Israeli and Palestinian shed their armor in ‘Desert Sunrise’

Even as a Hollywood vision of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays with much farce and caricature in Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a more serious and tragic look at the situation will grace the smaller stage at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood, with the West Coast premiere of playwright Misha Shulman’s “Desert Sunrise.”

The play opens in the south Hebron hills in the West Bank with Tsahi, an off-duty Israel Defense Forces soldier (Oren Dayan), pointing his gun at Ismail, a Palestinian shepherd (Dominic Rains). Having just broken up with his settler girlfriend, Tsahi is lost and seeking a way back to the main road. Ismail, waiting for his Muslim Palestinian girlfriend, Layla (Miriam Isa), is the only one who can help Tsahi find his way.

At first suspicious of one another, the foes gradually open up with both rhetoric and humor. Eventually, their shared love and distrust of women reveal their more human bond.

“A collision cracks open bias and fear so that they’re left with no choice but to experience each other in a purer state — stripped of their usual armor of politics, religion and even personal history,” director Ellen Shipley said during a rehearsal break. Shipley is best known for her work as a songwriter, having written Belinda Carlisle’s hit, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” among others.

Seeking to take a break from songwriting to return to her theater roots, the Brooklyn-born director discovered the play through theater professor and director Michael Rutenberg, who taught both Shipley and Shulman at Hunter College.

“I cried when I read it. I felt so much,” she said. “Everything opened up to me — as a director, as a human being, as a Jew. I felt compelled that this is something I should do, and that I would have a perspective on it that’s different from Misha’s.”

Shulman, 30, directed the 2005 New York run to critical acclaim. Born in Jerusalem to American parents, he has made his home in New York after completing IDF service and enjoyed his first professional success as a playwright with “The Fist,” a play about an IDF “refusnik” (conscientious objector).

“Desert Sunrise” was inspired by his father’s memoirs of expeditions to visit Palestinian cave dwellers in the Hebron hills with the peace activist group, Ta’ayush. Shulman followed his father’s footsteps to get better acquainted with the region.

“I would have never written this play had the people of the south Hebron hills — the Palestinian cave dwellers — had they not refused to turn to violence,” Shulman said in a phone interview.

Shipley has never been to Israel, but she spent time researching the conflict and Israeli and Palestinian culture.

“It’s an interesting experience as an Israeli to write a play that’s culturally specific — about the Middle East, with music and dance, Hebrew and Arabic — and hand it over to an American who’s less familiar with the region, and to see how what I was doing could maybe be better translated to an American mentality,” Shulman said.

Shipley chose to work with a cast of young, multiethnic actors — younger than in the original production. “There’s an element of innocence that allows them to open up to each other,” Shipley said.

Dayan, 21, grew up in Tarzana to Israeli parents. He speaks fluent Hebrew, but spent time with his Israeli friends to perfect an Israeli accent. The play has given him more insight into the Palestinian side of the conflict. “I was obviously more biased to the Israeli side, only because I was less familiar with the other side. Through the process of working on this play and learning about the cave dwellers, it opened my eyes to a world where there is nobody who is really right.”

Rains’ Persian accent is real. The 26-year-old left Iran with his parents at a young age. He moved to Los Angeles from Texas several years ago to pursue an acting career. He took a break from his role on the soap opera, “General Hospital,” as Dr. Leo Julian to “commit myself to something that didn’t have to do with me, and more to something else.”

Born to a Muslim family but not a practicing Muslim, he and Dayan are now good friends, spending time together offstage. “I haven’t been around many Israelis,” said Rains. “It’s been a nice experience to be with these wonderful people.”

The play has also become a tool of self-discovery for actress Isa, 25, born in Florida to a Cuban mother and Lebanese father in a household that taught “everything, from atheism to Christianity.”

“Throughout my childhood I ran away from my Middle Eastern side,” Isa said. “Then I got cast in this play, where I’m forced to immerse myself in the culture — and it’s the most amazing thing. Now, at 25, I have a pride for my Middle East side that I didn’t have before.”

To prepare for the role, she tried to assume the mind of a female Palestinian militant oppressed by tradition, society and political systems. Offstage she wore a hijab and attended mosque services. She specifically refrained from seeing “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” so she could stay true to her character. She has learned to see the angry, violence-prone Layla as “a human being who has her tragedy, her struggle, her ideals, her zeal — that’s what she died for. She now has a story.”

This kind of deeper understanding is what Shipley hopes to draw from her audience.

