a tiny downstairs room in San Francisco, there is a play being performed
that, in true theatrical (and San Franciscan) spirit, confronts not
one but two hot-button socio-political issues facing the world community
today. The somewhat ironically-named New Conservatory Theatre is already
known nationally for the frank exploration of homosexual themes present
in much of their work. With this new production of Salam, Shalom...A
Tale of Passion, the theatre company takes on an entirely new
explosive topic: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
born playwright, actor and dancer Saleem, (who also plays the lead
character of Nabeel in this production) won a GLAAD award, as well
as the Harvey Fierstein Award for Best Original Writing for a Stage
Production for this play, which has already provoked hope, ire and
interest in thousands during successful tours in Southern California
and Australia. Saleem and New Conservatory director Mike Ward have
now re-worked the play for a strong, intelligent and provocative Northern
setting for the first act of Salam, Shalom is the common room
of an apartment at the University of California, Berkeley. Sparks
fly from the first moments, when Palestinian native Nabeel, the college's
new visiting instructor of Arabic, is placed by the University's staff
in the apartment's second bedroom, only to find the first is occupied
by Yaron (Bradford Cooreman), PhD Candidate in Retail Marketing, and
a Jewish native of Tel Aviv. Nabeel immediately requests another assignment
of the University staff representative, the charming and bubbly Californian
Liza (Danielle Thys), but there are none to be had. Forced to learn
to live together, Nabeel and Yaron argue for awhile, but start to
open up to each other after Yaron witnesses Nabeel's speech before
the school's Arab Student group calling for a cease in Palestinian
retaliation against Israel. As they learn to get along, their attraction
to each other grows, and despite the strongly voiced objections of
Nahed (Sheri Bass) and Malik (Nafees Hamid), two members of the Arab
Student group, the roommates become romantically involved.
the intermission, the play's action moves to the Middle East, where
both roommates (now dedicated lovers) have returned home Yaron to
Tel Aviv, Nabeel to East Jerusalem. Yaron's brother David (David Kirkpatrick),
an extremely militant Second Lieutenant in the Israeli Army, is not
shy in his disapproval of Yaron's new love, but their American-born
mother Mira (Ann Kuchins), seeing her son happy, gives her uneasy
blessing to the relationship. Nabeel's traditional Palestinian father
Abdul-Kareem (Robert Cooper), told of his son's homosexual relationship
with a Jew by Malik before Nabeel returns home to explain, is unable
to confront his own shattered illusions about his son's future or
overcome his own prejudices, and practically disowns Nabeel. At first
Nabeel wants to escape back to Berkeley, but Yaron convinces him running
from their homes is not the answer. The two stay together, finding
refuge in each other, until Nabeel is jailed by David on trumped-up
incitement charges after some violent Palestinian suicide bombings.
Yaron changes his mind about running away, makes a deal with his brother
to get Nabeel released in exchange for a false confession, and buys
plane tickets back to San Francisco. But this time, it is Nabeel who
decides he must stand on his principles and protest his innocence,
even if it means sacrificing his love. He stays in jail and sends
Yaron away once and for all.
and foremost, the play is (as the full title suggests) a love story.
But Salam, Shalom so far surpasses that genre with its intensity
and socio-political philosophizing as to leave such labels and generalizations
every element, character and opinion in Salam, Shalom is balanced
by an equal and opposite parallel element, character or opinion. Act
I takes place in the tolerant, free and relatively safe society of
Berkeley; Act II takes place in the prejudiced, militaristic and relatively
hazardous community of the Middle East. At the top of the play, Nabeel
is Palestinian, open to peace but scared of his own sexuality; Yaron
Israeli, with a chip on his shoulder about peace but open in his sexuality.
David is a narrow-minded Israeli militant; Malik is a narrow-minded
Palestinian militant. Both of the parents portrayed in the play are
loving, sympathetic characters, but Mira is an open-minded, modern
mother, most concerned with her children's happiness, while Abdul-Kareem
is a closed-minded father from the old world, most concerned with
his traditions and the opinions of his society. Some want peace at
any cost, while some want revenge and their nations' superiority proven
at any cost…
perfect balance may, on one hand, be viewed as an over-simplification
of the world, yet it also provides an excellent illustration of the
true duality inherent in almost every situation. Most of the characters
in the play (and through them, the audience) face the incredible difficulty
of making one clear choice or joining one clear side, when there is
clearly no one right answer, or one clear side in the right. It simply
depends on one's point of view. If one is able to step away from their
personal prejudices and truly consider multiple points of view, this
genius of this, of course, is that it also demonstrates the beginning
of the actual solution to the entire problem of the Middle East, at
least in the eyes of the character Nabeel (and, it seems, the playwright
Saleem). Salam, Shalom postulates that if only the people of
Israel and Palestine would just let go of their own anger, pain and
self-righteousness and listen to the complaints and feelings of the
other side with an open heart and mind, the violence and conflict
would cease immediately, because each would inevitably realize the
folly of their own ways, and recognize their own pain in that of their
supposed enemy. They would realize neither one of them is more "right"
or "wrong" than the other.
