Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, is three one-act plays, set in the Gaza Strip, West Jerusalem, and Baghdad. The pieces were separately written and performed over five years and first combined in 2008; the play runs in Boston (Cambridge) through December 19. The first piece, “A State of Innocence” is the most ambitious. Yuval, an Israeli soldier, is a Zionist Beetle Bailey, who fell asleep on duty and was made keeper in the zoo in Rafah, southern Gaza. There he meets Um Hisham, a Rafah woman, who knows his name. He challenges her as a terrorist, and she mocks him. She has something that belongs to his mother, she tells him. They are joined by Shlomo, an Israeli architect who designs for power and thrives on ruins, who is surveying. He and Yuval place Um Hisham on Shlomo’s tool chest and circle gaily around her, enacting the “wall and tower housing model”, the “cradle of the nation” that “made the desert bloom,” crows Shlomo. From the tower, Um Hisham mocks them, seeing “only Palestinians.”
The behavior of the zoo animals, who lose parts at night, but regrow them in the day, gives Shlomo and Yuval pause. “Where are we?” they ask. They recount past Zionist and other heroics to reassure themselves, which Um Hisham criticizes knowingly. She tells Shlomo the location of some fresh ruins, which she knows intimately. He dashes off eagerly to inspect them. Um Hisham knows Yuval’s life in detail, including his tank, his unit’s destruction of the zoo, songs familiar to him, and details of his home. She reminds him of his mother’s belonging which she has. Yuval is perplexed and wary. Shlomo returns, frustrated at not being allowed to see the ruins. An Israeli soldier was killed there, and inspection is prohibited. Yuval tells Um Hisham that Palestinians are murderers. Um Hisham tells them of the killing of her daughter by an Israeli sniper. Shlomo laments noble past causes, now lacking. Yuval discovers that he didn’t want to be a soldier. It is dusk; the animals will begin their diurnal cycle. Yuval is nervous, and wants them both to leave; Shlomo does, but promises to return tomorrow, as Um Hisham knows he will. She finishes telling Yuval of his life and fate and his mother’s possession. Um Hisham is the only innocent, and the only one with knowledge. Shlomo and Yuval are guilty as can be, and innocent only of knowledge, for which they pay, forever, in a Dantean circle whose inmates dismember themselves nightly, and remember themselves daily.
The second piece, “Between This Breath and You,” is an encounter between Tanya, a 20-year old Israeli Jewish woman, and Mourid, a Palestinian man in his forties from the West Bank. It takes place in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Tel Aviv, where Tanya is a health worker. Mourid is deliberate and self-possessed, but has an urgent need to meet Tanya, to whom he has an intimate connection. This is the most important thing in his life, and gives him power over her. Tanya tries to dismiss him; the clinic is closed, he must come back tomorrow, she might call the police. She examines him briefly but finds nothing obvious. They talk past, and then to, each other. As the nature of his presumed connection becomes clear, she becomes angry, and Mourid exercises his power over her. She is stricken, recovers, flies into a towering rage, and humiliates him in a racist way. He begs her to stop. She relents, acknowledges her weakness, and is stricken again. But Mourid doesn’t want revenge, only to help her live in the unique way his connection to her allows him. Their acquaintance begins a second time, on this new basis.
This transubstantiation is mediated by the janitor, Sami, a Mizrahi (Arab) Jew in his thirties. The Ashkenazi (European) Tanya treats him like a menial, an overtone to her racism against Arab gentiles. Sami’s humility is his virtue; he is a Chaplinesque character, charming, child-like, babbling nonsense whimsically, in love with Tanya above his station, but invested with magical powers. These are revealed in a parable about fish biology which hints at the connection between Tanya and Mourid, and in his mop, which is like a magic wand, collecting all the detritus of life, and thus able to create new life, he claims. He tries with his mop to recreate the life that binds Tanya and Mourid, and mops them up and down, presaging their transformation. His magical whimsy relieves the extreme tension between Tanya and Mourid, but also highlights their transformation. Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews are fatally stricken; only by acknowledging their common life with the Palestinian Arabs can they recover; the Mizrahi Jews can aid that recovery.
