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Tennis in Nablus, by Ismail Khalidi
Anti-Zionist message spoils good play
Sunday, January 31, 2010
From 1936-39, Arabs revolted against the British mandate in Palestine. Under that backdrop, a new piece of historical fiction called “Tennis in Nablus” has been brought to the stage of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater.

Although historians have disputed the concept of “Palestinian” identity as a modern invention, the play depicts a “Palestinian” movement with “Palestinian” leaders in 1939 chaffing under twin evils of British rule and a Zionist land grab.

The drama opens after a roguish “Palestinian” rebel Yusef is freed from two years of British imprisonment on the island of Seychelles. Yusef quickly splashes back into the political scene of Palestine by stealing the uniform of and impersonating a British officer, then hosting a comical Arab eggplant peddler who happens to be smuggling arms for the revolt.

Yusef’s theft of the British uniform prompts an angry visit by feckless Lt. Douglas Duff. Tensions escalate at Yusef’s home, ultimately leading to Yusef’s re-arrest. Yusef’s nephew, a well-to-do Arab businessman named Tariq who wants nothing to do with the revolt, is also caught up in the sweep of the house.

Next we meet General Falbour, a crude racist windbag in charge of British troops in Nablus. Although advertisements and the program for the play emphasize the “humanity and complexity” and of life in Palestine, there is nothing nuanced about Falbour--he is a caricature developed by Ismail Khalidi (who won the national Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition last year for this script) to put Western foreign policy in the worst possible light.

To make sure the audience understands that Falbour and British officialdom are inherently racist, Falbour gets ready for a costume party by donning an African warrior headdress and blackface. When Lt. Duff tells the general that the costume party isn’t until later in the week, Falbour removes the African apparel but leaves on the blackface. Falbour goes on to make a series of anti-Semitic slurs. Later on, in an absurd and offensive effort to convey alleged and baseless fascist sympathies of 1930s Britain, Falbour even dresses up in semi-tribute as Adolph Hitler.

While being detained Falbour’s “dungeon,” Yusef is abused by the prison guards at night. Yusef falsely tells his interrogators that Tariq is a bankroller for the Arab revolt. Tariq’s connections among British and Jewish business and political circles suddenly become useless to Tariq, and as the allegation spreads beyond the prison, Tariq becomes regarded by Arabs and British alike as a terrorist financier.

Tariq and Yusef are forced to be ball boys (“like monkeys”) while Falbour and Duff play tennis. It’s this dehumanizing treatment, and the support of protestors that Yusef and Tariq elicit from the Arab street, that combine to radicalize Tariq into a new supporter of the revolt. Tariq promises his uncle that, if released, he will in fact become a financier of the Palestinian cause.

Although Yusef may have the most lines, the story is essentially Tariq’s, and is about his journey from collaborator to resistor. (There is also a significant storyline about Yusef’s wife, who writes opinion pieces under an assumed name to stoke the Palestinian uprising.) In this way, the play makes a hero out of one of the first bankrollers of Palestinian terror.

The anti-Israel political message of “Tennis in Nablus” is one-sided and may be upsetting for Jewish audiences. The Arab characters stress that they perceive the Jews as their “cousins” who have been warped by their experiences in the European countries they have fled to resettle in Palestine. That is how the playwright unsuccessfully attempts to convince us that the Arab revolt had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but rather that it was all about Palestinian nationalism, local property ownership, and political independence.

The thinly veiled comparisons to the contemporary U.S. presence in Iraq are also troubling for this American reviewer. Yusef’s banishment to Seychelles is a metaphor for Guantanamo Bay, Falbour’s prison is a shot against Abu Ghraib, and the depiction of British officers (who intentionally mispronounce “Arab” like “A-rab,” rhyming with Ahab), is intended to demonstrate the insensitivities, heavy-handedness, and ignorance of an occupying Western power.

Despite its skewed politics, “Tennis in Nablus” succeeds as drama. The characters are engaging; the dialogue is often humorous and delivered with pitch-perfect comedic timing by a rock solid cast of actors. The play is well-paced and successfully maintains a light mood despite the serious subject matter. The set design, sound effects, lighting are all excellent.

Demosthenes Chrysan is exceptional in the role of Yusef, exuding force and irreverence as a charismatic fighter for his people and their cause. Bhavest Patel and Suehyla el-Attar stand out for very strong performances as Yusef’s nephew and wife. Bart Hansard, on the other hand, lost an opportunity to bring any nuance to the role of Gen. Falbour, and instead either chose or was instructed by director Peggy Shannon to be the butt of a venomous anti-British joke.

The cast received a standing ovation at the performance I attended, which I can only hope was applause for the quality of the acting and not the political message of the play.

“Tennis in Nablus” opened on Friday night and will run through February 21.

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