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September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
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The Middle Eastern Conflict In C-major

This column was postponed from an earlier issue. Please note that the exhibits have closed.

Barry Frydlender




Desert Sunrise

Written and Directed by Misha Shulman

Music by Yoel Ben-Simhon

Choreography and Dance by Dalia Carella


Barry Frydlender’s nearly life-sized photograph Shirat Hayam depicts the August 2005 dismantling of the 16-family Gaza seaside settlement Shirat Hayam under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. The name of the settlement (and the photograph title), Song of the Sea, derives from the song the Israelites sang after the Red Sea decimated the Egyptian army. Frydlender’s photo shows a line of Israeli soldiers in green and gray standing in front of the seaside settlement trailers, with journalists and photographers embedded throughout. A makeshift sign facing the soldiers demands, in red paint, “Lama?” as if to say: “Why are you evicting your brothers from their own land?”

The photograph is particularly interesting because it “collapses time” by mapping out the modern event over the Biblical tale. The settlement dismantling becomes more optimistic from the comparison to the Biblical Exodus. Just as the Jews left the oppression of the ancient Egyptian regime to better their position in the Promised Land of flowing milk and honey, the settlers – at least within the world of Frydlender’s image – are headed for bigger and better things.

But they hide their song well, for the image seems more a cause for tears than song. In that sense, the modern tale meditates on the Biblical story. Just as the song of the settlement is hardly a happy song – it pits Jew against Jew – the Biblical song would have been far from unanimously joyful. The commentaries say G-d himself halted the angels’ song, criticizing them for their apathy: “The works of My Hands [the Egyptians] are drowning and you have the gall to sing!” The Jews themselves were divided. Some wanted to return to Egypt, while others eagerly anticipated a change in venue, much like the political divide that split the Israeli people regarding the disengagement.

Misha Shulman’s play, Desert Sunrise, is in many ways like Frydlender’s Song Of The Sea in its oscillation between the optimistic and the pessimistic. Where Frydlender’s work combines the cutting-edge and the ancient, Shulman creates a contemporary scene, though the narrative is one that has played out many times throughout history. Desert Sunrise is a multidisciplinary venture. The play is performed on a stage covered in sand, with a minimalist set: a stone and a fire with a cooking pot. The back of the stage is hidden behind a curtain (with multiples of Magen David and a moon cast upon it, to denote nighttime).

Throughout the performance, Arabic dancers perform behind the curtain, with a light behind them to make them appear in silhouette to the audience. Just at the edge of stage right, Yoel Ben-Simhon, an Israeli musician of Moroccan parentage, sits at a music stand, playing the oud (a small Middle Eastern stringed instrument) and narrating the play. The play begins with Ben-Simhon blowing the shofar (tekiah, shevarim, teruah), and several of the later songs are Jewish, including “Adon Haslichot” (in Arabic) and “El Nora Alila” (part of the Yom Kippur prayer).

The plot of Desert Sunrise, like the music, intertwines the Jewish and the Arabic. The narrative surrounds a chance desert meeting between two young men, the Palestinian shepherd Ismail and the Israeli soldier (off duty) Tsahi. Shulman describes the setting as land stripped of its nationality, “to show it for what it always was and always will be underneath all the politics a big beautiful place where people have lived for thousands of years.” Within this beautiful, yet decidedly “occupied” desert, Tsahi – armed with an M16 – stumbles upon Ismail sitting at his campfire making tea. Having walked all day from Susya, where his girlfriend dumped him, Tsahi is an ideal discussion partner for Ismail, who is also waiting for his girlfriend (and cousin) Layla, to whom he intends to propose later that night.

Shulman, 28, has an ear for dialogue that is nothing short of brilliant. Tsahi and Ismail share early exchanges typified by mutual suspicion and hatred:

ISMAIL: You’re in Palestine.

TSAHI: Not yet. It’s more like the Wild West.

ISMAIL: That’s right, Cowboy, except here the Indians will win. We’ll kick you out like your girlfriend did.

