then it was the turn of Jamal Juma’a to be whisked out of his house in the middle of the night in front of his family. Recently, Mohammed Khatib endured the same treatment.

Their crimes? Opposing injustice and seeking freedom, not through violence, but through popular protest and boycott — methods employed by King and Mahatma Gandhi in their respective struggles for freedom.

And yet we hear nothing of these potential Palestinian Gandhis and Kings.

To acknowledge their existence and support their struggle is not to deny Israel’s right to exist but rather to question its right to systematically deny freedom to others.

To start a discussion about this topic and to note these nonviolent warriors is our duty as Americans, especially in the hometown of King, who told us that “nonviolence is the answer to the critical political and moral questions of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.”

Brits’ cluelessness brings levity to Palestinian tragedy by Wendell Brock  –   Atlanta Journal Constitution –   5 February 2010
For a play about a brutal 1939 rebellion in British-occupied Palestine, Ismail Khalidi’s “Tennis in Nablus” is a remarkably funny play.

Blood is spilling on the streets. Families are fighting against each other. Prisoners are being tortured and hung. But about all the tennis-playing English invaders have on their minds is what they’ll wear to the next costume ball.

Winner of the 2009 Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, this Alliance Theatre world premiere is a beautifully crafted work of art that balances the Lebanese-born playwright’s passion for the politics of his homeland with a playful and irreverent comedic sensibility.

Khalidi may be concerned with a tumultuous moment in Palestine’s history, but “Tennis in Nablus” is not a period piece; nor is it the least bit sentimental. Writing with an ear for contemporary language and a delightful sense of the absurd, Khalidi describes the Palestinians as dreamy revolutionaries and the British colonialists as comic buffoons.

While trouble-making Yusef (Demosthenes Chrysan) stirs a kettle of violence and unrest, picturing himself as an Arab version of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, his spirited and unconventional wife Ambara (Suehyla El-Attar) writes scathing polemical tracts under a masculine nom de plume. His Anglophile nephew Tariq (Bhavesh Patel) is understandably outraged that his own uncle has burned down his business.

As a kind of civil war rages within this household, British Gen. Falbour (Bart Hansard) and his sycophantic lieutenant (Joe Knezevich) jostle over sartorial decisions and tennis — to hilarious effect — and their soldier subordinates (played by Jim Sarbh and Michael Simpson) turn out to be sympathetic to the Palestinian prisoners. With a satirical gleam in his eye, Khalidi has a great good time sending up these “there’ll always be an England” shenanigans, even though the whole bumbling mess ends with a sobering tragedy.

Though the foreign accents are sometimes a little wobbly, director Peggy Shannon delivers a polished production, and coaxes excellent performances from Chrysan, Patel, Hansard and Knezevich, in particular. Anne Kennedy contributes appropriate, time-specific costumes and a whole wardrobe of zany party attire. And designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s wall of ancient-looking Moorish arches becomes a multi-purpose setting for domestic exchanges, prison beatings and, of course, tennis.

Khalidi is a young writer of extraordinary promise, but his story – the motivations and conflicts of his characters – could use a bit of minor fine-tuning. I was never quite sure what, if anything, Yusef had done to deserve his punishment or why his relationship with his nephew was so fractured. (Except for liking the British, how has Tariq so offended his uncle?) Who these people are, and what their story is, could use some clarification.

Still, “Tennis in Nablus” is a lovely new play and another feather in the cap for the Kendeda competition. With flair and originality, Khalidi defuses the solemnity of his story by masking it with comedic zest, and yet he never negates the horror of the final twist.

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