“What interests me more is what happens to these three people — it’s much more fundamental, the need for connection, the need to be seen for who we are, to be accepted, forgiven, to be loved,” Shipley said. “It asks the audience to suspend beliefs and old biases they may have walked in with.”

For more information, call (323) 960-7784.


David Margolis writes from Israel.

Facts on the Ground

By David Margolis

A couple of months ago, Dov Dribben, age 28, was clubbed and shot to death by Palestinian Arabs on a tract of Israeli “government land” attached to the West Bank settlement of Maon, about 40 miles south of Jerusalem.

Depending on whose story you believe, Dribben was the incidental victim of an ongoing struggle over grazing rights between Palestinian and Jewish shepherds; or he was murdered for “nationalist” reasons by Arabs who claimed the tract of land; or the Palestinians were gunning for him because of some previous argument or insult. (You will notice that the first reason is hardly different from the second, but the government, which framed it the first way, preferred language that imparted a less “political” spin.)

Whichever story you believe, you may be sure that the killing did nothing to increase my sense of security in my home in the village of Beit Yattir, another six miles or so down the same road.

That’s what a murder in one’s neighborhood does, in Israel no less than in Los Angeles. But if anyone had a reason to lose sleep over Dribben’s death, it was Yaakov Talia and his wife, Marcelle, whose sheep farm occupies an analogous tract of “government land” attached to Beit Yattir. Though Yaakov, a sturdy and sun-burnished immigrant from South Africa, says that he isn’t scared, Marcelle confesses that she is — very — and would gladly pack up their four small children and go, except that Yaakov is committed to making his sheep farm succeed and living his Zionist ideals according to his lights.

The actual threat to the Talias is implicit in their situation; that is, it is not just by analogy with events at Maon. Two Palestinian families have now made their homes, uninvited, on Yaakov and Marcelle’s farm — one on a hillside in the middle distance, the other just a couple of hundred yards from the Talias’ trailer. The Palestinians have torn down fences that Yaakov has built and stoned him when he tried to put up new ones.

Although it would seem, on the face of it, that the Palestinians are trespassing, Israeli law somehow ends up on their side: Yes, Yaakov’s 800 acres of hills and pasture land are classified as Israeli “government land”; yes, Yaakov is living there with the authorization of the Israeli government; but Yaakov cannot evict his new neighbors, because the government, though it placed him there and wants him there, will not authorize him to build the fences that would fully establish his claim to the land and mark any intruders as trespassers. And because he has no fences, the army and police will not interfere with the Palestinians who squat there.

On one recent afternoon, Yaakov recounts, a group of 11 Palestinians drove up to his barn, got out of their cars, and started nosing around — casing the joint, it seemed clear. Yaakov called the police, then went out to greet his guests. Either scared or angry when they wouldn’t leave, he fired a warning shot into the air. When the police came, the Palestinians said that they had only been looking for a picnic site. The police can’t arrest people for wanting to have lunch, and Yaakov can’t claim trespass without fences to mark the land as private. The only consequence of the intrusion was that the police — as the law requires — took away Yaakov’s gun for a few days while they investigated whether his use of it had been lawful, leaving him temporarily less protected than before.

If you are more fiercely partisan in these matters than I allow myself to be, you will see this situation as an outrage — as does Yaakov, who needs fences not just for protection but also to care adequately for his sheep.

The reasons I am not as angry as Yaakov are 1) I’m not Yaakov, whose hard work, future ambitions and personal safety are being compromised; and 2) Israel’s claim that these 800 West Bank acres are Israeli “government land” seems to me merely to express Israel’s side of an argument. Right now, the land is disputed. Our side is using Yaakov, who receives some financial assistance from the Jewish Agency, to establish “facts on the ground,” while the Palestinians squatting there (with no visible means of support and presumably paid by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas) aim at establishing their own “facts on the ground.” Ownership of this tract will be decided, in the end, by agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or by the Messiah, whichever comes first.)

So the situation out here on the range flows back and forth between seeming, on the one hand, rational and, therefore, solvable and, on the other hand and more disquietingly, like an unpredictable Wild West drama, with rumors, guns and ambushes as feuding families battle for their place.

If the peace process does succeed in defining a border between us and them, Beit Yattir and the land around it — the high ground in the area and mostly empty of Arabs — will become Israel’s, and Yaakov will be able to stand at his sheep barn and point out to visitors where the Green Line used to be.

But until then, he’s just out there on unfenced land, with an Israeli flag flying above his trailers, unwelcome guests nearby, and the ghost of Dov Dribben whispering in the wind.