I Shall Not Hate

by John Stoltenberg

It was a record-setting blizzard, not prescient season planning, that resulted in Mosaic Theater Company’s rescheduling the opening of I Shall Not Hate to last night, International Holocaust Memorial Day—the date designated by the United Nations to mark the liberation of the concentration camp called Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There is a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza called Jabalia, a 1.5-square-kilometer area said to be one of the most densely populated places on earth. Much of I Shall Not Hate takes place there. For years it has been the site of unspeakable violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  There is as yet no international day to mark its liberation because there has been none.

Jabalia is where a Muslim boy named Izzedin Abuielaish was born and grew up and studied hard so that he could become a doctor. His family of eleven lived in a room three meters square with no electricity, running water, or toilet. His mother called it home. His father called it “bird trap.”

I Shall Not Hate is a solo theater piece with text beautifully distilled from Abuielaish’s best-selling memoir, I Shall Not Hate: A Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity. Performed by the formidable Israeli-Palestian actor Gassan Abbas, it has been directed affectingly by the Israeli theater artist Shay Pitovsky, who with Abuielaisah adapted the script.

The story told in I Shall Not Hate would be heart-wrenching enough if it were made up. But it’s true; it happened to the man portrayed onstage before us. Abuelielaish is the man whose words we hear spoken in Hebrew and Arabic, whose words we read as they are projected in English. And knowing this fact of this show’s theatrical veracity—as it vibrates through every gesture, every sound, every syllable—is to experience a devastatingly powerful drama that pierces to one’s soul.

Mosaic Theater Company is presenting I Shall Not Hate as one of five offerings in its singularly inclusive Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. The production is superb. The work of Lighting Designer Ziv Volushin and Sound Designer Hilit Rosenthal is especially compelling. Having seen the first festival entry—a solo piece called Wrestling Jerusalem written and performed by the American Jewish theater artist Aaron Davidman (which I praised as a “a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words”)—and now having seen the second, Abuielaish and Pitovsky’s I Shall Not Hate, I have just begun to connect the dots of this festival’s unprecedented and sweeping mission: “Israeli, Arab, and American artists…affirming collective commitment to constructive dialogue and unfettered artistic expression.” And what I am starting to glimpse is a vision of theater’s authentic engagement with our troubled world that  comes by its hope for healing not wishfully but honestly‚ with a storytelling truth-telling that stuns and moves.

It begins quite sweet and funny. Abuelielaish in the commanding presence of Abbas chats with us about his youth—the years before he became a gynecologist (who, while working in Israel, delivered more babies there than any other doctor). He tells amusing anecdotes about, for instance, the zoo where two donkeys were painted with stripes so that the kids could have zebras, the marvelous school eraser he was given, the competition he won for reciting the Quran, the time he worked on a farm owned by the Madmoony family, the first Jews he’d ever met. He ambles about the stage—which in Niv Manor’s spare rendering is strewn with foreshadowing rubble and children’s shoes—and takes a seat among the audience as he regales us with tales before the trauma to follow.

And then come the bulldozers, which destroy his family home. And then excruciating Kafkaesque encounters with checkpoints and border guards. Then, in the midst of this all, his loving marriage and the birth of his seven children. And then the bombing massacre that left three daughters dead.

As Abuelielaish’s life story unfolds in simple speeches so poignant and poetic they break your heart and stop your breath, we are drawn ever closer to this man’s character and all this man has lived through—what he has survived, what he has lost. As he becomes a noted public health specialist and professor, later a world-renowned peace proponent, a haunting question hovers over every gripping turn of the narrative: How can this life story possibly lead to the conclusion foretold in its title? How can this not be a grudge match? How can one so hated not hate back?

There comes a point when this larger-than-life figure takes on such moral stature as to set to rest every vengeful objection and tower over every vindictive emotion.

“Who do you want me to hate?” he asks, humbly. The Israeli babies he delivered? The Jewish farm family who invited him to their table? The Israeli doctors who saved his two other injured children’s lives? Who?

“Hatred is our illness in this place,” he says. “It is eating us up without ever letting go.”

The good doctor’s decision to let hate go, to not let it recycle through him, to become a bigger human being than that, stands as one of dramatic literature’s greatest recognition scenes. For in that moment shines like a beacon one person’s principled commitment to forgiveness. And in that moment stands one local theater production as a global blessing.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

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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