Romance and realism merge in Jerusalem-focused radio play

Romantic views of Jerusalem come up against reality in Selma Dabbagh’s play The Brick. (Zalameh)

The BBC’s coverage of Palestine has come in for plenty of criticism for its biased reporting and failure to give Palestinian voices as much airtime as Israeli ones.

The arts, however, offer a broader space for diversity and discussion than “news” items. A radio play by Palestinian-British writer Selma Dabbagh, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this week, is the latest example.

Titled The Brick, it is billed as telling the story of Rasha Khory, “a Palestinian woman on her way to Jerusalem to run some errands for her mother, but she also has her own secret mission, visceral to her sense of identity. All too swiftly Rasha finds herself thwarted, injured and discovering some unwelcome home truths about her beloved father.”

A short film made for the BBC’s Arabic Service TV arts program Afaq features interviews with Dabbagh and the play’s director, Sarah Bradshaw, giving a sense of how a radio play is put together, and the emotion poured into their roles by the actors.

Balancing act

In the film, Dabbagh reflects on the balancing act she has to perform in fitting political issues into what is also meant to be a piece of entertainment. In the play, the daily struggles of checkpoints, housing permissions and unemployment are raised through the experiences of Rasha and her family, along with the difficulties for young Palestinians of negotiating family and gender relationships while under military occupation.

In the taxi Rasha shares a seat with Mrs. Oud (Souad Farris), whose family land has been taken for a settlement, and whose daughter — living beyond Israel’s wall in the West Bank — has had two children since they last saw one another.

Rasha panics because her permit only allows her to be in Jerusalem until 7pm, while the little boy traveling with them says that ghouls don’t worry him on the village hillsides — just soldiers.

Mrs. Oud’s skeptical reaction to Rasha’s overblown praise of her dead father also alerts us to one of the main themes of the play. Rasha babbles about her father’s community spirit and pioneering legal work to resist Israeli land appropriations; Mrs. Oud bitterly notes that all he saved of her family’s fields was a small garden.

Flickers of humor

Dabbagh’s dialogue is pacey and realistic, informative without lecturing the listener. And flickers of humor show through.

After being reprimanded by her mother and a family friend for wearing a headscarf, Rasha finally reveals that rather than rejecting her father’s secularism or her family’s Christianity, she is actually disguising a bad dye job.

Like Dabbagh’s debut novel Out Of It, the play explores the tricky politics of foreign visitors and their reactions to the land of Palestine and the people they meet there.

Alan (Anton Lesser), a tourist with vague ideas about the land he’s visiting, is a window onto the kind of emotional, uninformed ideas that ignore the context of the churches and architectural wonders that westerners come to visit.

His bumbling, confused notions contrast sharply with Rasha’s lyrically-expressed internal monologue on the sight, sound and smells of the city of her birth.

But Rasha’s romantic views of Jerusalem give way to revelations about the reality of her beloved late father’s life, as she hears tales from his former friends and acquaintances that suggest something other than the heroic campaigning lawyer she idolizes. A chance encounter entwines her father’s story with that of Alan the bumbling tourist and with Rasha’s quest for a memento from her family home.

Ultimately, the combination exposes the violence with which Palestinians are detached from the land and community, their heritage and aspirations casually sneered at and destroyed.

Effective match

Almost as important to the feel of The Brick as the dialogue and plot is the music, composed and performed by British-born Palestinian singer and ethnomusicologist Reem Kelani.

The songs, taken from Kelani’s 2006 debut album Sprinting Gazelle, open the play and underpin the speech, creating an atmosphere which is Palestinian without stooping to generic oriental tones.

Kelani’s music and Dabbagh’s play are an effective match. Kelani’s music, with its intelligent blend of tradition and innovation, mirrors Rasha’s journey through stories of the past — both personal and national — and the freedom she perhaps could attain when her myths are fractured and re-patterned by unlooked-for new truths.

Along with Rasha’s disillusionment comes Alan’s opportunity, by following her through the reality of Palestinian life in Jerusalem, to shed his own illusions about the “Holy Land.” We are left to speculate about how much each of them seizes the chances proffered by their clearer vision of the “facts on the ground.”

The Brick will be available on the BBC Radio 4 website until 20 January.

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.