More than 100 days after the start of the Israel–Hamas war, the Mideast conflict shows no signs of de-escalating, nor do the protests against it here in the U.S. Meanwhile, cultural events tied to Muslim communities and Palestinian causes have been canceled around the country and elsewhere, as reported by the Forward, a local independent Jewish news nonprofit.
But for local artist-activists like Tom Block, founding executive director of the International Human Rights Art Movement, longtime Jackson Heights resident and playwright of “Oud Player on the Tel,” it’s in these most uncomfortable moments that interfaith cultural events can wield the greatest results.
“The role of art, in my opinion, is to go into the most difficult situations, not turn away from them, period,” Block told Epicenter.
Leadership staff at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL), a multidisciplinary arts center based in Southeast Queens, couldn’t agree more.
“If our institution can play any kind of positive and constructive role in dialogue here with respect to what’s going on overseas, then we should do that,” said JCAL Executive Director Leonard Jacobs.
Next week, JCAL is hosting a free “Meet the Playwright” presentation featuring a reading of a section of “Oud Player on the Tel,” and a post-show talk with the creative team. As a special addition to the usual series structure, three interfaith leaders are joining the event to do what they do best: lead dialogue between diverse communities on an especially fraught topic.
What’s the 411 on JCAL’s theater series?
Brenda Jones, co-founder and curator of the “Meet the Playwright” series, and JCAL’s artistic director, Courtney Ffrench, started the series at the height of the pandemic, when “all the theaters went dark,” Jones told Epicenter.
The need for people, including artists, to have access to theater in the communities where they live, is “necessary” and is one of the goals of JCAL in strengthening its theater programming, said Ffrench.
Now in its fourth season, the “Meet the Playwright” series is a set of competitively selected semi-staged works that run from November to February each year. Among this year’s picks of original plays by diverse playwrights who live in New York City, the team had chosen “Oud Player” before the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
After Oct. 7, JCAL staff reached out to the playwright. It was a tricky situation in a contentious climate — they were concerned. Block suggested JCAL invite interfaith leaders, two of whom he knew from previous programming, to engage the audience in healthy dialogue. The show, as it happens, will go on.
What’s the intel “on the Tel”?
“Oud Player on the Tel” envisions a friendship forging between a German Holocaust survivor and a Sufi villager in the period that preceded the founding of the State of Israel. Block calls “Oud Player” a form of “forensic history” that sheds light on overlooked encounters between two displaced peoples — and one possibility that could be if we quelled the “forces of darkness” that ask us to choose a side.
A decade ago, on the 50th anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Block’s then-new play was meant, in part, to shed light on a shared experience — to show that it’s not just Jews but also Arabs who have suffered displacement from a cherished homeland, Jewish Week reported. “Oud Player” was first read at the 14th Street Y, an organization that describes itself on its website as “a beacon for Jewish life and culture for the East Village and the Lower East Side.”
Now, the creative team at a Jamaica-based organization that centers BIPOC voices will showcase a selection of “Oud Player” — and invites a diverse New York City community to show up ready to listen and open its mind.
“There are a lot of voices that don’t get heard,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes they’re geopolitical, sometimes they’re historical. And it’s part of the work that we have to do to engage community voices that want to engage with us, want to engage with the community, … who may want to understand more about the story.”
To find out more about the story behind the story, Epicenter spoke with playwright Tom Block. Excerpts from the conversation are below, lightly edited for clarity.
Epicenter: At its most basic, what is “Oud Player” about?
Block: This story is about the founding of Israel in 1947 and it shows one small Palestinian village that is led by a Sufi, a kind of unofficial mayor who welcomes a Jewish gentleman around the same age (they’re older) into his village and says, ‘there’s plenty of room; we can all work together. I’m sure it’ll be fine. We know what a hard time you’ve had in the North.’ He’s a Sufi; he does not speak for all the people in the play. He and the Jewish emigree become very good friends. However, there are the winds of history blowing in terms of Jews arriving from Europe, desperately wanting to create the state of Israel. Even though these two main characters get along beautifully, they can’t stop those winds. And what takes place then is — well, what did take place: the taking over of Palestinian lands by the arriving Jews and the driving out of the Palestinians.
Epicenter: How did you develop the idea behind this play?
Block: I was a painter for many years, [beginning] when I lived in Spain, always activist-oriented. I needed to find social meaning to painting when I moved back here. So I was doing a bunch of reading and as part of that reading, I found this Jewish Sufi [book] and a footnote that said, ‘Of course, as everybody knows, medieval Jews were influenced by Sufism.’ … And I thought, ‘wow, that seems very counter-narrative. Everybody doesn’t know that.’
The first book I wrote was “Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity,” which was diving into this very realm. It was an exploration of how Sufism, which is an Islamic mysticism, influenced Jewish mysticism, and it was kind of what’s called forensic history. It’s a history that has been buried beneath political enemies today, but it was very much about positive interaction between — since the founding of Islam — Muslim and Jewish mystics, to the point where there were a bunch of mystics in Medieval times who were really Jewish Sufis.
Epicenter: JCAL mentioned the idea of having a dialogue with these interfaith leaders came from you. Could you speak about that?
Block: Finding people — Rasha [Abdel Latif, director of MENA and Civil Society Strengthening at PartnersGlobal] is Palestinian and Michelle [Koch, co-founder and executive director of the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee], is Israeli — that are involved in an intimate way in these issues who are willing to go beyond a partisan point of view, beyond my side or your side, is vital and I think right now it’s extremely difficult. And the more difficult it is, the more necessary it becomes.
Epicenter: Since this was a play you submitted long before Oct. 7, what was it about “Oud on the Tel” that made you want to potentially work on this play with JCAL?
I’m working with a Palestinian friend, [Wafa Jamil], who was born and raised in Gaza, on a film called The Other Gaza (she started this two years before the war). It was basically about what life is like in Gaza, and it’s the kind of work I do with my nonprofit, so I signed on as a co-producer.
It’s really raised again in my consciousness just how much people get passionate about this subject the way they do not about Ukraine and Russia, or with the Sudanese civil war or the Tibetan situation or Kashmir or Kurdistan. And just how much we really need to keep having these conversations until even a frigid peace with a big fat line of demarcation, with U.N. peacekeepers all along it, would be much, much better than what is currently happening there.
The first step towards peace is going to be understanding. … To get towards understanding, you have to first appreciate that there are two equally righteous narratives and you must be willing to accept the veracity of the other side’s narrative — grudgingly and miserably though that may be. And at that point, maybe you, the audience, will stop being part of the problem, aligned with darkness and on one side or the other, and part of the light, a person who is moving beyond that ‘you or us’ narrative.
How to join the conversation
What: JCAL’s “Oud Player on the Tel” Meet the Playwright event
When: One night only, on Jan. 25 at 8 p.m.
Where: 161-4 Jamaica Avenue in Queens
Who: Creative team: Playwright Tom Block, Director Jesica Garrou, John Druzba of stage directions, actors Mark Peters, Mark Quiles, Emile Lacheny, Zach Canter
Pre-show discussion panel with interfaith leaders: Dr. Sarah Sayeed (Moderator), Rasha Abdel Latif, Michelle Koch
How: Learn more and register at this link.