Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 January 2007
Issue No. 828
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Still wondering

Nehad Selaiha finds the revival of Yusri El-Guindi's Al-Yahudi Al-Ta'eh (The Wandering Jew) at Al-Hanager a bit problematic

I doubt if many of you will remember Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. I, myself, though I was nearly his age when his name hit the headlines in 1968 and was, as an Arab living in London then, frequently dragged into endless, tediously arid, sometimes offensive discussions about the justice or criminality of his quixotic act, had completely forgotten all about him until last week.

Click to view caption
Ahmed Halawa in Al-Yahudi Al-Ta'eh (The Wandering Jew)

On 5 June, 1968, Sirhan, a 24 year old Palestinian- American, born in Jerusalem on 19 March 1944 (the fifth son of Bishara and Mary Muzher), shot presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy at blank range in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as he was leaving a campaign rally. RFK died the following day. The shooting coincided with the first anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt -- a fact made much of in the trial.

Sirhan was only four when the Nakba happened. What memories can a child's mind store at such a tender age? In later years, between September 1967 and March 1968, while he was employed by John Weidner, a health-store owner, Sirhan is reported to have described to Weidner's wife how he himself had seen a Jewish soldier cutting off the breast of an Arab woman in Jerusalem.

"There is no God," he once declared to his kindly employer, who had often discussed politics, religion and philosophy with him, adding: "Look at what God has done for the Arabs! And for the Palestinians! How can we believe in God?" And yet he was profoundly religious, always casting about for a saviour, determined to remain "an Arab... till the end," in Weidner's words. He also "had beliefs and principles," Weidner adds. "Personal honour and self-respect were important to him. And second only to that he esteemed patriotism. He had strong patriotic feelings for [Palestine]. Yes, I would say he loved his country."

Driven out of home and byre, the Sirhans settled in East Jerusalem until Sirhan was 12. In 1956, they left for the States, staying briefly in New York, then settling in California. Their status, according to their US visas, was "Palestinian refugees" -- a fact which the media, in the big hue and cry which followed the assassination, chose conveniently to ignore, generally identifying them in headlines as "Jordanian Arabs". Another fact the media chose to slide over was their being Christian.

In two recent, relatively fair-minded articles by Mel Ayton -- "The Robert Kennedy Assassination: Unraveling the Conspiracy Theories" and "Why Sirhan Sirhan Assassinated Robert Kennedy", published consecutively in Crime Magazine on 8 May and 6 September 2005 (both available on the net) -- the author implicitly draws attention to this as he quotes Lou Shelby, an Arab-American who had hired Sirhan's brother, Adel, as a musician in his club, The Fez, and had visited the Sirhans during the 1968 Easter vacation in Pasadena. Shelby had thought the family "strange", Ayton reports -- indeed even "weird".

Why? Because "though they were Christians, the general quality, the atmosphere, of their family was that of a Muslim family [my emphasis]. It was serious and heavy and lacking in the adaptability and quickness which most Arab Christian families here have." And to top it all, "there were their relations with their mother; the sons were fond of her, of course, but she had little influence on them and they didn't take her wishes or feelings into account."

Though one may choose to ignore the blatant, biased stereotyping of "a Muslim family" as "serious, heavy and weird", and the crass discrimination between Arab Christians and Muslims it entails, one cannot but notice how flagrantly this much publicised opinion contradicts the mother's own testimony in the trial. In considering Sirhan's motives for the crime, both his upbringing and the literature of the Palestinian resistance were often cited, together with the influence of his mother.

As Ayton reports, "during Sirhan's trial, his mother related how the intense feelings of the Palestinians remained with the family even though they had been far removed from the conflict when they immigrated to America. She told of how her family had lived in Jerusalem for 'thousands of years' and she spoke of the bitterness and hatred of the Israelis who had 'taken their land'."

"Mary Sirhan," Ayton goes on, "believed her son had killed Robert Kennedy because of his Arab nationalism. She said, 'What he did, he did for his country.'"

That such sentiments should be harboured by an "Arab Mary" who, furthermore, insisted that her sons speak Arabic at home and listen to Arabic songs, particularly Umm Kulthoum, seemed to render her a renegade in the eyes of the Christian West. Ayton quotes the verdict of Dr Martin Schorr, who examined Sirhan in the pre-trial period and declared that the defendant was not "a raving maniac". Rather, "[H]e's got a keen sense of justice, but it is from his private world." Should one read for "private", "alien Arab"? Ayton seems to have been equally disturbed by Schorr's moral qualification and hastens to explain that "this sense of justice that Schorr spoke of, however, was not from Sirhan's private or fantasy world"; that this was the case is undoubted.

In the aftermath of the June defeat, when Arabs were overwhelmed by a bitter sense of impotence and humiliation, when the dreams of socialism and Arab unity lay in ruins, Sirhan was generally regarded as a hero.

