Spine: “I Shall Not Hate” Mosaic Theater’s Journey to the Gaza Strip

Visit the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Lang Theatre over the next few weeks and you’ll find Gaza.

“He who looks at the  sea

does not know the sea,

He who sits on the shore

does not know the sea,

only he who immerses himself,

knows  the sea…” Mahmoud Darwish

 Gassan Abbas. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Gassan Abbas. Photo by Stan Barouh.

If Gaza were the sea, you might call I Shall Not Hate a “sea,” and the Gaza you witness there a “Gaza”.

You won’t know the real Gaza after experiencing its heart-rending tale, but you’ll know enough from its “Gaza”, to leave the theater praying ever more fiercely for some small solution to the ongoing horror that has come to define Israel-Palestine.

Specifically, in I Shall Not Hate you will see a debris-strewn Jabalia Refugee Camp, an area in northern Gaza of 1.5 km, with a population of almost 200,000 people.

Jabalia is one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

If “Gaza is Hell” (Alice Su, “Gaza is Hell,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2, 2015), then Jabalia is its inner circle.

And Izzeldin Abuelaish, the author of I Shall Not Hate, is our guide.

He was born in Jabalia. He went through high school there. He earned a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo. He became a doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in London. He delivered babies in Israel. He studied more at Harvard. He now lives in Canada with the surviving members of his family.

I Shall Not Hate, the one-man drama performed brilliantly by the Israeli-Palestinian actor Gassan Abbas, offers its audience Mr. Abuelaish’s story, and his fierce determination to give his family a better life in a land determined to undermine his every move.

Gassan Abbas in 'I Shall Not Hate.' Photo by Stan Barouh.
Gassan Abbas in ‘I Shall Not Hate.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Izzeldin Abuelaish first told that story in his memoir I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.

Working with director and co-adaptor Shay Pitovsky, he has transformed that narrative into a dramatic tale of achievement and loss–enormous loss, soul crushing loss, and yet the human spirit still moves forward even as the situation sinks seemingly deeper into despair.

Performed in Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles, “I Shall Not Hate” gives Washington audiences that rare chance to experience a human being who was born and raised in a refuge camp.

Certainly, Mr. Abbas was not your typical Palestinian Muslim growing up in Jabalia. As a teenager, he was one of five children selected to study in Cairo: to be given a chance to escape the harsh conditions of Jabalia and experience a relative freedom.

That freedom and success led to London and to Harvard. Even though he always returned to his wife Nadia and their many children, Mr. Abbas understood the uniqueness of his experience. He was not trapped as so many are within the closed borders of Gaza, where food and water is rationed and jobs are few and hope is stifled.

Mr. Abbas portrays the real life Mr. Abuelaish, who now lives in Canada, with incredible gravitas. He captures the perspective of a man who is, not resigned, but realistically determined to do whatever he can to alter a destiny.

As he recounts Abbas’s journey through the Middle East and beyond, there are moments of humor but, for the most part, Abbas’s tale resounds with poetry, and not the poetry of clever wordplay or wit and metaphor, but the poetry of authentic human suffering, the kind rarely experienced up close and personal, as on an American stage.

Indeed, that is that rarest of poetic treats that is I Shall Not Hate.

For many living in the United States, the life of such a person in such an oppressed human condition is unimaginable. Only Abbas’s success–the narrow door through which he was able to slide and achieve university degrees and some fame–gives him a relatable trait. He’s been blessed, so to speak, with good fortune.

He was the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli Hospital, where he “delivered more Israeli babies than any other doctor.”

And we can root for that good fortune.

Unfortunately, Mr. Abbas lived in Gaza during the Israeli invasion in 2008 (that’s not the invasion of Gaza in 2012 or in 2014).

It was during that invasion the Mr. Abbas’s I Shall Not Hate was given its title.

Certainly, the world has no shortage of hatred, either the emotional kind that explodes or the systematic kind that slowly grinds, either the personal kind that stateless people experience or the institutional kind that the privileged and well-to-do rely on.

Hatred is as American as it is European or African or Asian or….

Some of us turn to hatred for an imagined “wrong”. Some of us, like Mr. Abbas, refuse to hate even when all the evidence points toward “hate” as a necessary evil.

I Shall Not Hate is the second installment in Mosaic Theater Company of DC’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. It plays with Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

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I Shall Not Hate plays through February 14, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

For the schedule of engagement events following performances of I Shall Not Hate, click here.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.