jakub | May 4, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Palestine, Alive in Exile: ‘Returning to Haifa’ and Reclaiming the Narrative

Jacob Henrie-Naffaa, Diala Al-Abed, Lijesh Krishnan, and Amal Bisharat in “Returning to Haifa” at Golden Thread Productions. (Photo by Najib Joe Hakim)

It was the first time I spoke publicly on Palestine. It was three days after my cousin was murdered by an Israeli military attack, 20 days after the start of the assault on Gaza. It was a heavy day filled with fear and rage for my family in the West Bank, where more than 10,000 of my family members reside. Although I felt defeated about my ability to create real change, I joined a panel of Palestinian performance artists, musicians, and activists as we discussed self-preservation through Palestinian art at the recent MENA Theater Makers Alliance Annual Convening in San Francisco.

I was suffocating for my people; it seemed that nothing would stop the escalating number of innocent dead each day. Attempting to speak about Palestine in the past had been a terrifying and alienating experience: a social nightmare in which every conscious word could be met with opposing aggression, or, worse, a dismissal as “too complex” to take a clear stand in solidarity, despite the 75 years of unequivocal evidence of severe oppression, colonization, inhumane treatment, and a stripping of fundamental human rights and resources from the Palestinian people. Swallowing my identity and not speaking up felt like the safest protective measure before.

But now, though it is long overdue—after more than 30,000 civilian casualties and the clear start of a genocide—it seems that the world has found a collective voice. With an unfiltered platform to speak, I shared my own out-of-body experiences of returning to Palestine; how joyous the people made me feel, regardless of the nine-meter-high concrete apartheid wall that greeted us at every turn. The uplifting hope of the Palestinian spirit is infectious, and I hoped with every story I told on that panel that I could show just how beautiful the idea of Palestine could be. Amid the conversation, I stressed the need to share uplifting stories of perseverance, and of the unspoken agreement among people of diaspora to self-sustain a whole culture despite the loss of land. I eagerly wanted to emphasize the idea of surviving through art, that Palestinians worldwide epitomize resilience, and that the narratives we tell should echo the unbreakable spirit that has sustained their resistance against occupation for decades.

The discussion that followed highlighted the crucial role of artists during such high-stakes and inhumane times. Fighting against propaganda machines with activist art seemed like an attainable goal, and has since become the center of my own personal mission as a Palestinian artist. The support we shared in that conversation was revitalizing enough to pull ourselves together and reclaim the muddied narrative. It felt like life had reinfused the death-haunted name “Palestine.”

Nearly a month following the events of Oct. 7, Sahar Assaf, the artistic director of Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, redirected the company’s initial 2024 season plans and dedicated this year’s work to Palestine. She created a community council of Palestinian, Jewish, MENA, and non-MENA artists to select a new season of plays and events by, about, and for Palestinians. When I was approached to join the council committee myself, I felt Sahar had given us all a gift: a creative space to heal and to be healed. This was a chance to take control of the narrative and combat the incessant censorship and dehumanization attempts of the mainstream media—and to encourage a reaction from many silent theatres at a time when storytelling is the strongest device to change the narrative. As theatremakers, we are given a literal platform to present the truth. If not us now, then who?

The stage adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella, Returning to Haifa, adapted by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace, is this season’s first mainstage production (currently onstage just through tomorrow night, May 4). Kanafani, often called the Kahlil Gibran of Palestine, was a prominent Palestinian writer and visionary, who in his career highlighted the longing for return and the general impact of displacement on Palestinian families since the Nakba of 1948. Kanafani was assassinated in 1972 at the age of 36—a story I know well, as he was a very dear friend of my grandmother. His death, the result of targeted Israeli aggression, was a significant loss for the Palestinian people and for the literary world. To this day, writers and philosophers are commonly targeted for the tremendous influence they have on humanizing those who are too often simply reduced to “people at war.”

