Play­wrights bridge Di­as­po­ras at Blue Met

Play­wrights to dis­cuss ground­break­ing project at Blue Me­trop­o­lis lit­er­ary fes­ti­val

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BILL BROWNSTEIN bbrown­ twit­ bill­brown­stein

They as­sem­bled a book to­gether over a two-year pe­riod. They share sim­i­lar hopes and val­ues. Yet this en­counter at an N.D.G. cof­fee house marks only the sec­ond time Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi have met in the flesh.

There will be many more get-to­geth­ers in the weeks to come. One of the more highly an­tic­i­pated events at next week’s Blue Me­trop­o­lis lit­er­ary fes­ti­val will be the April 29 dis­cus­sion, Bridg­ing the Di­as­pora Di­vide, wherein Orlov and Sabawi will be ex­pound­ing on their ground­break­ing an­thol­ogy, Dou­ble Ex­po­sure: Plays of the Jewish and Pales­tinian Di­as­po­ras. The two play­wrights — one Jewish, the other Pales­tinian — have edited and pub­lished what hap­pens to be the first English­language an­thol­ogy of works by Jewish and Pales­tinian writ­ers.

This an­thol­ogy, fo­cus­ing on the Is­raeli/Pales­tine con­flict, fea­tures three plays writ­ten by Jewish play­wrights, in­clud­ing Orlov’s Sperm Count, and three by Pales­tinian play­wrights, in­clud­ing Sabawi’s Tales of a City by the Sea, as well as one co-writ­ten by a Jew and a Pales­tinian. The col­lec­tion also has in­ter­views with the play­wrights ex­plor­ing chal­lenges they faced in writ­ing and stag­ing their work.

The lack of pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters doesn’t re­late to any an­ti­so­cial is­sues. Though their ideals are in sync, their back­grounds couldn’t be more di­verse. Orlov is a Bos­ton-born Jew liv­ing in Mon­treal, and Sabawi is a Gaz­aborn Pales­tinian Mus­lim liv­ing in Mel­bourne. Through the magic of email and Skype, Orlov and Sabawi dealt with the com­plex­i­ties of bring­ing their project to fruition.


“Any­thing is pos­si­ble in this dig­i­tal era,” Orlov says.

“I was sur­prised how quickly, through Skype and me­dia, we were able to bond on our work. We were blessed. It was based on mu­tual re­spect.”

“It’s not re­ally so easy,” the smil­ing Sabawi coun­ters. “He re­ally strug­gled with Skype the first seven times be­fore get­ting it right.”

“You’re ex­pos­ing all my weak­nesses,” Orlov shoots back.

“No, re­ally, it’s been just won­der­ful,” Sabawi says, “not just hav­ing him as a co-ed­i­tor, but as some­one I’ve learned so much from over this pe­riod.”

The process be­gan when Orlov pitched the idea of Dou­ble Ex­po­sure to Play­wrights Canada Press.

“This has never been done be­fore: plays about the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict and JewishPales­tinian re­la­tions, in which all the writ­ers re­side in the di­as­po­ras in five con­ti­nents. They went for it, but I soon re­al­ized that I needed a Pales­tinian co-ed­i­tor, and prefer­ably a woman,” Orlov says.

So he con­ducted a search and found Sabawi, who had been liv­ing in Ot­tawa be­fore mov­ing to Mel­bourne. They read each other’s plays, hit it off — on the dig­i­tal front — and an al­liance was formed.

“It’s been a fan­tas­tic jour­ney for both of us,” Sabawi says. “There are many Jewish and Pales­tinian writ­ers work­ing on all sorts of things to­gether, and there is a fan­tas­tic space, be it so­cial me­dia or on the ground, where we see what is a co-strug­gle with Jewish and Pales­tinian peo­ple work­ing side by side.

“At the same time, I wouldn’t have been in­volved in any­thing that would have been a nor­mal­iza­tion project, where Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis were pre­sented as two equal sides — be­cause they’re not … That’s where I be­lieve a shared home­land be­comes the only log­i­cal so­lu­tion … I al­ways see the light at the end of the tun­nel. If I don’t see it, then I wouldn’t want to live this life.”


Orlov is abun­dantly aware he and other Jewish writ­ers could feel the wrath of some for views not nec­es­sar­ily en­dorsed by the com­mu­nity.

“The is­sue of be­ing crit­i­cized for op­pos­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion — this is a ter­rain that pro­gres­sive Jewish writ­ers have to walk on,” Orlov says. “There are count­less ex­am­ples of at­tacks from the right about stag­ing works that are crit­i­cal at all of Is­rael, and par­tic­u­larly of Di­as­pora writ­ers. Yet there are a fair num­ber of Is­raeli play­wrights who do this. But for Di­as­pora writ­ers to hang out our eth­nic laun­dry — it’s a taboo.

“Also, in the Western world, for most ma­jor Western theatres, tack­ling the Is­raeli/Pales­tinian con­flict is one of the re­main­ing the­matic taboos. Th­ese are is­sues we’ve had to con­front.”

Orlov’s dram­edy Sperm Count uses male in­fer­til­ity as a mul­ti­lay­ered metaphor deal­ing with re­la­tions be­tween Jews and Pales­tini­ans. Sabawi’s Tales of a City by the Sea is a love story, set in Gaza, and pro­vides a win­dow into the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple deal­ing with ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances.

“What re­ally ce­mented our (al­liance) was read­ing each other’s plays, and that’s what set the ini­tial trust in terms of our artis­tic vi­sion and what we felt theatre should do in terms of pro­mot­ing peace and so­cial jus­tice,” Orlov says. “Of course, we had so many road­blocks on both sides, but it still man­aged to come to­gether.”

Sabawi says, “We can all work to­gether with mu­tual re­spect, an abil­ity to lis­ten, an abil­ity to ac­cept that not every­one is go­ing to agree on ev­ery­thing that you’re go­ing to say — but just not to the point where we would al­low a mis­con­cep­tion to pass.

“It’s all about com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Orlov adds: “Theatre is the most vi­sion­ary of all per­form­ing arts. Our role as drama­tists is to shed a light on the dark shad­ows of the past and the firestorms of the present in or­der to con­trib­ute to a bet­ter world in the fu­ture.”

I was sur­prised how quickly, through Skype and me­dia, we were able to bond on our work. We were blessed.


Play­wrights Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi are co-ed­i­tors of a ground­break­ing an­thol­ogy, Dou­ble Ex­po­sure: Plays of the Jewish and Pales­tinian Di­as­po­ras.

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