‘Returning to Haifa’: A ‘Depressing and Necessary Reminder of What Is Still at Stake’

Returning to Haifa — a stage production based on Ghassan Kanafani’s classic 1969 novella — is running through the 24th of this month at London’s Finborough Theatre:

By Sophia Brown

Photo by Scott Rylander.

London has seen small-scale Palestinian theatre grow steadily in recent years. Personal highlights include the superb one-man show, Taha, which tells the life of the poet Taha Muhammad Ali, written and performed by Amer Hlehel; The Siege, a Freedom Theatre production written by Nabil Al-Raee, based on the events of 2002, when Palestinian fighters sought refuge in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity; and Scenes from 68* Years, written by Hannah Khalil, which tells intimate stories about the impact of the Nakba and life under Israeli occupation.

Such productions, often taking place in small theatres with packed audiences, raise important questions about the relationship between art and politics. It goes almost without saying that the staging of Palestinian theatre is rarely a straightforward matter anywhere, given the hostility that exists on the part of the Israeli government and its supporters towards the public telling of Palestinian lives, whether the narration of the Nakba or life under occupation.

This current production of Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella, Returning To Haifa (عائد إلى حيفا), faced its own obstacles, with its original premiere at New York’s Public Theater cancelled following political pressure from the board. Similarly, the same venue withdrew from its agreed plans to stage The Siege, which was finally performed in the US over two years later, in October 2017 at NYU’s Skirball Center, amidst ongoing pressure for it to be cancelled. On a related note, the Arabic-language al-Midan Theatre in Haifa – where Kanafani’s story takes place – which is predominantly run by Palestinian citizens of Israel, has suffered from a series of crippling funding freezes from the Israeli Ministry of Culture since 2015 – with a new decision to reportedly defund the theatre announced just last week. These are merely three examples out of many.

I sensed an acknowledgement of the loaded context within which this production has finally made it to the stage in a small printout I picked up with my ticket. It described in brief the much-contested events of 1947-48 and 1967 in terms of their impact on Palestinians. That there is still the requirement – or at the very least a sense of caution –  to explain these events and the dispossession they led to is evidence of the precarious position Palestinian theatre occupies and, arguably, its need to always be aware of the possibility of hostility and ignorance in the audience. It also, surely, indicates that there is still widespread unfamiliarity with this history – in itself proof that these stories need to be told. Which begins to explain the suppression of these narratives in the first place. As is so often the case, Palestinian cultural production struggles to escape politicisation.

The Production 

Photo by Scott Rylander.

The obstacles faced by the playwrights Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi to get their adaptation off the ground struck me as particularly ironic, given Kanafani’s humane and perceptive portrayal of both sides of the conflict. Returning to Haifa tells the story of Said and Safiyya, a Palestinian couple who are driven out of Haifa during the Nakba, leaving behind their young son, Khaldun, amidst the frenzy of departure. Twenty years later, they are finally able to return to the city, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and the sudden opening of the border between the West Bank, where the couple reside, and Israel, which now controls all of historic Palestine (in addition to the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai). The action of the play – and the story – predominantly takes place in Said and Safiyya’s former home. Staged in an intimate theatre-in-the-round bathed in a deep ochre light, this setting works really well in terms of capturing the sense of intensity and, at times, claustrophobia, of the drama and its series of confrontations.

Kanafani’s novella moves back and forth between the events of 1948 and 1967, using third-person narration to reveal the private thoughts of Said and Safiyya. Given that such interior narration does not easily lend itself to being staged, I was interested to see how the playwrights would choose to recount the events and feelings of the past. What they do works exceptionally well: Said and Safiyya are both played by two actors, with the drama moving between the younger and older couple. This manages to evocatively capture the cataclysmic changes that occur, as we watch the hopefulness and energy of the younger couple, awaiting the birth of their son – who they will lose – with the full knowledge of what will come to pass. The staging of the bombardment of and ensuing chaos in Haifa is excellently done, with the younger Said and Safiyya attempting to flee their home and their older counterparts physically holding them back, poignantly demonstrating what hindsight reveals, as well as the deep despair that both characters now harbour over their departure from the city.

This back and forth between the two generations adds necessary weight to the encounter between Said and Safiyya and the two people who live in their former home. Kanafani’s willingness to explore the complexity of the conflict is evident in his creation of the character Miriam (and, to a lesser extent, her deceased husband, Iphrat, who we learn about through her recollections). Eschewing a simplistic portrayal of the enemy, Kanafani presents Miriam as a sensitive and troubled woman, who fled the Nazi Holocaust and lost her father in Auschwitz. This comes across in Marlene Sidaway’s portrayal of Miriam, who responds with a mixture of understanding, sorrow and defensiveness to Said’s anger, delivered in convincing outbursts by Ammar Haj Ahmad. The play begins to reach its climax in the couple’s horrified discovery that their son Khaldun, who has been brought up by Miriam and Iphrat, wants nothing to do with Said and Safiyya. Now named Dov and a committed soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces, he rejects his Palestinian identity and parents. I heard audible nervous laughter when Dov entered the stage in his military uniform and there was something about seeing it as opposed to reading it that palpably heightens the sense of drama and irony that Kanafani’s novella contains. A nod to this is introduced when Said notes wryly that their life has been reduced to a cheap melodrama, a line that works well to acknowledge what the audience’s laughter is a reaction to.

Following this failed reconciliation with their son, Said and Safiyya depart their former home. In one of the other standout moments of the production, Safiyya strokes her son’s face and sings briefly in Arabic to him. Irritable and visibly trying to control his emotions, Khaldun/Dov asks Said what Safiyya – restricted in her interactions with Miriam and her son due to her lack of English – is saying. Said simply replies that she is saying goodbye. This moment and the ensuing observation by Said that only another war will change the status quo that enables Miriam and Khaldun/Dov to reside in their former home is a strong ending to the encounter that has taken place. The actual ending of the play that follows is noticeably weaker. The play returns to the younger Said and Safiyya as they await the birth of their son in the shadow of the Nakba. Sound effects of a violent storm are introduced and the play ends with their sense of alarm. This felt heavy-handed, especially after the earlier sequences between the younger and older couple, which demonstrate so well the naivety and innocence of Said and Safiyya even beyond the birth of their son and right up until the day that they flee the city. A more affecting ending, I feel, would have simply shown the domestic happiness of the young couple, tragically unaware of the larger events that will soon cause them so much damage.

Watching Returning to Haifa in 2018 – in the same week that Israel’s Knesset passed a law that enables permanent residency status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to be revoked if they are deemed disloyal to the State of Israel, as well as the same week that Donald Trump welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington and announced that he hopes to attend the opening of the hugely controversial relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem – was a sobering experience. It is fifty years since Kanafani wrote Returning to Haifa. Far from being a story of dispossession and degraded circumstances that feels historical, the novella and its staging came across to me as a truly depressing – and necessary – reminder of what is still at stake, so many years later.

Returning to Haifa runs until 24 March 2018 at the Finborough Theatre. All performances are sold out, but there are limited returns available.

Sophia Brown (@sophia_stories) is currently an associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, teaching contemporary literature (in English and in translation) from Africa and the Arab world. Her research focuses on life writing, Palestine, and the politics of publishing.