For First Time, Hanoch Levin Play Performed in the Arab World

The Moroccan director and the Israeli actor behind the project to stage the play in Casablanca, explain why they chose the Polish-Israeli playwright.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

An older man in the audience, in traditional dress, attracted the attention of actor Guy Elhanan. It was last month, during a performance in a Moroccan city, by local actors, of the late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s “Krum.” On stage, the funeral of Krum’s friend Tugati was taking place. An actor began chanting, in the melody and accent of Moroccan Jews, the ancient Aramaic words of the Mourner’s Kaddish (“yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabba”), which was not in the original script. The addition was made by the director, Ghassan el-Hakim.

Hanoch LevinCredit: Gadi Dagon

Elhanan, who played Krum, noticed that the old man, whose seat was near the stage, was murmuring the words of the prayer.

“It was hard to believe that he really the Kaddish,” relates the actor, who lives in Haifa. “This was a little town on a hill, far from any main city. He wore Muslim dress and he was with his 5-year-old grandson. When I approached him after the show, he told me that he had lived near a synagogue since childhood. He knew how to sing Kaddish with the traditional tune. I was moved to tears.”

Elhanan, 35, teaches theater, music and Hebrew in bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) schools, in the Arab Waldorf (anthroposophical) school in Shfaram and to groups of adults with mental illness in Arara, Tamra and Taibeh, three Arab towns. In addition to his teaching and stage work, he also acts in films: most recently in Jessica Habie’s “Mars at Sunrise,” which was released in the United States earlier this year.

Elhanan’s meeting with the old Moroccan who knew the Mourner’s Kaddish was only the first of many spontaneous encounters with Moroccans who flocked to theaters around the country to see “Krum.”

“The old people were happy to share with us the Hebrew words they remembered,” Elhanan says. “They were thrilled when they heard that the playwright was Israeli.”

In their research for the play, Hakim and Elhanan learned that Morocco’s Jewish community was one of the oldest in the world. “The quarters where the Jews lived were crowded and the population was mixed. All these areas were completely emptied of Jews by the 1970s, and their memory was buried and forgotten,” Elhanan says.

Not until his direct encounters with the audience did Elhanan understand why Hakim had wanted to conjure up the memory of the Jews and the extent to which Morocco has not resolved the issue of its abandonment, mainly for Israel, by this community that was part of Moroccan history for so long. He also became aware of the great degree to which the memory of life in Arab lands is suppressed in Israel as well.

“I understood the degree to which we weren’t given information about what happened to Jews in Arab lands and what happened in those countries after the Jews disappeared,” Elhanan says. “The entire Arab-Jewish world was essentially censored from us.”

Hakim, who was born into an intellectual family in Fez, studied music and theater in Rabat and in Paris. He also studied at the Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, where the majority of students speak Arabic. Elhanan also went there, a few years earlier; it was where he learned Arabic, and even led a student theater group in Arabic.

“Krum” was staged in Morocco in Moroccan Arabic with French subtitles for the benefit of the country’s tiny remaining Jewish community. A few of the monologues were left in the original Hebrew. The idea began more than three years ago, after Hakim and Elhanan met on stage during a performance at the Thétre du Soleil in Paris. Elhanan, who speaks fluent Arabic and French, immediately found a common language with Hakim.

Shortly afterward Hakim contacted Elhanan, who had returned to Haifa, and told him of his desire to stage “Krum” in Morocco. It took another year and a half, however, for the idea to take shape.

“It wasn’t simple,” says the 30-year-old director, speaking by phone from Morocco. He laughed, as if to hint that it was indeed complicated. He insists that it wasn’t because of political pressures, but adds, “The establishment wasn’t thrilled with the idea and didn’t agree to support the play.” Nevertheless, the Moroccan audience welcomed it with open arms.

First staging of Levin in an Arab country

This was the first production of a Levin work in an Arabic-speaking country; the playwright’s “The Labor of Life” is currently being performed in Turkey. The Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama, which represents Levin’s works abroad, helped obtain the rights for the Moroccan production. French cultural centers in Morocco funded the performances, which were held in Casablanca, Tiznit, Oujda, Kenitra, Demnate and Chellah.

