Despite attempting to foster a shared understanding between Palestinians and Israelis, Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace's stage adaptation of Palestinian author's Ghassan Kanafani's "Returning to Haifa" was dismissed by theaters due to its provocative subject matter.
Even the Public Theater, which originally commissioned the novella's adaptation, cut the production a few years ago due to "pressure" from its board. The play eventually had a highly praised premiere at the Finborough Theatre in London in 2018.
On Friday, the play occupied its most recent stage at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, where a reading of Khalidi and Wallace's adaptation was held. The event was co-presented by the Center for Palestine Studies and the Columbia University School of the Arts. A Q&A moderated by Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, followed the reading.
Kanafani, who was forced to leave his home in Jaffa during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, published numerous books and articles regarding the Palestinian struggle throughout his life. Before his assassination in 1972, Kanafani wrote "Palestine's Children," a collection of short stories that includes "Returning to Haifa." His work was introduced at the reading by Brinkley Messick, professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies and director of Columbia's Middle East Institute.
Khalidi and Wallace's stage adaptation of the novella centers on the Palestinian couple Said and Safiyya, who flee their home in 1948 during the Nakba, the exodus of over 700,000 Arabs from Palestine. When they return in 1967 following the Six-Day War, they discover that their home has been bought by Miriam, a Polish immigrant whose father died at Auschwitz, and that Miriam has adopted their son Khaldun, who was brought up Jewish.
"At once this is a story about resistance and armed struggle and Palestinian resilience and resistance, but also, to me at least, there's this amazing generosity," Khalidi said during the post-production Q&A.
The play was directed by Kevin Hourigan and performed by actors Adam Bakri, who played Said, Nadine Malouf, who played Safiyya, Adam Budron, who played young Said and Dov, Leta Renée-Alan, who played young Safiyya, and Roberta Maxwell, who played Miriam. The play explores the trauma experienced by both the Palestinian couple and the Israeli Miriam and Dov, and the search for reconciliation and understanding between both sides.
"We can talk about armed and colonial struggles in India or Ireland or South Africa happily in this country, in our movies, books, and onstage," Khalidi said. "As soon as it comes to Palestinians, it's a no-go."
Khalidi, a Palestinian-American playwright best known for plays "Tennis in Nablus" and "Truth Serum Blues," is the son of Rashid Khalidi, Columbia's Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies. Wallace, an American playwright and MacArthur fellow best known for her play "One Flea Spare," contributed to making some of the drastic changes between Kanafani's novella and the stage adaptation, which included bolstering the lead female's role and adding to the cast the younger Safiyya and Said.
"One of the things that we wanted to do to externalize a lot of what was happening with Said was to have their younger selves," Wallace said. "We thought it was really important to show them being young and having their future ahead of them."
Through this adaptation, Khalidi and Wallace hoped to show that the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is oftentimes misunderstood. Khalidi noted that Palestinians "don't exist in the American imagination before 1948 and only thereafter in opposition to Israelis."
"Aside from all of the rhetoric and all of the propaganda about Palestinian violence, I think actually, Palestinians have engaged in a remarkable amount of nonviolent resistance, cultural resistance," Khalidi said.
The older character of Said mentions in the play that the greatest crime anyone can commit is to justify one's own right to exist at the expense of others' weaknesses and suffering. This ultimately exemplifies the main theme of the play, that being human is the only cause necessary to treat people with respect.