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?'"