Haifa is Israel’s third biggest city and known for its Arab-Jewish coexistence. But during Israel’s war of independence in 1948 the majority of the Arab inhabitants in the city fled or was expelled according to a historical exhibition in the city museum.
“Is what happened in 1948 still an open wound?” I asked Ron Assaf, director of the Arab-Jewish cultural center “Beit Hagefen” in Haifa?
“Yes, to a great extent,” he replies. “What has happened in the past cannot be undone but we need to recognize what happened.”
Haifa’s municipal theatre showed last winter a play about Arab-Jew coexistence based on Sami Michael’s famous novel “Trumpet in the Wadi”. The now 90-year-old author emigrated in 1949 from Baghdad. In the book, he depicts a love story in Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood in Haifa, between a Russian-Jewish immigrant and an Arab woman, Hudah.
Hudah is torn between the Arab and Jewish cultures and teaches Hebrew to the Jewish trumpet player! The tragicomic play describes the complicated coexistence and has a clear anti-racist message that today feels more urgent than ever.
Today it seems that the author is playing down the political message of the play.
“When I start writing a book, I don’t know how it will end. Just as you don’t know how a day or a trip will end. I’m curious by nature and never cease to be amazed at myself and at what is happening around me. I like to surprise myself and the reader,” explained Sami Michael in a meeting with the theatre audience.
For Michael, love is the meaning of life. According to him, it’s love that enables us to us to go through all the troubles in life from cradle to grave.
“I’m an incurable romantic. Love has an ability to overcome limits. But love cannot be reduced to sex. Love is about friendship, understanding, appreciation and trust in an equal relationship between man and woman.”
The book “Trumpet in the Wadi” is written in first person from the perspective of an Arab woman. “My Arab readers are joking with me and claim that I’m disclosing their secrets. When I arrived in Israel in 1949, I didn’t know Hebrew, so I settled in Arab neighborhoods in Jaffo and Haifa.”
Theatre can be seen as a way of dealing with the tragic past in Haifa. Already in 2008, Tel Aviv’s Chamber Theatre set up the play “The return to Haifa.” It’s about an Arab couple who after 20 years returns to their home in Haifa, where they had left behind a baby. The play is based on a short story by the famous Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani, who was murdered in Beirut in 1972.
The play will be shown again in October in the Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa. Recently a moving documentary about the play was shown in Haifa. Both the play and the film have aroused strong emotions in Israel and abroad.
In the play, a Jewish couple of refugees, who lost their own son in the Holocaust, are allowed to move into the abandoned Arab house on the condition that they´ll take care of the abandoned baby. The boy grows up to become a soldier in the Israeli army.
At the end of the play it appears that the two couples understand each other’s tragedy and become united in a desire to protect the son against new wars. The son stands as a symbol of the common land.
On the theatre front, there are at least three Arab theatres in Haifa. Besides the Alkarma Theatre, which is linked to “Beit Hagefen” and is the oldest Arab theater in Israel, there are the Al Midan Theatre and the newly formed experimental theatre Kashabi. The latter recently showed a play on the same theme as “The return to Haifa.”
The Al Midan Theater was threatened with closure last summer when the controversial culture and sport minister Miri Regev withdrew government support to the theatre because of a politically sensitive play about a Palestinian terrorist in an Israeli prison.
The current right-wing government in Israel is “testing” the limits of freedom of expression and is trying to assert political influence on culture, not to mention the Supreme Court of Justice, education and NGOs.
Haifa city, however, continued to finance the theater. According to the mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, state grants were required to secure the existence of the theater. Finally a solution was found and the ministry agreed to continue to pay the government grant to the theater.
Does Sami Michael’s book fell more relevant today than when it was written in 1987? “I’m not sure,” replied Michael. “I believe that the Arabs in Israel, those who remained here and didn’t flee even though they could have done it, have become more Israeli over the years. Besides a few extremists, they love the country, as we do, and feel comfortable here.”
Michael’s optimism seems unfounded considering the current situation and tension in the country. There are more extremists than ever on both sides. “I’m not a prophet and cannot predict if and how the conflict will end. But yes, I am worried about the situation and hopes that Israel was ruled by the more insightful people,” Michael concludes.m.apelblat