February 3, 2011
If there's any place on Earth for a modern Romeo-and-Juliet story, Israel must top the list: Jews and Arabs, living together yet apart, locked in mutual distrust and in many cases, mutual hatred. Yet here and there, eyes meet, smiles are exchanged, and something happens that makes all the barriers fall.
"All you need is love, love: Love is all you need." So sings Ibrahim Miari at the beginning of his one-man autobiographical play, "In Between," presented last Sunday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Greenwich Village and sponsored by the Pax Christi organization. He's recounting how his Arab father won his Jewish mother in 1969, in Galilee, with a fire-red VW Beetle and its radio blasting out the Beatles. "I don't really know how they met," he admits, with a smile at the audience. "Neither of them ever talk about it. But I'd like to think it was this way."
He pulls a silver ring from his shirt pocket and examines it. "This isn't their ring either," he says. "It's ours."
Now he unfolds the story of his own graced encounter of eye catching eye in a Jerusalem coffee shop: Ibrahim, Israeli citizen, struggling playwright, an "in-between"; Sarah, an American student visiting Israel, a Jew. In short order, they decide to marry, and Sarah invites him to Boston to meet her parents and arrange the wedding.
Whirling slowly in a Sufi dance, Miari shifts the scene to the Tel Aviv airport. He retrieves a suitcase from a corner of the barren stage and snaps a latex glove on his right hand. His gestures split his body from top to bottom, right hand motioning to bewildered left to step aside: the pat-down. Left hand drops pants, right hand investigates body. Next scene: the supervisor's office. Right hand opens the suitcase, rummaging through the contents and tossing some items on the floor: a necktie, a silk scarf — a gas mask? The supervisor examines his passport. "You are an Arab and a Jew? You have been to Gaza? And what's all this?" "I am a playwright," he explains. "These are props for a play I'm trying out."
Another whirl. Now we're in Boston. Miari takes on the soft voice and anxious pose of his fiancee's mother. "Sarah, Ibrahim, I would love to give you my blessing — as long as you'll be married by our rabbi."
Out of the open suitcase comes a towering puppet, an empty black gown topped with a grotesque foam-rubber head wearing a broad-brimmed hat over ringlets of hair. Another interrogation: "Will you raise your children as Jews?" the puppet asks. "We want to let them decide." Request for marriage refused.
Whirl again, flashback to childhood, early 1980's. The actor becomes his father, telling the boy gruffly that though he was raised as a Jew in his mother's line, he is now an Arab. His name will be changed from Abraham to Ibrahim, and he will be transferred from Hebrew school to Islamic school. The scene shifts to a school-yard: His lifelong Jewish friends call to him through the fence to join them in play. He cannot come.
Another whirl, to present time. His father, enraged at the news of his son's engagement, curses his own interracial marriage as "a mistake." "Remember our proverb," he admonishes: "If you don't marry from your tribe, you'll suffer until you die."
The puppet appears twice more, first as an imam and then as a Buddhist priest ("We're ‘Jew-Bu's!'" Ibrahim tells him). Sorry; all impossible.
The play ends abruptly there, with Ibrahim telling the audience they went ahead with the wedding without religious officialdom, calling on a friend to witness their vows.
The last third of this work is dissatisfying. The dramatic tension built up through the airport scene falls flat. The puppet takes on a major role, a satire of formal religion, while — with the exception of the tirade of Ibrahim's father — the characters of Sarah and the parents are left undeveloped. (Indeed, Sarah's father and Ibrahim's mother are barely mentioned.) The resolution, such as it is, is achieved with little of the anticipated conflict. In the end, it's less Romeo and Juliet and more Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Nevertheless, the overall mood is evocative. By masterfully dividing the gestures of his body, Miari illustrates the sad division between Jews and Arabs, both the Biblical descendants of Abraham/Ibrahim, a division that lives in his very self and in his very name, extending back to his parents and forward to his children. (A far better ending, in fact, would have been a reflection on those children-to-be.)
"In Between" leaves you thinking that those who marry in spite of ethnic prohibitions are living symbols of hope, unmasking the absurdity of racial and religious intolerance and pointing the way to a world as yet untried.
All you need is love.