the metaphor of Nabeel and Yaron falling in love, the script suggests
that peace in the Middle East can be achieved in the same way peace
is achieved between two people in a relationship. As Nabeel states:
"You conquer your enemies by winning their heart, enticing them, seducing
them, reaching out to them, and getting to know them. We all know
it works on lovers, why not try it on enemies?" Taking this idea a
step further, at one point in the first act, prior to Nabeel and Yaron's
personal ceasefire, Liza refers to their constant argument as a "masturbation
symphony," and demands that they swallow their pride and just try
to talk about anything! The implication is that argument, pride and
anger are only masturbation, and surely it would be better to "make
love" by transforming argument into discussion "social intercourse" and
finding some form of compromise...A crude metaphor perhaps, but one
that makes some sense.
so-far insurmountable obstacle to opening up the lines of communication
between the two combatant groups, of course, is the incredible prejudice
each holds against the others' religion, race, even food and culture!
This prejudice has been bred into them by their families and societies,
and by the pain, frustration and anger which has become emotional
habit after so many decades of suffering violence and aggression from
the other side. Salam, Shalom recognizes this, fully and painfully,
but refuses to accept it. The key, Nabeel tells us, is to separate
the political actions of a country from its culture, religion and
race, and people's political beliefs from their personal beliefs.
He says of Yaron, "I do not 'despise' him. I just disagree
with some of his political views. Religion and race are not the issue."
Only after this distinction is made can there be any hope of communication,
compromise and peace. Additionally, each group which is locked in
this struggle has a strong loyalty to his home, his land, his country.
The idea of loyalty to one's "home" is deeply entrenched in humans,
it seems; all the more apparently when one feels their home is threatened.
A related idea the play repeatedly questions is that of one's true
home. Is "home" merely a concept? Is it family? Is it a geographical
location? Is it physical comfort or belongings, or whatever "reminds
you who you are," as Yaron says about his family's home in Tel Aviv?
If people continue to believe they must have sole ownership and control
of the physical place they consider their home, how can compromise
between Israel and Palestine, both of which claim sole rights to one
place, ever be reached? One solution suggested in the play is that
people can find their "home" in other people, and in relationships,
rather than in loyalty to a particular place, and thereby quell their
need to fight so violently over a place. There is a telling moment
early in the play where Nabeel moves some of Yaron's Jewish totemic
objects to make room for his own Islamic artifacts. Yaron is angry
at the invasion, but when Nabeel suggests they are supposed to be
sharing the common space in the apartment, Yaron responds, "Ask
me, and I'll make some space for you." Nabeel does, and he gets his
space. In this microcosm is the suggestion that if nations exercised
some courtesy towards each other, and recognized each others' rights
to space and to respect, perhaps strife could be avoided.
in the end, this ideal is not fully realized by anyone in the play.
When Nabeel and Yaron return to the Middle East, they find that their
love alone cannot overcome the prejudice and anger of two entire nations,
and the play drives home the fact of just how difficult it is to achieve
change on a massive scale. As the script states again and again in
different ways, "Change is the key issue," and we all know change
doesn't come easily or quickly. But it must, for as Nabeel tries to
explain to the seething Malik in the play, change and adaptation are
necessary for survival. You must take your pain and learn from it,
for if you simply wallow in it, it will fester, grow and finally bury
you, and probably others.
play does have small faults. In places, the writing gets a bit clumsy,
particularly in the most opinionated political portions. (This was
most likely simply due to English being the playwright's second language,
or perhaps a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth; revisions
and extra dialogue added by the play's director.) I also found the
myriad sequences of exposition and narration, in which the supporting
characters appeared in closet-size boxes behind scrims to speak vague,
indirectly related monologues somewhat distracting and largely unnecessary.
But thanks to the sparkling sincerity of the author and the entire
cast, not to mention the intimacy of the tiny space (seating no more
than fifty in the audience), the emotional moments of connection and
conflict, along with the strong philosophical messages, consistently
ring true. The entire audience was visibly enrapt and invested in
the high stakes of the drama, and enjoyed many moments of levity in
the characters' natural humanity. The entire cast and crew deserve
great laudation for their simple and graceful telling of this complex
end, Salam, Shalom tells us that no one chooses their sexual
orientation, no one chooses who they fall in love with and no one
chooses to suffer pain and loss. But one can choose to accept
people's differences, and to learn from pain and loss, so that perhaps
we may avoid more of it in the future.
those in or near the SF Bay Area: Salam, Shalom performs
at San Francisco, CA's New Conservatory Theatre at 25 Van Ness through
October 26th, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8
o'clock PM, and Sundays at 2 o'clock PM. Ticket prices are $18-$28.
Please contact The New Conservatory Theatre Box Office at (415) 861-8972
or visit their website at http://www.nctcsf.org/
for information, directions and tickets. If you have further questions
about the playwright or would like to know more about his work, you
can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.