Arts & Culture
The reading and discussion of Benedictus, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, was an appropriate highlight of Staging the Middle East , a conference held at the University of California, Riverside in April. Produced collaboratively by an international ensemble, Benedictus imagines … Read More
The reading and discussion of Benedictus, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, was an appropriate highlight of Staging the Middle East , a conference held at the University of California, Riverside in April. Produced collaboratively by an international ensemble, Benedictus imagines the 48 hours preceding a US attack on Iran, and explores the relationship of two childhood friends—an Israeli arms dealer and an Iranian politician—as they engage in secret meetings to prevent the assault. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Benedictus is the story behind its conception: a true story of individuals overcoming their own stereotypes for a shared love of theater, and the desire to see their cultures represented authentically on stage, together. In Benedictus, the Israeli arms dealer, Asher Motahedeh, and an Iranian politician, Ali Kermani, meet in a Rome monastery to try to and prevent the attack. Motahedeh, who spent his childhood in Iran and was forced to flee following the 1979 revolution, wants Kermani to save his sister, who was already married with children at the time of the Islamic Republic, and still lives in Iran. Motahedeh harbors complicated feelings toward his birth country; he reflects, “It was our revolution too…The revolution became anti-Semitic.” Kermani wants Motahedeh to persuade his American contacts in Washington to postpone the attack and endorse Kermani’s run for political office. It’s a possible deal, but both men wait for the other to carry out their end of the bargain first, because neither (for good reason) fully trusts the other’s word. The result is a stalemate that Kermani sums up eloquently, “Braver people would have already stopped this madness. But there aren’t braver people here. Only us.” The team behind the play included Mahmood Karimi-Hakak , an Iranian-American director, Roberta Levitow , a Jewish-American dramaturge, Daniel Michaelson, a Jewish-American designer, and Torange Yeghiazarian , an Iranian-American artistic director of Armenian descent. The group developed an obvious closeness from working together, and everyone showed up for the conference—some having travelled from as far as the East Coast and Tel Aviv. But it took a lot of effort for this closeness to develop. Lerner and Karimi-Hakak spoke with great candor of the preconceptions each brought to their first meeting. As a prelude to developing Benedictus, the artistic collaborators rented a house and lived together for a week. The initial atmosphere was tense. The attempt even to hear each other, let alone understand each other’s narratives, was “emotionally exhausting.” “I had a vision of what an Israeli looks like,” Karimi-Hakak told the audience of the play, “[With] a couple of warheads on his head aimed at Iran. I went to fight.” Yeghiazarian explained how she had been raised with the idea that Israel is an extension of the European colonialism of the nineteenth century, and therefore should not exist. Naturally, Lerner felt wounded by this notion, and doubtful that a creative collaboration could ever be possible: “The idea that my existence is unacceptable is not a good basis for dialogue,” he said. Yet Lerner’s attitudes towards Iran made the Iranians uncomfortable. Lerner also felt threatened. “I feel that Iran is a huge threat to me personally,” Lerner told the audience. Fear and anger could have torn the collaborators apart. Instead, these real life and death stakes invoked by the Iran-Israel relationship are what motivated them to work together despite their weariness. “We will be driven by a desire to save the world,” Lerner said. “That’s the only way plays can be written.” Roberta Levitow, an American Jew, described feeling a kind of insider-outsider dichotomy when she was first approached about the project: “Well I guess I have affiliations with the Middle East,” she recalled saying. “I’m Jewish.” Michaelson, the designer in the ensemble, found a way to get the collaborators literally on the same page. A professor who teaches courses on mediation at Bennington College, Michaelson suggested that each person be put in charge of one day, responsible for introducing their culture with an emphasis on the “personal not political” (a notion which also became the guiding principle when they sat down to create the play). Food proved to be a useful and appealing entry-point to acceptance, with the exception of dinner one night when Lerner introduced a plate of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes as an “Israeli salad.” “It’s a Persian salad!” Karimi-Hakak interrupted, to the audience’s laughter. Ultimately, Lerner and Karimi-Hakak discovered deep commonalities aside from the contentious dish, specifically the feeling of being connected to a country but not necessarily to all of the actions of its government. “I found similarity of [feelings with]that in Motti,” Karimi-Hakak said. “He’s connected to his fatherland but not necessarily to the behavior of his government. We are two strangers pulled in two different directions.” The cultural compromises were a precursor to the inevitable creative compromises that go hand-in-hand with any collaborative project. Lerner admitted with amusing Israeli bluntness that he still did not really understand the purpose of setting the play in a monastery—or including the character of the monk—but wrote it into the script because this was a collaborative effort. Levitow felt strongly about the idea. On one hand, it’s easy to understand Lerner’s perspective: the monk does little in the play aside from deliver sandwiches, and the monastery is merely the setting where Motahedeh and Kermani speak candidly. But on the other hand, the monastery provides a western Christian backdrop that is foreign to both of these men, an almost clinically neutral space that minimizes the “otherness” between estranged friends who once shared a culture, and a revolution that dramatically changed both of their lives. Motahedeh and Kermani are quite similar, despite the fact that one one wears a turban and the other dresses like a business shark. The monastery’s hidden tape recorder covertly records their conversation—a “disembodied ear”—but cannot penetrate their shared language of frustrated hopes from before and after the 1979 revolution, as well as their current stakes, which are no less than survival. While the Americans are important political manipulators, and the Church’s goodwill provides them with a space to talk, in this setting, we realize that the conflict between the Israeli and Iranian is as personal as it is political. Perhaps the resolution will have to be personal, where the stakes are the highest, and a shared language of thwarted conflict and oscillating hope might be possible. One audience member remarked during the discussion that some of the characters were stereotypes. For instance, the Jewish arms dealer is always offering monetary bribes, the American politician (ripped right out of the Bush era) cares about nothing except oil and the political game. Could the characters have been more iconoclastic, the story more daring, partial, and prone to offend? Absolutely. But perhaps that wasn’t the group’s aim. Lerner and Karimi-Hakak were satisfied to see an “Israeli peace voice” and a “guy in a turban who makes sense” on the stage. They consider it a compliment that both Jews and Iranians have walked out of the theater complaining that the play was prejudiced against Jews or Iranians, respectively. Too often we appraise art solely from the perspective of “product,” forgetting that there is a whole process behind it. Benedictus in particular demonstrates how the power of art to “affect change” lies not only in its interaction with viewers, but also within the artist, in collaborations between artists, and in the stories they decide to share. “We have become great friends,” Karimi-Hakak announced at the end. Occasionally, real life is more uplifting than the fears and conflicts we project onto the stage.