Salam and Shalom, dear Dr. Tasneem Shamim, dear Ms. Carol Kaufman Newman,
Seeing the American premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Dov and Ali, produced by The Playwrights Realm and performed at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in New York City, I thought of the train driver whom I met on a ride from Bombay to Igatpuri in India. He told me that, however inadvertently, he decapitates and mutilates the bodies of about half a dozen people each day, all year round: “I kill poor farmers who can’t feed their families any more and young women who have been raped and who are being rejected by their families or threatened with honor killings. These desperate people just wait behind bushes and then jump in front of my engine, but I can’t stop the train.”
Given the battles and the wounds that we experienced throughout Ziegler’s latest play, I was moved by the trails left behind by emotionally scarred victims in a battle for the souls of young people, especially women.
The play introduces realities that hit hard when two cultures clash. I experienced Dov, a young and forever wavering English high school teacher as if he were a Jewish Hamlet—Prince, not of Denmark but of Illusions. His lifelong indecisions on practically everything, from not finishing his Ph.D. to eventually even quitting his job as an English high school teacher, lead him into a cul-de-sac with no hope but insipid daydreams scrawled on the walls of his mind, for example, when he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a successful rabbi, too, even though Dov has few convictions.
Dov’s counterpart, Ali, his 17-year-old student, presents himself as a very stern young man who never smiles, the fervent son of an orthodox Muslim father who dominates his family in the American Midwest. With his menacing and threatening tone and his mock-subservient demeanor, created brilliantly by Ziegler, Ali clearly has the upper hand in this play.
An arrogant young man, Ali is cock sure of his knowledge of Islam and Islamic traditions—all carbon copied statements of what his orthodox father told him, without a shred of the young man’s own thoughts: “See, I believe we should be governed by God because some decisions are too complicated to make on our own. I think we should look to our traditions as though they were maps. I think you think so too.”
The young Muslim student, brought up on a diet of rigid thinking cannot fathom that there may be different ways of looking at a text, different ways of living one’s life, when he blurts out: “Why are there so many interpretations? I don’t see how one piece of text can mean so many things.”
He reveres his father as the symbol of authority and thinks nothing of parroting his prejudices. When Dov casually acknowledges in class that he respects his father but does not always agree with him, Ali retorts, “Then you don’t respect him.” And when the doctrinaire young high school student gets accused of “being very limited in your definition of respect,” Ali shoots back what he really wanted to say all along:
“I believe [. . .] that Israel shouldn’t exist. I believe it because my father believes it and his reasons are sound. He is a very reasonable man.” And as if that stab wasn’t enough, Ali then tries to goad his teacher with the yarmulka with another assertion about Israel, “The Jews stole it.”
Jew-baiting is a sport that Ali plays only too well. When reprimanded for being rude, Ali replies: “Is there a law against rudeness in the Torah? Is it one of your ten commandments? Not to be rude?”
Though less rigid in his thinking, Dov finds himself equally bound by his tradition. His Jewish orthodox background and his chronic indecisiveness does not allow him to commit to his girl friend of two years. Sonya (Heidi Armbruster) is seen as a 30-year-old blond and blue-eyed Aryan shickse. She tries to connect with her colleague Dov, the man she wants to marry and for whom she is willing to convert to Judaism, even if religion doesn’t mean much to her. However, nothing comes of her hopes, as the young teacher is scared of offending his parents with a marriage to a non-Jewish woman. When Sonya wants to meet his parents, she pleads for his bridge building:
“if you’d just let me meet your parents, I know I could make them like me. Or at least approve of me. Modern Orthodox Jews are modern for a reason, right?”
However, the young orthodox high school teacher refuses to even talk to his parents about the woman he loves but fears to marry because of the restrains of the religious and cultural traditions with which he was brought up.
Christians might look at the old Jesuit motto—“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man"—except that this modern drama which found great resonance on the British stage last year and is currently experiencing its American premiere, shows that the turmoil of a one-sided upbringing of two sons, both of whom had fathers whose “love was opaque,” can do great damage to any individual, irrespective of the person’s religious or ideological upbringing.
When men, including rabbis, place their careers above their relationships with their families, women and children could easily feel neglected. Dov admits that his mother had been bugging his father, the popular rabbi, to stop thinking only of others: “You have time for everyone else,” she says, “but not for me. And I’m your wife, I bore your children.”
