When Ibrahim Miari signed up to be part of the Middle East Project, a collaborative venture initiated by San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, he didn’t know the finished play would be based on his own life experience.
“Our goal was to tell a story complex enough about the Middle East,” he said of the former theater company’s 2005 production, which also involved an Israeli actress, “and, eventually, we found that my personal story, among the cast, was the most intriguing in terms of the complexity of it.”
He’s not kidding. In “Blood Relative,” Miari played “Ibi,” a young Israeli with a Palestinian Muslim father and an Israeli Jewish mother. Most audience members who came to see the play in San Francisco and Berkeley didn’t realize how closely the story mirrored Miari’s life.
All the promotional materials by TJT and press about the show described Miari as an Israeli Arab actor from the Akko Theater Center. While that was indeed true, one slight detail was omitted from the description: His mother was born Jewish. She converted to Islam to marry his father.
“At the time, I don’t know if I was confident enough to share the specifics of my real life,” Miari said in a recent phone interview from his home near Philadelphia. “I was new to the States then, and it was scary for me. I didn’t know what to expect. It would have been a lot of exposure and I didn’t want to put any of my family members in a place where they have to talk about it.”
Miari — who also was commissioned by the S.F.-based Israel Center to perform on college campuses in the 2004 show “Ambassadors of Very Good Will” (which had to be temporarily postponed after he was denied entry into the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security) — will be returning to the Bay Area next week.
He will perform his one-man show, “In Between,” on Thursday, Feb. 28 at Berkeley Hillel. The free show will be followed by a discussion. It’s part of Berkeley Hillel’s Israel Culture Week activities.
In many ways, “In Between” continues where “Blood Relative” left off — as Miari is now more “out” about his mixed identity. While “Blood Relative” was about a boy’s conflicting identities, “In Between” starts with his childhood and goes through a more adult phase of Ibrahim’s life, when he meets and falls in love with a Jewish woman. A big part of the show portrays the couple’s actual experience trying to find a clergy member to marry them.
Miari met his wife at Peace Camp Canada, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens, shortly after “Blood Relative” finished. She is Jewish.
Meeting her brought Miari back to the U.S., and he obtained a master’s degree in theater education at Boston University. The couple now have a daughter, and while Miari takes his show on the road when time permits, he is currently teaching Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also taught Arabic at other universities.
Unlike in “Blood Relative,” in which many liberties were taken with made-up stories about his family members, “In Between” is semi-autobiographical, meaning the characters are all real. What they say is sometimes changed for dramatic impact.
While Miari has performed the show at a few festivals abroad, in the U.S. it’s been mostly on college campuses at the invitation of Jewish groups. There is always a discussion after the performance.
“I always ask people to please react with what you saw in the show and not beyond that, because if there’s something I wanted to share and say, I would have put it in the show,” he said. So, for example, when a woman recently asked whether he was still married, suggesting that his marriage was doomed to fail, he chose not to answer.
A question he gets a lot is how he and his wife are raising their daughter. “Being in my family and intermarrying myself, I understand why this is so interesting to people,” he said. “But I feel this is too private. If I wanted to talk about that, I would have put that in my show. I draw the line and I take the audience where I want them to go.”
“In Between,” 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28 at Berkeley Hillel, 2736 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Free. www.berkeleyhillel.org