Israeli Arab Actor Mohammad Bakri to Play Jewish Dad in Play About Libya Holocaust Story

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Israeli Arab actor Mohammed Bakri poses with an Italian film award in 2004.
Israeli Arab actor Mohammed Bakri poses with an Italian film award in 2004.Credit: AP

The book “Benghazi—Bergen-Belsen” by author Yossi Sucary tells the Holocaust story of Libyan Jews. The award-winning book has been adapted for the stage, and performances begin in March at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City’s East Village.   

The novel, considered to be the first about the silenced tragedy of Libyan Jews during World War II, was written by Israeli director Lahav Timor. The play, in which Israeli actor Mohammad Bakri will play the Jewish father, will be directed by Israeli actress and producer Michal Gamily. 

Sucary’s novel was published in 2013 by Am Oved. It was translated into English and won the Brenner Prize for literature from the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel, and has been included in the Israeli high school literature curriculum.

It tells the story of the Jewish Hajaj family from Benghazi, who were sent in 1941 from occupied Libya to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Sucary told Haaretz that after the book was published, he suggested to Timor to turn it into a play.

Timor, who also adapted and directed David Grossman’s “See Under: Love,” agreed.  Timor’s wife, Inbal, later translated the play into English and offered it to La MaMa one of the most influential avant-garde theaters of the 20th Century, now marking its 55th anniversary. The book was translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan. 

Yossi Sucary, author of 'Benghazi-Bergen-Belsen.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Last month, Sucary attended a reading of the play in New York, and expressed satisfaction with the the adaptation and the diverse cast from a wide range of backgrounds.

“This is an important event, because it is not every day that an Israeli book is performed in a prestigious theater in New York with such a glorious tradition,” Sucary said.  

Alongside Bakri, playing a character named Eliyahu Hajaj, Israeli actress Ayelet Kaznelson will play Eliyahu’s wife Julia. Their daughter Silvana will be played by Veracity Butcher and Moroccan actress Mouna R’mike will play her sister Toni.  

Avi Belleli composed the music, and Avi Yona Bueno (known by the nickname of Bambi) did the lighting design.

Gamily has worked with La MaMa for a number of years. She told Haaretz that the stage adaptation was not set as a period piece.

“The play has a lot of references to the refugees in Syria and the present situation,” she said.

“The casting of Bakri in the role of the father is a statement in its own right, too, when a Palestinian takes on himself the burden of the Holocaust,” she said.  

The topic of the play has aroused quite a bit of interest among local audiences, Gamily said. 

”When you say ‘Shoah’ it does not interest anyone, but when you say ‘the silenced Shoah of Libyan Jewry’ it already opens space for a new dialogue and people don’t know anything about it.” 

The play will open at the off-off-Broadway theater on March 23 and run through April 9.  

Most of the play will be in English, but it includes sections in Arabic, German and Italian. The Libyan Jews Heritage Center in Israel has also provided some support. Gamily said she is examining the possibility of a performance in Israel, too.   

Last summer Habima announced plans to produce a stage adaptation of Benghazi—Bergen-Belsen to be written by playwright Daphna Angel, but no production has yet been scheduled. Habima said the possibility is still under examination by the national theater’s artistic department.

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