Adapted from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, Returning to Haifa tells the story of a Palestinian family, Said and Safiyya, who fled their home in 1948 during the Nakba (or ‘catastrophe’) only to return to find their home occupied by an Israeli family. Now, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the borders are open for the first time in 20 years and the so the couple make their way back home. They expect to find someone else living in their former home, yet nothing prepares them for what they find in its place.
The production coincides with the 70th anniversaries of both the Nakba – the mass dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 – and the foundation of the State of Israel. Originally commissioned by New York’s Public Theater, Returning to Haifa was cancelled after political pressure. It will now receive its world premiere at London’s Finborough Theatre on 27 February, where it will run until 24 March.
Novelist Kanafani was assassinated by Mossad in Beirut in 1972, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees Najim, when he was aged just 36. Regarded as one of Palestine’s greatest novelists, his obituary read: “He was a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”
Here American playwright Naomi Wallace and Beirut-born writer Ismail Khalidi tell IAM about adapting the novel for the stage.
Naomi Wallace: Both myself and my co-writer, Ismail Khalidi, were familiar with Kanafani’s novella, and his other stories, long before we came to this project. I’ve studied literature all my life but few books have affected me like Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. For while it is a political piece of writing, rooted in a very specific context, it has an intimacy and immediacy that is both provocative and profound.
Kanafani is a master at exploring loss, exile and yearning, and the way love is inseparable from overt politics. There is the loss of loved ones, but also the loss of our own sense of selfhood: how it can be eaten away over the years until we can hardly imagine ourselves? And yet, this is only a part of Kanafani’s narrative of loss, for it is intertwined with an always energetic human capacity to find hope and renewed spirit through ourselves and others, no matter how great the catastrophe.
Ismail Khalidi: Returning to Haifa is really a story that is grappling with the past and the future at the same time. It is also about accountability, about resisting injustice and how to remedy the wrongs of the past. These were burning questions for Palestinians in the late 1960s.
The themes of the play emerge through this unique confrontation which Kanafani imaginatively engineers between a Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian couple who are visiting the house from which they were driven 20 years earlier. It is in this context, in this strange meeting, that these questions and themes come up.
The question of loss, of profound injustice, of how to overcome it and remedy it, are also very important to the Jewish character in the story. Miriam, who has lost her family in the Nazi camps and is now an Israeli, lives in the house of dispossessed Palestinians. This is where Kanafani proves to be so brilliant and ahead of his time. He takes two sets of characters who, in effect, are victims of tremendous tragedy and violence but who, in the moment they meet, are in totally different power positions – that of the victor and the vanquished.
NW: We agreed from the start that neither of us would hold ownership over anything written; that each of us could change what the other had written without discussion. This gave us both a playful and easy freedom. Contrary to what one might expect, it simplified the process of co-writing. For instance, Ismail would write a couple of scenes, and then I would read them over, change or edit whatever I liked. Then I would write two more scenes and he would do the same with my work: whatever he wished. This was an incisive exercise in reducing the ego. In short, neither of us held ownership over the real-estate of the adaptation. This method, we hope, allowed for the moulding of one voice for the final language of the adaptation. We were always conscious of making sure that Kanafani’s forceful and imaginative spirit were embodied.
IK: While Returning to Haifa touches on universal and timeless themes, it is also very much of its moment. The world was in revolution in 1969. The anticolonial and antiimperialist movements were in full swing, decolonisation was taking place all over Africa and Asia. The protests movements in the US. and in Europe looked to be on the verge of overturning the status quo. The ANC in South Africa, the IRA, the Black Panthers, etc, all of these revolutionary groups seemed to be close to seizing the day. The Palestinians too, were suddenly not victims, but masters of their own destiny. They were freedom fighters and saw themselves, rightly I think, in the context of standing in solidarity with these other anticolonial, antiimperialist revolutionary movements.
Kanafani is in the thick of this, both politically and artistically (though these things are to him, one and the same). So yes, that was a very different moment than today. Revolution and liberation from colonial rule, from apartheid, from segregation, all seemed imminent, even inevitable. We must be able to read Returning to Haifa within that context. We must not succumb to the historical amnesia around Palestine/Israel that is so successfully and strategically used to confuse and conflate things.
You cannot understand the situation today without understanding the history: the debacle of Oslo, the first Intifada, the settlements and the occupation in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1982 war in Lebanon. You cannot understand any of that without understanding the 1967 war. You cannot understand ’67 without looking at the ethnic cleansing of 1948. And you cannot understand ’48 without the Arab rebellion against the British in 1936, which is only understood by looking at the Balfour Declaration of 1917. None of this is rocket science and none of it is really contested. It is history. Cause and effect. In chronological order. It is not a millennial, biblical feud, nor is it an incomprehensible political conundrum. That kind of nonsense is meant to make people shut off and look away.