Why one Palestinian actor came back to the Israeli stage

Actor George Ibrahim appeared at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival almost 30 years after leaving the Israeli art scene and establishing the Al-Kasaba Ramallah Theater.

al-monitor Famed Palestinian actor and founder of the Al-Kasabah Theatre, George Ibrahim in this undated photo.  Photo by Facebook/ George Ibrahim.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar

@shlomieldar

Topics covered

theater, jerusalem, israeli occupation, israeli arabs, israeli-palestinian conflict, film festival, coexistence, award

Oct 24, 2016

At the two important cultural events that took place over the Sukkot holiday (Feast of Tabernacles), Arab artists won the big prizes. The judges of the Haifa Film Festival gave the prize for the best feature film to Palestinian director Maha Haj for her movie "Personal Affairs," and the prize for best feature debut to Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud for her film "Not Here, Not There." At the Acre Fringe Theater Festival a few days earlier, Palestinian actor George Ibrahim won the prize for best actor for his role in the play "Palestine, Year Zero."

The prizes for these Palestinian artists is a badge of honor for the organizers of these events, in light of the pressure exerted on them by Minister of Culture Miri Regev. Regev instigated a public outcry when she argued, before the Acre Festival, that the state should look into whether the play "Palestine, Year Zero," written by actor Einat Weitzman, erodes the values of the State of Israel and mocks its symbols.

The main role in Weitzman's play is played by Palestinian actor George Ibrahim, familiar to the Israeli public as “Sami” from the popular children’s TV show "Sami and Susu," which was broadcast in the first years of Israeli television. Ibrahim was a regular guest in every living room in the country for many years. With the outbreak of the first intifada (1987) he decided to stop working in Israel, and since then has not appeared in front of an Israeli audience, except for the play "Romeo and Juliet," jointly produced by Jerusalem’s Khan Theater and the Arab Theater Al-Hakawati, a short time after the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, when it seemed that the conflict was nearing its end.

In his first interview since winning the Acre prize, Ibrahim told Al-Monitor that he decided to break from his practice and appear in an Israeli event after reading the play. The character he plays is a land appraiser who documents the destruction of Palestinian houses. Although no one is interested in his reports, he insists on documenting the destruction for the sake of history. The appraiser’s story connects to the actor’s personal story.

“It’s my duty to act in plays like this, to raise my voice and say what’s happening on the other side, because Jews don’t see and aren’t interested in the other side. If I can convince even a small group of people, it would be an achievement,” he told Al-Monitor. “I was born in [the Israeli town of] Ramle but was exiled from my home to Jordan when I was 2. In the 1967 war the Israelis conquered me a second time. I tell about the Nakba that continues to chase us and doesn’t end.”

Ibrahim is the nephew of George Habash, the founder of the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When "Sami and Susu" aired on Israeli television, while he was a popular figure among the Israeli public — Jews and Arabs alike — Ibrahim did not try to hide the family connection. “I never hid the family connection. I’m from the same family but our paths are different. I’m not connected to politics and even hate it,” he said.

Not having appeared before an Israeli audience since the 1990s, he was greatly disappointed that he couldn’t see the faces of the people in the audience during the performance at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival. “In my role there’s also anger toward the audience, which doesn’t understand the story. I really wanted to see their responses, but the light blinded me. However after the show, when many people came to thank me and told me that they were amazed at the numbers and the truth of the story, I felt I was in the right place, in the right play and with the right statement.”

When asked whether in today’s diplomatic atmosphere there could be theatrical collaborations between Palestinian and Israeli theaters, and whether artists from the two sides could be recruited to joint projects in order to convey the message that coexistence is possible, Ibrahim replied, “It’s impossible. There’s a total lack of trust between the sides. We lost our momentum and I don’t think Israelis and Palestinians could do anything together any time soon. Because to do so would require normalization, which can’t happen between the occupied and the occupier. Besides that, I also think it shouldn’t happen.”

He attributes his appearance in "Sami and Susu," which conveyed a positive message of coexistence, to youthful naivete and ambition. “I was a boy, I didn’t think about politics. I was a young actor looking for a career. At that age, I could be allowed to be naive, but when I grew up, I left. I decided I don’t want to be a player in this political game. But I have to admit that when I was 19, I enjoyed what I did and I don’t regret it.”

"Sami and Susu" stopped airing in 1974, and Ibrahim left Israeli television and decided to found the Al-Kasabah Theater for children and adults in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Eight years ago, he founded an academy for acting in Ramallah. In his opinion, he has succeeded in building an audience that comes to see plays in the city despite the difficult daily reality of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Ibrahim travels from Jerusalem to Ramallah almost every day, and sometimes, because of the checkpoints and fear of driving at night, he stays the night in the Palestinian city.

He said that the Israeli National Insurance Institute has been following him lately, after a detective from the institute discovered that he wasn’t sleeping regularly at his home in Jerusalem, but in Ramallah; the company decided to stop his insurance coverage. “They told me, ‘You’re a foreign resident.’ I’ve paid them all my life, and now, when I’m 70 and they should pay me, they kicked me out, claiming I’m a foreign resident. Not just me — they took away my entire family’s national insurance pensions. They only have one thing driving them — to get as many Palestinian Jerusalemites out of Jerusalem. And you tell me that it’s possible to do something together with Palestinians and Israelis right now? I’ve been a veteran resident of Jerusalem and lived in the city from 1964, before they [Israel] conquered Jerusalem. I’ve been a Jerusalemite practically my whole life. Now at my age they tell me, 'Out!'”

In the explanation of the prize given to Ibrahim for his acting in "Palestine, Year Zero," the judges wrote, “With humility, honesty, frankness, with great subtlety, with force and a direct gaze Ibrahim tells his story and the stories of his artistic partners, and you can’t help but listen to them.”

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