Review: Returning to Haifa

Ghassan Kanafani’s Palestinian novella of dispossession and uneasy return anticipates generations of conflict. A timely new adaptation finds room for its remarkably even-handed approach

Linda Teehan and Michael Bates

Linda Teehan and Michael Bates

 

Returning to Haifa

The New Theatre, Dublin

***

 

Listen to the way Said and Safiyya describe it, in streams and floods that sweep away their footsteps, and it almost sounds like a natural disaster. But this sudden and inexorable motion, rushing them from their home in Haifa, is the beginning of the Palestinian exodus in 1948, punctured with panic and gunshots, presaging the state of Israel and ensuring that nothing will be the same again.

Set 20 years later, against an eerie sense of calm, Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa is a remarkably even-handed portrait of dispossession and revisiting, as the couple return to a house where no one can be entirely at home. Their purpose, they tell themselves, is “to see”, but really it is an anxious search for what has been left behind, namely their infant son, Khaldun, whose fate is unknown.

The journey and its discoveries are so pointedly symbolic that Kanafani; his latest fluent adapter, Angela Gissi; and director Anthony Fox’s careful production tether them to details hard and real. The places, names and dates that multiply through a monologue divided between Michael Bates’s tense Said and Linda Teehan’s nervy Sayiffa are often marked down on the bare walls of Lisa Krugel’s set, depicting, in chalk outline, the coast of contested territory.

It’s as though such text might reassert the facts, make them irrefutable. But everything here is changed utterly. “I never imagined I would see Haifa again,” says Safiyya. “You’re not seeing it,” says Said bitterly. “They’re showing it to you.”

Triumphalism, however, is hardly the tenor of Kanafani’s depiction: when they reach their old home, they find it occupied by a timid Auschwitz survivor, Miriam (Aneta Dina Keder), who has long been expecting them, her own conscience deeply troubled by occupation. It is Dov (Ciaran McCabe), her adopted son, now an Israeli soldier, who is contemptuous and belligerent. Mirrored by another son, a Palestinian militant, the story anticipates generations of conflict, but while Fox and Bates stoke the heat of resistance, the play’s questions are ultimately more philosophical.

“What is a homeland?” wonders Said, suspended, like the play, between past and future, a defeated peace and the struggle of war. The strength of this supple and thought-provoking piece, forever and sadly timely, is that there is no stable answer. Until Nov 29

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