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Brownstein: Jewish and Palestinian alliance sets the stage at Blue Met

Brownstein: Jewish and Palestinian alliance sets the stage at Blue Met
Brownstein: Jewish and Palestinian alliance sets the stage at Blue Met

Playwrights Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi. "For most major Western theatres, tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one of the remaining thematic taboos," Orlov says. "These are issues we've had to confront." Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

They assembled a book together over a two-year period. They share similar hopes and values. Yet this encounter at an N.D.G. coffeehouse marks only the second time Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi have met in the flesh.

But there will be many more get-togethers in the weeks to come. One of the more highly anticipated events at next week’s Blue Metropolis literary festival will be the April 29 discussion, Bridging the Diaspora Divide, wherein Orlov and Sabawi will be expounding on their groundbreaking anthology, Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas. The two playwrights — one Jewish, the other Palestinian — have edited and published what happens to be the first-ever English-language anthology of works by Jewish and Palestinian writers.

This anthology, focusing on the Israeli/Palestine conflict, features three plays written by Jewish playwrights, including Orlov’s Sperm Count, and three by Palestinian playwrights, including Sabawi’s Tales of a City by the Sea, as well as one co-written by a Jew and a Palestinian. The collection also has interviews with the playwrights exploring challenges they faced in writing and staging their work.

The lack of previous encounters doesn’t relate to any anti-social issues. Though their ideals are in sync, their backgrounds couldn’t be more diverse. Orlov is a Boston-born Jew living in Montreal, and Sabawi is a Gaza-born Palestinian Muslim living in Melbourne. Through the magic of email and Skype, Orlov and Sabawi managed to deal with the complexities of bringing their project to fruition.

‘Mutual respect’

“Anything is possible in this digital era,” Orlov says. “I was surprised how quickly, through Skype and media, we were able to bond on our work. We were blessed. It was based on mutual respect.”

“It’s not really so easy,” the smiling Sabawi counters. “He really struggled with Skype the first seven times before getting it right.”

“You’re exposing all my weaknesses,” Orlov shoots back.

 “No, really, it’s been just wonderful,” Sabawi says, “not just having him as a co-editor, but as someone I’ve learned so much from over this period.”

The process began when Orlov pitched the idea of Double Exposure to Playwrights Canada Press.

“This has never been done before: plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jewish-Palestinian relations, in which all the writers reside in the diasporas in five continents. They went for it, but I soon realized that I needed a Palestinian co-editor, and preferably a woman,” Orlov says.

So he conducted a search and found Sabawi, who had been living in Ottawa prior to moving to Melbourne. They read each other’s plays and hit it off — on the digital front — and an alliance was formed.

“It’s been a fantastic journey for both of us,” Sabawi says. “There are many Jewish and Palestinian writers working on all sorts of things together, and there is a fantastic space, be it social media or on the ground, where we see what is a co-struggle with Jewish and Palestinian people working side by side.

“At the same time, I wouldn’t have been involved in anything that would have been a normalization project, where Palestinians and Israelis were presented as two equal sides — because they’re not … That’s where I believe a shared homeland becomes the only logical solution … I always see the light at the end of the tunnel. If I don’t see it, then I wouldn’t want to live this life.”

Expect criticism

Orlov is abundantly aware that he and other Jewish writers could feel the wrath of some for views not necessarily endorsed by the community.

“The issue of being criticized for opposing the occupation — this is a terrain that progressive Jewish writers have to walk on,” Orlov says. “There are countless examples of attacks from the right about staging works that are critical at all of Israel, and particularly of Diaspora writers. Yet there are a fair number of Israeli playwrights who do this. But for Diaspora writers to hang out our ethnic laundry — it’s a taboo.

“Also, in the Western world, for most major Western theatres, tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one of the remaining thematic taboos. These are issues we’ve had to confront.”

Orlov’s dramedy Sperm Count uses male infertility as a multi-layered metaphor dealing with relations between Jews and Palestinians. Sabawi’s Tales of a City by the Sea is a love story, set in Gaza, and provides a window into the lives of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

“What really cemented our (alliance) was reading each other’s plays, and that’s what set the initial trust in terms of our artistic vision and what we felt theatre should do in terms of promoting peace and social justice,” Orlov says. “Of course, we had so many roadblocks on both sides, but it still managed to come together.”

“We can all work together with mutual respect, an ability to listen, an ability to accept that not everyone is going to agree on everything that you’re going to say — but just not to the point where we would allow a misconception to pass,” Sabawi says. “It’s all about communication.”

Orlov adds: “Theatre is the most visionary of all performing arts. Our role as dramatists is to shed a light on the dark shadows of the past and the firestorms of the present in order to contribute to a better world in the future.”

AT A GLANCE

Bridging the Diaspora Divide, a discussion featuring playwrights Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi and being moderated by Montreal Gazette theatre critic Jim Burke, takes place at Blue Met, on April 29 at 1:30 p.m., at Hotel 10, Salle Godin, 10 Sherbrooke St. W. Details: bluemetropolis.org

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