African Migrants in Israel Put Their Trials, Tribulations and Humor Center Stage

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Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Three days before the satirical play “Ehad Shahor Hazak” (“One Strong Black,” a play on a common phrase used for ordering coffee) was to be performed for an Israel Scouts summer camp in the north, the show was still looking for a replacement actor. Its star, Babiker (Babi) Ibrahim, was in jail.

The police had arrested him a week and a half before for alleged bicycle theft. He was sent from prison to prison without knowing when, or if, he would be released. The show’s directors, crew and actors turned their attention toward protesting against his arrest. Then, last Wednesday night, after six days in detention, he was released by order of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. The evidence against him was insufficient. On Saturday night he was on stage up north, performing in the show.

Ibrahim’s arrest blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction. In the play, which depicts the lives of the asylum-seekers in Israel, Ibrahim plays several roles, including that of a police officer who arrests a Sudanese man, after his Israeli employer files a flase complaint to avoid paying him. During the show on Saturday night, Ibrahim wore the hat of a police officer once more, and this time, the scene had additional significance. “For me, jail was like a course in understanding the police and the Interior Ministry very, very well,” Ibrahim says. “I saw how they behaved, and now I understand it all.”

Ibrahim says he was arrested arbitrarily. Police officers accused him of having stolen bicycles that were leaning against a post outside the barber shop where he works. He was jailed in accordance with a procedure that allows African migrants suspected of breaking the law to be imprisoned without trial. It also allows migrants to be imprisoned based on administrative evidence only, even if it is not enough to try them. The public protest led Weinstein to examine the evidence against Ibrahim and ordered him freed -- but hundreds more African migrants like him are still in prison.

The show “Ehad Shahor Hazak” was written by Sudanese asylum-seekers and combines sharp satire with a humorous yet honest look at themselves. The actors have no formal theater experience: During the day, the actors work at their day jobs — at the barber shop, in construction and cleaning. At night, they come from time to time for a rehearsal or a performance.

The play itself is not always pleasant for Israelis, and its directors, Yael Tal and Naama Redler, say Israeli audiences don’t always know whether to laugh or cry. It opens with a recording of Likud MK Miri Regev speaking at a heated protest in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva quarter that took place in May 2012. Her voice echoes “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” while in the background, demonstrators call for the Sudanese to be deported from Israel. Later on, the actors try to depict the situation from their point of view: the war in Sudan, their escape, their arrival in Israel and their day-to-day struggle for existence. The play — in Hebrew, Arabic and English — includes scenes about the tough landing in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, the contemptuous treatment of the Interior Ministry, the exploitation they suffer at the hands of Israeli employers, the false arrests and, finally, their deportation to Sudan and the dangers there.

The actors do not hesitate to laugh at themselves, their skin color and the situations they sometimes find themselves in. “This country has misunderstood us,” says Moushi (Musa) Haroun Moushi, one of the actors. He says they decided to stage the play so the Israeli public could get to know the Sudanese community and its story in a direct, unmediated way.

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From the play 'Ehad Shahor Hazak.'Credit: Tali Mayer
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From the play 'Ehad Shahor Hazak.'Credit: Tali Mayer
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From the play 'Ehad Shahor Hazak.'Credit: Tali Mayer

“The media say, ‘The Sudanese commit rape, drink beer and make a mess in [the south Tel Aviv neighborhood] Neve Sha’anan.’ None of that is accurate, but because of it, we want to tell the Israeli public who we are,” said Mubarak Mukhtar Baraka. Babker Yakub Adam Hamis says his friend’s arrest is an example of the intolerable situation. “It’s just like what happened to Babi — they just grab us and throw us in jail, just like that. Many of us are in jail for no reason. We want to tell them we’re not like that. Come and see us from up close. We’re really not dangerous like you think we are.”

Until the play was staged, the six actors had little interaction with the Israeli population. Thanks to the play, they feel they have broken through a barrier. They say audiences sees them in a different light, as less threatening, and they dream of the next step — performing in one of Israel’s leading cultural institutions.

Still, the actors say, they have not managed to forge a real connection with the residents of south Tel Aviv, the population with which they interact daily. Last Saturday night, when the actors celebrated Ibrahim’s return from prison and performed in the north, the local residents’ action committee protested his release in front of the attorney general’s home in Herzliya Pituah.

Babiker (Babi) Ibrahim (center) with fellow actors.Credit: Tali Mayer

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