Theater Review: “In Between” — An Amusingly Serious Look Into the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
The engaging and multi-talented performer Ibrahim Miari has written an insightful and funny one-man show that draws on his own life as the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and Palestinian Moslem father born in what is now the Israeli city of Akko.
In Between, written and performed by Ibrahim Miari. Staged by the New Rep Theatre in the Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through April 20.
By Helen Epstein
One of the headlines in the New York Times the day we saw In Between read “Talks Hit Impasse.” I wondered whether I needed to see a theater piece about Israelis and Palestinians and a conflict that has been raging as long as I have been alive. It was billed as insightful and funny – fat chance, I thought.
Well, the engaging and multi-talented Ibrahim Miari has, in fact, written a perceptive and funny one-man show that draws on his own life as an Arab born in what is now the Israeli city of Akko and his marriage to an American Jewish girl whom he meets in a summer peace camp. Their story suggests theater and since he is a marvelous dancer, story-teller and mime, Miari tells it as himself, sliding into the postures and accents of all the other characters in his story.
The performance begins with Miari, dressed in white shirt and black pants, deftly performing the turns of a whirling dervish, a recurrent trope that evokes Sufism, trance states, and serves as a way of calming and centering himself in the confusion of voices that his very presence invites.
He is paged over a loudspeaker: “Attention. Paging passenger Ibrahim Miari….please report to El Al Security.” Miari becomes an Israeli security agent interrogating him about his plans to fly to America, his only prop a single hospital glove. The agent puts on the glove to begin his inspection of Miari’s body and baggage; the choreography of the movements, even more than the questions, evoke powerful and sinister connotations.
“Mr. Miari, you know why we called you down here?” the security agent begins, interspersing a few words in Hebrew here and there. Is he, in fact, Ibrahim Miari? Why then is his suitcase tagged Sarah Goldberg? What about this suitcase filled with a kefiyyeh, an Israeli flag, a gas mask, and a notebook that refers to bombing? Within a few seconds it becomes clear that Miari is attempting the near-impossible: trying to refocus our view of the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict and see it through the eyes of a person who cannot get away from it.
Miari becomes both the searcher and the searched; the man who pats him down and the man asked to drop his pants. It is a low-key, unpretentious performance, no high drama, just a series of flawless impersonations that Miari accomplishes with an acute awareness of body language, perfect accents and gestures for every character he impersonates, including his Jewish mother-in-law to be, his Arab father or an Israeli teacher on Israel’s Independence Day celebration, and a few props from his suitcase that continually remind us of theater tradition.
Over the course of the hour-long play. Miari becomes Sarah’s mother (“I would love to give you my blessing as long as you’ll be married by my Rabbi”) and Rabbi Sholom himself, who arrives in the form of an enormous puppet the performer pulls out of his suitcase. The Rabbi will turn into a Sheikh and a Buddhist priest with a small change of headgear; citing various rules of their calling, none will agree to perform the inter-marriage of Ibrahim and Sarah.
In between, Miari gives us flashbacks to his life as a boy in Akko with his parents, a Jewish Mom and Arab Dad whose own marriage was facilitated by his mother’s conversation to Islam. They send him to a Jewish school where he is called Abraham. On Purim, instead of getting the Zorro costume the second-grader wants, Miari impersonates his Mom selling him on the brilliance of a costume meant to represent a garden (complete with a sign that says Keep Off the Grass!) Miari also becomes the Teacher, who remarks on the originality of the costume and awards Abraham first prize. But, as events unroll, his father (identified by a long red tie) decides his son should be called by his given name of Ibrahim and go to an Arab school.
Purim is followed by Israeli Independence Day which Miari, waving his made-in-China Israeli flag, experiences as a day of mourning for Palestinians as much as a celebration for Israelis. He points out the distinctions between Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and inside Israel, explaining “I am what they call a 1948 Arab….the country’s cancer…a ticking bomb.” During a short Desert Storm sequence, Miari puts on his gas mask and mimics President Bush and Saddam Hussein, for whom Arabs like himself are necessary casualties of war.
In the end, Ibrahim and Sarah leave the Middle East and get married – where else? – in Massachusetts, by a friend. The father of the red tie does not come to the wedding. Neither do Miari’s two grandmothers, who never met and whose names in their respective languages both meant Star. Miari discusses the problematic nature of planning a wedding ceremony, from the Moslem ban on alcohol to the Jewish tradition of stomping on a glass (since the destruction of the Biblical temple, a large mosque marking the site of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven towers over the Temple Mount, making rebuilding of a Jewish temple impossible).
The piece ends somewhat abruptly. There is, of course, no resolution. Miari and his wife just keep on keeping on as his parents did. Meanwhile, improbable though it seems, this gifted performer, who holds an MFA in Theater Education and is clearly invested in educating, offers an evening of light but meaningful entertainment.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp, Music Talks, and other books on the arts available as ebooks from Plunkett Lake Press.