The third piece, “The Retreating World,” is set in Baghdad, after the 1991 Gulf war, under the draconian US-led sanctions regime. It features a single character, Ali, an Iraqi pigeon hobbyist in his twenties. Ali carries a book, the essential artifact of civilization, but libraries are sold for a pittance, their paper is used mundanely, and Ali uses his book a comic prop. The book is an English one about keeping pigeons, which is really about keeping life, he explains. Through birds and books, Ali recounts life in Baghdad, like an eloquent mourning dove, his favorite bird. The trees die for lack of electricity and clean water in a city of three million, because the needed equipment is embargoed, so every month 5,000 birds die, small and soft and helpless, make that children, every month. Iraqis cannot write in protest to the UN because pencils are forbidden…but are the wily pigeons are stockpiling them in nests atop buildings? Ali’s grandmother, for whom he named one bird with fancy plumage, “rotted from the waist down” after developing an infection in her leg, for lack of “little pink pills of penicillin.” Fuel-air explosives, napalm, cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions containing 900 tons of radioactive waste were not embargoed under the laws of war in 1991. Ali was marching, next to his zany best friend Samir, with 700 other common soldiers, toward a US unit, hands high in surrender, when Samir and almost all the rest were massacred in a hail of fire (“this is documented”). Ali sold his childhood treasures, an aunt’s birth spoon, an uncle’s watch, before selling his books, his Arabic Shakespeare, then his English, and only then his birds, one by one, retrieving the bones from the buyers after their meals. He rattles them in a bucket, reaches in and throws out a handful, all the retreating world has left him.
The players are fully up to the play, Maria Silverman as the enigmatic, knowing Um Hisham, Dan Shaked as Yuval, the Zionist Beetle Bailey, and Ken Baltin as Shlomo, the demonic architect, in the first piece. Najla Said is a haughty, imperious, but fatally stricken Tanya, in the second piece. Ken Baltin switches from bombastic Zionist to stoic, dignified Palestinian, as Mourid. Harry Hobbs as Sami gets more out of a mop than the sorcerer’s apprentice in the old Disney animation. In the last piece, Ibrahim Miari as Ali is winsome and bitter, between anger and tearful bewilderment.
The first piece was Wallace’s response to a request to write about 9/11, not to Israel’s New Year, 2009 attack on Gaza. Wallace grasped at once that 9/11 was above all a reaction to US patronage of Israel. The play was written even before Israel dismantled its Gaza settlements and withdrew its forces from direct occupation, in 2005. Israel still controlled Gaza’s land border and coastline and airspace, and imposed a strict blockade when Gaza elected the Hamas government in 2006. Um Hisham visits the zoo for two reasons, because her daughter used to play there, and because she has something belonging to Yuval’s mother, which she acquired due to an intervention by Yuval in a raid by his unit on her family’s home. The physical premise of such an encounter ceased with the 2005 withdrawal. Morally, Yuval’s intervention, a momentary hesitation in his Zionism, serves only to emphasize its larger success. Even this tiny moral space has disappeared, no later than Israel’s 2009 attack.
The first play ends in a judgment of awful finality, which seems unmistakable, but the playwright also seems to dilute the effect. The stage directions say “playfully” where I wrote “mocks” above. Wallace acknowledges that she is an “imperial citizen,” and Um Hisham speaks like an imperial activist or academic, about “illegal settlements” and a “machine of invasion” with “many little feet” rather than like a Gazan tortured by her nightmare. The “machine with many little feet” is more a West Bank story. Gaza had a different experience, much denser with refugees, attacked more by Israel, from the 1950s on, and oppressed differently and more cruelly after 1967, especially in the past decade. Um Hisham is not a convincingly Gazan character. She is dressed in dark slacks, a paisley top, and a colorful scarf, which she removes, according to the stage directions, in the presence of two Jewish men, not a Muslim woman in devout Gaza. Another reading is that this intimacy carries over from an earlier encounter, if it is plausible, as discussed below.
Shlomo and Yuval are clearly Zionists, but Um Hisham is not clearly a national figure, when her character calls for a Muslim Mother Courage, surviving among the ruins, judging her oppressors. Shlomo and Yuval are brutal and sadistic in the “wall and tower” game, and Um Hisham calls them “lunatics,” as if they are playing a party game, where she should denounce them bitterly as “thieves and murderers.”
