Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Emily Shihadeh's "Grapes and Figs Are in Season" A Hit in U.S. and Mideast

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Emily Shihadeh's "Grapes and Figs Are in Season" A Hit in U.S. and Mideast

Article excerpt

Emily Shihadeh's "Grapes and Figs Are In Season" A Hit in U.S. and Mideast

On a brightly lit set, with a backgammon table and two chairs as part of her props, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair appears on stage. In a sparkling, melodious voice, she begins to tell stories of her homeland and sing the poetry of her father. She laughs, she cries and the audience laughs and cries with her. At the end, her mesmerized audience gives her an enthusiastic standing ovation.

It's Emily Mansur Shihadeh performing her overwhelmingly successful one-woman theater piece, "Grapes and Figs Are in Season: A Palestinian Woman's Story," to American, Arab, Jewish and multi-cultural audiences all over the United States and the Middle East. Her first performance was in February 1991 at the American Conservatory Playroom Theatre in San Francisco, California.

"The war in Iraq broke out when I started rehearsing my show and I didn't know what to do," says Ms. Shihadeh. "The word from above said: `go on.' So we opened and the people came in droves. They were suffering about the war and they wanted something Arabic to come to. I filled the theater like it was never filled before."

Since then she has given lectures and performed her show at numerous universities, schools and churches including The Divinity School at Yale University; Harvard University; Haifa Municipal Theater in Israel; Tsafta Theater in Tel Aviv; Hall of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem under the sponsorship of Sabeel, an ecumenical center for Palestinian liberation theology; and at two conventions of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine.

Ms. Shihadeh defines herself as a catalyst for peace, understanding and justice, seeking to bridge the gap between people. "I want to tell the world about Palestine, about our wonderful culture, our grand hospitality, our wonderful qualities," she says. "I want people to know that we are human beings -- we love our families, we tell stories, we sing songs. And when they hear about my life, they are moved by the personal quality of my story, and they begin to understand."

Using the backgammon table, Ms. Shihadeh tells about her father and mother, authoritative but loving parents, who were avid players of the popular Middle Eastern game. Her reminiscence is filled with humor and love and, as the story unfolds, the audience gets a glimpse of the customs and values of the typical Ramallah family. Yet, the shadows of political strife lengthen. With emotions high, she recreates a scene in which her family returns to Jerusalem to find their home there taken over by "the Rosens."

"One Israeli Jewish man stood up after the show and said, `I could have been the Jewish soldier yelling at your mother, and I am ashamed,'" recalls Ms. Shihadeh. "Another Israeli Jewish woman in the same audience said, `Now I know how hard it is for Palestinians, who love freedom, to be under curfew.' Hearing those words from them is worth my whole performance."

Says Letty M. Russell, professor of theology at Yale University, about Ms. Shihadeh's lecture to divinity students: "It was helpful for them [the students] to learn about the crucial importance of interreligious dialogue between Christians, Jews and Arabs as part of any movement toward peace with justice. The way she acted out the story brought out the deep family connections to the land, and to Palestinian Christian traditions, as well as her ability to use humor to stay sane in the midst of injustice and war. Her ability to express rage at injustice and yet work for peace and human dignity was amazing."

Ms. Shihadeh's message is the result of years of education and self-healing. After arriving in America in 1958 as a 17-year-old bride, she was lonely and very disturbed at the isolation of her life in the United States. "I grew up loving the west; I loved Americans, their culture, music, Hollywood movies, their humor," she recalls. "But when I came to this big city of San Francisco, no one seemed to care. …

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