Savannah Morning News
June 18, 2017
There we are, settled in the front row at the College of Charleston at this year’s Spoleto Festival waiting to see a dance performance, “We Love Arabs,” seated in front of two Savannah friends (what are the chances of that?), leaning back and talking about – what else? – restaurants in this historic city to the north wondering where and what to eat next (there just aren’t enough hours in the day to dine) when the woman next to us intervened with directions and opinions.
“Just don’t move here,” she said, albeit pleasantly, echoing the views of anyone who finds themselves living in an altogether interesting but popular – maybe trendy – town. (Can you say Savannah?)
How nice not to have a dog in that fight, I thought.
How nice to stay in a hotel like the Francis Marion that offers umbrellas to guests in case of rain, stamps at the front desk for the spontaneous postcard, visible attempts at recycling and a free bottle of wine if you dine in the hotel restaurant.
How nice to be in a town where people bike.
“Didn’t I just see you on stage at the Dock Street Theater?” I say to a bicyclist as we stood on a corner, just a couple of flummoxed tourists, turning the map upside down, trying to figure out where we were. The young woman on a bike was wearing shorts and sandals and carrying with what looked to be a violin case on her back. She nods, confirming her presence in the chamber music concert we just exited. At the next corner I recognize someone else from the same concert. He was walking and carrying a larger instrument, probably a cello.
Then, sitting in the audience, one thing led to another, and maybe because of the nature of the pending performance, the woman-in-the-front-row asked if we had seen the Charleston Holocaust Memorial, which, like everything else seemed to be off King Street. Later that night we walked over. It was dusk when we approached the 17-foot-high iron gates that sat in the shadow of a much taller statue of John C. Calhoun so it was a little hard to make out what we were seeing.
The gates loomed large. They encircled a stark and unadorned empty space of concrete save for what appeared to be an enormous rumpled blanket in the middle. By now because we are accustomed (and hardened) to seeing itinerant people sleeping that way It seemed as if a homeless person or persons might be lying under what could have been a tarp. Then we walked closer. We didn’t see any movement. We look to a police officer standing nearby. Go ahead, he said, you can approach it. So we do. We touch the covering. It was brass. Alongside the monument we read the meaning of the tarp. It symbolizes a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl that covers the dead.
Outside the gates we read the names of Charleston survivors who survived the concentration camps, the architect (Jonathan Levi) and the generous local benefactors. The monument was a very unassuming, quiet, powerful statement especially for a town with less than a half million people in the metropolitan area (maybe 300,000 in Charleston proper), a small fraction of whom are Jewish.
Monuments are one way to remind us of shameful chapters in the world. Books, art and documentaries are others. But so is a work of dance, such as “We Love Arabs” except this two-man performance or dialogue between an Israeli choreographer (Hillel Kogan) and an Arab dancer (Adi Boutrous) goes so much further than what you might think of as dance. It’s talky, for starters, philosophical talk as the Israeli tries to work out the conundrum of identity, land, politics, space, existence, generalization, ethnic stereotyping and the issue of co-existing and living together as Arabs and Jews, two people who share so much history and culture.
At one point the Israeli asks the Arab to take a magic marker and draw a Jewish symbol on the Israeli’s shirt. He draws a Star of David. Then the Israeli takes the marker and after thinking starts to draw on the Arab dancer’s forehead. What is it? the Arab asked. “It’s one of those” – and then Kogan holds up his fingers in the shape of a half-moon, stumbling before he says, “You know, a croissant, a crescent like you have on your mosques” – to which the Arab dancer says with deadpan expression, “Yes, but I am Christian.”
It’s cerebral, ironic, homoerotic, funny. It’s energetic. They are dancers, after all.
Finally, Kogan asks Boutrous to fetch a bowl. He brings it back. It’s hummus, he tells us in the audience. Kogan, the Israeli, dips his hand in the bowl and starts to smear the mashed chickpeas on Boutrous’ face. Then he invites Boutrous to do the same. Hummus, he says, is Israeli. Then he stops and corrects himself. It’s Middle Eastern. It belongs to Arabs, too.
Finally, the two dancers approach the audience. They hand out pieces of pita, they offer the bowl of hummus. They invite people to join in. It’s an act of communion. Between Jew and Arab. It’s symbolic. It’s art. It’s Spoleto.