Born in Acre, Israel, to a Palestinian Muslim father and a Jewish Israeli mother who converted to Islam, Ibrahim Miari lived every day “In Between,” the title of the semi-autobiographical one-man show he will perform Sunday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at Princeton University’s Wilson College.
In this dramatic presentation of the complexities and contradictions inherent in Palestinian-Israeli identity, set during an interrogation by Israeli airport security, Miari recalls his childhood in Acre, or Acco, memories of his Jewish and Palestinian grandmothers, and war. Questions surrounding his identity become even further complicated by his imminent marriage to a Jewish-American woman.
Miari graduated from Western Galilee College in 1997 and Acco Theatre Center’s Actor Training Program in 1999. He earned a master of fine arts in theater education at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and taught Hebrew and Arabic at Tufts, Northeastern, and Boston universities as well as the Hebrew College’s Prozdor program.
Miari now lives in Philadelphia, where he is a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2005 he has directed the drama program at several peace camps with high school-age Israeli and Palestinian youth.
NJJN: You were a product not of a family with two religions, but of a family with two cultures. What was that like?
Miari: Both of my parents were secular. Culturally we were in two worlds. One, we were one of the few mixed or Arab families who lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Acco. I personally was sent to a Jewish kindergarten and Jewish school until second grade then moved to an Arabic school. The Jewish school was closer to the house, more convenient to manage, and was a better education; until today I don’t understand why they had to move me to an Arab school….
In the context of the play, I say that after the Purim celebration I won the first prize and something happened. [My father said,] “We’re not going to put you through that again.” He came to a realization — my son needs to speak Arabic and needs to have Arabic friends. I’m sure in real life it was not that one particular event, but in performing a one-hour-and-10-minute play, I focus it on one event.
NJJN: What are your memories of moving to the new school?
Miari: I was not happy; it was hard for me to adjust to a new school and a new system, new language, new peer friends, and people who looked at me like I was different. I was not at the same level of reading and writing Arabic; in real life, I was called out from religion classes to have private tutoring so I could catch up. Everybody thought I was Jewish — why was I not reading the Koran with everyone else?
NJJN: How would you describe the culture within your immediate family?
Miari: We celebrated holidays with our extended family: Tel Aviv during Passover, Muslim holidays with my grandmother in the village near Acco. I like to think about it as really enjoying the richness of both cultures.
NJJN: What were the strains?
Miari: Growing up in that house where all these holidays, and traditions, and languages were part of who we were, nothing was weird about it…. As a child I didn’t analyze things psychologically because I kind of enjoyed that people asked me questions about how unique it is or pointed out that I had something that they don’t. It started to get weird when I was mistaken for being one thing or judged for being one thing. Now I either block it out or enjoy it.
NJJN: How did your parents handle the Palestinian-Israeli politics?
Miari: When you live in Israel, everything becomes politics. If you speak a certain language, it is a statement; if you decide not to speak a certain language, it is a statement…. There was never an argument about a political party; there was a lot of criticism of the government, mostly practical things: Why doesn’t my son’s school get the same funding like he used to in the other school? Why does the Arabic school have to celebrate Independence Day?… Despite all the challenges of the society, they decided to be together, and they are still together.
NJJN: What role does the Sufi dance you learned at the Acco Theatre Centre play in your work?
Miari: For me, it is a meditation. I use that element in my play in a couple of ways: one, as a technical transition from one story to another; also, the metaphor of the dancing, when one spins in a meditative way, basically the goal is to connect with the Divine, with the One. You literally stop seeing dimensions, so everything becomes one. You try to empty yourself from negative emotions and conditioning. In the play I’m trying to find that peace, that safe place.
NJJN: How does it feel to look at the situation in Israel and Palestine from both perspectives at once?
Miari: Watching the show really gives you a picture of both sides. The point is to see the other, listen to the other, engage with the other, in good or bad.
NJJN: How autobiographical is the play?
Miari: People want to put me in a box and say, “He has decided this way.” But this is exactly the point of the show: Stop labeling me; let me be.