BERLIN — KHALED ABU ALI is a Palestinian. The other seven members of the Akko Theater Company are Israeli Jews. For Abu Ali, "the very special thing," as he puts it, about ATC's "Arbeit Macht Frei," is that it demonstrates Arab and Jew working together. From this kind of example, maybe, he muses, "there will come peace."
In a Monitor interview a year and a half ago, in Akko, Abu Ali told me that many people in the Muslim enclave of Sahknin, where he lives, make no secret of the fact that they think he is, to use the phrase that has been hurled at him, "a whore": To be a stage actor runs counter to their religious notions; and he is working with Jews which is anathema.
Today I am talking with Abu Ali in a Berlin restaurant. This is his first experience outside of Israel, barring a brief ferry trip to nearby Cyprus. After his stint in Germany, his perceptions of the world, not to mention the tiny country in which he lives, have changed dramatically. It has helped him, he says, to have a better insight into his people's problems. What he once saw as a city - Sahknin - he now realizes "is only a small village, with even less to offer in terms of a decent way of life than I had thought before," he laments. "But I also know now that my village and Israel, generally, share this in common; they are both backward, socially and materially. Much of the rest of the world is far more advanced. Before coming here, I had no idea this was so."
Other views of his, as a result of being part of ATC and, most particularly, performing in "Arbeit Macht Frei," have altered radically as well. In the Israeli version, Abu Ali acts as a Holocaust museum guide. Hearing about the details of what happened to the Jewish people during that period from an Arab with a definite Arab accent (which would have been lost on Berliners who experienced the show via simultaneous German translation), invariably adds a poignancy to the subject for Israeli theatergoers in a way that nothing else could: Some cry, notes Abu Ali, because of the suddenly acute realization, in hearing a Palestinian recounting the horrors of the past, that Arabs are now experiencing harsh suffering in their own country. Others become angry that a Palestinian is allowed to tell the story. "Why does an Arab do this?" they ask indignantly. "This is not your pain; it belongs to us." Abu Ali is clearly pleased that most Israeli theatergoers who initially react belligerently are, by the end of the show,
transformed. Thoughts can be changed, he realizes, as his own have been.
Indeed, when he first began preparing for the role as museum guide - it took three years of meticulous study to have all the facts at his fingertips - he was stunned by the discrepancy between what he found in his research and what he had learned as a teenager at his Palestinian school. "I had never heard about the Holocaust," he recalls, "so I couldn't believe it had ever happened. All our teacher told us was that 6 million Jews were killed in World War II, and it was a pity that Hitler didn't kill the rest of them."
ABU ALI shakes his head. "When I finally went to Yad Va'Shem [Israel's main Holocaust museum]," he remembers, "I didn't believe it; it was so hard for me to believe what I was seeing! Then I got mad. And then I cried for two hours. If only my school had taken me to that museum, I would have never forgotten it. But they didn't."
His school experience was by no means an aberration, he emphasizes. "The answer to the whole problem, for me," he says, "is for Arabs and Jews to be educated together. Right now, Palestinians learn in school that the Jews are their enemy, and in Jewish schools they are taught [likewise]. If we didn't have all this brainwashing, we could absolutely for sure, live very well together."
When, at the end of "Arbeit Macht Frei," he and the Jewish woman lie contortedly backward on the dais, it is, for Abu Ali, as profound as it is symbolic: Amid that final scene of self-inflicted craziness and suffering - ATC's impressionistic vision of Israeli society's inner turmoil - two people of diametrically opposing sides embrace. "It is the strongest, most difficult and painful part in the production for me," he says. "At that point, our two holocausts, because we are living in the same deeply trou bled country, become one. The hug makes me feel peace has arrived. But then, after the show, when I am in Israel and go outside, I see nothing has changed. And I find myself waiting for the next performance so I can experience again, for at least one brief moment, that feeling of peace."