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From Gaza, with Love

actor on stage
Photo by Stan Barouh.

I Shall Not Hate, based on the life of Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, is a riveting and critically important solo show at Mosaic Theatre, one of Washington’s newest and most exciting theatre companies. Mosaic Theatre’s Artistic director Ari Roth struck out on his own in order to produce this play and others like it, leaving the DC Jewish Community Center’s Theatre J and founding Mosaic in 2014. The play, a US premiere, forms part of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. Even if Mosaic never produces another play, this play alone would justify the theatre’s founding. The play exposes us to something we rarely see in this country: the suffering of the Palestinian people. It is not only their suffering, we see, however; through this portrait of Abuelaish, we also see their nobility.

The play exposes us to something we rarely see in this country: the suffering of the Palestinian people.

The fact that the play tells a true story makes it all the more compelling. Israeli director Shay Pitovsky, working with Abuelaish, adapted Abuelaish’s memoir to develop the solo piece, which he also directs. Abuelaish, an obstetrician/gynecologist born and raised in Gaza and trained in Egypt and London, as well as at Harvard, brought world attention to the massive toll Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza was taking on civilians when he phoned a friend who was anchoring a live Israeli television news show and reported that an Israeli tank had just shelled his home, killing three of his daughters and seriously injuring other family members. Abuelaish was already well known for his efforts to foster peace when the shelling occurred. His attitude toward his daughters’ murderers is reflected in the title of the play: he refuses to hate.

Palestinian Israeli actor Gassan Abbas, as Abuelaish, is remarkable. The show is in Arabic and Hebrew, with English surtitles. But despite the fact that we have to look away from the action on stage periodically to read the screen, we are completely drawn in to the story Abbas tells. His Abuelaish is a winning combination of vulnerability and dignity, warmth and strength, and the story he tells, spanning his boyhood in Jabalia refugee camp to his decision to go into exile with his family in late middle age, is captivating. At first, the story may seem to meander a bit, but the script is strategically written. Images build on each other, and characters and a strong sense of place are developed so that as the play nears its end, its final moments are devastating.

actor performing
Photo by Stan Barouh.

The set, designed by Niv Manor, is simple and beautifully effective, and Ziv Volushin’s lighting design makes good use of the set’s elements. As the play opens, a red suitcase, spot lit, stands wrong way up, on its side. The rest of the stage, strewn with rubble and scattered shoes, is dimly lit. Piano music, played one key at a time, sets a somber tone. The stage goes dark, and then is lit at the level of the floor. Shadows cast by the rubble and the shoes stretch eerily across the stage. The spotlight shifts to Abuelaish, in a far corner, advancing into the rubble to tell his story.

Hilit Rosenthal’s sound design is skillful, not calling attention to itself but contributing subtly to the mood. Guitar music alternates with piano notes to mark transitions in time or mood. Director and co-adaptor Shay Pitovsky wrings maximum power from Abuelaish’s story. As Israeli soldiers send Abuelaish from checkpoint to checkpoint, dissatisfied with his papers, sand spills out of his red suitcase. His wife is in an Israeli hospital, dying. Abbas moves quickly around the stage, dragging his leaking suitcase, becoming more and more frantic, calling out the time of day, counting down the elapsing hours as his wife slips into unconsciousness and he remains detained.  

actor standing
Photo by Stan Barouh.

The only prop Abbas handles, other than a suitcase, is a model of his house in Gaza, a multi-story building where he lived with his daughters and extended family. He rolls the building out, and we are filled with dread. The model reaches to just his  thigh, the size it would be if we saw it in an aerial photograph or from a bomber plane.  

What we see, in the last scenes of the play, is a bombing of Gaza in miniature. A shelling, to be exact—of only one house. We don’t see it. We hear it, but the description is so vivid and so visceral we need nothing else. That scene, in my opinion, constitutes the great importance of this play. We are called to witness that suffering.

The doctor’s attitude of forgiveness for his family’s killers and his refusal to hate them is noble. “Hate,” Abulaish says, “is the disease of this place.” It is important to differentiate hatred from righteous anger, however, which is what I was left with after the show—anger and pity and the sense that the bombing of Gaza will happen again; “mowing the grass,” the strategy was dubbed, when Israel bombed Gaza in 2014 for the third time in nine years. To me, the play was a clear call to action to prevent the kind of loss Abuelaish narrates.

actor performing
Photo by Stan Barouh.

The important work Mosaic Theatre is doing to break the silence on Palestinians’ suffering and to present the full picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is groundbreaking and vital. Given the timing of the production, as our state government endeavors to pass legislation punishing boycotts of Israel, those of us living across the river in Virginia especially appreciated seeing free speech thrive on stage, thanks to Ari Roth’s courageous move to forge a forum for brave and honest theatrical inquiry. 

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