Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Diverse Prisms: Bridging the Diaspora Divide with Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi

It was a happy and social crowd that convened at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday afternoon.  It was not an atmosphere one might expect at a reading concerned with the conflict in Israeli-occupied Palestine, but negativity was not going to be the theme in that room.  As people filed in, Samah Sabawi and Stephen Orlov, the two playwrights who were editors and contributors for the book in focus; “Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas” mingled with the crowd, sharing hugs and handshakes.  After anyone settled and the perfunctory introductions were made, the event host Arthur Milner; also a contributor to the book, stood at center stage rather than behind the podium to make his preamble, personable and up-front, setting the tone to what was already off to a very good start.

First up was a reading of Samah’s play “Tales of a City by the Sea”, featuring a passage wherein the two main characters; an engaged couple named Gomana and Rami debate whether they should stay in the conflict-riddled Gaza Strip where Gomana has grown up or leave for the safety of the United States which Rami calls home.  The passage, although read by the actors from sheets of paper in their hands, was ripe with the conflict of loyalty to heritage versus self-preservation.  Next, Samah and Stephen themselves read through a passage from Stephen’s play “Sperm Count”.  It was exquisite to watch Samah, the Palestinian portray the Jewish woman asking for a controversial new treatment that may help her become pregnant, and Stephen, the Jewish man portraying the Palestinian doctor who is refusing it.  It really solidified the whole spirit of the event.

Next the panel discussed the impetus of the project.  Stephen told the audience that it was the first time Palestinian and Jewish playwrights have collaborated on a project such as this to address the conflicts happening in the Middle East.  Samah added that it was wonderful to connect with Stephen through the internet, although it took some time for Stephen to catch up with the new technologies, a comment that drew some hearty laughter from the crowd.  They discussed the use of diaspora playwrights in the anthology to give voices to the Palestinians who cannot return to the country that has opened its arms to another ethnic group and made it their homeland.  They also illustrated the fact that those who had left the Middle East had a more worldly and subjective view on the conflict.  As Stephen so eloquently put it, diaspora artists had a “diverse prism” through which to project the conflict, one that would be helpful in finding ways to create peace after years of destruction.

The panel was then asked to recount the difficulties they had with presenting their plays in an atmosphere that has been so sensitive to the subject.  Both playwrights could say with confidence that the dissent they endured came only from uneducated prejudice, from people that never even bothered to see the plays.  With all the controversy surrounding the topic however, Samah and Stephen were proud to explain that reception for the project has been enthusiastic.  They told the audience of the positive atmosphere they encountered at a similar reading in New York, how attitudes are changing, welcoming dialogues to start and ideas to flow on how to bring about positive change.  Given the open camaraderie on the stage, and the open appreciation from the crowd, it looked like they were all headed in the right direction and the message of positive collaboration was being heard loud and clear.