In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani imagined the complexities of coexistence and the struggle for reconciliation in a divided land. We follow the story of a Palestinian couple, Said (Lijesh Krishnan) and Safiyya (Amal Bisharat), who finally return to their home in Haifa after their displacement. Upon their return, they are met by an Israeli woman, Mariam (Michelle Navarrete), and later her son, Dov (Jacob Henrie-Naffaa), who now inhabit the home.

As the world finally acknowledges and many already know, the fallout from the horrific events that began on Oct. 7 in Gaza stems from a deep history of occupation and exile. Said co-adaptor Khalidi, “There is hope to be found in the fact that Palestinian freedom is linked to our collective freedom, and millions are waking up to that fact. Kanafani knew this all too well, just as he knew that art and culture were crucial fronts in this battle for liberation and for life itself.”

The setting of the play is a home that now technically belongs to two families, one Palestinian and one Israeli. As the characters circle each other in the space, holding their grounds, we see conflict start to boil. The home is not merely where the play is set but a character in itself, fueling the discomfort of each interaction. As Safiyya puts it, “Our home is not just a place; it’s a feeling, a memory, a connection to who we are.” For the Palestinian characters, it’s all familiar yet uncomfortable. As they reach for a dream that once felt untouchable, they invite the daggering triggers of a life stripped away.

As I walked into the space to see the show, I first noticed how warm, delicate, and strangely familiar the set was (it was designed by Carlos Aceves). While an olive branch typically symbolizes the enduring resistance of the Palestinian movement, I was surprised to find no olives in sight. Instead, a delicate arrangement of jasmine flowers and pink bougainvillea plants cascaded across the set, reminiscent of the nestled alleyways in my hometown, Qalqilya, always inviting and ready to reveal their stories. It was a subtle yet humanizing deviation from the conventional symbols we are accustomed to. While the olive branch evokes the anguish of displacement, these ethereal blossoms invite the audience to reconsider preconceived notions, reminding us of the inviting warmth of home for its people.

Within the rich tapestry of Palestinian heritage, tatreez, a traditional Palestinian embroidery, also appears onstage as a serene symbol of resilience. In this context, it is more than just decorative stitching; it is visual storytelling layered with meaning and symbolism woven into intricate patterns that celebrate the beauty and richness of Palestinian landscapes. Early in the play, we see Safiyya engaging in tatreez as they return home. As I watched, I imagined all the stories Safiyya may be threading: the memory of her neighborhood, her favorite tree, the anticipation of return, the anxiety of not knowing, and the trauma of exile. The stories woven are as varied as the women who create it.

Accompanying Said and Safiyya onstage are their younger versions, Young Said (Jacob Henrie-Nafaa) and Young Safiyya (Diala Al-Abed). They appear in the story to give context to the past, and carry themselves among the scenes as a haunting shadow of memory lingering above their minds. In one scene, we see this physically represented, as Said and Safiyya sit in chairs, about to begin their return, with their younger versions standing behind them, peeking forward in anticipation of what they’ve always longed for, exuding a more buoyant, hopeful energy.

In a subtle moment, young Safiyya’s gesture of catching the wind is mirrored by her older self, as if by muscle memory. You see her return to her body in this space, where she finally finds grounding. “Two, three. These last steps to the second floor. My feet remember. Five, six, seven.” Exile strips away a part of you—a strip of memory that remains in the background of thought yet buried away lest it trigger a reality you’re not ready to face. As Safiyya revisits these memories, she embraces a version of peace she hasn’t allowed herself to access in decades, yet one that she kept safely protected within her.

The interplay between the characters and their younger selves offers a universal view of the unnerving relation we all may experience with various versions of ourselves. Within each character, identity conflict manifests as the weight of past choices shadowing the characters onstage, unchangeable and hard to escape. As they face their own memories, they berate their older or younger selves for what they know they are about to do. Most striking is the moment when Young Safiyya finds herself at a life-altering crossroads: She is forced to choose between her husband and baby boy. While Safiyya looks on at her younger self, her unheard yells echo her regrets. As she relives these traumatic moments, we follow her journey of reconciliation and the acceptance of her fate, both self-imposed and imposed by circumstance.

