Until he was 7-years-old, Ibrahim Miari was called Avraham. The son of an Israeli Jewish mother and Palestinian Muslim father, Ibrahim has shaped and crafted his improbable life story into a one-man show called “In Between.” He performed it last Saturday night at Boston University.
Ibrahim’s appearance was part of a faculty initiative by the university’s Religious Studies Department called “The Other Within.” The goal of the initiative, underwritten by a grant from the Posen Foundation, is to explore cultural dimensions of Judaism and Jewish identity.
Ibrahim raises awareness about his complicated identity the moment he whirls onto the stage like a Sufi dervish. His circle dancing is dizzying, mesmerizing – a way for Ibrahim to center himself and dwell in calm, still moments. The stage is bare except for a red suitcase, a chair and dumbek drum. He begins by telling the story of his parents’ improbable courtship.
His mother was a schoolgirl in Acco. His father drove a 1969 red Volkswagen around town and fell in love with this Jewish girl at first sight. That’s the story Ibrahim invents for parents who are mum on the subject.
Ibrahim’s story ricochets from his childhood to an interrogation at the airport. He’s the only actor on stage and plays all the parts, from the El Al employee who notices Ibrahim trying to check in with a suitcase belonging to Sarah Goldberg from Boston–Sarah is Ibrahim’s Jewish fiancée, and the two met working at a summer peace camp for Israeli and Palestinian children to his future mother-in-law.
“You’re an Arab and a Jew?” Ibrahim’s investigator asks going through his luggage with a rubber glove. “That’s a good one! Who would marry you?”
Ibrahim tells his audience that in Israel his identity is composed of labels piled one atop another. That Ibrahim Mairi is a Jew is acknowledged by the most stringent of rabbinical authorities because his mother is a Jew. But Muslims claim him as one of their own through his father. His American Jewish mother-in-law worries about her future grandchildren, whom she says will “need a clear sense of identity so you don’t pass on the confusion.” Children need community and culture, she adds.
The more pressing problem is that Sarah and Ibrahim need a clergy person to marry them. Sarah is a Jewish Buddhist – a JuBu. Three clergy – Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist – refused to officiate for various reasons. Three clergy portrayed by one puppet. With just a flick of the side curls the rabbi becomes a sheikh. And with a quick change into a turban, the sheik is a Buddhist priest. There is no possibility of hyphenated identity for Ibrahim and Sarah’s children. They’ve been turned away from their parents’ religious communities.
“I’m not Buddhist, Muslim, or Jewish enough” for anybody, Ibrahim explains.
Ibrahim tells his audience that Purim was the last Jewish holiday he celebrated as Avraham. Purim was his mother’s favorite holiday, and the last year he was in a Jewish school she made him a lavish costume. Purim is Ibrahim’s favorite Jewish holiday as well. It’s poetic that a holiday during which identities are masked and stereotypes inverted speaks so deeply to a man whose Jewish heart co-exists with his Muslim soul.
In 1991, Ibrahim was 15-years old during Operation Desert Storm when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles into Israel. The Mairis, who lived in Acco, didn’t have gas masks or a safe room in their house. In a nod to Arabic tradition, they put dough on their windows for good luck. When a couple is about to be married, family and friends stick coins in the dough of the couple’s new home to symbolize prosperity.
Fifteen years later, missiles rained down on Israel from Lebanon. It was Sarah’s first visit to Israel, and Ibrahim was an eager translator. But the clear blue sky that summer wasn’t an accurate reflection of the region’s turmoil. The war came to Acco and so Ibrahim took his fiancée to Haifa. The rockets landed in Haifa and the couple took cover in Nazareth. The missiles found them there, too, and Sarah’s next stop in Israel was the airport.
Ibrahim’s show began as his thesis project at Boston University’s drama school. Over the years it has evolved in response to audience comments. He says the show’s length depends on his mood and the audience’s reactions.
For all of the show’s spontaneity, Ibrahim’s message is consistent. He’s not Israeli enough because he’s a Muslim. He’s not Arab enough because he’s a Jew. He’s not Palestinian enough because he doesn’t live in the West Bank.
“I am a 1948 Arab.” This means that the members of his Arab family are Israeli citizens because they left their old village to settle in Haifa during Israel’s War of Independence. “I’m a demographic problem. I’m an inside Arab – an Israeli citizen. I am the country’s cancer – a few bad cells they put up walls around and have security checkpoints for. I am a ticking bomb – the ultimate security risk.”
A friend finally marries Ibrahim and Sarah in Massachusetts. They come up with a to-do list for the wedding ceremony using the ABC’s. C is for canopy. F is for the friend who would marry them, H is for henna. L is for lanterns. S is for simcha. U is for ululations. Y is for yamulka.
Ibrahim and his wife recently became parents, and during the Q&A all he would say is that that they plan to raise their child with pure love. He also said that he was not ready to show his play to his father. But his mother, a convert to Islam, has seen a taped version of his show. For the most part, she liked what she saw and heard. But she also told her son that as long as he makes his life story art, she’ll never tell him the story of how she met his father.