Different walls

Pub date October 26, 2010
WriterRobert Avila


Palestinian perspectives are in. You know it when a major filmmaker like Julian Schnabel makes a big-budget film like Miral, based on the book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal (which recently screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in advance of a general release next year).

In many ways, though, it’s the rest of the country that’s catching up to places like the Bay Area, where Palestinian voices have long been a part of the cultural landscape. The Arab Film Festival, for instance, which just closed its 14th season, once again featured several films from and about Palestine. And this year the San Francisco International Film Festival gave us a look at Port of Memory, the latest work from Kamal Aljafari, one of the most interesting and sophisticated filmmakers to come from Palestine since Elia Suleiman.

In theater, San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions just gave a staged reading of biographical work from youth in embattled Gaza called The Gaza Monologues. For years, Golden Thread has produced works incorporating the Palestinian perspective amid a mass culture overwhelmingly slanted toward the more powerful side in a basically colonial project. And currently Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts bring the diasporic repercussions of Palestinian dispossession center stage in Habibi, a new play from a new Palestinian American theatrical voice, Sharif Abu-Hambeh.

Habibi makes its debut as the second offering in a trio of world premieres at Intersection by first-time playwrights (the first having been Chinaka Hodge’sMirrors in Every Corner). Directed by Omar Matwally, Abu-Hambeh’s play weaves together two distinct storylines that attempt to capture the inter-generational confusion and displacement experienced by assimilating Palestinian immigrants in the Bay Area. That confusion can regrettably transfer to the play itself, whose intentional deployment of ambiguity ends up, at least to some extent, being merely fuzzy rather than thought-provoking. But the ideas here are at times intriguingly subtle and the effort a promising one. Moreover, Matwally and Campo Santo give the play a strong production with various charms along the way.

At the center of this double helix of a narrative is young Palestinian American Tariq (a coolly vital and engaging Aleph Ayin). Tariq shares a small Mission District apartment and even — talk about family overload — a single bed with his loving but paternalistic father, Mohammed (a stern, sympathetic Paul Santiago). The deliberate and routine-loving Mohammed — who unlike his Americanized son speaks in accented English — is a museum guard with a strong work ethic that he’s trying, unsuccessfully, to instill in his slacker offspring. Tariq, for his part, has just happily shed his menial job at a local café and is in no hurry to find a new one. His absent mother (Nora El Samahy) apparently left them some time before, though she reappears at one point in his imagination.

This father and son dynamic, familial and almost too familiar, comes intercut with a public talk by a high-class museum curator (a sharp and funny El Samahy, dressed by costume designer Courtney Flores in esteem-grabbing Manhattan chic and sporting a very respectable English accent), who leads us through a slide lecture on the great art heists of the last century. Her talk, avid but meandering, is interrupted by simultaneously exasperating and guilt-producing phone calls from her terminally ill father, and a consequent tendency to wander into ruminations farther afield — summoned for us in pictures of dispossession that float by on the screen behind her (in video projections designed by Aubrey Millen).

Maybe these wayward ruminations aren’t so far afield after all, we come to suspect, as her theme of cultural theft warms up to its own complexities and encourages us to consider the nature of cultural transmission, loss, and hybridization in the life-and-death circumstances of exiled populations. This idea deepens as Tariq’s raucous and rebellious spirit extends to breaking into the curator’s monologue, and even smashing the fourth wall to confront us, her audience. Tariq also has a unique tendency to narrate his own actions, a self-conscious conceit that can be productive at times, especially of humor, and works as an indirect aside to the audience.

By the end, the two narratives come even closer together through a rash act of Tariq’s father that trades disastrously on the concept of family heirlooms, or the physical symbols of patrimony and place. The climax arrives too hastily, and its potential impact is muted. At the same time, the play’s departure from the more universal, shopworn gestures of “melting pot” tales verges on something rare and coruscating.


Thurs.–Sun., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 7; $15–$25

Intersection for the Arts

446 Valencia, SF

(415) 626-2787