Tennis In Nablus

September 7 — 25, 2011photospress release

Mondoweiss / Register Star

Ismail Khalidi seeks to rewrite the American understanding of Palestinian identity
by Lisa Mullenneaux on September 17, 2011

Locked in a British brig in 1939 Palestine, Arab nationalist Yusef has a vision: "All this," he tells his nephew Tariq, "is just a complicated real estate deal. I can almost see myself disappearing." Arab dispossession, Zionist aspirations, and British betrayal are the themes Ismail Khalidi explores in Tennis in Nablus, playing at Stageworks in Hudson, NY, through Sept. 25.

In this award-winning play, Khalidi, 28, shows the Brits used the same brutal tactics against Arab rebels they'd used to smash popular revolts in India and Ireland. In the crucial years (1917-1947) that preceded the birth of Israel, British colonialists fueled ethnic hatred by promising the land to both indigenous Arabs and Jewish immigrants.

Tennis in Nablus takes place as Arab nationalists make a dying attempt to drive the British out. They are being shot in the street or arrested and tortured while their rulers plan their next costume ball. Lieutenant Duff models his tennis whites; General Falbour can't decide between Zulu war paint or a Nazi uniform. As the play begins, we see how this conflict is tearing apart the Al Qudsi family. Yusef is fighting for independence, his nephew for the best business deal he can get from the Brits or Zionists. But when the two are forced to share a jail cell, Tariq, the "rational nationalist," quickly realizes that for his governors, he's just a dirty Arab, who can be ordered to fetch their tennis balls. This shock brings him closer to his uncle, who has blamed Tariq for wanting to sell the family land. "We'll be the foreigners soon enough in Palestine," Yusef warns his nephew: "I was forced to steal an orange from my own orange grove."

A second theme Khalidi brings to light—with hilarious effect—is the natural empathy the British soldiers O'Donegal and Rajib have for their Arab prisoners. In an early scene O'Donegal and his captive Yusef trade ethnic slurs, then laugh and say "touché." Equally revealing is a scene in which Samuel Hirsch, an idealistic Jew, overhears General Falbour and his subordinate Duff eviscerating Jews. Undeterred, Hirsch presses them to act quickly to stop Hitler's aggression.

In the end Tariq's real estate deal goes up in smoke, but before he escapes to Beirut, he gives his aunt Anbara keys to the family house. The play closes on a somber note as Yusef's wife faces an uncertain future.

Khalidi expertly mines rich elements of tragedy and comedy, and he has a superb cast to support him. Nasser Faris—a veteran of TV, stage, and film—is the oud player turned rebel Yusef Al Qudsi. Maria Silverman plays his wife Anbara, a journalist and freedom fighter modeled on feminist organizer Tarab Abdul Hadi. Yusef's nephew and British collaborator Tariq Al Qudsi is played by Fajer Al-Kaisi. Chet Carlin takes on the roles of both the goose-stepping general and vegetable peddler Hajj Waleed, whose eggplants conceal rifles. Matt Falber mimes a flawless British accent as the priggish Lieutenant Duff. Christopher Smith unpacks the complexities of Samuel Hirsch.

One of Khalidi's goals in Tennis in Nablus is to debunk the violent, barbaric, and anti-Semitic Palestinian stereotype. "As a Palestinian-American playwright," he says, "I am deeply committed to challenging the myths and distortions about Palestinians that abound in American discourse. In Tennis in Nablus, I try to expose some of the often obscured human dimensions of Palestinian identity."

Tennis in Nablus, which had its 2010 world premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, draws on history in which Khalidi's family has a very personal stake. "The Khalidis are an old Jerusalem family," says the playwright. "Records of their presence in the city date to the 12th or 13th century." Ismail himself was named for his paternal grandfather, a UN official.

John Sowle's set and lighting are creative and evocative of the period. A rattan screen and single window give the illusion of a jail cell, lit from behind to simulate daylight. Gray stone arches surround the stage. About choosing to stage Tennis in Nablus director Laura Margolis says, "I'm always looking for compelling stories that take us on a journey. Khalidi succeeds in giving us something to feel and think about. His characters try to answer the question: 'What will happen to this land?'"

Berkshire Bright Focus

Tennis in Nablus
by Ismail Khalidi. Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman

"...with anger and sadness in our prayers..."

It seems as though being real hurts. Facade and bravado are easy outs when it comes to politics; you only express to impress and not to unburden. In Ismail Khalidi's play "Tennis in Nablus" which is being given a first-class production at Stageworks Hudson, two men learn this lesson at different rates of discernment and do so in each other's presence in a dungeon in the Nablus region of Palestine. Yusef Al Qudsi, recently released from a prison term, and his younger nephew Tariq Al Qudsi end up jailed together on charges that each may have conspired to implicate the other in the ongoing Arab Rebellion against the British overlords in that middle eastern state.

Confined in the same cell Tariq and Yusef form an uneasy alliance and come to know one another well. They reflect one another, prove their worth, show their stuff. Yusef's wife, Anbara, meanwhile becomes a source of inspiration to the rebellion and works to free her husband from his inhuman bondage to the British, all of whom insist on being addressed as "Your Highness." Khalidi draws an almost comic, British TV comedy version of these mis-placed soldiers, an almost Monty Python picture of the military man who cares more for costume parties and posturing than anything else. . .

The picture of the Palestinians and their goals is strong and real. His characters are all too human. We can feel their pain and their need and their resolution. With the Irish and Indian soldiers, also, and with the one Jewish patriot there is a sympathy for the outsider in a world controlled by others. . . Anbara is played with an elegant and formidable strength by Maria Silverman. She never wavers in her portrayal of a woman whose love for her husband supports her larger goals of proving her own worth in the struggle that dominates their lives. Her husband, Yusef, is brought to life by Nasser Faris, an actor who can make the simplest line into a torrent of hidden emotions. Watching him in this play is akin to eaves-dropping there is so much reality in his work. Whether toying with his nephew's different beliefs or admiring his wife's abilities, he never seems to be acting, but only living. That sort of talent is rare and it must be seen to be understood.

Fajer Al-Kaisi plays Tariq. His voice and his good looks make him both sympathetic and charismatically the center of the play. His presence almost throws the balance of the show off to one side, but his generosity on stage to those he performs opposite throws it right back. Margolis often has him work with his back turned to the audience as he communicates with Yusef or with his British captors. In doing so, the actor responds to the reality of each situation and provides a point of view for the audience; we literally experience much of his torment and his growth from his own point of view.

Chet Carlin takes on two very different roles: British General Falbour, the comic relief of the play and Hajj Waleed, an Arab merchant and confidante of Anbara. As the officer he is prototypically silly. As Hajj he presents a classic picture of the wily middle-easterner, a "Kismet" character. He succeeds in both roles. Matt Falber plays Falbour's aide and tennis partner (notice that similarity in names... hmmm), a junior edition of the General. He is a maker of moué and it works well for the man he portrays.

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