House Demolitions Take Center Stage in New Play About Arab-Israeli Relations

At Acre's alternative theater festival, 'The Peacock of Silwan,' gives new meaning to a 'full house.'

Andreas Hackl
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Andreas Hackl

Adeeb Bahar has seen most of his neighbors move out of the 13th-century Acre building he has called home over the last few years. "You see this?" asks the tired-looking man of 61, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He points to the electrical wiring running down a wall outside his apartment. "I fixed this to protect my family from shocks," he says. "But the owner said I have to remove it. And we can't even hang our laundry out here anymore."

The Bahar family is one of two left in the old house, which once was home to six families and was full of life. Most have left because of what he describes as a new profit-oriented owner, who declared the building's shared space a no-go zone for the residents and allegedly caused them other daily troubles. The building is now used by the Acre Theater Center, and the old residents have been replaced by artists and actors.

"It is a target for gentrification. And in a mixed city like Acre, an ethnic element is part of the process," says Sinai Peter, who codirected the play "The Peacock of Silwan" during the city's recent Acco Festival for Alternative Theater. Peter is referring to the occasional tensions between Arabs and Jews that have arisen in mixed towns such as Acre and Jaffa, where a relatively poor Arab population is pressured by rising housing prices and the influx of more well-off Jewish residents.

Fearful of retribution, the second family in the house is reluctant to talk about any pressure being exerted on them to move out by the landlord. Given this fraught situation, one might assume the last thing the families needed was for a group of actors to stage a play inside their house. But this is precisely what the Peter and his colleague Chen Alon did with "The Peacock of Silwan," collaborating with a team of Jewish and Arab actors - all well aware of the provocative nature of their actions.

Indeed, instead of forging more conflict, the production - which is about the lives of Palestinian families and Jewish settlers in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan - succeeded in creating a powerful mix of reality and imagination, bringing tears to the eyes of audience members and earning the appreciation of the remaining Arab residents. "At the end of one of our shows, one of the families still living in the building was standing beside the actor George Iskander, the actor who played the Palestinian murdered in the play. "I thought, this is the most powerful scene," Peter reflects, sitting on the stairs outside the Old Acre building. "You just know that it could have been them who were shot for real," he said, drawing a connection between the situations in Acre and the Silwan, which are nonetheless very different.

Home demolitions and excavations in the City of David archaeological park inside the neighborhood have caused serious hardship for Silwan's overwhelmingly Palestinian residents, who have a very hard time acquiring building permits despite severe overcrowding. The play, written by Alma Ganihar, won two awards at the festival: for best direction, and best actress, the latter for Samira Saraya.

'Come in, judge for yourself'

"Don't worry, this is normal," says a security guard at the entrance to the old house in Acre, as audience members (each performance could accommodate about 35 ) file in. A corpse lies on a bier, covered in linen. The sound of a drill fills the air. "You want to know how it all began? Come in, and judge for yourself." This is how the play first draws its audience into its world.

Then, time is turned back a few hours and the venue moved south to Jerusalem, as the morning routine of Palestinian families and Jewish settlers living in the very same house unfolds. There is a Palestinian woman, Amal, desperately calling out for her runaway son, Tamer. Then a settler woman, Shosh, enters. At the same time she is living in the house, she is also spying on the Palestinian families and reporting on what they say and do to Yoram, the head of the fictional King David Foundation, which wants to drive Palestinian families out of their homes to make way for tourists, excavations and more Jewish settlers.

At 3:30 P.M., the digging underneath the building stops, after the residents file complaints that the foundations of their house have been damaged by the excavations underneath. "What if their house really collapses?" asks an archaeologist, Efrat. But Yoram, dressed in a black suit, responds: "Efrat, their house is our land!"

By way of winding stairs, the audience is then led upstairs, where a Palestinian girl, Yasmin, and her older sister, Iman, are preparing to treat customers in their beauty parlor, called the Peacock of Silwan - named for peacocks they once kept on the roof, until they were killed by tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers. While Yasmin has fantasies of a singing career in Paris, her sister tries to make things easier for her family by being nice to the settler security guard, despite his constant intrusion into their private space. "Michael, I am sure you are hungry?" she asks him, in Hebrew, after he threatens to close the gate to the house for the whole day. (Parts of the dialogue are also spoken in Arabic, and the most important information is then translated into Hebrew by the "spy" Shosh, who is equipped with a hidden microphone, and whose reports to Yoram are also heard by the audience. )

"Rice again?" Michael answers, regarding a pot she holds with suspicion. "I have chicken as well. So will you leave the gate open?" Such interactions transport the audience beyond cliches and lend the serious topic of conflict in Silwan a humorous touch.

