New anthology shows how theatre can help ease Middle East conflict

Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas
Edited by Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi (Playwrights Canada Press)

In town: Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi are at the Ottawa International Writers Festival Sunday, April 30. They will speak at 2 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St. Information and tickets:

Can theatre solve the Middle East conflict?

Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi believe it could help. The two playwrights are the editors of Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas. The book focuses on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and is the first-ever English-language anthology of works by Jewish and Palestinian writers. It includes interviews with the various playwrights about the challenges of writing and staging their work.

Orlov – a Boston-born Jew living in Montreal – and Sabawi — a Gaza-born Palestinian now living in Melbourne, Australia – will speak about their book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 30.

“Our hope is that the anthology will give voice to one of the great issues confronting not simply the identity of Jews and Palestinians, but all of humanity,” says Orlov.

Adds Sabawi, who was in Montreal in advance of the duo’s appearance at that city’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival: “The goal is to present stories to bring us closer to understanding the impact of the decisions politicians make on real people on the ground and to shed light on the injustice and oppression.” She says the book exemplifies how a Jewish and a Palestinian playwright can join forces to open up a space that brings both sides closer together.

Three of the anthology’s plays are written by Jewish writers, three by Palestinian playwrights, and one is co-written by a Jew and a Palestinian. The writers live in the diasporas of five continents and include Natasha Greenblatt in Toronto and Abdelfattah AbuSrour in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank. Orlov and Sabawi have also each contributed a play.

Covering the waterfront from comedy to drama and from realism to surrealism, the anthology’s stories are set in the diaspora and in Israel/Palestine. The political stances of the plays’ characters vary as widely as the places they live.

The idea for the anthology was Stephen Orlov’s.

The anthology was Orlov’s idea. Once he had a buy-in from the publisher, Playwrights Canada Press, he realized he needed a Palestinian — “and preferably a woman” — as his co-editor. A search led him to Sabawi. The two connected digitally, read each other’s plays, and the collaboration was born. 

When they finally connected face to face rather than just over Skype, they felt that they already knew each other well. “He wasn’t too jarred” when they met, jokes Sabawi, who lived in Ottawa from 1999 to 2010 when her husband took a job here.

Orlov says that in organizing the anthology, he and Sabawi looked for plays that give voice to the need for peace and social justice in the area.

His own contribution called Sperm Count, which uses male infertility as a metaphor for Jewish-Palestinian relations, premiered in London, England just after 9/11. The theatre received anonymous bomb threats, but the show went ahead without incident.

Sabawi’s play, Tales of a City by the Sea, is a love story set in Gaza. It offers a view of how ordinary people survive under extraordinary circumstances.

She says that too often we speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historic and other factual terms, dehumanizing the people directly affected in the process.

Samah Sabawi believes theatre offers a window into the lives of others.

“When you go to the West Bank and see the policies we talk about in cold terms, you gain insight and empathy. Theatre in general offers windows into the lives of others and breaks barriers of misconception. That’s how theatre can change perceptions … art (is) a means to resist oppression and injustice in the most beautiful way.”

Orlov adds that while theatre can be visionary in tackling important issues early in the game, major theatres in the west too often ignore the Middle East conflict because of “ignorance, intolerance and timidity.”

Veteran Gatineau-area playwright Arthur Milner, who will moderate the April 30 Ottawa session with Orlov and Sabawi, has had his 2011 play Facts selected as one of the pieces in Double Exposure. Originally produced at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, the murder mystery set in the West Bank finds an Israeli detective and a Palestinian detective cooperating to solve the crime. It’s been translated into Arabic and has played in Palestine and Israel as well as in London, England.

Milner is realistic about the role of theatre in conflicts like the Middle East. “If it opens up the conversation a little bit, great,” he says.

One the other hand, when he took Facts to the Middle East, an audience member said, “‘It shows us how we should behave.’ And that’s what theatre should do. It should be a model for us.’”

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.