We must keep communicating, Land of Fire playwright Mario Diament seems to insist, despite all the blood and pain, hatred and fear, on both sides of the Arab-Jewish conflict after generations of war and occupation. It is a voice from a slightly more hopeful time than now, just before Israel’s pullout from Gaza.
Lights come up on a stark stage, with the focus on a televised newscast of a 1978 terrorist incident on an El Al bus that took the life of a 29-year-old Israeli stewardess. This fictionalized version of real events follows the story of Yael, the murdered young woman’s co-worker and friend, also shot on that bus but not fatally.
The play picks up twenty-three years later, as Yael, now turned conflict resolution/peace-seeking activist, decides, for reasons unknown even to her, to seek out their long-imprisoned shooter, Hassan. Mihran Shlougian convincingly embodies Hassan, this strangely mellowed, caged figure, a man who claims to be changed by a lifetime of refection after a youth of humiliation and rage. When he recounts his upbringing in the cut-off, dysfunctional towns still called refugee camps after decades, we are swept into his pain. He gives a palpable humanity to a person who might otherwise be regarded as merely a radicalized killer, beyond the reach of empathy.
Yael is played with convincing disquiet and integrity by Dagmar Stansova. We feel her need to make room in her soul for some new truth to come out of her meetings with Hassan, despite all the forces lined up against her—her resigned, alienated husband, the still-grieving mother of her murdered friend.
Diament, an Argentinian-born Jew, winner of numerous Argentinian playwrighting awards, crafts the narrative confidently, moving back and forth in time. We are shuttled from the bleak prison meeting room to the survivor’s home and vice-versa, in flashbacks and flash-forwards, as Yael weighs the meaning and consequences of her choice to connect with Hassan. Yassur’s staging is simple in the extreme, avoiding distraction from these crucial conversations.
But it is a political play with a message, which can give it the feeling at times of a pageant at some kind of peace school, especially as the supporting cast still seemed a bit unsteady. Diament attempts to air all the familiar arguments from both sides in a show of some kind of fairness, as he otherwise stacks the dramatic deck to make the moral balance come out one way. The central case of Land of Fire is the premise that Arabs were systematically either killed or driven out of Israel in 1948 into refugee camps in an act of ethnic cleansing. Hassan tells Yael that the Star of David meant the same thing to him as a youth that the swastika did to Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. I don’t know everything that happened in 1948, and Diament convinces me I should find out. I do know that there are over a million and a half Arab Israeli citizens today, and that ninety percent of Jordan is made up of Palestinian Arabs. So something doesn’t add up in this telling. The full complexity of this story may be more than one drama can bear.
Still, Land of Fire challenges us to particularize, to face the full individual humanity of those with whom we may be locked in conflict. Yael tells Hassan, “I think if we keep talking, we will understand each other one day. But if we keep killing each other, there won’t be anyone left to listen.” It’s a sentiment we don’t hear very often anymore.