In describing her daughter’s killing, Um Hisham says that she died alone, and adds, in Arabic, that “for this I cannot forgive even God.” The historian Arno Mayer titled his book about the Holocaust, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The question was asked by a survivor of a pogrom during the First Crusade. “Why did the heavens not darken? Why did the stars not lose their radiance? Why did the sun and the moon not turn dark?” The divine injustice is not that Um Hisham’s daughter died alone, but that she died at all, that unspeakable crimes have been committed against the people of Palestine for decades.
Um Hisham has Yuval’s mother’s possession because Yuval and two other soldiers broke down the door of her home at 5:30 AM, to search for weapons (Yuval was apparently demoted from armor to infantry, before the final ignominy of zookeeper). After finding none the soldiers pushed her husband to the floor and began kicking him, but Yuval stopped them. After all this, Um Hisham’s first reaction was apparently not to care for her husband but to thank the soldier who stopped the beating. “I was so grateful that I made you a cup of tea.” It takes a few minutes to make tea, to boil water. In the meantime, do the soldiers give the husband first aid and put the house back together? Assume that Um Hisham poured Yuval a cup of tea, or handed him an untouched cup. Yuval has just angered his fellow soldiers by stopping their beating. Does he further provoke them by drinking his reward, or do they leave in embarrassment? As Yuval drinks the tea, a bullet from a Palestinian sniper strikes him in the head. Um Hisham comforts him while he dies, taking three minutes. “Everything I have despised for decades—the uniform, the power, the brutality, the inhumanity—and I held it in my arms.” Are the soldiers and Um Hisham’s husband drinking tea meanwhile? Or does she have a different victim to attend, and more to despise?
The Palestinians, especially in Gaza, do not need intimate encounters with Israelis to reveal their humanity. Their society is being destroyed; their lives are blighted; they are subject to savage, arbitrary violence. They are ready to believe in humanity, in relief from their endless ordeal. It takes depth and detail to dramatize such psychology. To this writer, Um Hisham’s transformation in witnessing Yuval’s last moments understates her ordeal and overstates Yuval’s gesture. As Wallace shows, the Israelis are unable to recognize their victims. Before 1967, Shlomo and his cohort built the Jewish state on the ruins of Arab Palestine, ruins they created in conquest and ethnic cleansing. Today, Shlomo eagerly surveys fresh ruins in Gaza, aware only that it is no longer heroic and idealistic as it once seemed. Yuval’s gesture is far too little and too late. Beetle Bailey avoided an onerous army task, beating Palestinians, like peeling a mountain of spuds in the canteen, with no larger reflection. Wallace conveys a vivid judgment in the end, of eternal dismembering and remembering, dying and re-living. The play is artfully written and well performed. It forthrightly depicts and condemns Israel’s oppression. But for all Wallace’s artistry and sincerity, the encounter at the heart of the play is contrived and strained. The author does not convince that she has fully entered into what is happening. By imperial standards that may be less important than a good-faith effort.
The second play is intimate, and lacks large-scale complexities, but must be considered against recent history. Israel’s Palestinian citizens are now being treated like the Palestinians in the occupied territories, as hostile foreigners, subjected to loyalty oaths, jailed for defending their rights, and killed by Israeli police, while their representatives are assaulted on the floor of the Knesset. This does not invalidate the play’s insights, but they are only a point of departure.
The 1990s Gulf war and sanctions regime treated in the third piece now looks like the first sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, in 1258. The Mongols returned to destroy Baghdad totally in 1401, as the neo-Mongols in Washington returned to destroy the entire country in 2003. Israel and its US supporters were deeply implicated in both episodes. The third piece also invites comparison with the first. In that work, Wallace elaborately devised an encounter between oppressor and victim. In the third piece, the testimony of the victim was sufficient. What explains the difference?
Such questions are part of producing, within the empire, cultural critiques of imperial policies in western Asia. There are extensive pre- and post-show talks for the audiences. The play has enduring dramatic value, and is deservedly entering the repertory. The Central Square Theater and the Underground Railway Theater company are to be commended for producing it.
Fever Chart will run in Chicago in Sept 2011, 10th anniv of … at the Eclipse Theater.
HARRY CLARK lives in Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com