Dear Ms. Newman, dear Dr. Shamim, as I see both of you and your organizations as bridge builders, I was wondering whether you would be willing to see this play of clashing ideas with as many of your members, with as many young people as possible, and to engage in dialogues that could lead to important joint projects.
Dov and Ali’s dramatic god-fathers seem to be two famous plays: Biedermann and the Arsonists by Max Frisch and Oleanna by David Mamet, both of which present antagonists who worm themselves into the lives of the protagonists—forever changing them.
Recognizing that things are badly falling apart, the teacher in Ziegler’s latest play asks his student, “I don’t know what you want from me.” When Ali lectures him—“There’s nothing wrong with feeling certain, Mr. Gold!”—Dov gathers all his strength to ward off the attacker: “I can’t help but think that every word you say is some recycled, inferior version of something your father has said.”
And when the teacher apologizes, he gets to hear, “I accept your apology. And I understand that it must be difficult for someone like you to talk to someone like me.”
The playwright presents a wide range of interpersonal and ideological conflicts: Islam vs. Judaism, student vs. teacher, traditions vs. free thinking. Once the student has boxed his teacher into the corner where he wants him in that ring of power and control, Ali comes out with his deeply seated anti-Semitism:
ALI: Don’t all Jews ask those sorts of questions—Who am I? Why am I here? What am I meant to do?
DOV: Doesn’t everyone?
The play powerfully demonstrates the contrast between different mindsets, different traditions, and how they both can lead to major problems:
DOV: You don’t think there’s value in being open-minded?
ALI: I think you’re talking about being uncertain, about walking around not knowing who you are, and that’s different than being open-minded. . . . With all due respect, Mr. Gold.
And just as the young woman in Oleanna snares her professor in a linguistic net from which he cannot escape and verbally controls him, Ali knows exactly how to get to and goad his teacher:
DOV: Ali, would you mind if we reschedule this conversation—
ALI: Why – are you hung-over from the Sabbath? Was it a rage this weekend?
And when the teacher assures his student that everything is fine and that he’ll be happy, Ali snaps back: “But that’s where you’re wrong. With all due respect, Mr. Gold—life isn’t about being happy. It’s about being right.”
Triumphantly gloating, Ali puts his Jewish teacher down more than one peg: “I don’t want to believe, as my father would have me believe, that my teacher is an imbecile.”
In the end, Dov, the young high school teacher, retreats, simply dissolves his relationship with his loving colleague and quits his job, without having found anything else he could do. Jobless and without his best friend, without any major convictions of his own, he suddenly wants to become a rabbi like his father, clinging to the star of David which turns out to be nothing but the straw of his mind. The most he does, like a child, is to murmur in his sleep the word “father” in Hebrew, “Aba, Aba, Aba.”
In contrast to the two male characters, Sameh (Anitha Gandhi), Ali’s bright younger sister, acts not only as a character, but also weaves in and out of the play as the narrator. At times she appears like a ghostly voice, reminiscent of the spirit of Hamlet’s murdered father. We see her as a young woman who is forbidden to have views of her own, let alone take an active role in life. At times, she is almost serving the role of a classical Greek chorus, her hijab a living shroud.
Sameh falls in love with a young Muslim student, bound for MIT, but who is not considered “a real Muslim” by Ali and his family. Unlike her brother, she feels pulled in different directions: she follows Muslim traditions while, at the same time, she also wants to come into her own. Befitting her role in life where she only plays a minor part, forced to be subservient to her father and her brother, she is not given a full role in the play either:
“At home, I was reading so many novels, devouring them like candy because I felt that I too was a character in someone else’s story. Nothing seemed real.”
Like many women in orthodox environments, she is being kept in the background. But when she speaks, either as Sameh or as a commentator, theatre goers who expect a traditional story line may get frustrated. In an almost Brechtian manner, she alienates the audience and chops apart the story line with her comments and reflections in between, thereby forcing the viewers to look at this drama of ideas from a disturbingly different perspective:
“You’d think, given the circumstances, that this is where the story begins. It’s not. In fact, most stories have been going on forever, and this one is no different. And so we enter it in the middle.”
