Thursday, June 30, 2005


True Theater: An Evening With Ali Salem at Theater J

We take ourselves wherever we go, as the old saying has it, and I frequently feel that I carry a lot of baggage to the theater. My mind and heart might be crowded with previous versions of the show; newspaper reviews and perspectives; experiences with the actors, the playwright, the director, or the theater itself ("This theater does a good job with shows like this"); concerns that the person I'm with won't like the show and will blame me; perspectives of friends who have seen the show, or read the book, or read the reviews of the show, or the book, and so on. Expectations, expectations, expectations.

When it comes to the movies, I pay my money and just want to lean back and watch a good story. If it's not so good, I don't really care, even with movie ticket prices rising to ridiculous levels. But every time I go to the theater, I expect to be transported. I want my life to be illuminated. I want insights into our world; I want my level of existence raised. I want to leave the theater walking on a higher plane than the level on which I entered. I try not to feel this way, but I can't help it. It's as if going to the theater is like going on a blind date: you always hope that this will be The Evening That Changed Your Life. You know you'll probably be disappointed, but you can't help being hopeful. Every single damn time. I think even young children feel this way, or at least I hope they do, when they go to see "Peter and the Wolf" or "Peter Pan" or "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" or "Beauty and the Beast" performed with sock puppets.

"An Evening with Ali Salem," last night at Theater J, was true theater. My expectations were met, and I left the theater feeling very different than when I arrived. It was billed as "An Evening in Four Acts." (Uh-oh, I thought, how long will this be? I wasn't prepared for A Long Day's Journey Into Night. But I needn't have worried.) The first act was a classic skit by the Egyptian playwright called, "Hello, Rescue Me," in which an Egyptian tries to get the fire department to come to his aid. His wrestling with the bureaucracy was hilariously funny as the bureaucrat demanded specifications of the fire, the specific needs of the man--did he need the fire fighters, or just water to put out the fire? --and his sad situation because he lived on the fifth floor. If only he could move to a taller building where the fire department's available ladders would easily reach him! This skit reminded me of all the frustrations of the Middle East, and of the great strength of character that most people need to live there.

Humor is such a saving grace in the Middle East. It takes courage to write political satire of the kind Ali Salem writes, without anger or bitterness. He's the author of 30 plays, and was wildly successful in the Arab world, until he visited Israel in 1994. He's had trouble getting his plays produced ever since, aparently. I knew none of this when I came to the theater. I had lived in Israel for four years, and had some experience with Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese societies, but I visited Egypt just to see the pyramids and to renew my visa to Israel. What an education I received last night.

The second act, "Ali Salem Drives to Israel," was more disjointed as the author tried to drive across the Sinai desert, find a place to pee, tell his daughter where he was going, and get the skit performed of him trying to drive across the Sinai. The best part of this play was Ali Salem's dealing with the bureaucracy again. They did not want to allow him to take his car out of the country without filling out 21-page forms in triplicate. With no carbon paper. "Why no carbons?" he asked. "National security," came the answer. "But my car is older than Fidel!" "Is that a political comment?"

One could be disappointed that we don't actually see Ali Salem arrive in Israel and hear his impressions and experiences. Israel has its bureaucracy, too, just waiting for Mr. Salem's pen. (A friend of mine's saga of trying to bring her family's piano into Israel from Canada lasted for months.) But perhaps his journey is what matters for now.

Act III was an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker, who had interviewed Mr. Salem well and who of course tried to pin him down on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. By that time I had laughed so much that I felt that I could listen and deal with the conflict on a healthier level than when I entered the theater.

I lived in the Middle East for four years, and, like too many people, I have intense feelings about every grain of sand in the region. (People joke that if you complain about the weather there, Israelis get defensive and Palestinians blame the occupation).

I have friends on the far right and the far left and everywhere in between and by now I just disagree with anything anyone says about the political struggles in the Middle East. A plague on all their houses, I say sometimes, while knowing I should say, "A blessing on all their houses." But I wanted to hear what Mr. Salem said. He is a true peacenik, a minority everywhere, he pointed out. He thinks the United States should go backwards and Egypt should go forward and that would make the world more harmonious. This is said both humorously and seriously, as most of his points were made--a true skill.

Answering a specific question about what he would criticize in the United States, he at first demurred, as a guest (Arab hospitality rules are quite strict), but then said that the emblem of American society was our invention of the microwave oven. "You can't wait a few more minutes for something to get hot?" he asked. American rhythms and Arab rhythms are out of step, he said. Freedom will come to the Middle East, but not at the speed of a microwave.

And then Act IV was Q&A from the audience. There were a surprising number of Arabs at Theater J--I am so grateful when the theater brings different people together. They asked just what I would have asked: what does he think of what's happening in Lebanon? What does he think about the trial of a Mubarak opponent in Egypt? (He sidestepped this question gracefully--perhaps he'd like to get his plays produced in Egypt again. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, but the Egyptian authorities would not let him accept the award.) "Sometimes, governments lie," he said. "And sometimes they tell the true, but you can't believe them." That line won applause, but that was the most hostile thing he said, and it was not hostile, nor bitter.

Funnily enough (that is, according to Ali Salem's brand of humor), he had trouble getting into the United States. "My name is Ali Salem Muhammed Salem," he said (or something like that.) "Seventy percent of the terrorists are named Ali, or Salem, or Muhammed. But I told them that if they didn't let me into the United States, people would be laughing their heads off throughout the Middle East." They let him in, thank God.

I left feeling lighter about the Middle East, and more hopeful about life in general. You could say that it wasn't a play in the traditional sense, but was as honest and unpredictable as any evening that combined improvisation, drama, live performances and audience participation. "This is what we do," said Ari Roth, Theater J's artistic director. May they continue to do more of it.
And it was free.

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