Birds of a Kind

The 1965 novel, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński, tries to capture the essence of The Holocaust in terms of a metaphor. A boy, either a Gypsy or a Jew, is wandering around the countryside in Eastern Europe during WWII searching for his family. He is equated with a bird from a flock that has been painted and then released back to fly up and join its fellows. The bird is pecked to death and falls to the earth dead. Exclusive tribal units are intolerant of the appearance of difference.

The human “flock” itself is portrayed as ridden with incest, bestiality, cruelty, rape, senseless violence and intolerance. The boy is both a witness to and victim of the horrors he observes until he, like the Biblical Joseph of the multi-coloured coat, is thrown into a pit. Unlike Joseph, who emerges victorious through his clever wit and articulate insight to rise higher than ever, the boy is rendered mute – until, miraculously, at the end of the novel, he is reunited with his family.

Greeted initially by Elie Wiesel as a novel of “deep sincerity and sensitivity” and taught by myself in a university humanities course, the book turned out to be a fraud. Not only was it not based on Kosiński’s experience during the war, but it was taken without acknowledgement from a Polish folktale with total sections plagiarized from a work by the Polish-Jewish ethnographer, Henryk Biegeleisen. The book is moving. The book is powerful. The book is also a fake. It may even have been ghost written since Kosiński lacked sufficient mastery of English to write the novel.

A writer struggling with his own identity may, however, have been an excellent choice to write on the politics of identity. And the politics of identity is the core of a great deal of fiction, including Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, one of the three plays I saw at Stratford last week which I will write about in a separate blog. 

This blog is about the most powerful of the three productions, Birds of a Kind (Tous des oiseaux) written by the Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad and directed by Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s current artistic director. The play is translated from the original French by Linda Gaboriau. Lebanese-born, Paris-raised and Canadian-educated, Mouawad advanced his career in Quebec and is now based in Paris as artistic director of the Théâtre de la Colline. Unlike The Painted Bird, the author openly acknowledged his debt to my colleague, Natalie Zemon Davis (perhaps best known to the wider public for her 1983 social historical volume, The Return of Martin Guerre) and her 2006 book, Tricksters Travels: A Sixteenth Century Muslim between Worlds.

Go see this marvellous play and stupendous production with phenomenal acting, staging and lighting. For as an added bonus you may be enticed into reading Natalie’s study. I thought of including the volume in my course that I gave this past spring on the attitudes to Jews by important scholars in the sixteenth century, and am now very sorry that I did not. My limp excuse was that Leo Africanus, the subject of Natalie Davis’s book, was not well known like the other authors. Further, he was only an ersatz Christian, a forced convert who remained inwardly a Muslim.

Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi was born in Granada and, like the Jews, his family was expelled in 1492. They moved to Morocco. He was brilliant, was appointed as a diplomat by the Sultan and was captured by Spanish Christian privateers (corsairs) and presented as a gift to the Pope in Rome. Given the offer of freedom if he became a Christian, he converted and gained access to the Pope’s marvellous library. In 1550, under the name Giovanni Leone, though more widely known as Leo Africanus, he writes a famous book on North Africa and becomes a leading intellectual light in the papal court.

For Natalie, telling one’s story is at the core of history. The story, as in Martin Guerre, can even be a fake one. And the story can be told both in the form of fiction (Amin Maalouf, Leo the African) and as history. Further, the way the story is told can be subject to the vagaries of technology so that Natalie also explored the difference between the original almost one-thousand-page manuscript and the much shorter printed version that was produced on the new printing presses of Venice. Natalie’s book, and the play, Birds of a Kind, inspired by it, is about the very opposite theme than The Painted Bird, about breaking cultural boundaries to forge a new identity rather than simply its rigidity bequeathed to you by your family, your ethnic group and your religion.

In the play, Birds of a Kind, Leo Africanus appears as the subject of the PhD thesis of Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), an American assimilated Arab, also from Morocco. As played by Aladeen Tawfeek, he is also a very physical haunting presence in the play serving as a one-person Greek chorus to comment on the action, the issues at stake and the mindblindness of each of the characters. He is also the trickster, the shape shifting presence of a multitude of identities, sexual as well as ethnic and religious.

