An Actor's Art Joins Jew and Arab
Muslim member of Israeli troupe finds his art - though derided in his village - overcomes barriers
AKKO, ISRAEL — HALED ABU ALI straddles two worlds: a carpenter by day, by night an actor. But that's only part of the story. Mr. Abu Ali is a Palestinian whose life is divided between Sakhnin, a traditional Muslim village in Israel which is his home, and the nearby coastal town of Akko, where he is a member of an otherwise all-Jewish theater company. For him, the two worlds are antipodean.
``Let me put it this way,'' Abu Ali said in an interview, only partly tongue in cheek. ``Ten minutes before returning, I get dressed to enter the village. I take off the sunglasses. I take off the Walkman.'' Smiling wryly, he adds, ``And I put a knife between my teeth.''
The disparity amuses Abu Ali. But also pains him. He knows that many of the villagers think of him as a ``whore,'' an epithet that resonates from the times it has been hurled at him. To be a stage actor, as he explains it, runs counter to their religious notions; and he is working with Jews which, for some of them, is anathema.
``Most people in the village can't understand why I do what I do,'' says Abu Ali, who is wearing fashionably baggy black trousers and a wide-cut turquoise pullover. They are the kind of clothes that, although smart by Western standards, only invoke further disdain from most Sakhninites. ``They say things like, `Can't you find another, better job?' They are convinced that I don't get paid for my work, that nobody receives a wage in the theater.''
Even to his family, he is a source of bewilderment. For instance, in 1988, when the Akko Theater Company, of which he is a cofounder, won first prize at Israel's highly prestigious annual fringe festival, Abu Ali was euphoric. He purchased a traditional Arab cake eaten only on the happiest of occasions to bring home to share with his widowed mother, three older brothers, and sister. They eyed the cake, then Haled. His excitement fell on stone faces. There was, for them, only one conclusion: He was crazy.
``You know, sometimes I walk around the village on stilts,'' he says with a mischievous twinkle. ``Then everyone really thinks I'm crazy! ... I do it just for the happiness, because it's a happiness that one can have for free. A few actually enjoy it. And when I take a smile out from a sealed mouth, it gives me great joy.''
``Haled is a phenomenon,'' observes Israeli playwright and annual fringe-theater festival director Shmuel Hasfari. ``He is crazy, in a very good sense. He is one of those rare people who is truly gifted. He is an excellent actor and can adapt to any method - he could be in England's Royal Shakespeare Company - and an excellent improvisor. He is highly intelligent and extremely disciplined ... and he is a clown.''
David Mayan, the artistic director of the Akko Theater Company, concurs. ``Haled is original from the very essence of his being, a self-made philosopher and completely unique; I have never met anyone like him. Have a long conversation with him, and he may well enlighten your life.''
Abu Ali is, indeed, unusual. His father was a laborer, as were his three brothers, all of whom are unemployed through disability; his sister works in a clothing shop. None, including Haled, received more than basic schooling. But when meeting Abu Ali, who is self-taught and widely read, one gets the distinct impression of a highly literate and incisive mind - of someone who has worked hard to be what he is today. He moves with a loose, long-limbed lack of inhibition and the agility of a dancer. His wayward reddish brown hair and blue eyes - a legacy from his Druze grandfather - also serve to set him apart from most of his fellow villagers. Where his passion for acting comes from is a mystery.
``To my family and the other Arabs in my village I am a dead person,'' he states baldly. ``But if I didn't have acting, I would be stuck in Sakhnin, and I would not have any interest in anything. I would be just a carpenter from morning until night - eating, working, sitting, for all my life, like most of the other people there. And that would really be death for me.''
Artistic director Mayan smiles as he recalls their first encounter. Abu Ali came to offer his services as a background musician, playing a traditional Arab flute for one of the director's productions. Mayan was taken aback by the young Palestinian's severe formality. As with most theater people everywhere, Mayan is about as casual in manner and dress as you can get. And in walked Abu Ali, with an exceptionally proper demeanor and decked out in a tie and three-piece suit - something virtually unheard of in ultra-informal Israel. In those days, notes Mayan, that was how Abu Ali met anyone beyond his village whom he presumed to be in a position of authority.
