“Kidnapping”: An Interview of Dominique Caillat
By Timothy Rearden (October 2004)

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Dominique Caillat, to prepare your play “Kidnapping” you spent several months interviewing people on both sides of the Green Line, travelling all around Israel and the Palestinian Territories: what was your main impression?

Most of all, that this is a story with many, many layers. Also, that public mood in Israel and Palestine is, understandably, extremely emotional and volatile. This is why so many people think in stereotypes, which help them to feel in control of their chaotic environment, to ignore unpleasant facts and to justify the unjustifiable. There are stereotypes about everything: suicide bombers, the occupation, victims, corruption, the army, democracy, the wall, etc. – which are used by demagogues of all camps, as if they were one-dimensional concepts, to rally the hearts of their followers and convince them that “we are right and they are wrong”.

There won’t be much progress towards a solution, I think, as long as people hang on to this existential need to be proved right and feel entitled to use all means, including violence, to establish their point politically and on the ground. No matter who is right, there will need to be a compromise because this is in the best interest of all people involved and because no one can win this war and take all the spoils.

Are you suggesting that both sides are wrong?

On the contrary, they are both right – to some extent. This is a rather unique historical situation: two people have legitimate rights to the same territory. This is a real conflict: it is about land, the only land available; there is nowhere else to go. That’s why it is so difficult to solve: we are not dealing here with the power lust of some crazy dictators, greedy businessmen or colonialist superpowers, but about people’s right and need to have a piece of land somewhere, where they are entitled to live in accordance with their culture and traditions, if they wish.

How does this translate into your play?

“Kidnapping” is a documentary play: a fictitious story designed to provide information as well as a deeper understanding and empathy for the people and causes involved. It is directly based on tens of interviews conducted during two years of research. I used my own experiences, which were diverse enough as I was travelling and changing my perspective constantly, talking to everyone irrespective of their or my own opinion. This was sometimes nerve-racking – I did occasionally wish I could adopt a more militant stance and choose a side, trumpet the usual clichés, yes: lie down one evening on a sofa and utter something obvious like “Hey, occupation is really the pits, man”.

Well, of course, occupation is awful. Anybody who has spent a few hours at a checkpoint or travelled any amount of time through the territories knows this. All occupations – soldiers subduing civilian populations - are per se disastrous. But having pronounced this truism, what next? I’ll tell you what: I wake up one morning and drive up to Jerusalem. Just as I approach the centre of town, where I have an appointment, a bus explodes on Gaza Street, a road that I regularly use and would certainly have crossed today as well. 12 dead, innumerable wounded, many of them children who were on their way to school. Reduced to shreds of flesh which Hassidic volunteers carefully allocate to different plastic bags, so as to reconstitute at least parts of the bodies to be buried within 24 hours. Next: on the site of the suicide bombing, three hours after the attack – everything perfectly cleaned up, not a sign of disturbance left, the usual noisy traffic jam with overcrowded busses and hyperactive car drivers – I talk to a woman settler from Hebron: she waves her Bible in the air and wags a threatening finger at me, crying out that God gave Palestine to the Jews and that all Arabs are murderers, genetically speaking. When I ask her about Baruch Goldstein (a fanatical Hebron settler who machine-gunned 29 praying Palestinians at Abraham’s tomb in 1994), she smiles sweetly: “O I knew him all right, I am proud to say. Such a wonderful, warm-hearted man, a doctor who loved and respected life. He saved so many lives, you know: all these Arabs could have killed us one day. It was really a case of self-defence. You would have loved Baruch, lady!“ Next: I drive to Beit Shanina in the West Bank, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, to meet an allegedly pacifist Palestinian who was educated in Germany. After a few glasses of Arak, he shows his true colours, denounces the holocaust “lie” (“granted: a few hundred thousand communists were shot – not gassed – and there may have been some Jews among them”), denies Israel’s right to exist and raves about the “Jewish world conspiracy”, which holds the planet in its claws, he assures me. Next: I finish the day with dear friends, two wonderfully wise and enlightened Israelis in their late 70s, both radically opposed to occupation; in fact the wife is a member of Machsom Watch, a human rights women organisation that surveys the checkpoints. Towards the end of the evening, the husband tells me he was once a member of Irgun, a Jewish underground organisation that was responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 (91 dead), though he did not take part in that particular attack (in which his wife’s father was killed!)

Nothing makes sense; the images are always distorted, like in a broken mirror.

Sounds complicated…

It is complicated. To answer your previous question, I tried to set every story from one camp against a story from the opposing camp. I guess the truth is lies in the amalgam of all narratives.

Does this bring peace any closer?

First, my job is not peace-making but trying to make people a little more sensitive and perceptive. Second, peace is not the logical or necessary end of a conflict. Peace does not somehow happen: it is an act of will, not destiny or wishful thinking. It is the radical decision of determined and often courageous leaders (like Sadate), or else it is imposed by the will of the people who become tired of war, of which they are the first and last victims. In the Middle East, I suspect that the peace effort will indeed come from below – people will one day stop electing warriors to rule over them, and choose negotiators instead. A peace from above is hard to imagine because the political systems on both sides seem hopelessly corrupt.

History plays an important role in „Kidnapping“. Wouldn’t it have been better to concentrate on the present?

