'Land of Fire' Ignites Questions and Passions About a Terrorist and His Israeli Victim

Nearly four decades after the event it depicts, the new and provocative play by Argentina-born Mario Diament is compelling, despite a few dissonant notes.

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The terrorist Hassan (Mihran Shlougian) and Yael (Dagmar Stansova) in 'Land of Fire,' which had its North American debut on Sunday at the Theater for a New City in Manhattan’s East Village,
The terrorist Hassan (Mihran Shlougian) and Yael (Dagmar Stansova) in 'Land of Fire,' which had its North American debut this week.Credit: Ronald L. Glassman
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – At first, only sounds come from the darkened stage: the ratatatat of machine-gun fire and a woman screaming. Then an ambulance’s siren. The sounds of a terror attack against Israelis. But which? There are too many, today, to be sure.

It soon becomes clear that the sounds evoke the August 20, 1978 attack on an El Al Israel Airlines crew by two terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

As the crew's bus pulled up to a London hotel where they were staying on a layover, the terrorists began their deadly attack. One flight attendant was murdered. She was 25 and about to be married. Just before her death she had been talking with another flight attendant, named Yael in the play, about her wedding dress.

Yael was injured and survived. Twenty-two years, a long marriage and two teenage daughters later, she feels deeply unsettled and decides to meet the man who shot her. He has been sitting in a British prison, mostly in solitary confinement, in the intervening years.

Land of Fire (Tierra del Fuego),” which had its North American premiere on Sunday at the Theater for a New City in Manhattan’s East Village, was written by Argentina-born playwright Mario Diament and presented by the New Yiddish Rep. The play runs through January 3.

In the provocative play, Yael (Dagmar Stansova) repeatedly visits the imprisoned terrorist, Hassan (Mihran Shlougian). Her reasons are inchoate. Despite demands for an explanation from her husband, the dead flight attendant's mother Geula (Marilyn Lucchi) and even Hassan himself – she can’t quite articulate why she keeps meeting him. And yet she is sure of two things: She wants to know if Hassan is sorry for murdering her friend, and whether he has changed over the years.

He has, he insists. And Yael, now working in Israel as a peace activist, believes him. Her husband Ilan (Scott Zimmerman) is horrified by the idea that she has any interest in humanizing Hassan.

After a visit or two, Hassan’s lawyer approaches Yael and asks her to write a letter on his client’s behalf to the parole board before an upcoming hearing. That’s a lot to ask, she says repeatedly, not sure what she'll do.

Ilan thinks Yael is crazy to even consider such a request, as does Geula, who comes to see her. Yael has not been able to bring herself to visit Geula in all the time that has passed since her daughter’s murder.

The play strikes a few dissonant notes. That few of the actors’ accents sound like their characters' should is distracting. So is the flatness of Stansova's performance, all the more apparent when compared to the intensity of Lucchi’s as she attempts to dissuade the young woman from writing on the prisoner's behalf. Still, despite these issues, "Land of Fire" is deeply compelling, and nearly four decades after the event around which it revolves, the subject matter remains painfully relevant.

'Covered by corpses'

In a note from the playwright, Mario Diament writes that he had been looking for a way to address the Israel-Palestine conflict in a dramatic work, but it was only when he stumbled on information related to the 1978 terror attack that he saw a way to do so.

“I was seeking a theme that would encompass and illuminate all aspects of this ongoing drama, so terrible and so human at the same time,” wrote Diament. “On the one hand, here’s a people that after two millennia of exodus, persecution, humiliation and slaughter, finally settles on their ancestral land, but in doing so, displaces the local population, which is in turn subjected to conditions that resemble those that caused its suffering. The victim becomes the victimizer and the oppressed become the oppressor.”

At the final preview performance of "Land of Fire," director Moshe Yassur spoke to Haaretz about his own life story and how it is connected to the show. Romanian-born Yassur has had a long career directing plays in Yiddish, Romanian, Hebrew and English.

As a young boy of 5, he survived the pogrom that destroyed the Jewish community of his hometown, Iasi. Half of the town’s population of 80,000 had been Jewish, said Yassur. In June 1941, in multiple planned attacks, some 15,000 Jews were murdered by police, then-recently released prisoners and ordinary Romanian citizens.

Yassur had gone with his father and thousands of other local Jews to Iasi’s police station, where they were told they would receive documents freeing them from restrictions that dictated where they could go and what food they could buy. But instead the Jews, including his father, were mowed down. As they were shot, Yassur recalled, people fell on top of him.

“I was covered by corpses,” he told Haaretz. “When they came to dig out the corpses, they found me.” After being lifted from the pile of bodies, he said, “I ran through the main streets home. I saw the street sweepers taking corpses and putting them in big drums.”

When he arrived home, his mother, who had been beaten and was bleeding, began dancing around and pressing a sheet to the wounds, trying not to frighten him.

A decade later, mother and son immigrated to Israel. Yassur subsequently served as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces during the Sinai Campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967. He went on to pursue a directing career that spans six decades and has taken him from Haifa to Iasi and Bucharest, as well as to Paris and New York, where he has lived since the 1970s. In 2013 he directed an acclaimed New York production of “Waiting for Godot” in Yiddish.

Asked why he wanted to direct “Land of Fire,” Yassur explained: “I know the Arabs very well and I know what they’re capable of doing. But I’m also looking with sadness at what happened in the Six-Day War. We were quite drunk with victory. [David] Ben-Gurion said ‘give them back the territories’ and we didn’t do that. We suffer now, we suffer. I feel that the Arabs have a point and the Jews have a point. It’s a Greek tragedy, where two sides are right.”

“I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe one day a leader will arise from our midst and be able to find a solution. People want to live on the earth, not under the earth," he added. "How long can it go like this?”

Back on stage, as “Land of Fire” continues, Yael brings Hassan a gift. It’s a snow globe her father had taken from an Arab family when he, as a young Israeli soldier in 1948, was ordered to force them to leave, an experience he had never discussed with his daughter. The snow globe is a souvenir from Tierra del Fuego — the “Land of Fire,” South America's southernmost tip — which occupies an almost mythical place in Hassan’s mind. As the play ends, the snow globe it is back in his hands, where it belongs.

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