The idea is carried through by means of one of the oldest tropes in drama, a false identity bequeathed on a child by his or her family. But it is also a play about the assimilated Arab-American, Wahida, who, in the midst of a Jewish family drama and the war between the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians raging around her, discovers her Arab/Islamic roots as she raises questions about the sixteenth century Leo Africanus, who haunts the play as a ghostly presence and chorus. There is also the mystery. Did al-Hasan al-Wazzan disappear from history by reclaiming his Islamic heritage in Tunisia after hiding for decades in the Pope’s court in the costume of a Christian? Or did he die at the hands of Christian zealots? Or did he retire to the Italian countryside to pass away as a Christian?

Since the Stratford season is almost over, with only a few performances of the play left, I will by and large avoid any warnings about disclosures, appropriate when writing about a play dealing with hidden identities and breaking barriers in those identities. I have a grandson named Eitan. He is an Israeli. The main character in Birds of a Kind is Eitan Zimmerman played by Jakob Ehman. In the play, Eitan is a German Jew only because his father, David (Alon Nashman) at the age of fourteen was skirted away from Israel and off to Germany by his father, Etgar (Harry Nelken) who is Eitan’s grandfather.

The play begins with the craziest pick-up I have ever seen between Eitan and Wahida, the two star-crossed lovers at the centre of the drama, in an almost magical and very unproblematic encounter in the library of New York City University (or is it Columbia University). Eitan is a geneticist, deeply immersed in the science of probabilities. Eitan has been stalking, not Wahida, but a library table waiting to see who has been reading the book that he has seen left on a table over two hundred times. Eitan confronts Wahida with a wild speech on statistics and improbabilities.

Eitan will eventually learn that chromosomes do not carry anything more than one’s genetic identity, and that there may be more powerful carriers of identity than one’s material heritage. On the other hand, it is genetics that produces the greatest reveal of the play. Eitan collects the cutlery left at a seder table to prove that he must not be his father and mother’s son, only to discover, first, that he is, and second, that his supposed grandparents are not. Nor are they his father’ parents.

While that scene is both romantic and comical, the scene in which Eitan plans to introduce Wahida to his parents at a seder table is anything but. At the seder, Eitan’s father, David gets into a raucous argument with his son about the need to uphold Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment, that because of the Holocaust, Jews are commanded to survive as a people. Marriage to a Muslim is out of the question, even though Fackenheim himself married a student deeply involved in the Christian Student Movement. Fackenheim’s obligation was not about who you married, as many have misinterpreted him, but the commitment to raising your children as Jewish and their obligation in turn to raise their kids as Jewish. For Jews have a solemn duty not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory. David took it a step further. He became religiously orthodox and a Jew who hates Arabs only to learn at the end that, at birth, he lacked both identities. The lesson, however, is an intellectual one. The emotional lesson breaks his heart.

David’s wife and Eitan’s mother, Norah (Sarah Orenstein), was raised as a communist in East Germany by parents who suppressed any acknowledgement of their Jewish heritage. Norah has resumed her Jewish identity, but it seems to lack any depth, so it is particularly puzzling when she supports her husband’s refusal to accept the love of their son’s life, Wahida. She argues that she does not want to see the negative effect that her rebellion against her communist past had on her own father now inflicted on her husband.

Etgar attempts to be the peacemaker, but there is a second front in the emotional war, the extreme hostility of David towards his mother, Leah (Deb Filler), whom he felt abandoned him at the age of fourteen. It is not clear what the relationship is between Norah, David’s wife, a German-born psychiatrist raised in East Germany as a communist who only discovered she was Jewish at the age of fourteen.

The following may help is picturing the relationships:

Etgar (Harry Nelken)    –    Leah (Deb Filler)

                                     !

                    David (Alon Nashman)    –    Norah (Sarah Orenstein)

                                                            !

Eitan (Jakob Ehman) – Wahida (Naraka Rahman)

Fourteen, just when teenagers are beginning the race through their teens, seems to be the magic moment of trauma in the play. That is the age when Wahida loses her parents, when David’s parents split over whether they ought to tell their son about his true origins, and the date when Norah learns that she is Jewish. Only Eitan remains as a suspended adolescent. For this age of early adolescence is precisely when children develop perception and insight, but also when they are most naïve and inwardly absorbed. Just when they begin to shift away from their families, adolescents most need them. Just when they want to express their uniqueness as social personae, they also have the deepest need for rootedness. It is a conflictual period of hormonal drives and ethical conflicts, grasping for abstractions and universal guidance and trapped in the very specific particularities of one’s own life.

