The Old House by Mahmoud Diab
Adapted and directed by Hisham Suleiman
Performed by the WAC Youth Theatre Group
Among sixteen competitors was an Arab group from Nazareth which performed Mahmoud Diab’s The Old House, under the direction of Hisham Suleiman.
The actors were construction workers and high school students.
The performance revived the concept of theatre as an agent for social change. Popular commercial theatre, which seeks the low common denominator that will appeal to a wider audience, has long forgotten this role.
The hero of the play is a worker named Mustafa. His elder brother, Ahmed, is an engineer, and his younger brother, Rifa’at, a law student. Mustafa is the family breadwinner – because of him, the others can study. Yet they make him feel worthless.
The family lives in a poor neighborhood. Ahmad, who hopes his profession can advance him on the social ladder, wants to marry “up.” In fact, a matchmaking proposal comes. The prospective bride, they learn, is from the upper class. Here is the big chance! The old house now seems an obstacle, however, and so the family moves to a fancier neighborhood.
Mustafa, the breadwinner, is uncomfortable with the move. The others think he is jealous: he has no hope of making such a marriage, he’s just a worker. There are bitter arguments. But Mustafa also has conversations with a friend from his labor union, Suleiman, and in the course of these, his class-identity is honed. He decides to campaign for the union leadership.
The ritzy new home receives a first visit from the family of the prospective bride – although, oddly, she does not join them. The bridal parents display unbridled snobbishness, while the groom’s family grovels and squirms to conceal its humble roots.
At last the inevitable moment arrives: Ahmed returns the visit, meeting his bride-to-be. He discovers that the girl is mentally retarded. That is why her parents are willing to marry her off to a lower-class man. Ahmed cancels the engagement, and his family decides to move back to the old house. They are still sitting in the new one, in shocked dismay, when Mustafa bursts in to tell them he has won the election.
“We see how this conflict shows up within one family,” he says. “This is the reality that the Arab union worker faces daily. The play gives both actors and audience the tools with which to confront their society’s artificiality.”
The group has been sharpening its acting skills for nine months. Its members have worked on voice development, characterization, and guided imagery. They have done makeup and music workshops. They have studied their rehearsals on closed-circuit video and analyzed other performances as well.
Here then was an Arab group, searching for an alternative to religious fanaticism and conservatism. Such a class message is a rare occurrence at a theater festival. Israel’s cultural institutions and educational system have neglected this population. If it wasn’t for WAC’s support – financial, logistical and moral – these young people would not have been able to make their voices heard. Indeed, they might not have learned that they have a voice. When at last this voice was raised, people listened: the group caught the attention of both the press (Channel 1) and the judges, who awarded it third place.
After the performance, I asked “Mustafa” (Omar Manasrah) how he felt. He took up a boxer’s stance and said, “Strong, strong, strong!”
Omar Manasrah plays Mustafa the worker in The Old House. He is 21 and from Nazareth. As an assistant to a concrete molder on a WAC team, he spent two years with the large building firm, Solel Boneh, before moving to his present job (also through WAC) in Jerusalem.
Asma Agbarieh interviewed Manasrah for Challenge.
What were your expectations for the performance at Tzavta?
Manasrah: I felt trepidations. We’re a new troupe without experience. We were all worried that because our play is in Arabic and the festival is mainly made up of Jewish groups, we wouldn’t place high. Nevertheless, I felt very good during the performance. I don’t have stage-fright.
How did you feel in the role of Mustafa?
Manasrah:When Hisham first gave it to me, I didn’t want it. Look, I said, Mustafa is the one who has to wrangle with his whole family. Don’t I have enough problems in real life? Do I have to have them in the theater too? I wanted to play the law student, Rifa’at, because his life is full of good times. All he cares about is girls. I wanted a role that would take me away from the problems of my own life. Hisham insisted, though. He said the role fits me. And he was right. When I began to play Mustafa, I entered into the character, and I felt that Mustafa really comes out of me. I felt that he lives the same life I do. I felt I was playing myself, not him. Many people told me afterwards that they didn’t feel I was acting, they felt I was speaking from myself, to the point where today everyone calls me Mustafa. He became a union leader though, but unfortunately not Omar.
What message do you want to convey to the audience?
Manasrah: Sometimes I feel that society despises its workers. It’s hard for a worker to accustom himself to a society where the percentage of academics has risen. The worker feels he’s nothing, and he’s ashamed to say what he does for a living, despite his real importance. I have a worker friend who’s tried to get married four times, and each of the families rejected him because they’re looking for a doctor or engineer.
We want to convey a message to our society: that the worker is a person who takes a stand and has ambitions. His contribution need not be less than a lawyer’s or academic’s.
Is this the first play you’ve acted in?
Manasrah: Two years ago I worked with children from an elementary school in Nazareth and we put on a comedy. My first play, though, was four years ago. It was called “Maternal Devotion.” I played a king. I was supposed to be stern and harsh. My mother sat in the first row, and as soon as I stepped on stage she yelled to all the women around her, “That’s my son!” I burst out laughing, and I had a very hard time getting back into the part.
What did you receive from the workshops organized by WAC?
Manasrah: Optimism, self-confidence, the capacity to feel the character and master it, not to be ashamed, not to hold back: to be able to release the energies hidden in me.