By Molly Cox
Only with a great story and a great actor to deliver it can a one man, sparsely staged play be totally engrossing. Luckily, the Mosaic Theater Company’s production of the U.S. premier of I Shall Not Hate has both, and at only 75 minutes, it keeps the audience’s attention, delivering a huge emotional and philosophical wallop in its brevity.
In 2009, several of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s family members, including three of his daughters, were killed when the Israeli army shelled his home in the Gaza Strip. Moments later, he called in to a live news program, and the world heard his agony. I Shall Not Hate is an adaptation of his autobiography of the same name, and it is—as you may have guessed—incredibly sad. However, this is a play that has the power to make you a better person for seeing it, and it is a story you need to hear.
As the play opens, the stage is dark and ominous; rubble and shoes are strewn around, and two lights cause the bits of debris to cast shadows. Dr. Abuelaish (played by Israeli Palestinian actor Gassan Abbas) enters wearing a dark suit. His dialogue is projected on the back wall. Having to read subtitles during a play rather than focus on the actor is distracting, but hearing the story in Dr. Abuelaish’s own words definitely adds more than it takes away from the performance.
Even prior to his family’s catastrophe, Dr. Abuelaish’s story is remarkable. After growing up in extreme poverty in the Jabaila refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Abuelaish attended medical school in Cairo, Egypt. Afterward, he became the first Palestinian doctor to receive an appointment in medicine at an Israeli hospital, where he “delivered more babies in Israel than any other doctor.”
He later married and had eight children. Providing for his large family necessitated he often traveled abroad, and each time he left Gaza, the unease and tension he felt increased. His worst fears were realized when his beloved wife, Nadia, fell ill and was taken to an Israeli hospital. Because of regulations and checkpoints, what should have been a quick flight turned into a hellish and frustrating journey of several days. By the time Dr. Abuelaish reached Nadia, she was already unconscious, and died soon after.
In the play this scene is brilliantly executed with the aid of a suitcase that leaks black sand. As Abbas frantically crisscrosses the stage, the sand hisses to the floor as if out of an hourglass, conveying the sense that time is indeed running out as he is held up again and again by a government that views the gentle doctor as an enemy.
The attack that that killed three of his children and a niece occurred only a few months after the death of his wife. Dr. Abuelaish has never gotten clear answers about why his home was targeted (he had no connections to Hamas), much less an apology. Truly, what makes this story is so remarkable is that if anyone has reason hate another group of people, it is Dr. Abuelaish. Remarkably hate and revenge are not options he ever entertained, and choosing not to hate the Israelis enabled him to begin healing. The message of the story is clear- surely if this man does not hate, then it is possible for any of us to forgive those who have hurt us.
In the final scene, he stands in the airport with his remaining children, about to start a new life in Canada. He senses the presence of his deceased wife and three girls. They are happy, at peace, and proud of him. He hears the spirit of his daughter Aya, who had never left Gaza, rejoicing that she will finally “get to fly.”
Abbas brilliantly captures Dr. Abuelaish’s stoicism, dignity, and rationality. With a voice that manages to be deep, soft, and gruff at the same time, Abbas tells his story with unflinching precision and heart. Abbas’s portrayal of Dr. Abuelaish captures his humble but commanding presence, which endears the audience to him almost immediately. There is no doubt that Abbas was made for this role.
What the Mosaic Theater Company is doing is so important. The invaluable nature of the performing arts is unquestionable, but pieces like I Shall Not Hate are especially so. Although it is a piece about the tragic and senseless loss of life that has resulted from the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than that it is a piece about radical forgiveness. The play is part of the “Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival: The War Comes Home,” which explores various conflicts in the Middle East and how they impact the political climate in the U.S. as well. I’m excited to see more from this young theater company that has put social justice at the core of its mission.