Makram Khouri Straddles Two Worlds


MAKRAM KHOURI's father fiercely opposed the idea of his son becoming an actor. Not because it is a notoriously precarious profession - the common parental objection - but, being a Palestinian living in Israel, he foresaw only rejection and misery for his son. "I would understand if we were living in an Arab country," he lamented to Makram whenever the subject arose, "because you would have a chance there. But in Israel, with the Israeli Jews, they will never let you." Makram Khouri smiles as he recalls this story. With a soft chuckle, he says simply, "Well, I think he was wrong about that."

Khouri has good reason to smile. He is, today, one of the most respected actors in Israel - not to mention recipient of the Israeli Prize, the country's highest commendation. Khouri, who has been a member of the Haifa Theater repertory company for 15 years, is the first Arab ever to be given this accolade.

[Khouri was interviewed before the Gulf war broke out. In a recent telephone call it was learned that the Haifa theater was closed for a month during the hostilities but has reopened. Khouri was onstage at the time of the call.]

The significance of the Israeli Prize is enormous. It is given annually for outstanding overall contribution in a single category of endeavor, which is rotated from year to year. Only once every four years does it go to someone from the world of drama. For theater people here, Khouri's win in 1987 came as no surprise.

Veteran Israeli actor Amnon Meskin, who has worked with Khouri in many stage productions, puts it this way: "Makram is ethical; he is striving; he is fresh. 201> I mean, you know how actors develop mannerisms and tricks that they become set in. But there is a [perpetual] youthfulness about Makram in his art: He is always searching or worrying or trying to find a reality that is his."

While it's still too early to tell whether Khouri will one day have a permanent place in the pantheon of the country's greatest actors, prominent Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari suggests that it could happen: "He is certainly one of the best in Israel today."

As is the case everywhere in Israel, the political tensions between Arabs and Jews loom large in people's minds. Jewish actor Meskin dismisses the question of Khouri possibly being an "institutionalized Arab": "You mean an 'Uncle Tom'? No way. He is his own man."

Khouri, responding to the same question, says "That's not me at all," adding with a hearty laugh, "I hate Jews and Arabs equally!" He continues more seriously, "No, not really, it's just that I'm sick of 'Jews and Arabs,' because sometimes I feel that I can't cope anymore."

Khouri pauses. It's clear the subject weighs heavily on him. He points out that, although a Palestinian, he also views himself as an Israeli citizen. "I was brought up in Israel," he explains. "I would say, realistically, I am an Israeli. And, to me, it's so simple: Jews and Palestinians should sit and talk. And they should compromise. Things can't go back as they were 40 or 50 years ago. And the compromise should be what gives the best, for both people. Some say this is utopia. But, actually, it depend s on how the 'great powers' give the guarantees.... I do think it could be achieved."

To Khouri, "compromise" is not a dirty word. He knows firsthand the positive energy that can be released in certain apparently insoluble situations.

In his early years of acting, Khouri went through a profound personal crisis. After studying English literature at the University of Jerusalem, then moving to London for a three-year drama course, he returned to his home in Haifa, hoping to find a job in Arabic theater. He soon discovered, however, that Arabic theater in Israel was (and still is) limited and not very professional.

Nonetheless, he joined a small group called the Jewish-Arab Cultural Center that performed mostly for schoolchildren. But he quickly became disillusioned. The group, funded by government money, engaged in work that seemed to Khouri more propaganda than art. Moreover, during rehearsals, as he tells it, "busloads of American tourists would stop with their guide saying, 'See, we have an Arab theater.' "

HE was asked by Jewish director Kotler, who happened to see Khouri rehearsing one day while visiting the center, if he would like to join the Haifa Theater Company. The chance to cross the divide to become the first Arab actor in a major Israeli drama troupe (there are seven Palestinian actors today) was irresistible. The group at Haifa was the most innovative and exciting in the country at the time. Khouri grabbed it.

But he was in turmoil. Which side was he on, he kept asking himself, Arab or Jew? The inner conflict manifested itself most palpably in trying to speak Hebrew without an Arab accent, which he needed to do to become a more versatile actor. For a long time, though, he found the psychological hurdle insurmountable.

Then Khouri had a dream that he says changed his life. He dreamed that he was a circus clown riding on a one-wheel bicycle. But the wheel was similar to a coin, with two sides: "I'm a Palestinian Arab" was written on one side, "I'm an Israeli" on the other. And as he performed atop this two-sided wheel, he cried out repeatedly, "I am alive!"

That dream proved to be a revelation. "When I awoke, it was the first time that I could sense a third dimension in art," says Khouri. "It was like a third person came out: The actor, the artist, he is alive. And I realized at that moment that if I took sides on the [political] issue, I would fall.... So I am trying as much as possible to keep that balance, in order not to lose my ability for acting and, of course, my humanity."

Since the intifada, Khouri admits it's harder for him to maintain that precious balance; empathy for his fellow Palestinians' plight at times overwhelms him. But at those moments, he thinks of his many Jewish friends, some of whom he feels closer to, and can communicate better with, he remarks, than his own family. "Not only have my Jewish friends been very kind and helpful," says Khouri, "but they have been a part of my whole experience. There are absolutely no barriers between us. 201> It would be much easier for me to be one-sided.... But living here, when you understand the complexities of the situation, you realize that it is not black and white."

At those difficult moments, moreover, Khouri reminds himself of the work that he is doing. Theater in Israel is the dominant arts medium, surpassing film and TV. Israeli theater audiences are broadly based, and the stage is generally seen as a place for depicting issues that are central to society.

The Haifa Theater Company, in particular, has produced some hard-hitting, highly controversial drama. Khouri believes in being a part of this. A classic example was his acclaimed performance in "Shooting Magda," an uncomfortably critical assessment of the Palestinians' status in Israel, by Jewish playwright Joshua Sobol. He also starred in an Arabic version of Athol Fugard's "The Island." "It was the first play in Israeli theater done in Arabic, and all of a sudden," says Khouri, snapping his fingers, " the focus was on what happens to Palestinians in prisons here." The production, which played to predominately Jewish audiences, was a hit.

Khouri is acutely aware that he and the few other high-profile Arabs in fields such as drama and sports represent, for many Palestinians living in Israel, hope for their people. But for the Jewish theatergoers, he is convinced that his work is perhaps even more vital. "From the feedback I get from them," says Khouri, "you learn that theater is not only a mirror for society, but through it you can convey certain things.... They are seeing me and feeling me, an Arab. And you then realize it is not only a mission, but a responsibility."

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