Before 1968 drew to a close, Yusri El-Guindi, then a budding Egyptian dramatist, had written a documentary drama centred round Sirhan's bloody deed, staging an imaginary trial, and adopting, as it seems in retrospect, something of the core of Ayton's argument, though not his sentiments or rationale.

According to both El-Guindi and Ayton, what appear to the Western mind as "deranged" and "evil" deeds "possess a logic all their own". In his play, El-Guindi, a fervent socialist and advocate of Arab Nationalism, sought to elucidate this logic, which Ayton, harking back to the vituperative political jargon of the press in 1968, describes in 2005 as both "bizarre" and "psychopathic".

Writing after 9/11, Ayton conveniently dismissed Sirhan as a cold-blooded terrorist, "like Al-Qaeda's Ramzi Youssef". Back in 1968, however, El-Guindi had sought to identify him with all the oppressed of the earth, including Jews, and make him into a symbol of all the victims of Western capitalism.

The tragic history of the Palestinian people and their many grievances were viewed by El-Guindi in a wider historical perspective which brought in the tragic history of the Jews as well. The fates of the two peoples seemed to him tragically linked and, he argued, you could not speak of one without having to bring in the other. To achieve this imaginative intertwining, El-Guindi unearthed a popular figure from Christian folklore, the Wandering Jew who, according to legend, taunted Jesus on the way to the crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming.

According to L Neubaur, the legend was founded on the words of Jesus as reported in Matthew 16:28: " Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Of the many names this figure acquired in his legendary travels over Christendom, including Ahasuerus, Matathias, Buttadeus, Cartophilus, and Uuan Espera, El-Guindi chose to call him in the play Isaac Laquedem (the name attributed to him in France, in popular legend as well as in a novel by Dumas).

As a metaphorical representation of the Jewish diaspora, El-Guindi's Isaac appears in the first part of this voluminous play to echo the displaced Sirhan's longing for the coming of the Saviour. By the end of the 10 scenes which make up the first part, however, Isaac Laquedem emerges as a nihilistic, amoral being who fully embraces the Darwinian doctrine of "the survival of the fittest". He mocks Christ's dictum that the "meek shall inherit the earth" and pins his hopes on the might of America. He is clear and honest, and openly confesses to the young, alienated Sirhan that he has to found his own kingdom on the ruins of the boy's homeland and cure his suffering through his pain. In the mock trial which he stages, there is no judge. All present are simultaneously the judges, the accused, the prosecution and defence. The message is clear -- we are all responsible.

In the second part of the play, however, so heavily weighed down by documentary material and historical data that dramatically it all but sinks beyond any hope of theatrical retrieval, the legendary, honest Isaac Laquedem acquires a more practical Doppleganger who poses as the advocate of Zionism. Robert Kennedy's passionate pronouncements of whole-hearted commitment to the interests of Israel during his election campaign are ironically echoed in the many speeches of the new American Saviour who is fanatically bent on introducing liberty and democracy to the Middle East, even at gun point.

And who could fail to grasp the relevance of such an early imaginative representation to present-day political reality? The Wandering Jew, though written in 1968, was not allowed on stage until 1988 in a Mass Culture production directed by Abbas Ahmed. That this production travelled to Baghdad to take part in one of the last theatre festivals hosted by the Saddam regime could, perhaps, explain why director Hassan El-Wazir chose in the current revival to rope in the fall of Baghdad and the more recent, grotesque strangling of the Iraqi president .

With the violent, bloody confrontations between Fattah and Hamas (dragging the Palestinian cause to unprecedented farcical levels) at the back of one's mind, the last thing one wanted to see was an over-sized, larger-than-life papier-mache decapitated head of Saddam on stage. Of course, no one wants to censor directors, however one may differ with their interpretations of reality; but beauty is something one expects on any fabricated staging, whatever the theme.

And why in God's name drag in Saddam, and in this gruesome fashion, when the theme is Palestine and the unfortunate Sirhan Bishara Sirhan?

In El-Guindi's original play, though heavy going, too long and dramatically unwieldy, the plight of both the Jews and the Palestinians was viewed in terms of the old historical struggle between rich and poor, meek and mighty, and socialism was posited as the magical synthesis. In the current, much adumbrated version at Al-Hanager (20 scenes compressed into six), the masked woman, representing both the lost land and the dream of socialism in the original, exchanged her fiery red cloak for a white and green one (a deplorable shift in the direction of Islamism) and cleverly skirted the famous Sirhan case.

Simplistic and egregiously shallow, not to say speciously fanatical, the current revival of The Wandering Jew leaves one wondering how lovely performers like Sawsan Badr, Ahmed Halawa, Sa'id Siddiq and Karim El-Husseini ever wandered into this heavily miasmic and deeply irritating show.

It was a brave attempt though. Rarely do we see plays of the "ugly duckling" category making their way to the stage -- and specially in these "weird" times.

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