By Ann Fink
Tales of a City by the Sea was a stunning theatrical experience. It is a many layered love story, set in the Gaza Strip. It is a unique play, written by Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian-Canadian-Australian writer, poet, playwright and political commentator; a wordsmith of great talent. It is a poetic and musical journey into the lives of ordinary people in the besieged Gaza strip prior to, during and after its bombardment in the winter of 2008-9.
Tales of a City by the Sea tells the story of Jumana, (Nicole Chamoun) a Palestinian woman, a journalist who lives in the Shati’ (beach) refugee camp in Gaza and Rami, an American born Palestinian doctor and activist who arrives on the first ‘Free Gaza’ boats in 2008. It is a story of impossible love, crossing cultural as well as national boundaries, intertwined with the parallel tale of Jumana’s cousin, Lama. (Emily Coupe)
Lama is the reluctant fiancé of an entrepreneurial local Gazan, (Reece Vella) a tunnel smuggler, a fixer, a man bereft of family, besotted with Lama, who, in turn longs for the “great romantic love” and constantly postpones any final commitment. Together Jumana and Lama look longingly out to sea, discussing the endless possibilities that lie beyond the horizon.
And then come the boats. Boats to break the blockade. And on one of those boats, in the finest romantic tradition, comes Rami, a wealthy Bostonian doctor, born in the USA to a family of Palestinian origins and a mother (Wahibe Moussa) with important connections. Wahibe Moussa is a star. As Rami’s mother, she is a force of nature. But even she cannot breach the blockade that isolates Gaza from the outside world.
Osemah Sami as Rami is suitably handsome, blissfully blind to the mores of traditional and Hamas enforced Muslim Gaza. And he wears socks with his sandals. Oi vey! Osemah Sami is simply superb as Rami.
Jumana is the adored and adoring daughter, of a not so simple fisherman (Majid Shokor) and his wife, (Cara Whitehouse) a woman who alone could terrify the IDF (according to her husband). Other children have married and live outside Gaza on the West Bank. Relationships with grandchildren can only be conducted by Skype. Cara Whitehouse and Majid Shokor play Jumana’s parents to great effect, bringing alive the pain of exile and separation from extended family, especially grandchildren
Jumana’s laptop plays a very significant and at moments, erotic role in this tragic romance.
And then there is the voice and the music. Hauntingly beautiful, exquisitely sung, the music and the poetry add another level to the writing and serve to deepen the impact of this powerful story of imprisonment, separation and finally bombardment. Assel Tayah has the voice of an angel. I have never heard any music like this. Not quite the Arab music one hears on Israeli radio. Definitely Middle Eastern in origin, but different. The program notes that the sound design is by Khaled Sabsabi and the sound mix is by Max Scholler –Root.
As this lovingly wrought, gentle tale continues, with the sea always in the foreground, the inevitable scenario turns dark. Rami returns to the USA ostensibly to close his clinic and prepare for life in Gaza. In reality, he dreams of freeing Jumana from her prison, to deliver her to a life of luxury and liberty in the USA. She has sworn never to leave her family or her country.
On December 27th 2008, Operation Caste Lead begins and the bombardment destroys Jumana’s home, kills all of Lama’s large family and brings back Rami, smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels. He works day and night as a doctor to save lives and comes at last to grips with the Gazan reality.
One month later, in the shadow of the ruins of her dreams, Lama agrees to marry her long suffering and patient fiancé. “He”, she explains to a skeptical Jumana, who is still in the throes of romantic love, “will always be a good provider. We will always have plenty to eat and he will give me a good life. Together we will build a new family.” They marry and within the year, Lama is pregnant.
Commentators often remark on the large numbers of children, educated women bear in Gaza. Samah Sabawi demonstrates exactly why this is so. As long as families are destroyed, there will always be a natural urge to rebuild them. Similar sentiments were expressed by many Holocaust survivors.
Meanwhile Rami tries to persuade Jumana that there is no future for them or their children in such a place. But she still refuses to leave. Love conquers all and again he returns to the USA to close his practice and prepare finally for a life in Gaza. On entering the US, he is arrested, charged with being a Hamas terrorist and we are left with Jumana, once again gazing out to the sea and the horizon beyond, imprisoned, but infinitely patient.
Tales from a City by the Sea is a universal story of love which crosses boundaries and checkpoints, cultures and nationalities; of grandmothers and grandfathers who will never be able to know their grandchildren, whose own children will become distant and alien. The tyranny of distance, which figures so large in the Australian experience, cannot be compared to the cruelty of the blockade of Gaza, which began in June 2007 and continues to this day, but it resonates with those who feel forever separated from their kin.
The performance, which I saw on the 23rd of November, the final afternoon of its far too short, sell out, season, at La Mama Theatre, in Melbourne, Australia, took place literally at the opposite end of the world from Gaza, a 36 hour direct flight distant. The production was an overwhelming achievement. All the components of good theatre, acting, casting, set design, dress and music all came together under the superb direction of Lech Machiewicz.
Having just flown in from Tel Aviv, the authenticity of the characters played by the actors was breathtaking. I could have sworn that Lama was the check out girl at our local supermarket and that Jumana was sitting at the table next to us at a wedding we attended in Jericho.
Nicole Chamoun, Jumana, is probably one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her acting ability matches her looks and she is already well on the way to a great career.
Emily Coupe as Lama, the chatterbox cousin, with her sexy tight jeans and hijab could be any Palestinian teenager shopping in Ramallah or on the streets of Jaffa, texting as she walks and gossips with her friends.
Lama’s fiancé, Reece Vella is uncanny in his portrayal of the non stop cigarette smoking fixer, tunnel smuggler, entrepreneur. Ubaldino Mantelli completes this multi ethnic cast, a testament to the rich diversity of Melbourne’s immigrant heritage.
The set is simple and effective. Sheets hung on receding lines to be drawn as needed. Domestic images of washing hung to dry on balconies and rooftops of apartment buildings lining the sea shore The same sea whose waves crash on the shores of Tartus in Syria, on Beirut in Lebanon, on ‘our’ beach, the Tzuk Beach in North Tel Aviv, Israel, and onto Jumana’s beach in Gaza. It is the same sea.
On November 22nd 2014, The Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Society performed a production of Tales of a City by the Sea in Bethlehem, Palestine. The production was directed by Dr.Abdelfattah Abusrour. Dr Abdelfattah Abusrour stressed the importance of this production, citing the lack of theatrical works that explore the Gaza case and Diaspora Palestinians. The play, he writes, demonstrates the role of theatre in supporting the Palestinian cultural values of beautiful resistance against the violence of occupation and its ugliness.
By Ann Fink