And ignore the fact that in the Middle East, history is inseparable from the present? It’s a constant reference, in all speeches, all conversations, every press report. If you want to take part in social life, you need to understand the details and the meaning of past events. First of all, you need to know all about the wars, each of which has imprinted itself in the national psyche of both people, albeit in contradicting terms: 1948 (independence vs. “Naqba”/ catastrophe); 1956 (superpower politics vs. tripartite aggression); 1967 (great victory, return to Jerusalem and the lands of the Bible vs. humiliating defeat and begin of occupation); 1973 (disaster only just avoided vs. defeat deemed a victory); 1982-2000: traumatic Lebanon war; 1991: Gulf war (Iraqi missiles fall on Tel Aviv vs. Palestinians cheer Saddam Hussein). And of course, the uprisings – 1987: begin of the first Intifada (stone-throwing children); 2000: second Intifada (suicide bombers and begin of the “hard” occupation), 2002: final collapse of the Oslo agreements, Israel retakes control of all the Territories. There are hundreds of other significant dates, going right back to the destruction of the Second Temple! As for Palestinians, they name villages that have disappeared from the map over fifty years ago as their home, some still carry keys to houses destroyed in the fifties to build Israeli motorways or towns. They are obsessed with the idea of their return to a non-existent place. If it weren’t so tragic and absurd, it would be poetic.

The past is really the key to understanding the present. That’s why half the play is a trip through history.

What is Anna, the journalist, doing in this story? Does Germany have anything to say in this region at all?

That’s not the point. The question is not who is entitled to play a role, but rather who feels concerned by the story. Now obviously, because of their country’s history, most Germans are completely emotional with respect to anything involving Jewish people or causes, including of course Israel. And since the play was written for a German public, it is quite important, I think, to include a German character with which the audience is able to identify. Furthermore, being European myself, I would find it rather pretentious to do a play about the Middle East conflict as such. All I feel entitled to do is to show our perception as outsiders.

I like to quote Gisela Dachs, correspondent of “Die Zeit” in Jerusalem, who wrote an excellent book about this issue entitled “Germans, Israelis and Palestinians – a difficult relationship”: “The holocaust, without which Israel cannot be understood, is part of our history. Unlike the Palestinians, who see themselves as victims of the victims, Germans cannot distance themselves from the pain suffered by Jews in the past. Given this complex triangle, it is even more of a challenge for us [journalists] to achieve objectivity in our reports – we cannot free ourselves from this burden just by pushing a button.” Joshka Fischer, Germany’s ex-foreign minister writes in the introduction: “For us Germans, these are fundamental issues of our politics and ethics. No other foreign policy theme affects our national image and identity as deeply. Because of its historical responsibility, Germany has a special duty with respect to Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. This duty cannot be set aside or qualified in any way. History has placed upon us a general responsibility to intercede for the rights of other people, including the Palestinians.”

I think this answers your question.

You are not German yourself. Do you really understand the German perspective?

Well, I have been living here for many years and have become, against all odds, rather “germanised”! True: my German perspective is an acquired one. I am a French-speaking Swiss, born in the US. My father, who was a young diplomat in Berlin 1942-‘44, covertly engaged in anti-Nazi activities and was expulsed from Germany. So I didn’t grow up in an environment of acknowledged or suppressed guilt, like so many Germans. This gives me a slightly different view. For example, my interest in Israel didn’t grow out of guilt feelings, but of a deep admiration, as a child, for a country that epitomized, in my youthful eyes, everything I understood under the concept of “resistance”, the David against Goliath theme. It was also a very familiar country, the land of the Bible. Coming to Israel never quite seems like going abroad, since one is familiar with so many names and places, so many historical facts or legends. Finally, at a time when everyone was romantically leftist, Israel seemed to have achieved the great utopia of “socialism with a human face”.

Anyway, as time goes by, the holocaust is becoming for me less and less of a German issue, and increasingly a European phenomenon, no matter how fiercely many Europeans may have opposed the Third Reich. As far as Jewish persecution is concerned, responsibility is truly shared: some countries actively persecuted them, others closed their borders. The Jews were abandoned by everyone. For me, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these crimes happened in the Christian European world, which had supposedly invented human rights and enlightenment. In this respect, I do feel just as responsible as any young German born after the war. And I do feel compelled to face these sickening events: what happened exactly? Why? How do we prevent this from ever occurring again? The holocaust, in fact all aspects of the Nazi dictatorship, do or should shake every European’s sense of identity.

Let’s go back to the conflict. Does “Kidnapping” offer any solution?

Once again, that’s not my purpose, nor can it be the purpose of any play. The Middle-East conflict is a relevant subject for the theatre because it involves emotions, traumas, conflict and burning issues that concern all of us. My purpose, if you wish, is to show that Israelis and Palestinians are normal people with existential problems. They are not different from us. And at a time when terror, fundamentalism, military adventurism and infringement of civil rights are daily news, I find it important to look into this situation, which is a microcosm of many events happening in the world on a larger scale. We have much to learn in terms of how to react, what to avoid, how to deal with all these problems – clash of cultures, feelings of insecurity, feelings of humiliation and oppression, religious fanaticism, terrorism, militarism, nationalism, cultural identity, revenge, etc. It’s not about teaching or preaching, it’s about listening and opening our eyes.

So the answer is no: my play does not end happily with peace accomplished. It does end on a kind of positive note, however: in the last scene, all three characters stop fighting one another and begin to criticize themselves and their own societies. They get somewhat drowned in these parallel monologues of self-criticism and are still not truly communicating with one another, but I do believe this is an essential step towards any conflict resolution: to stop blaming the enemy for all one’s woes and look critically at oneself.

As for the solution, everyone knows it anyway: two separate sovereign states, evacuation of all the settlements, Jerusalem shared (or divided or internationalized), no significant right of return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes in Israel. This is the basis of the negotiations in Camp David and the subsequent draft Taba agreement (2000), of the “People’s Voice Initiative” (2002) and of the “Geneva Accord” (2003), among others.

Everyone knows this is what’s coming or ought to come. The question is: when?


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