A Palestinian tale in London

Michaela Singer
8 Min Read

Remember the story of Joseph, left at the bottom of the well for dead by his brothers? In his poem, ‘Oh my father, I am Yusuf,’ great late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish adopted this Biblical and Quranic story to express the nuances of the Palestinian situation, when he wrote the lines, “They want me to die so they can eulogize me/ They closed the door of your house and left me outside.

In “I am Yusuf, and this is My Brother, performed at London’s Young Vic in London until February 6, Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi, along with the ShiberHur (an Inch of Freedom) theater company has transformed the sentiments of Darwish’s arresting poetry into theater.

Founded in 2009 and based in Haifa, Shiber Hur states its missions as, “to break new ground, broaden access to theater, generate new loyal audiences and foster the love for quality theater in Palestine. With the success of “Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea which played at the Tricycle Theater following the Gaza invasion, Shiber Hur had an audience in waiting.

It is 1947, and Yusuf and Ali (Ali Suliman), two brothers, are living out their daily lives waiting for the political decision that has defined the modern history of the Middle East: the UN vote on the partition of Palestine. Rufus, the British soldier stationed at their village ‘Baissamoon,’ along with his radio set and passion for opera, is raring for the British mandate to end so he can get home, and the men of the village are preparing for resistance should the inevitable UN decision prove disastrous.

But the play is not only an account of history, for, within this history, a triple love story comes to the fore. As the play first opens, we are met with a woman in the first signs of old-age, trying to persuade an elderly man, the ‘old’ Yusuf, whose mind is elsewhere, to take a bath. He babbles that he is scared of water, and that he wants his brother, Ali to take a bath with him.

Time reverses, and the Ali of ’47 is waiting, preparing with the other villagers. His brother Yusuf ‘the village idiot,’ as he is told he is, is as simple as the play’s poignant title, an innocent fool who dearly loves his brother and ponders on the meaning of life and his own nature, he plods around happily amusing himself and the audience with proverbs.

Ali, meanwhile, is in love with Nada (Samaa Wakeem), but as star-crossed love would have it, being the brother of a fool, Nada’s father – the self-proclaimed fighter of ’36 battle against the Jews – deems him not worthy of his daughter. As Nada and Ali lament over their ill-designed fates, Nada’s father is shot-dead. Ali is sure to be blamed, although it is well-known that Nada’s father is a collaborator.

The Zionist forces sweep over Palestine, the villagers flee the North. But Ali, fearing his love has been left in the village, and, followed by his faithful brother, tries to make his way back against the wind of refugees. Needless to say, he is not successful.

With this thread, the story weaves its way through the onset of the Nakba. “Lost in translation scenes between Yusuf and the British soldier add humor to a tale whose ending, both politically and romantically, is doomed from the start. The play’s weakness in English, is that it is, at times, literally, ‘lost in translation.’ The essence of Yusuf’s proverbs, words that can be carried into exile stuck fast to a cultural identity, are somewhat mislaid in the Arabic-English transition.

But Zuabi’s play is as charged symbolically as it is politically, and it is often the images that speak louder than words. The intellectual talkers of ‘haki fadi (empty words), take the form of Naji, who struts peacock-style as his words turn to dust and he flees without resistance; an old man carrying a tree appears, explaining his somewhat extreme actions, the old man says “now I’m going to the plains and the dust, I won’t leave my tree. I won’t become a small ring and in a big trunk. And water slowly fills the stage, evoking a sense of Yusuf at the pit of the well. This, as we discover, is a tragic and long-kept family secret that brings this analogical tale to its full circle.

On its opening night last Thursday, the house was packed not only with the usual suspects that haunt London’s theaters, but young men with Islamic skullcaps and girls wearing hijabs: this was a play that drew its hand to those politically, and not only theatrically, minded.

Zuabi brought “I am Yusuf, and this is My Brother to The Young Vic, a London theater known for its daring new writing, after a tour of villages and refugee camps in the Galilee and the West Bank. Performed in London for an English speaking audience, the Arabic is naturally compromised, with some scenes spoken in English, and other exchanges in a mixture of Arabic and English. Surtitles are projected onto an old bathtub, suspended over a stage in an innovative technical move like the relic of an abandoned house sunk in history.

The forgotten tub, frozen in time like Yusuf, Ali, and Nada, along with the fragments of stories we glimpse as the brothers meet refugees fleeing from the Israeli forces, such as the father in denial that his 10-year-old son was ripped apart by dogs sent to finish off those shot, certainly left its imprint of a British audience. Indeed, the play is accessible for those willing to read up on the historical background, but it is those who can identify the imagery and allusions that will come away with the most.

As the play ends, in exile, leaving the aging Nada and the elderly Yusuf alone, an old woman washing a simple, childlike old man, the third and final epic story of love and dedication is realized. Yet it is that sentiment echoed by Darwish, the one of a tragic betrayal of Arab to Arab, that runs above and beyond ‘I am Yusuf, and this is My Brother’.

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