TSAHI: I’ll kick you in the face, little Indian girl. You terrorists use womanly tactics, don’t you? Your bombs are like a deep scratch in the skin of a man.

ISMAIL: And then you beat us down. Give us what we deserve, right? Make us believe it’s our own fault.

In Shulman’s world, real dialogue is possible, and Ismail and Tsahi manage to move beyond their stereotypical views. Tsahi learns that Ismail – though a Palestinian – is not a terrorist, but instead a proud, ambitious man much like himself. For his part, Ismail learns that Tsahi – though an Israeli – has no expensive house by the sea, but instead has had an abusive upbringing and not many life prospects.

The plot thickens when Layla arrives. She grabs Tsahi’s gun – which is leaning against the stone, where Tsahi discarded it while teaching Ismail how to dance popular Israeli dances – and the distrust is renewed. It turns out that the IDF is in hot pursuit of Layla for terrorist activities. Though she too comes to understand Tsahi and to repent for her terrorist activities, Layla is shot by two soldiers, who take Tsahi and Ismail into custody. The soldiers are human enough to let the two men carry Layla’s body off to be buried. And the play ends with the haunting image of Ismail and Tsahi carrying off the corpse in a sequence as moving as King Lear holding the dead Cordelia or the painter Girodet’s The Burial of Atala.

The final burial image is ambiguous, much like Frydlender’s Shirat Hayam. According to Shulman, the ending is tragic but also optimistic, because of the bond between Tsahi and Ismail. “People do come together. Things change. The political landscape in both Israel and Palestine has changed dramatically in the past year. That’s a sign that the people want to end the conflict,” Shulman said over e-mail. “The characters in the play are transformed throughout the play, just like each one of us can be transformed, and we are the ones who make up this conflict. If we decide to end the conflict, it will end No matter how hopeless and tragic things seem, if we want to, we can turn the tiny ray of hope into a sunrise.”

But perhaps the most important component of Frydlender’s and Shulman’s work is the question of “political” art. To me, art has no business meddling in the affairs of politics. Artists are not elected in a democratic process (though it must feel like it, when courting agents and venues to showcase their work), nor do they often offer practical plans to resolve problems. Artists – though they can be said to be skilled or even expert in many regards – are not more trustworthy about politics than construction workers, taxi drivers or anyone else.

After seeing the play, I discussed my uneasiness with the art director of Desert Sunrise, Celia Owens. Owens cited an African artist who said, “Art can kill and art can heal.” To Owens, that means believing “in the power of culture to transform people. Ambiguity and multi-sensory communication send the brain on a search for meaning in which many discoveries are made and spaciousness is created A profound adherence to principles of art undermines ideology and stimulates ideas.” Shulman sees his art as political as well, citing a Palestinian man who came up to him after the show (he lamented that far more Jewish viewers attend than Palestinians) and told him, “It was incredible to see an Israeli telling the truth. Now I will go and do the same.”

Shulman insists that he is not “trying to change people’s political standing from right to left or any way around,” but he is instead, “trying to get them beyond the slogans and emotional programming, to which they were ‘programmed’ to react by their societies, families, etc. and to feel for everyone who’s suffering.”

Many readers might find Shulman’s play too willing to question and to probe the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Shulman sees the play as particularly appealing to the Orthodox community because “the haredim are exactly the community who can relate to this (much better perhaps), than the secular community, because of the grander perspective they have about Israel. The haredi community, I believe, has the ability to see beyond nationalism, because of their religious perspective. They see Israel as the holy land; many of them see it as Jewish land in its entirety a secular Jewish state doesn’t have much to do with the mitzvah of living in Israel.”

And in the end, Shulman’s message is also religious. “Is our responsibility toward ourselves alone? As “am kohanim” (a nation of priests) we’re supposed to lead the world spiritually. Are we doing that?” That question – with Frydlender’s depicted question of “Lama/why?” – embeds difficult politics within art. The mix is, at once, optimistic and pessimistic, beautiful and terrifying, comforting and difficult – much like life itself always proves to be. As Jews and appreciators of the arts, we might not like what we see, but we can no less shy away from its hard-hitting questions.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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