The story of Abraham and his sons Ismail and Isaac lies at the heart of the religious and mythological relationships between the Arab and Jewish peoples. In the hands of Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi and the Haifa-based Shibur Hur theater company, it forms the main inspiration for The Beloved, a poetic, violent, poignant take on gender, generation, family and identity.
Opening with the return of Abraham and the character just known as Son from an ambiguous but violent incident on a mountainside, the play explores the psychological impacts on a boy who almost becomes a burnt sacrifice at the hands of his father. The patriarchal figure of Abraham is imposingly played by Makram Khoury, whose face will be familiar to viewers of many films tackling aspects of Palestine, including The Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride and Miral. Zuabi’s script and raw, powerful acting from Jonatan Bukshpan (Young Son) and Rami Heuberger (Son) press home the pain and trauma on the direct victim of Abraham’s willingness to obey his god.
Meanwhile, Rivka Neumann and Sivan Sassan as the mother and wife of the wounded child/man present dignified, steadfast portraits of women who try and maintain life and nurture families while their men slug it out. Only the character of Abraham is named; the ambiguity around the identities of the son and women in the play mirrors the tension between the Jewish and Islamic versions of the Abrahamic story.
The often lyrical descriptions of pain and love are universal, but take on particular resonance in the hands of a Palestinian writer and in the context of a drawn-out conflict. A first son, repeatedly mentioned throughout the play, was taken to the army and killed in an unnamed war, while Abraham, his wife and the “chorus” refer to this in terms which take note of debates about masculinity, nationalism, violence and sacrifice. When his estranged son returns, Abraham asks, “What are you doing? Were you planting a mine?”
And on her son and husband’s arrival from the mountain, the character of Mother tells how “I sit here and my belly aches from worry. I sit here and my head is full of wind and my bones are blue. For three days I’m a wounded mare with a horseman of fear walking me in circles.”
Later on, when Son — amnesia having blanked out the trauma of his near-death on the mountainside — has become a slaughterman himself, his words echo the brutality of modern-day soldiers “just following orders”: “I don’t hate them. It’s just something I’m good at, I’ve always been good at. The first time I slaughtered a sheep I knew exactly what to do. I don’t remember where I learned it.”
Sky full of drones
Raising the story above the level of individual brutalized psyches, Wise Ram (Taher Najib) and Young Lamb (Samaa Wakeem) assume the role of the chorus from Greek tragedy — omniscient figures, commenting, analyzing and contextualizing the unfolding events. Wool-edged but in coats reminiscent of flayed skins, they bound around the stage or dangle from hooks, throwing out wisdom and witticisms.
The Wise Ram, for instance, reflects at length on the state of the modern world in terms which recall the increasing automation and dehumanization of Israeli checkpoints and drone warfare: “The world is losing its center. It’s out of balance. These days everything’s mechanical, a factory, totally automated. They have conveyor belts now, no human interference. Gates open, gates shut, unseen people push buttons that operate everything. We are led to the blades …
“The sky is full of drones — small metallic birds that people operate sitting in rooms deep underground halfway across the planet. A cost effective and efficient way to do to others what they do to us, and sleep at night feeling clean, feeling pure.”
Meanwhile the two sheep comment together on the bloody history that has tainted the sacred sites of Mount Marwa/Moriah in Jerusalem. When Young Lamb reflects on how “they say grass in Marwa is sweetest,” Wise Ram replies: “it is the sweetest grass, but only because so much blood was shed there.”
To the very end the play reserves judgement, portraying the strengths and weaknesses, culpability and helplessness of each character. In a pre-show question and answer session on 1 June, some of the cast reflected on the complex meanings and resonances they take from their work on it. Citing both the Nazi Holocaust and the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine ahead of Israel’s establishment in 1948), Taher Najib (himself a writer whose work has also been performed at leading London theater) commented that “as long as the Palestinian crisis exists I am in crisis — of identity, of self-expression. According to my ID, I’m an Arab Israeli. But between the Arabs and the Israelis there is war. This is my identity. Even if I write about the weather in London this is my background.”
Alongside Najib, Rami Neuberger noted that despite the antiquity of the story of Abraham and his sons, “We are still learning these stories today — the rage still comes. We still find parents — very cool parents, in jeans — still sending their kids to war, saying ‘Go! Go to the army!’”
Shibur Hur — the name of the theater company of which Amir Nizar Zuabi is also the artistic director — means a small piece of free space (shibur is an Ottoman unit of measurement). Its mission statement says that it is “dedicated to producing the very best of contemporary and classical theater for audiences across Palestine and abroad.”
The Beloved follows on from Shibur Hur’s tours of the West Bank and Galilee and productions at the prestigious Young Vic theater in London to show that the company is indeed capable of presenting high-quality, original, exciting drama which can engage both local and international audiences.
The Beloved is being performed at the Bush Theatre in London until 9 June. See www.bushtheatre.co.uk.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.