By Ilan Hatsor, Translated by Michael Taub
Directed by Ami Dayan
Opened August 2, 2007
103 E 15th Street, New York
If an Israeli settler and a Palestinian shopkeeper sat through Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor’s Masked, both might feel betrayed and misrepresented. The Israeli would worry that the play portrays all Israelis as callous occupiers, who see helicopters, soldiers and tanks as the only solution to difficult problems. Meanwhile, the Palestinian could complain that the play presents Palestinians as selfish activists, who are so frustrated by Israeli occupation that they apply some Middle Eastern derivation of the law of the jungle: each man for himself, against brother and neighbor alike. This suggests that Hatsor is either an unbiased playwright, who crafts his scripts with journalistic objectivity and generosity to none, or an equal opportunity provocateur, whose passion is making enemies. Hatsor, of course, is neither, or else the play would not merit attention.
Masked explores the relationships of three Palestinian brothers: Khalid (Sanjit DeSilva), Daoud (Daoud Heidami) and Na’im (Arian Moayed). Daoud, who is 30, works as a dishwasher in Tel Aviv and supports not only his wife and child, but also Khalid, his parents, and their paralyzed brother, Nidal, who was struck by Israeli fire. Na’im, who is in his mid-20s, is a leader in a resistance group (perhaps Hamas, though the name never surfaces in the play), a group in which the 18-year-old Khalid, who stays home to care for Nidal, appears scheduled for promotion.
The play begins amidst an already tense conversation, and viewers gradually learn that Daoud is collaborating with Israeli secret police by naming militants. Appropriately, the entire play is set in the back of the butcher shop where Khalid works, which conveniently provides an ill-lit, dungeon-like room, with ample hooks, knives and other sharp objects with which the characters threaten, and ultimately committ violence to one another.
Arian Moayed and Daoud Heidami in Masked. Photograph by Aaron Epstein.
Viewers who read the playbill will find an unusual and unlikely director’s note on the inside cover of the booklet. Dayan, who admits to being “stunned, concerned, enraged, paralyzed, [and] on the edge of my seat” after reading the play for the first time, suggests the play is apolitical. “Masked is not a pro-Palestinian play. It is not a pro-Israeli play,” he writes. “It is a play about human beings forced to make brutal choices in a time of crisis. It reinforces that there are no easy answers to difficult questions.” He adds that the fact that an 18-year-old Israeli wrote the play (Hatsor wrote it 17 years ago) about three Palestinian brothers “adds to the complexity.” The director’s note ends with a plea: “Please put aside preconceptions, agendas and political doctrines.”
This Holy Grail of the New Critical approach, entering the world of the play with no preconceived notions, is perhaps unattainable, but Hatsor makes a good case that it is worth trying.
Plays are not only supposed to be exciting plots. They should have great nuance and sophistication in their themes and symbolism. But it always helps to be a great storyteller, and Hatsor is a master. The play leaves viewers on the edges of their seats until its very final moments, and it achieves that through great dialog. When Na’im confronts Daoud with his spying, Daoud suggests they all run away together and forget their troubles, but Khalid refuses to come: “I won’t go as far as the door with you. Just thinking of what you’ve offered us makes me sick … How can I walk around the village, after you… why? Why? Why?” The ensuing discussion is one of the gutsiest and most honest I’ve ever seen in a play about the Middle East:
DAOUD: To stay alive. Just think what Na’im’s people would have done to me if I hadn’t. You know what they do? They… skin you, and you’re still alive. That’s what they mean by courage… They’re scared of the Israelis, so they let out their venom, right here, on us. They’re heroes… against whom? Against ordinary people, so stifled by the Israelis that they don’t have any strength anymore. They’re told how to behave, what to believe, what to think, when to eat… And if they don’t like you, they kill you. Without a sentence. Just like that. Because a couple of kids think they should… (To Na’im)… All I know is how much blood, how much of our blood you’ve spilled for them. You and your militias have killed more of us then [sic] the Israeli!”
Khalid interjects, but Na’im cuts him off:
“… It’s a struggle! Otherwise we don’t deserve what we get… You’re my big brother. I’m leaving you now. You’re going to climb to the top of the mosque and shout into the loudspeakers for the whole village to hear: ‘I’m Daoud. I handed over your sons; I blew up your homes. I’m a squealer, this is my punishment.’ And then you’ll jump. You’ll jump. It’ll be fast and painless, and more important: it’s the only way you’ll save your name. And ours. The only way. Don’t let anyone touch you, because if they do, you’ll not only die like a dog, but your son will be cursed as well. Get up, my brother. Get up and do it.”
Sanjit DeSilva, Arian Moayed and Daoud Heidami. Photograph by Aaron Epstein.
Daoud considers a suicidal tell-all, but he refuses, and instead tries again in vain to get the upper hand. The game then becomes a mixture of “Waiting for Godot” and “Chicken,” with Daoud hoping the IDF shows up before Na’im’s Leadership does.
The trouble with Hatsor’s approach to exploring the intifada is that while trying to remain apolitical, it also feels nihilistic. As in a Kafka play, Masked has no winners. Everything seems stacked against everyone, and there is no way out. Rather than fixing things or improving themselves, the characters become tragic heroes only when they accept their fate of being cogs in a grand machine (here, the struggle).
“In Masked there are no winners and losers. The tragedy lies in the awful situation they find themselves in – under occupation, besieged, hopeless, no future, no work, no dignity,” wrote Michael Taub, translator of the play and professor at Purchase College in New York, through email. “The play is very realistic – it shows the naked truth about the situation in the territories – especially for young men. It shows the point of view of Palestinians, not Israelis.” He added that the play carries relevance for a variety of crises: the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the French in Algeria in the 1950s and the United States in Vietnam and in Iraq in 2007.
Obviously, Hatsor cannot be expected to solve the problems of the Middle East. He is a playwright and not a politician (and even politicians cannot seem to find solutions). Although the play is in fact quite political in many ways, it is still especially relevant to the situation in Israel, even though Jewish Press readers are in sympathy with the Israelis. Within the world of the play – which one hopes does not characterize the world beyond the play – there is no peaceful solution and no escaping destiny, but the play succeeds in its portrayal of three, uneducated, poor men trying to achieve nobility and maintain the honor in a desperate situation. They may fail, but they have to try.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.