Life During Wartime: “Holy Land’s” Permanent Gaza of the Soul

michael palma pia haddad in holy land 040In the midst of its USA premier, French playwright Mohamed Kacimi’s Holy Land is a play with an awful lot to say – sometimes too much. It is, at times, loquacious to the point of obfuscation, and expository in a manner approaching pedantry. And yet, it is a play that definitely needs to be seen, simply to illustrate a conflict that attracts precious little theatrical expression in front of Western audiences. On stage, in translation at HERE, director Tracy Cameron Francis manages to extract bracing, compelling performances from material that is often impermeable in its absurdity, but brutal and unflinching in its delivery.

Although the population, locale, and occupying power are never identified, it is almost impossible to understand the events of the play as taking place anywhere other than Gaza. Ocean waves crash in the background. The lives of the play’s inhabitants are brokered by a black market of smuggled contraband and the ritual humiliation of military checkpoints. We are first introduced to Iman (Pia Haddad), a young woman sleeping uneasily on her couch. A flashlight-bearing intruder outside her home turns out to be Ian (Gil Perez-Abraham), a military officer from an unnamed occupying force. The nationality of either character is never stated plainly, though the power dynamics between the two make the intended metaphor crystal clear. Perez-Abraham’s Ian is menacing, complicated, and conflicted. Investigating the source of a tire fire, he torments his interlocutors with Stravinsky’s Babel cantata and promises of tri-band cell phones. Under interrogation, Iman is tense and resigned, as though going through a rote recitation of deflections and denials. But Ian’s night search is just one quotidian indignity among several that Iman and her neighbors have to endure. Alia (Anna Grosse), Iman’s neighbor, is a determined and practical midwife with a simple, cagey elegance about her. In scenes together, Alia and Iman traffic in a kind of hyperfeminine bavardage worthy of Samantha Jones (“A hookah is like a cock, the stiffer the better”), while bemoaning the dearth of low fat yogurt and cucumbers for dark circles. The conversation goes on to reveal the harsher banalities of occupation: Iman is waiting for her fiance’s prison sentence to end so they can get married, Alia advises her to have eight children (“That way, if they kill four, you still have half”). Both intuitively know the difference between rocket fire and missiles. Destruction envelopes their lives, but their lives remain otherwise strung together of material wants and creature comforts. Less at ease with the give and take of war and destruction is Alia’s husband Yad (Jojo Gonzalez in a manic and frenzied performance), who longs for smuggled Arak (Ouzo) and the flirtations of a Beirut courtesan named Carmen. There is a Berengerian obtuseness to Yad worthy of Ionesco, and his monologues frequently take the audience out of the particulars of the scene and into the larger political chaos informing them. “Just because we lost our land,” he proclaims, “doesn’t mean we have to give up our drunkenness.” News that the neighbor’s house has been flattened by a rocket, and all of its inhabitants destroyed, is met with catty indifference by Alia (“I liked her enough, the gossiping bitch”) and emotional detachment by Yad, who merely notes that the day prior he was over at their house reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to their children. Fairly late in the play, Yad and Alia’s son Amin (Sean Carvajal) makes his appearance. Horrified by the destruction of his neighbors’ home, and by the grisly carnage he encounters trying to rescue them from the rubble, Amin transforms, almost line by line, from an angry, impressionable young man, to a committed martyr willing to die for the Motherland under the banner of religious extremism. This transformation brings with it a thuggish, destructive, and hateful bravado. Soon, the conflict among families and neighbors over how to respond to brutality overtakes that between the community and its common enemy. michael palma pia haddad in holy land 061While the parallels to Gaza, and other recent conflicts in the Arab world, are difficult to avoid, Kacimi wrote Holy Land back in 2006, years before Operation Cast Lead, or any of the other events that have shaped life in Gaza over the past five years. That being said, the agonies and deprivations of Gaza long predate 2008. As far back as the First Intifada (1987), Gaza has served as an emblem for both sides’ worst characterizations of one another. To Palestinians, Gaza is the world’s largest prison camp, demonstrating the ceaseless brutality of occupation and an Israeli fetish for collective punishment. To Israelis, Gaza is an enclave for terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel, and the very embodiment of the Palestinians’ own worst self-sabotaging impulses. To the rest of the region (and depending on where you are in it), Gaza is either a bargaining chip, a problem to be contained, or an only-when-convenient rallying cry. Kacimi insists he is not looking for a metaphorical representation of anything with his work. “I would say, “ he said in an interview in Avignon last year, “that the play is less absurdist and more of an extreme representation of how people living under years of war do their best to maintain happiness and normality by distancing themselves from the war until the war and violence eventually breaks through the barriers they have put up.” And indeed an ethos of normalized, rationalized conflict, pushed to its limits, permeates the production. Alia, Iman, and Yad, even at his most splenetic, maintain an absurd constancy in their dealings with one another. Only Amin, who transforms from a lone voice of conscience into a vessel of psychopathic malice, seems in any way affected by the constant shelling and destruction surrounding him. Ian, more intriguingly, vacillates between the role of tormentor and tormented, with himself as the agent of both. However, Kacimi’s script frequently forces his characters to move through passage upon passage of dense, reflective, and often inscrutable, allegory. Oftentimes, actions and events are too freighted with symbolism to be relatable as anything other than proxies for other issues. A bleeding, declawed cat named “Jesus” is constantly missing. The neighbors’ children’s names are a parade of Old Testament nomenclature. Ian is sent into a catatonic rage by an unexplained image on Alia’s TV. Ultimately, in the end, only death prevails, which may be precisely Kacimi’s intended point. Conflict, anywhere, has no internal logic, and serves no purpose, other than destruction. But it is a quality of existence to which most anyone can acclimate, as easily as the weather, and the endpoint is always certain. Sure enough, as helicopters circle overhead, Alia exclaims, “Yad, we are going to die!”, to which Yad responds, “My god, what a circus!” 3rd Kulture Kids Production of Holy Land runs through May 10th at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue

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