As this pivotal moment unfolds, the audience is shocked by Young Safiyya’s decision to leave her son behind. Although it could be perceived as merely a theatrical device, it reflects a stark reality faced by many women of war. It is a story my own great-grandmother carried after her exile from her homeland in Saffad. Amid the chaos of violence, she fled with her six children, including a newborn son, seeking refuge in Syria. In a desperate moment, she made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her infant in the desert, prioritizing the safety of her other five children as they outran danger. Fortunately, trailing behind them, my great-grandfather spotted his infant son on the desert floor, picked him up, and kept running. That baby, who later became my grandfather, was spared.

When I first heard this family story, I was taken aback at the notion of a mother giving her child up to the unforgiving desert. But, considering her five other children, the mental shock of exile, and her will to survive at all costs, her sacrifice is not as hard to conceive. Young Safiyya’s struggle resonates not with shock but empathy, as I witnessed onstage what countless mothers like her have faced: the unbearable burden of choice in the face of survival.

Lijesh Krishnan and Amal Bisharat in “Returning to Haifa” at Golden Thread Productions. (Photo by Najib Joe Hakim)

The reality of return can be grim and unsettling. If you had the choice to return to the past, knowing the rejection you might face, would you? In a moment of defeat nearing the end of the story, Safiyya exclaims, “What are you saying? That I wasted my youth, waiting for this moment? Never knowing how terrible it would be?”

For many Palestinians, the right of return represents ultimate liberation. But even if all 700,000 displaced Palestinians were returned to their 1948 homes, the truth remains that nothing can ever fully restore the life that once was. Upon their return, Said speaks of their constrained existence, bursting any romantic notions of freedom. “You’re not seeing Haifa,” he says. “They’re showing it to you. There’s a difference.”

In the play’s eerie ending, we hear an unidentifiable amplified sound, as Young Said and Young Safiyya wonder about the rumble that seems to be coming. As we watch these characters innocently anticipate the unknown, we sit in the heaviness of knowing what the next 75 years will hold. As director Samer Al-Saber put it in his director’s note: “Returning To Haifa is a story that emphasizes one of the pillars of the contemporary Palestinian condition: the right of return.” The play, then, is a reminder of where it all started, and that Palestinians have been suffering for longer than many understand.

Can we get past the starting point, though? Returning to Haifa is a story I hold close to my heart, in part due to the impact Kanafani had on my own family. But as I watched the play, I had an itching feeling that it may be time for a fresh narrative to emerge. Where is the new contemporary work that would highlight the daily struggles and micro-oppressive tactics forced onto Palestinians in the West Bank and the 15-year blockade on Gaza—narratives that often get drowned under a bigger picture? I am hoping that some of this will emerge in the remainder of Golden Thread’s Palestine season, which includes “No Summary 2024,” a digital conversation series with theatre companies in Palestine (May 24-June 14), as well as the New Threads Reading Series in July and August, and a project based on Andrea Assaf’s seminal devised work, 11Reflections: San Francisco, in the fall. I will be participating as a writer in this last workshop, devising work that breaks down the Islamophobic and dehumanizing trajectory of American media since 9/11, which led directly to U.S. support for devastating wars right up to today.

With this season and other nascent efforts, a community is being nurtured by artists to show up in solidarity with the Palestinian people to call for an immediate ceasefire, the liberation of Palestinians from oppressive conditions, and most recently, a demand for academic institutions to end affiliations that aid the Israeli military’s war on Gaza.

But Palestine is not new, occupation is not new; our oppression is not a pop-culture moment of current politics. As Golden Thread dives into this season of Palestine, we are asking audiences to look past entertainment and find stories that can reshape the discussions we’re having about the world. As we navigate these heavy times, I hope the least I can give is a spark of courage to myself and others to speak authentically about our own narratives without fear of reaction.

Because resistance is beautiful. No matter where Palestinians end up on the globe, whatever field we are in, our work, our survival, and our joy are a form of resistance in themselves. To resist is to live. Though stripped of our land and homes, Palestine lives wherever we are—including onstage.

Maya Nazzal (she/her) is an actor and screenwriter currently performing in the world premiere of The Tutor at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

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