“Krum,” which premiered in 1972, is about dashed hopes and destruction. Although it is very “Israeli,” it has a universal dimension and had been translated into other languages, including Polish for a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. It tells the story of an immigrant who returns to the poor Tel Aviv neighborhood of his youth in order to tell his mother that he did not find love, make money or discover anything about himself. In the Moroccan version, the story takes place in 1961, two years after the Wadi Salib riots by frustrated North African immigrants in Haifa. Krum returns from Tel Aviv to Casablanca, gripped by despair and hopelessness.

“I saw the play in Corsica, by chance,” Hakim relates. “Immediately upon returning to Morocco I searched for a translation, read it and decided on the spot that I wanted to stage it in Morocco. Theater brings people together. I was certain the audience would accept the play.”

“The words are the same words; the text wasn’t changed,” explains Elhanan. “But rather than returning to the same suburb, a Moroccan Jew who had been abroad, in Israel, with all the ramifications of immigrating to Israel, returns with the same longing for Moroccan provincialism. At the end of the play, when he is left alone, it also hints at the fact that all the Moroccan Jews were leaving.”

Hakim adds that the play “represents every young Moroccan who returns from abroad. There are a lot of people who returned and decided they didn’t like the life there — [who returned] not just from Israel, but from Canada and the United States.”

But the main point of the production, he says, was to spark in ordinary Moroccans the repressed memory of the country’s Jews. “The Jews have become a myth in Morocco,” Hakim says. “Young people today don’t know there were Jews where they live, that their homes once belonged to Jews. It is a good opportunity to speak about Moroccan history and society, which is like a puzzle.”

Asked why he left certain monologues in “Krum” in Hebrew, Hakim says he has been to Israel and was fascinated by the connection between the two languages. “I tried to learn Hebrew,” he says, “But it was hard. I wanted to show on stage the closeness of the two languages.”

There were two main waves of emigration by Moroccan Jews. Some 28,000 Jews left between 1948, when attitudes toward Jews in Morocco turned hostile after Israel’s independence, and 1951. In 1956, following Morocco’s independence, legal emigration was prohibited for Jews. They began to sneak out, in increasingly large numbers, through a Jewish underground that brought them to France and Spain. By 1967, few Jews remained: 250,000 had left, most of them for Israel.

“There were many things I didn’t know,” Elhanan says, adding, “Hakim told me, for example, that Moroccan music of the 1960s was full of Jewish musicians who sang in Moroccan [Arabic].”

As Elhanan tells it, Hakim and other young directors he met want to put the story of the Jewish community and its cultural contribution on the local agenda, as well as to talk about the circumstances of the Jews’ departure from Morocco. For that reason, he says, it was important to Hakim to stage the play in Demnate. The town, once full of Jews, now has a Jewish population of one, an elderly woman.

Hakim’s staging of “Krum” touched on burning issues in Moroccan society, including domestic violence, the status of women and social diversity. High-school students who saw it “asked how it’s possible to say ‘whore’ onstage,” Elhanan relates.

After each performance, a discussion was held with the audience. The emotional responses expressed in these forums point to the relevance of the Jewish issue in today’s Morocca. Similarly, to explain the success of “Krum” in Poland people point to a growing interest by the country’s young people in rediscovering the Jewish spirit that hovers over Warsaw, Krakow and other cities and acknowledging that Jewish culture and the Yiddish language are an inseparable part of Polish culture.

“It’s similar in many ways,” says Elhanan. “In both Poland and Morocco there are ancient communities. Moroccan Jewry was thousands of years old. There’s a revival, but unlike in Poland, in Morocco the establishment isn’t making it easy.”

He notes that during “Krum”’s Moroccan run, both then-Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz and then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni visited the country, “But the idea of staging a play by an Israeli playwright in Morocco still generates opposition,” he says.

Hakim plans to bring the Moroccan version of “Krum” to France. And to close the circle, performances have been scheduled at the Moroccan Hamaghreb Theater in Dimona, the Al-Midan Arabic theater in Haifa and at the next Hanoch Levin International Festival, at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

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