Missing the Point: Mohammed Kacimi’s “Holy Land” at the Khan

Haim Watzman

“On both sides of a war, unity is reflexive, not intentional or premeditated. To disobey is to breach that elemental accord, to claim a moral separateness (or moral superiority), to challenge one’s fellows, perhaps even to intensify the dangers they face,” Michael Walzer writes in his seminal Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer refers in this passage to the moral dilemma faced by the enlisted man, but the same dilemma is not foreign to civilians. Wanting to be part of our society and in discourse with it is not only elemental but also commendable. Being moral alone on a desert island is no great accomplishment. We admire those who seek and succeed in living an ethical life in human company.

The new production of the Algerian-born French playwright Mohammed Kacimi’s Holy Land (Terre Sainte) at South Jerusalem’s Khan Theater brings us face to face with this dilemma. Unfortunately, while director Nola Chilton’s production is powerful and unflagging, and the five actors passionate, the play itself disappoints. In addressing the dilemma of war in art, it is facile to do no more than to say that war is hell. A writer taking up the subject needs to delve into the complex and difficult questions that war raises.

Holy Land takes place in a half bombed-out apartment in a city at war. The location and time remain hazy, but the locals are Arab and the occupying army French. Imen, a young woman, waits for her mother, who disappeared after approaching an army checkpost. She is harassed by a soldier, Ian, impulsive, frightened, a lover of music who has little idea why he has been sent to fight in this war. Imen lives with Alia and Yad, an older couple; Yad is a midwife, bringing new life into the world in the midst of destruction. Yad was a freedom fighter in Lebanon in his younger years but no longer has patience for either ideology or death; he copes with the blood and bombs around him by ignoring them. Their son, Amin, responds to the pulverization of their neighbors’ house by turning to the Islam his parents have rejected, and seeking to become a shahid.

War dehumanizes the soldiers and societies on all sides that engage in it. When it enters a phase of inexorable escalation, when the attacker finds that each escalating step is not sufficient to bring victory, and the defender despairs that all acts short of desperate ones will not save his country and his people, both sides lose their moral compass. The only alternative seems to be to give up, to sacrifice all that is dear and worthwhile in life.

But Kacimi (also known as El Hassani) merely portrays this decay. He does not explore or criticize it, or suggest a way out. Oddly, the program notes include (presumably at Chilton’s instigation) lengthy quotes from quite different kinds of works. There is a section from David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind, another from Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s essay “Jews and Arabs in Israel,” and a quote from Sartre. All these go well beyond telling us that war, ethnic conflict, and occupation are hell and provoke us to think about how it might be prevented or limited.

Kacimi seems to agree with his disillusioned character Yad, who maintains that there is nothing worth fighting for.

But if we are moral agents, then there is much worth fighting for. And anyone who lives in this part of the world, Jew or Arab, knows that most of the people doing the fighting are neither disillusioned or cynical. They believe passionately in defending their countries and people. If we are to think in a constructive way about the conflict-how to end it, and how to conduct it until it ends so that it does not escalate into a total loss of humanity on both sides-we must understand that the real hell for the people on both sides is not the war itself, but the prospect that their enemies may succeed in destroying their land, their society, their right to live as a unique people and culture in their own polity.

One wonders, then, why Chilton and the Khan chose this play. It’s certainly worthwhile acquainting the Israeli audience with the work of Arab playwrights, and at a theater located just around the corner from one of the city’s memorial plaques to a bus bombing and walking distance from the Old City and East Jerusalem. But is the playwright’s ethnicity and his choice of subject enough?

During World War I, George Bernard Shaw penned Heartbreak House, a powerful, melancholy, and funny indictment of the futility and senselessness of war. But that was indeed a senseless war, a local conflict that got out of hand, in which no ideas and no principles were at stake. Kacimi has written another powerful indictment of war-but at a very different time. Most Israelis and most Palestinians agree that the conflict is awful and should end. What they don’t agree on is why it began and how it can be resolved. What we need are not citizens-and writers-who place themselves above the fray or who opt out of it. We need those who are willing to fight for their countries-and with no less energy, to find the way to piece. That’s why Holy Land was the wrong play for the Khan to choose for this place and age.