“The Last Falafel”: Broadway in Israel 2011, Day 6

1 07 2011

Sunday, June 19: While some relished the chance to sleep in, others in our tour group plowed ahead with the scheduled events on Sunday morning. When else would we have the chance to take an hour-long horseback ride on the Golan Heights? My white horse Galea was a little lazy and kept stopping to munch on the grass – but I didn’t mind the leisurely pace, wandering over the mountains, snapping photos of the Sea of Galilee. We even sang a few strains of Oklahoma on the route. (Our tour group wasn’t called “Broadway in Israel” for nothing!)

Around noon, we checked out of the hotel and took the bus to Capernaum, where one of our most distinguished Broadway actors read the Sermon on the Mount. Christian, Jewish, agnostic, atheist … it was impossible not to tear up at the verses.

1And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

2And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Next, we visited Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city in Israel. We started at the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery: a truly revolutionary museum. Their mission is to establish the first Arab-Israeli museum of contemporary art. “This museum will be an inviting place, capable of embracing visitors and enriching their life experiences, overcoming differences and connecting different cultures. All this in the heart of a troubled, war weary region.” To this end, the gallery also serves as a community center offering seminars, symposiums, and creative workshops. As the gallery director Said Abu Shakra showed us to the rooftop for refreshments, we passed children engrossed in art classes, cutting and pasting and coloring.

After a nice welcome and a glimpse of Rafi Munz’s ceramic sculptures on the roof, we were ushered downstairs to the theater – the only theater in Umm al-Fahm, which is used for both live performances and movies. Some of the teachers and children had prepared a special showcase for us. First, a group of young Muslim ballerinas danced. Dressed in leotards and tights rather than the traditional burkas (worn by most of the mothers who came to pick them up), these girls had such fun together onstage. Ballet may be seen as a very conservative, traditional art – but in this context, it was radical and inspiring.

I am still trying to wrap my head around their second number, a cute dance to “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. The girls giggled and wiggled their hips to a song that Americans perceive as terribly commercial – but again, context is everything. Here, the “globalizing, Westernizing” phenomenon that is Disney became the vehicle for a meaningful local performance. These girls’ lives are being actively – and positively – shaped by participation in dance. “Hakuna Matata” didn’t open up into a meaningless refrain on this occasion: it was filled with hope that these little girls will grow into confident women, more comfortable in their own bodies and more assertive of their own desires and dreams, through participation in such embodied artistic practices from an early age. Little did the girls know that they were performing for a major name at Disney Theatricals, part of our tour group this year. That adds another layer of fun and fascination to the story.

I relish moments like this, moments of hope and promise even in the midst of often-attacked commercial hits like The Lion King. The “Disneyfication” of Times Square, long-running musicals based on movies, jukebox musicals, etc. are so frequently lambasted in musical theater scholarship. But there is always something much more interesting going on in this “sheer entertainment.” Just because something is commercial does not mean that it can’t be an important nexus of identify formation. I grew up in a small town embedded in mainstream popular culture, with no access to (and no awareness of) subcultural or countercultural forms – but I nonetheless emerged as a very different person from the “mainstream.” Attribute it to style and unpredictable sites of identification. The Disney Renaissance formed my identity as much as anything in the 90s – and still, I’m not a pretty princess waiting for Prince Charming. If anything, I’d be Mulan. Even better, I’d be a Newsie. But I first imagined myself in a life “different” from my current reality in reperforming “King of New York” or “Seize the Day” in dance class.

The former dancers in our tour group could have easily criticized technique. The girls’ turnout was not perfect, their arms sometimes flailed instead of floated, and they looked to each other for the next step. But their expressive, beaming faces mattered more. A choir of young boys and girls performed next, with their teacher accompanying on keyboard. Simple songs. Two-part harmony at most. But for those of us in the audience who recall feeling most “at home,” most comfortable and confident, most “ourselves” when we stepped onto a stage … it was more than enough. The children’s performance was the highlight of the day for me.

We next met with artist Fatma Abu Rumi in the galleries. One part of Fatma’s exhibit focused on self-portraits, manipulating the function and style of the Muslim veil. One portrait painted a veil on her father. Interesting. Some of our tour group commented that her paintings didn’t look “modern” by Western standards; they were too realistic. But her paintings contest what it means to be “modern” or “contemporary.” Wary of icons and idolatry, Islamic art rarely shows the human figure. And its artists are rarely women. Fatma’s art may not be a part of the “modern” style, but it is certainly of the “now” and pushing the boundaries of traditional Islamic art – just like the girls’ ballet training.

“It won’t last more than two months. That’s what Said Abu Shakra was told when he founded a gallery dedicated to Arab and Palestinian art in this impoverished northern Israeli town,” reads a NY Times account of the museum. But fifteen years later, the gallery continues to serve an important place in the artistic and political life of its community – and plans for a larger, permanent home. Said Abu Shakra kept our tour group for as long as possible – showing us photos of the community elders and architectural plans, regaling us with more and more stories and gifts from the museum, thanking us – when really, we should be the ones thanking him. The children were also eager to chat with us and exchange e-mail addresses. But we eventually had to say our goodbyes to make our way to the famous Al Babor for a 3-course feast.

Exhausted from another day of touring and stuffed with incredible Arab food, many of us slept on the subsequent bus ride to the Tel Aviv. We checked in at our final hotel, cleaned up – and almost immediately headed to dinner. Not that any of us were hungry! We snacked on tapas at the Station Complex, an historic train station that has been converted to an outdoor shopping center. Full of skyscrapers and shopping malls, Tel Aviv was a comfortingly familiar, cosmopolitan environment – the perfect city for the final few days of our tour to Israel.

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