Returning to Haifa is as much a powerful symbol as it is poignant stagecraft. The production was originally commissioned by New York’s Public Theater but was shut down after facing political pressure from the theatre’s board. The play is an adaptation of a novella by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani which describes the experience of a Palestinian couple who return to their old home in Haifa (currently part of Israel), to find a son who swears allegiance to the other side.
Given the existing dynamics between Palestinians and Israelis, one must applaud the creative team of writers Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi, and director Caitlin McLeod, for championing this work and Finborough Theatre for taking it on. Its debut showing in London is timely as it coincides with the 70th anniversary of an exodus of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Hence, even before it leaves the gate, Returning to Haifa has momentum. And it is Kanafani’s text that propels it yet more forward. Wallace and Khalidi retain much of his poetic language, and make the smart choice of having both the younger and older versions of the couple, Safiyya and Said, appear simultaneously. Seeing two timelines – 1948, when the couple is forced to flee their home; and 1967, when they return after the borders are opened – adds richness to the play.
In one instance, faced with explosions and chaos on the streets, a young Said (Ethan Kai) tries to find his way home but is restrained by his older self (Ammar Haj Ahmad). Their struggle can be read as a depiction of Said’s accumulated feelings of regret and guilt. We see a similar conflict play out when the older Safiyya (Myriam Acharki) screams at her younger self (Leila Ayad) not to leave the five-year-old infant. The older characters can’t help their younger selves, even if they want to.
Kanafani’s writing makes the audience feel acutely for the Palestinian couple who have been locked out of their homeland for two decades. Yet the play avoids offering easy answers, keenly showing there are two sides to every story. On stage, a drawn curtain is used cleverly to visually demonstrate this. When the couple knock on their former front door, only half the audience see them. The other half see the new occupant, Miriam, an elderly Jewish lady. Miriam has her own version of what happened: she escaped Poland to avoid persecution and was given chance to start anew in Haifa.
Then there is Khaldun, Said and Safiyya’s son. Except he is now Dov, the Israeli soldier. Two opposing sides, embodied in one person. Added to this is Said and Safiyya’s unseen younger son, Khalid, who wants to be a Palestinian fighter.
Given the circumstances, the resulting family reunion is surprisingly tame. Kai, who is excellent as a young Said, plays Khaldun/Dov as cold and impenetrable. He refuses to acknowledge his birth parents, accusing them of being cowards for leaving him behind. While we understand how circumstances could have hardened him, it is not dramatically exciting to watch.
Wallace and Khalidi could have benefitted from being less faithful to Kanafani’s text. A line like: “All the tears in the world won’t carry even a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child,” is better read than it is uttered. The play’s ending also feels unfinished. When the couple exit, Miriam says “You can’t leave like this. We haven’t talked about it enough,” and I find myself agreeing with her. But perhaps this is intentional – the ending echoes the unresolved situation of life for the Palestinians.
Despite its faults, Returning to Haifa is a beautiful and important play portraying the personal tragedies created because of much bigger acts between humans. No matter what our politics are, we should acknowledge that some actions make others feel small and powerless. By seeing things from the other side, perhaps we can gradually work towards a better future.
Returning to Haifa is on until 24 March 2018 at the Finborough Theatre. Click here for more details.