East meets west
Jewish and Arab youth act out their differences

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May. 27, 2004 11:57

East meets west

Jewish and Arab youth act out their differences

Against a backdrop of question marks and hate-filled graffiti ("Death to Arabs," "Death to Jews"), a fight breaks out on stage. Shouting in Hebrew and Arabic, two groups of actors walk menacingly toward one another, each convinced they have the only true answer to the timeless question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

The play, entitled The Chicken and the Egg, is an original production of the Jerusalem branch of Peace Child Israel and the YMCA's Young Leadership Club.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Habimah actress Yael Drouyannof and David Gordon, brother of Cat Stevens, as a means of facilitating dialogue between Jewish and Arab youth through the media of theater and the arts. The YMCA has been hosting Peace Child groups for the past four years under the auspices of the Young Leadership Club, which is headed by Robert Karram, director of the YMCA's Youth Department. Additional funding for Peace Child Israel comes from the Abraham Fund, the EEC Middle East Desk, the New Israel Fund, and the Rich Foundation.

The May 20 production at the YMCA, directed by Muhammad Thaher and Melisse Lewine-Boskovich, the managing director of Peace Child Israel, marks the culmination of a year of weekly meetings between selected pupils from the Ziv, Masorati, and Experimental High Schools in west Jerusalem and the east Jerusalem Issawiya Girls and Boys junior high schools. Students with strong dramatic and leadership abilities, who were open to cross-cultural dialogue, were referred to Peace Child and an initial group of 16 Jews and 14 Arabs was assembled.

The year began with four unilateral sessions, in which Arab and Jewish participants met separately for an introduction to the program, in which they discussed stereotypes, expectations, and tolerance. After these four initial sessions, participants began meeting together for weekly sessions at the YMCA, in which improvisational theater was used as a medium for tackling issues faced by Arab and Jewish youth growing up in today's Jerusalem.

Long before work on the final production began, group sessions dealt with topics such as breaking down boundaries and getting to know the other side. One of the early sessions focused on the topic of roots and family history.

When participants broke into groups to discuss their families, it was revealed that Nibal and Anfal Hamida, 15-year-old twins from east Jerusalem, were the granddaughters of the former mukhtar of Dir Yassin, an Arab village that suffered heavy casualties during the War of Independence. What was originally conceived as a session on family history quickly turned into a discussion of victimization and Jerusalem's violent history.

Modern-day violence also reared its ugly head during the course of the year. Inevitably, group meetings took place on days clouded by terror attacks. The first time a Jerusalem-area terror attack took place on the day of a Peace Child session, the original schedule was set aside. Instead, participants broke into small groups where they discussed their feelings and reactions to the news.

"When there is violence it hurts both sides, both the Arabs and the Jews are pained," explains Nibal Hamida. "My father gets really hurt and tense, but he keeps me in the program and the group always does something to ease the tensions, we always talk it out."

The second time a terror attack took place on the day of a Peace Child session, on February 22 this year, tensions were more pronounced. Shira Toppel, a 16-year-old student at the Masorati School, marched into the weekly meeting in tears.

"A boy from my school was killed today and I wanted to talk about it," she announced.

The group immediately broke into unilateral groups of Arabs and Jews and each presented a two-minute improvisation depicting their reaction to the terror attack, focusing on how they reacted and why.

According to Lewine-Boskovich, "These short improvisations serve as the trigger for more conversation, but sometimes they are so powerful on their own that the ball just drops and we don't have to do a whole lot of talking. We deal with the issue in an experiential way instead of through talk."

"There is a sort of schizophrenia or confusion in our work," Lewine-Boskovich continues, "On the same day we did those improvisations, the same day Shira came in wanting to discuss the terror attack, she asked [director] Muhammad to translate for her, so that she could invite Nibal to her house to watch a movie. The kids really want to like each other; they want the other side to agree with them.

"The Arab kids want the Israelis to say that house demolitions are terrible and the Jewish kids want the Arabs to say that terrorist bombings are utterly unacceptable. Neither side can get the other to express their views. They really want to like each other but they need to be able to be angry at one another."

According to Toppel, the most difficult part of being in the Peace Child group was the day her classmate was killed. "The [Arab participants] were like, 'Well, you destroyed a few of our houses' and we were like, 'You can't compare houses to lives' and they couldn't understand that," Toppel explains.

Nonetheless, Toppel believes that such programs are the best chance for peace.

"[They are] the only way for the two sides to be friends. It makes me feel good, it gives me hope," she says.

And in fact, by the time work on the final production began in March, the Peace Child Israel group had begun to feel like a cohesive unit. Together, they decided that they wanted to put on a play based on The Little Prince, which both Arab and Jewish participants had seen on television, in which a little princess travels from star to star, with each star representing a different aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The final play, conducted half in Hebrew and half in Arabic, was written by director Thaher, who is also a professional playwright. Each scene was based on actual improvisations and conversations held by Peace Child Israel participants throughout the course of the year. Although the play takes place in an imaginary world, it is a clear reflection of the current political climate. Scenes include the radio report of a bus bombing, the confrontation between the princess and a grenade-throwing youth, and a meeting with a young man who drinks because he sees no hope.

According to Thaher, the play opens with each side blaming the other.

"The other is the killer, the destroyer. Each speaks about history. But there is no end if each side just blames the other. The only solution is to start from a point of connection. Both sides realize that they want to live and not die, so they start with that."

In the end, both sides start to think of how they can focus on that point of agreement, and decide that they need to stop focusing on the past, to push it aside and focus on the future instead.

"At the end of the play, the actors bury the signs of hate and start over, connecting to one another as people without the slogans of hate," he says.

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