Eitan, though thoroughly invested in science and the conviction that our identities are strictly chromosomal, travels with Wahida to Israel to see his grandmother, Leah, whom he has never met. Wahida is detained for questioning, thus saving her from injury and possibly death from a terrorist bomb that sends Eitan to the hospital in a coma. His parents and grandfather are recalled to Israel because of his medical state. But it will not be his physical condition that will become the central issue, but his cultural and ethnic identity. At the bedside of Eitan, Leah meets her grandson for the first time, meets Wahida and also meets both her husband and son whom she has not seen for 35 years since they left when Eitan was fourteen just after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila and the profound and deep moral crisis that Israelis went through. Leah learns that the wall she has built around her heart to shut out the military and the familial violence is far more fragile than she thought. It is shattered by the reunion and the family politics.

There is one other character in the play. Hannah Miller plays Eden, an Israeli soldier who befriends Wahida and tries to help her escape the violence of the Jewish Israeli-Palestinian violence. There is a suggestion at one point that the two have had a lesbian affair, but we are left uncertain of whether we heard it correctly since nothing is made of the hint. The reference to DNA at the beginning of the play has some substance. It is the plot device to reveal his father’s “true” identity. It is also at the core of survival when the play ends with a reference to donor transplantation to save four other lives. However, the lesbian suggestion is weird and gratuitous. 

Identity confusion is compounded by language confusion as characters slip back and forth between English and Hebrew and German and even Arabic, Eitan speaks German to his parents and they speak to each other in the same language. David Speaks Hebrew to his father, Etgar, and his mother, Leah, and the parents speak Hebrew to one another. Eitan and Wahida speak to each other in English. (The dialogue is translated on a screen above the action on stage.) This is the opposite of gratuitous for it goes to the heart of the matter whether one’s “native” language is at the core of identity rather than religion per se, ethnicity, gender and least of all citizenship.

This powerful play ends with a loud proclamation about Eitan’s own version of kaddish, but it really is a weak copout and a purchase into the liberal principle that beneath it all, beneath all the cultural accretions, we are one. Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet cannot consummate their love because of tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries ingrained by history.

How does one live true to one’s culture but also to oneself given the real forces of one’s environment? Leo Africanus offered an answer. Adapt. Become a bird that can live under the water. A Muslim as a captive can convert to Christianity, can paint himself to look like those who are his captors, but given the chance, as he was, he could eventually throw off his make-up and resume his cultural identity. A mother tongue more than the genes of a mother seem to be the key to cultural identity.

Birds of a Kind is unlike Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play, Birds. The latter is a comedy; the former is a tragedy. The Israeli-Arab conflict is explosive front and centre in the Stratford production. The Peloponnesian War is a silent backdrop to the Athenian’s play, specifically the misbegotten Sicilian Expedition and, domestically, a real witchhunt and riotous behaviour led by religious dogmatists attacking rationalist philosophers. In Birds, birds of the fields and mountains, of the trees and the seas, of the rivers and marshes, collect to build a city in the sky, Cloudcuckooland, that overwhelms Olympus. The birds become gods supplanting the Greek deities, but it is at the cost of their freedom as they now have to dedicate their lives to the defence of the monstrosity they built.

Birds of a Kind include four types of birds, but each is an archetype of a different kind of human benighted by nature as depicted in the Aristophanes play. There are Birds of Beauty (Wahida), Birds of Chance (Eitan), Birds of Misfortune (David) and Amphibious Birds like Leah and Etzek who provide the direction and underlying thrust of the drama, but become totally confounded by what they set in play. However, all the birds, all four kinds, are entities without wings, insubstantial as dreams, ephemeral things, as Aristophanes writes, “enfeebled and powerless creatures of earth always haunting a world of shadows.”

With the help of Alex Zisman.

2 comments on “Birds of a Kind

  1. Cornelia Baines says:

    Howard – we see 10-11 Stratford plays every year in the first week of August. Birds was memorable and we have encouraged others to go. It was outstanding. Also anguishing.
    Cornelia

    Cornelia J. Baines MD, MSc, FACE
    Professor Emerita,
    Dalla Lana Faculty of Public Health,

    ________________________________

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I am interested in what you thought of Nathan the Wise. Next week I will write about Hnry VIII.

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