To be hungry for representation means that you will seek to see yourself reflected anywhere, so you will enter (of your own accord) into what you know will be a house of mirrors, where distorted reflections will stare back at you, follow you, pretend to be you, make money in saying they really are you. And you will fork out your money to see these strange reflections of yourself, you will spend hours of your time contemplating them, thinking about them, even when you are sickened or amused (or both) at how wrong they are. And then you will leave the house of mirrors, and people who do not know you will look at these caricatures and warmly applaud them as genuine, complex, hopeful, challenging, inspiring, moving, humanizing, humane.
I grew up reading, watching, listening to everything that was available to me that was vaguely related to Arabness or Muslimness. I remember, at eleven, picking up a book which had on the cover an angry looking Arab man in a headdress carrying a rifle. This was for a while the only novel in my school library about the Arab world. I read it and felt shaky and angry and did not have the words to explain what I was feeling. And a few years later, I watched 24, Homeland, all those War on Terror shows, because the need to know what was being represented as us was still there. Even now, I continue to seek out, compulsively, any representations I can find.
This was what drove me to go and see Tariq Jordan’s new play Ali and Dahlia. I did not do much research: I read this article, and this article, and I thought, a playwright who identifies with both his Jewish and Arab heritage sounds intriguing, and I thought maybe, possibly, there was hope for some nuanced representation of Palestinians.
Well. Let me preface what’s to come by saying that this is not intended as an “objective” review, but as my subjective experience of this play. And there are spoilers, just to give you fair warning (although I would give this one a miss for your mental health).
There were three actors, Waj Ali playing Ali, Deli Segal playing Dahlia and Kai Spellman playing several roles including Ali’s interrogator and Dahlia’s brother Asher. The scene in which Dahlia and Ali first meet is quite something. It involves Dahlia bravely standing up to Ali and his slingshot and then being precociously intelligent while Ali gawks at her and attempts to win her favour with buffoonish desperation. That sets the tone for much of the play. Ali vacillates between love-struck buffoon and some Arab pride posturing that allows for the all too expected twist at the end.
Ali’s favorite book is, wait for it, Alf Leila w Leila and specifically Aladdin. And then Dahlia tells him about Shakespeare, and he says, “Sheikh Sbeir, he is a sheikh?” This got a hearty laugh from the audience. In case you were wondering, yes, Romeo and Juliet is referenced, with Ali practising his memorisation of Sheikh Sbeir while Dahlia coaches him patiently. Later, Ali begs to be made “Jew-ish” and then parrots prayers like he is Tarzan to Dahlia’s civilizing Jane. Ostensibly, the begging to be made Jewish is for “transportation purposes”. However, that pragmatic line does not account for Ali’s constant pleading with Dahlia not to leave him. It does not account for the quite unbelievable line that he finds Dahlia in her soldier uniform “sexy.” It does not explain his saying that he wants to go to Jaffa no longer to see the old house that belonged to his family but just in the hope of bumping into the wondrous Dahlia.
This play comes complete with a shoot-and-cry scene, in which Dahlia sobs as she recalls that time when as a soldier she had to fatally shoot a Palestinian girl who was carrying a knife, who was hellbent on murder like the murderous child she was (for no apparent reason or no reason we are given). And Dahlia had gifted this girl with a book, just days before, out of the goodness of her heart.
Why do you teach your children to hate? Why do you make us shoot your children?
There are no Palestinians telling their stories of being shot at because the two people telling the shooting-at-Palestinian stories are Dahlia and Asher, because Asher too, of course, has a traumatic moment in which he is expected to shoot at a shepherd in the buffer zone.
Ali’s backstory involves a vague forbidding father-figure and a dead mother, without substance or emotional weight. No other Palestinian women are mentioned: the dead mother and the murderous girl, that is what Palestinian womanhood amounts to. In fact, Ali is really the only Palestinian we get to know. And there are several references to Ali fearing for his life from the brutal Palestinians who would string him up if they found out about his relationship with Dahlia.
Meanwhile, Dahlia has wonderful understanding parents, who though they do not appear on stage, are fully fleshed out as people wanting the best for their daughter. Her brother is not so understanding about Ali, but then we understand his lack of understanding because we’ve followed his traumatising soldierly experience.
Towards the end, the old key to the Palestinian house appears as a symbol, because no cliché was spared, and really, perhaps this is all there is to say about this play: Ali wants to give his key to Dahlia, for “safekeeping.”
I went to see the play with a friend, Fatima Ahdash, and I apologised afterwards for not doing enough research and dragging her along. But there was more to come — because what we had just seen was somehow not enough to tell us we had naively entered a space that was never meant for us, that this work featured an Arab character but certainly was not intended for an Arab audience.
Having given up on the play, Fatima glanced at her phone once or twice during the performance, checking updates on the rapidly developing news from Libya, which is what we had been talking about and worried about just before we got to the theatre. Maybe three quarters of the way in, as the play got increasingly worse, we looked at our watches to see how much more of this we had to endure. When Ali gave Dahlia the key to his family’s house in Jaffa, I could not help shaking my head in sheer disbelief.
And for these infractions, we were duly scolded. Fatima was hissed at to put her phone away during the performance, and after the show, a couple came up to her belligerently and asked if she didn’t think she was rude and demanded she apologise for detracting from their experience of the performance. Fatima tweeted her own account about this incident yesterday, read that here.
It was, if we had needed one, a reminder that this space was never meant for us, but for people who wanted a feel good story, and our “bad behaviour” had disturbed their feel good feelings.
The experience as a whole was like someone stepping with you into that hall of mirrors and demanding you pay some respect to the distorted caricature. What a genuine, complex, hopeful, challenging, inspiring, moving, humanizing, humane portrayal. Applaud, watch the actors take a bow, walk out shaking.