``But inside he was completely wild,'' remarks the director. ``Not in behavior, but wild in the best meaning of the word, like the desert, like nature.... His knowledge comes from the earth, from the trees ... from his neighborhood, from his mother, from the rituals around his house. And because he is an artist, he is now channeling all of that into his work.''
The effects can be seen in the Akko troupe's avant-garde productions, but is perhaps even more evident in what he presents individually. At the last annual fringe festival in October, for instance, he personally devised two shows. In the first he stood on a huge ladder and proclaimed to Arab and Jew alike that, among other things, he was not one of them, nor was he ``Christian'' or ``Muslim'': He was a human being. In that part of the world, comments an observer of the unusual performance, ``what Haled did was highly political and controversial.''
The second show, ``Haled Abu Ali: Married To Two,'' required a 40-strong Jewish-Arab cast. The action began as a wedding procession, with performers and the audience wending their way through the narrow streets in the old section of Akko. The wedding itself took place in a caf'e - with two brides: one Jewish, the other Arab. ``They were symbolic of the two cultures that Haled is married to,'' says Hasfari. ``The production was on the border of reality and theater. It was very funny, very exciting, and very moving.''
Dr. Shoshana Avigal, theater critic and drama-methodology teacher at Tel Aviv University, also viewed the shows and was equally impressed by what she saw. ``Haled deals with his own problems and ways of coping with being an Arab Israeli in this highly complex society,'' she notes. ``And being a member of a Jewish drama company, while at the same time living in his Muslim village, the authenticity of his work, for all who see it, has a very strong impact.''
Abu Ali knows that he could reach greater numbers of people if he were to join one of the mainstream drama troupes in Israel, such as the Haifa Theater Company, where fellow Arab actor Makram Khouri has been a member for many years. But he immediately dismisses the suggestion. He remains committed to his idiosyncratic style of fringe theater.
``I don't believe in pretending that I am someone other than myself,'' avers Abu Ali. ``To stand on a stage and speak to audiences far from me - 500 people who see me, yet hardly see me - that kind of theater, to my mind, can do nothing other than entertain.... I believe that theater should be, to make a comparison, like taking a bus from Akko to Tel Aviv, and I don't know what will happen on the road. Everything that happens along the way is what is interesting.... If I know the start, the middle and the end of a performance before I begin, I cannot cry; I cannot be excited ... and this, to me, is what is important.''
Supporters of his approach, such as Hasfari and Avigal, view it as an important contribution to Israeli theater; detractors argue that it is as much self-indulgence as acting. When this is put frankly to Abu Ali, he explains that his method comes from a confluence of his theater studies and the turmoil of his existence.
``I don't think it is indulging myself,'' he counters. ``I think that my life - what I present - is similar to a lot of other people in this country, both Jewish and Arab. At the last fringe festival, for example, a Jewish Israeli phoned me after seeing my work, and said that she had been crying until this moment because of what she saw. Until seeing me, she didn't know what to decide regarding Arabs and Jews. After my plays, she told me that she thought to herself: Here is someone who has the same problems that I have. For the first time, she said that she was able to see the human dimension to the situation. And she decided that what bothers me, bothers her.''
The idea of leaving Israel altogether has more than once crossed Abu Ali's mind, only to be promptly discarded; this is no solution, he says. He knows that what he is ultimately searching for - longing for - is peace in his native land. ``But this is not a question of the Jews giving territory back to the Palestinians,'' he emphasizes when the subject is raised. ``This is not, in reality, the fundamental issue. It is a question of changing the thoughts of both people. I believe that what I do here at Akko achieves some understanding between the two cultures, in a small way. But, you know, everything starts out small. Then it grows and grows.''