“The theater’s job is to peel away stereotypes. We don’t know the story of Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, we only know its end. We have no idea what it’s like living 80 kilometers from Tel Aviv,” says Shay Pitowski, director of the play I Shall Not Hate currently being staged by Habima.
The play is based on the autobiography of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, the Gaza doctor whose three daughters were killed by a stray shell fired by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead . Abu al-Aish, known as “the doctor from Gaza,” worked for years as a gynecologist in Israel. Seconds after the shell hit his house he called journalist Shlomi Eldar at Israel’s Channel 10 news studio. Eldar hit the speaker button on his cell phone and broadcast live the agony of the man whose three daughters lay dead on the floor in front of his eyes. His cries of anguish, in Hebrew, resonated in Israel and around the world. Twenty-four hours later a cease-fire was reached and the operation was brought to an end.
But despite the great tragedy that befell him, Dr. Abu al-Aish refused to give in to hate. The man who led his whole life between two worlds — one foot here, the other there — continued to see both sides. Despite the horrible tragedy that befell him, he continued to talk peace. At a time when so many people sanctified death, the gynecologist who helped so many women give life continued to sanctify life. He went to Canada and two years ago published an autobiography titled I Shall Not Hate, which became an international best-seller and was also published in Hebrew. Now the unbelievable story is being told as a one-man show by Habima, Israel’s national theater. The complex and riveting figure of Abu al-Aish is being portrayed by the noted actor Ghassan Abbas, a native and resident of the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. He stands alone on stage for an hour as the doctor and father who loses three of his daughters and tells a tale that no playwright could have invented — only reality could.
“Usually, actors say we are actors. We are playing a role,” Abbas says. “I am not playing a role. I am playing this role because it says things I want to say. I have played many roles in my life, but this one is a step up because of the subject.” Abbas is an actor with a tremendous presence. On stage he radiates self control and mastery, his deep voice and wonderful diction slicing through the small space where the play is being staged. In life he is a different man: funny, angry, says what he feels. “It’s a complex figure,” he explains. “It’s a challenge for me, mostly because the man is far from me. We are totally different. His self control, the way he thinks, as a person it’s hard for me to understand him.” Work on the play included reading his book and meetings with people who know Dr. Abu al-Aish, but not with the man himself. “We spoke on the phone a few times, but short conversations. I have never met him or had the chance to speak to him about those moments,” says Abbas. “He hasn’t seen the show yet. We talked about getting together in Canada at some point. I hope it happens.”
The interview is being conducted on the eve of the national Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen, several hours before the minute-long siren marking the start of the day of mourning. Abbas views this day as an opportunity to convey the message of the figure he portrays. “It would have been important to do this play on the very eve of Memorial Day. This is the most appropriate time to see it, to remind us that people are dying in vain, over nonsense, because the man at the top gave an order,” he says, his voice rising. “All day people’s heads are being stuffed with rockets, the military. Everyone goes along. This is a play that speaks out against violence, against hate, against war. But the audience doesn’t want to hear, they don’t want to deal with criticism.” Pitowski, the playwright, agrees with him. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a disease which the public represses, until it breaks out. The best remedy for disease is prevention. Most of us don’t prevent disease.”
But the play, of course, is not performed on Memorial Day. Nonetheless, few Israelis come to watch. “Directors of community centers were invited to see the play. They were just asked to come and see, not to buy tickets. They don’t want to hear about it,” says Abbas. “There were schools that said the principal wouldn’t approve it,” adds Pitowski. “There were soldiers who saw the play and the reactions were very strong. But at the institutional level, there are no buyers. The public has to choose between a one-man show about Arabs and death and between comedy,” he continues. “Of course they will opt to see comedy. They want to escape from the conflict. They have enough of it on TV.”
So why put this story on stage at all? Israelis know it. Reality is the best drama in this case. Perhaps the play, in fact, diminishes the story?
“The play adds things that weren’t on television,” explains Abbas. "This is his life from different angles." Pitowski adds: “We cannot bring Gaza here or the Israelis to Gaza. This encounter, face-to-face, can only exist on stage.”
Despite the difficulties in marketing the play, they aren’t giving up. They continue to believe that it’s their duty to sound such a voice. Pitowski, who was on military reserve duty during Operation Cast Lead, joined the Combatants for Peace organization and insists on humanizing the enemy. Abbas is currently initiating freestyle meetings between Israelis and Paestinian leaders in cafes and pubs around the country so that they can talk to each other above the heads of the leaders and without involvement of the establishment. Both of them hope that as many people as possible will see the show. Abbas very much wants to perform in the US, mainly in front of Jewish communities; Pitowski wants to bring the play to as many Israeli audiences as possible. “Of course, I wouldn’t object to a performance at Lincoln Center,” he says. “But given the choice between Lincoln Center and an Israeli high school, I’d go for the high school. People need to understand that the play does not point a finger of blame at them. Those who come to see the play don’t regard me as an 'enemy of the people.’ They accept me as a friend of both peoples. I came to tell a human story, not a political one.”
“I am angry about a lot of things,” Abbas says, “but I don’t hate. Perhaps, in spite of it all, there’s some similarity between myself and Abu al-Aish.”
Michal Aharoni is a public relations professional, playwright and columnist. Aharoni earned her theater degree from Hakibuzim seminar in Tel Aviv, followed by a Master of Arts degree from Middlesex University in London. She currently writes for Maariv and for its Nrg website.
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