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The Age of Terror
By Terry Stoller

Talking to Terrorists
The Arab-Israeli Cookbook

By Robin Soans
Royal Court Theatre, London
The Tricycle Theatre, London


It was less than a week after the attempted second bombing of London’s transportation system that I went to the Royal Court to see Robin Soans’s documentary play Talking to Terrorists. Nerves were raw all over London. Many London theaters were conducting bag searches. The Royal Court went one step further. It required patrons to check anything larger than a small handbag. Perhaps the management felt that the very title of the production might inspire violence. But while the theater management was being pragmatic in the face of a contemporary crisis, the artists were acting as humanists. The play had been a year in the making, and director Max Stafford-Clark, in an April interview with the BBC, said Talking to Terrorists was meant to be an antidote to journalism’s focus on horrific events. It was intended to present the context and to separate the people from the acts. The idea that one must talk to terrorists and listen to them is more than the inspiration for the project; it's also a dictum repeated in the play.

Onstage, we are introduced to the stories of former terrorists. They include an ex-member of the Irish Republican Army, an ex-member of the Kurdish Workers Party and an ex-head of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who was deported to Ireland after the siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002. Enlisted into the various organizations as youths, they recount their initiation into the ranks of the terrorist groups. An African girl was fleeing violence at home; a young Irishman was following in his grandfather’s footsteps; a Palestinian, whose childhood games included throwing stones at pretend soldiers, was protecting his home and family. In addition to the words of the ex-terrorists, there was testimony from an Archbishop’s envoy who had been held hostage in Lebanon, a British ambassador to Tashkent who had lost his post partly because he protested torture and the violation of human rights in the war on terror, and survivors of an IRA bombing—29 characters in all.

Writer Robin Soans and director Stafford-Clark are experienced in documentary drama, also known as verbatim theater in England, separately and as collaborators. The production was fast-paced and imaginatively staged on a minimalist set of rectangular concrete slabs, a couple of doors and a table and chairs. It’s common in verbatim theater to intercut the testimonies, a technique that allows for an overall linear structure and breaks up what might otherwise be long monologues. In this play, however, the intercutting created some confusion, with jarring jumps in time, place and event. And the practice of having actors take on multiple roles compounded the confusion for me. An actress with a thick non-British accent played two young girls—one an African who had been kidnapped and forced to become part of a rebel band, the other a Bethlehem schoolgirl, whose testimony was based on a published diary. In performance, I didn’t realize until I checked the program that these were two different girls.

With the London opening coming so soon after 56 people had been killed and hundreds wounded by suicide bombers, some critics found it difficult to empathize with the play’s terrorists. Stafford-Clark defended the play’s intention and reiterated in the pages of Time Out the importance of letting terrorists have their say. I’m not sure that in the middle of a trauma it’s possible to be understanding about why people turn to violent acts, although the audience paid rapt attention. As an American, I was offended by the end of the play. It was taken from the Bethlehem schoolgirl’s diary, in which she writes that the deaths of Americans in the Twin Towers made her happy because it was Americans’ turn to suffer. The published script ends with her saying: “I could see many thousands of them die. I wouldn’t feel a thing.” By the time of the Royal Court performance, however, that statement had been softened somewhat; the girl added that she blamed the U.S. government, not the American people. The production ended with mournful sounds of Middle Eastern chanting, making it clear to me where the artists’ sympathies lay.

Another verbatim play by Soans, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, was presented in July at the Tricycle Theatre in north London. It’s about coping with terrorism as part of everyday existence and features more than 40 characters. In a variety of Arab and Israeli kitchens, wonderfully designed for the multiple uses by Ben Stones, the characters cooked, gave recipes for stuffed zucchini and hummus, described the history of the Arab dish fattoush, and served up treats. At the same time, in dark counterpoint, they talked about the horrors of terrorist attacks, mourned the loss of loved ones, and spoke of the hardships they bore as well as their fierce commitment to that small piece of land in the Middle East.

As in Talking to Terrorists, the actors spoke directly to the audience, making us bear witness to their stories. There were light-hearted moments too. In the intimate space of the Tricycle’s courtyard auditorium, actors played with the audience, to its delight, offering a luscious olive and showing a prize collection of alcohol.

The stories of the daily struggles of Arabs and Israelis were gathered in 2003 by Soans along with directors Tim Roseman and Rima Brihi, who first mounted the production at London’s Gate Theatre in 2004. The piece tries to be evenhanded, presenting points of view from both sides. I was particularly moved by the elderly Palestinian couple who chose to stay close to home rather than suffer the humiliations of being stopped and searched at Israeli checkpoints. In another Palestinian household, a family kept the memory of a son eerily alive by watching a video of his struggle against the Israeli army during the intifada, afterward viewing the footage of his funeral. An Israeli bus driver, movingly played by actor Nicholas Woodeson, talked of being haunted by guilt for having followed security regulations on the day of a suicide bombing, which meant that he ignored his instincts and didn’t stop to help a driver whose bus had just exploded. His guilt was deepened by the knowledge that his bus might have been the one that was bombed had he not been two minutes late to work that day.

The play ends with the completion of a chicken dish that’s going to be served with a pomegranate-and-fig salad—and a prayer for peace. It’s true that The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, with its life-affirming emphasis on food, was easier to appreciate than Talking to Terrorists, with its focus on rage and despair. But both productions importantly offered multiple points of view of what it’s like to live in the age of terror.


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