Bertolt Brecht rewrote his Mother Courage many times because he wanted to prevent the audience from getting emotionally attached to the main character and thereby not think about the underlying issues that he wanted to present. Like Brecht, Ziegler roughened up the play in such a way that Sameh does not simply come across as a romanticized victim, a Muslim Ophelia, but as a figure who appears and disappears, a participant, a commentator on the events, or even a ghostlike narrator. The viewer, instead of getting lost in pathos, is confronted by a wide array of socio-cultural and interpersonal issues.
Having been betrayed by Ali who leads his father and his male relatives to the place where his sister and her boyfriend were kissing, swift action follows: the teenager gets punished. Not even her mother can help her. In the words of Ali, “We let my mother out of her room. She screamed and sobbed. She rent her hair. She cursed us,” while the male family members arrange for the forced deportation of the young wayward Muslim girl, the 16-year-old high school student, who, against her will, is made to marry an old widower in Pakistan who wants children.
Sameh despairs and does as she is told, feeling totally abandoned, alone in Pakistan, a foreign land for her: “I sit by the window and watch the women walk by like a flock of crows, or ghosts.”
Ali comes to regret his involvement deeply: “I’ve lost my sister forever. I will never get her back and I will never forgive myself. Or my father.”
On the website of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance one can find this brutally honest admission about the “agunah, the wife trapped in a dead marriage [. . .] one of the most painful challenges facing the Jewish community.” That statement could also have appeared on a website for Muslim women. The great grand daughters of Sarah and Hagar, it seems, share much the same pain from the same oppression, even today, even in contemporary America.
Anna Ziegler has the courage to go where few playwrights dare to trod: exploring the explosive environment of Jewish and Islamic orthodoxy and the often devastating impact of religious ideologies on young people, especially when sacred texts and traditions are taken literally.
It’s against this background that it may not come as a surprise to learn from the author about the genesis of Dov and Ali: “This play came from a number of places. First, I was teaching Lord of the Flies to my high school English class, as Dov is at the top of the play. I was working at a Jewish day school outside of Washington, DC, and was around a greater number of religious people than I ever had been (many of whom were Modern Orthodox, and served as inspiration for Dov and his family).”
Given the many probing questions that Ali asks relentlessly of his teacher, I was wondering whether Ziegler’s English students influenced the portrayal of Ali, but she told me that he emerged from her imagination: “I tried to think of a way to write someone realistically who was so sure of things superficially but underneath has real doubt. There are boys in The Lord of the Flies who are like that, too—who are incredibly tough, even brutal, throughout the book, but crack open when they are saved at the end.”
At a deeper level, though, the playwright, challenged by her orthodox environment in the DC area, “began to question things based on the experiences of my colleagues and students. How are we supposed to handle situations in which things we want directly conflict with what our religion is telling us to do or be?”
Such questioning, refreshing as it is, can easily turn off those who consider any questioning useless or even blasphemous. However, I hope that you and the members of your two organizations will have the courage to continue to question and to keep dialogue open, not only within your own communities but with “the other” in those cultures and religions that appear different from yours.
The women who get forced into marriage and who lead lives of quiet desperation, the women and men who throw themselves in front of trains, may serve as a reminder that we have not done enough to build effective, meaningful bridges to our fellow human beings.
I left the theatre thinking about the impact of traditions on our own lives, and whether these traditions are destructive or whether they could serve as signposts. I walked through New York City, wondering about the play, about a statement the 16-year old Sameh had made: “A recurring dream Dov and Ali both have: a thousand old men are perched in the trees. They’re humming. If they stop, the world will fall away.”
Dear Dr. Tasneem Shamim, dear Ms. Carol Kaufman Newman,
I’d like to conclude my Open Letter to both of you with this quotation from the recent speech by President Obama at Cairo’s University. It may pull together many of the strings of this play and illuminate some of the issues that the grandchildren of Sarah and Hagar face in today’s world:
“The Holy Quran tells us, 'Mankind, we have created you male and a female. And we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ The Talmud tells us, 'The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.' The Holy Bible tells us, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.'”
Shalom and Salam to both of you. Salam and Shalom to all the students who ought to see and discuss this important play—not only this week but in the years to come.
Henrik Eger, Ph.D.
The American premiere production under the direction of Katherine Kovner can be seen in New York City till June 27, 2009. For tickets, contact or call 212-255-3089.
Interest in Dov and Ali is so great that the next production is already being prepared for a run at the Berkshires at the Chester Theatre, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, July 1-12. Contact or call 413-354-7771.