Returning to Haifa – Hope, Memories and Despair


RETURNING TO Haifa is a play based on a novella penned by prolific Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani in 1969. It is challenging, not without fault, but is ultimately rewarding. It is an important work that is more healing than divisive. Thought-provoking.

Adapted for the stage by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace, the play (showing at the Finborough Theatre, Chelsea) centres on husband and wife Said and Safiyya at two key moments in their lives.

First, 1947 and 1948 when along with 750,000 Palestinians they are forced to flee their home during the so called Nakba as Palestine, then under British control, is divided into Jewish and Arab states. Palestinian villages are ethnically cleansed while Arab neighbourhoods in the conurbations of Haifa (where Said and Safiyya live), Jaffa and West Jerusalem are cleared.

Then some 20 years later when after the 1967 Six Day War they return to their house in Haifa, in so doing unearthing a shocking discovery.

The contrast between the young couple of 1947 and the middle aged pair of 1967 could not be starker.

In 1947, they are full of joy, dance a lot and are madly in love. Said (played by Ethan Kai) is intelligent, a voracious reader and lover of books (Tennessee Williams and big fat Oxford dictionaries). He is very much a man about town. Urban man.

Safiyya (Leila Ayad) is a country girl who has never set eyes on the Mediterranean. It is as if she is the cat who got the cream. They spend time discussing the name they will give to their child when it is born. Khaldun it is.

Scroll forward to 1967 and Said (Ammar Haj Ahmad) and Safiyya (Myriam Acharki) are more staid. Their marriage seems to have atrophied and they are worried about their 17 year son Khalid who wants to jettison his studies and take up arms against Israel.

In the wake of the war, they travel to Haifa and return to their home in the Halisa neighbourhood. It triggers memories about how as youngsters they were forced to flee towards the sea as Halisa came under attack from Jewish fighters. In all the confusion, their five month old son Khaldun was left in a crib at home.

At their former home, they are met by Miriam, a kindly Polish Jewish woman in her 60s. There are relics galore from their happy past – pictures, pottery, rugs and even peacock feathers.


Like Said and Safiyya, Miriam’s life has not been without tragedy – a father lost in the killing gas chambers of Auschwitz and a brother shot dead running away from German soldiers. She has also seen things – in the late 1940s – that also appalled her – a dead Arab child slung into the back of a truck by members of Jewish paramilitary group Haganah.

It is when Miriam (a delightful Marlene Sidaway) talks of her adopted son – Dov – that a great big penny drops. Said and Safiyya have stumbled upon Khaldun. Initially joyous at the prospect of seeing him (one of the most beautiful moments of the play), their hopes of a happy reconciliation are not fulfilled. Their son may have been born a Palestinian but he has grown up a Jew.

Returning to Haifa is ball busting on so many levels.

For a start, it must not be forgotten that the original novella was written by a Palestinian who was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a terrorist group in many people’s eyes). Kanafani paid a heavy price for his political beliefs – he was assassinated by a Mossad car bomb in 1972 at the tender age of 36 although the only weapon he picked up in anger was a pen.

The play has also not escaped controversy. It was originally commissioned by New York’s Public Theater but was cancelled as a result of political pressure. Hence its world premiere at the Finborough.

Yet it is not political diatribe. Far from it. It is more concerned with love, loss, despair, hope and reconciliation. Issues that transcend religion and nations. So bravo Finborough for being bold and brave.

Despite a few faltering moments from an otherwise stoic Ammar Haj Ahmad, the cast is strong. Some may cringe at the cockney accent of Leila Ayad although it does differentiate young naïve Safiyya from her more sophisticated husband. Ethan Kai works miracles in distinguishing his young Said from his rather scary Dov while Marlene Sidaway and Myriam Acharki give strong heartfelt performances.

The set by Rosie Elnile is marvellous with the radiant colours used to convey white hot heat while a curtain cleverly depicts the front of Said and Safiyya’s house. The audience are also sat in the round which makes the viewer more intimately involved.

I am not sure that some of the scenes involving Said and Safiyya – old and young combined – necessarily work that well. But that is nit-picking.

Returning to Haifa, directed with aplomb by Caitlin McLeod, represents important theatre. Required viewing. Catch it if you can.

Returning to Haifa runs until March 24.
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