by Wendy Coyle · August 15, 2014
SAMIRA is about a working-class Palestinian woman turned suicide bomber. Written and performed by an urban Israeli woman, I could not help but wonder from the show’s summary how accurately, especially in these times, an Israeli might write and portray a Palestinian terrorist or, for example, how a Palestinian might write and portray an Israeli soldier. From my years of living, translating and writing in the Middle East, I am aware of the polarizations but suspended my doubts and let theater take me where it would.
Anat Barzilay, author and main character in this Israeli multimedia show creates a compassionate portrait of a woman who is a victim of her uneducated patriarchal Muslim culture. Ms. Barzilay is brilliant in her portrayal of the hejab-wearing Muslim Samira. We open with film footage of a 40-something woman in modern dress on her way to an Israeli café. Witnesses on film relate that she tosses the handbag away before the bomb in it goes off killing one victim. Next we are in the interrogation room, live with Samira. She wears traditional head covering, long hejab coat and scuffed black platform boots. Samira interacts with the other characters who appear in audio and video recordings.
The story is told Roshomon style, Samira first and then, one by one, key persons in her life are interrogated to find her handlers, accomplices and motivation. She blames herself for failure in the mission, in her suicide and all aspects of her life. As she watches the interviews, other truths emerge. Her husband, with chauvinistic swagger (an excellent Hassan Ashkar) has discarded her for not producing a son. Isolated, she begins school hoping to be a teacher. When her husband forbids it, she asks her grown daughter (portrayed by a gifted Hila Shahaf) to buy her books and also borrows books from a male student next door. Her daughter sees them kiss, betrays her mother to the uncles who may have arranged her political martyrdom.
Ultimately, Samira has nowhere to hide, to delude herself or live. At the play’s end, she confronts God. “I will be the living dead, not eat nor drink until He comes and explains to me by Himself with no one in the middle to help him. No man! No messenger ! No man! Just Him.“
The production has top-notch direction and a very talented cast who brought their video personages to life. There were places where the Palestinian family seemed conveniently uncaring and the Israeli police interrogators conveniently restrained. Oddly, throughout the hour-long show, the author never has Samira or anyone else mention the apartheid landscape of their world or Samira’s double victimization as a second-class citizen in Islam and in Israel.
In conversation after the performance Ms. Barzilay told me, “I wanted to write about women and religion because I believe as long as religions, all religions, become stronger a patriarchal way of life rules the world and women become weaker. At the end, Samira understands that she doesn't know what's right. She has been manipulated by people who make themselves God’s messengers.”
SAMIRA illustrates the old American saying about trying to understand another, “walk a mile in my shoes.” I applaud Ms. Barzilay and the ensemble for doing just that.