Iman and Yasmin's father, Jamil, however, has no time for jokes and is well aware of the settlers' intentions. At one point, the archaeologist Efrat tries to convince Jamil to leave the house for two weeks, so they can dig further in their search for Jewish history, a scientific cause she suggests he should identify with. But Jamil remains firm.

Throughout the show, fact and fiction constantly merge, and the closeness of it all sends shivers down the spine of viewers. "You see all this?" asks Yoram, standing on the porch of an imagined house in Silwan, but actually looking down on the old city of Arab Acre. "Come back in a year, you will not recognize this place. Instead of this house, there will be the great Jewish Museum. You will see all our history unfolding, rock by rock." Acre itself has long been viewed as an example for Arab-Jewish coexistence without much rupture, but the two communities live largely separated from one another. And the picturesque old city, which has traditionally been Arab-inhabited, and its real estate, have attracted the interest of Jewish investors, contributing to rising tensions between the two communities. The Old Acre Development Company, for example, a subsidiary of the Israel Tourism Ministry is helping to market many of the old city's historic buildings for development as luxury hotels.

The story ends tragically, when the runaway boy Tamer shows up unexpectedly, and is shot, after a verbal encounter with the security guard. Following that, the actors (and audience ) freeze for half a minute. Then Tamer's mother bends down to hug her dead son and a suffocating quiet fills the room. Only the applause relieves the tension. In each performance, there were audience members who actually cried.

One of them was Inbal Avnaim, the sister of the actress Ortal Avnaim, who plays Shosh. "In Israel, we often forget the story of Palestinians suffering. No one wants to see this other side," she says after the show. "But it is important."

Blurring fact and fiction

The play did not begin in the theater and did not end there. In fact, "The Peacock of Silwan" is mostly about the overlap between reality and fiction, between conflict and play. When the Jewish and Arab actors starring in "Peacock" went to Silwan for firsthand inspiration, the conversations they had both with local Palestinians and among themselves made their way into the script-in-progress. While in Silwan, Ortal Avnaim discovered that money had been stolen from her car and she immediately assumed that local residents were responsible. A serious argument ensued when the Arab Israeli actress Rima Jawabra accused Avnaim in turn of casting undifferentiated suspicion on Arabs as a group. Ultimately, the episode was integrated into the play.

The play's beauty parlor is also based on a real one in Silwan, where Jawabra went to have her eyebrows plucked during that same visit. She learned that young Palestinians often hide in the salon when things heat up, and they are being sought by Israeli soldiers, sometimes after having thrown stones.

Both Jewish and Arab actors said they were shocked when they experienced the situation in Silwan firsthand. "Most people from Tel Aviv have no idea. They don't know what is going on there, and also don't care," says Ortal Avnaim, who also took a tour of the City of David park during the time she was acting in the show. "In the City of David, there was not even a mention of the name Silwan."

Fact and fiction also blurred each day as the actors lived together at the old house in Acre." They warmed up on the old city walls facing the morning sun, rehearsed under the eyes of the Arab residents and invited them over for barbecues. Initially, the remaining Arab families viewed the young crowd with suspicion. After all, they slept and ate in the very same space that used to be the home of their Arab neighbors before they left. But the ice soon melted, and the residents even had an opportunity to make some money by selling snacks and drinks after every show.

"Today we stand here as a family," said codirector Chen Alon after one of the performances, surrounded by his team, an interested group of audience members, and a resident who had arrived from Silwan to see they play. "Looking at the process of working together with Arabs and Jews for this play, I can say that the medium itself already is the message."

Alon, a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, also works with the group Combatants for Peace, where he has developed techniques for using theater as a medium for reconciling conflicts. In the case of the Acre play, he was also hoping to bring a disturbing reality to the attention of a larger Israeli audience. "This is only the first step. More will follow," Alon said.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some audience members were critical of the play. "I am a Zionist Israeli. I don't feel represented in this play. You take a crazy settler woman and another settler maniac. This is populism," said a young man at a post-show discussion. But actor Dori Engel defended the play's position, noting, "We were exposed to stories you would not believe. Take Yoram in the play. He is actually an understatement compared to his real counterpart."

Mohammed Awaida, a leading activist from Silwan, piped in with his opinion. "Silwan is like a refugee camp," he says. "Culture? We have one theater, no playgrounds, and not enough classrooms. Ninety, if not 99, percent of what you see in this play is reality." That the play raised consciousness was also evident, not least in the strong reactions from members of the audience. Chen Alon remembers one encounter particularly well. "After one show, a man wearing a skullcap came up to me. He waited until everyone else had left. He told me how deeply moved he was by our play. He said, 'I saw myself in the mirror.' He was a settler from Gush Etzion."

The Bahar family. Their building's shared space in now a no-go zone.Credit: Andreas Hackl
Actress Rima JawabraCredit: Andreas Hackl



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