The Middle East Side Story. An intercultural musical project

Michael Birnthaler

Not West Side Story, but Middle East Side Story because this musical does not take place in the West but the East. The actors and directors of the musical come from Galilee – and are pupils at the Harduf Waldorf school and an Arabic school; four actors (narrators) have come from the Überlingen Free Waldorf School in Germany. The “bridgeheads” of this transnational project were Ya’akov Arnan and Faez Sawaed in Galilee and on the German side Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur (Christian Community priest in Überlingen), Hjördis Lorenz and Heiner Schuur. 

Since the “Gate to the World” association was founded 15 years ago, about 300 young people have come to Israel for building camps to conjure a meeting centre out of the proverbial nothing in a forest area. Theatre and acting projects have been one of its main attractions for years – this year it was a production to get under your skin which not only adopted the social dynamite of the youth subculture of its West Side cousin but also addressed the parallel world which is the political and religious powder keg of the Middle East. In the first scene, the Chachachim, a smart and tradition-conscious clique and the underdogs of the Wusswussim gang (who claim to be the real, God-chosen heirs of the country) implacably face off. Bottomless hate between both street gangs, a poisonous, centuries-old quarrel. The acting of Middle East Side Story is more than performance, it has a bone-chilling authenticity. These really are young people from Galilee facing one another, a land like hardly any other which is battered by cultural and religious trench warfare between Christians, Muslims, Druze, Arabs and Jews. They are not speaking, telling and singing about another far-off country, they are children of this land and victims of a real, intractable war between cultures and religions.

When the gang bosses – “played” by young men from conflicting Israeli cultures – declare war on one another over the girl Maria, the blood freezes in the veins of the audience; they can feel that the young people are acting out the subject of their own lives; the spectators are drawn in and become witnesses to the archetype of all disputes, the dispute over the Holy Land.

Neither of the parties gives way. The inevitable fight occurs. At first with fists, then by force of arms. A knife appears. The girl’s brother is stabbed. Revenge is sworn: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The youth whom the girl loves also loses his life. Finally Maria and the murderer stand facing one another. The murderer unexpectedly hands over to the girl the gun with which he has just shot her beloved. The audience holds its breath. Maria raises the weapon and points it at the murderer. Never has anything happened here other than an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The law of rage, the power of hate, the logic of revenge. Or is there another way? There is. Maria lowers the weapon and bends down over the lifeless body of her beloved. At this moment the murderer awakens as if from a nightmare. The gangs with their blood feud come to their senses.

The young people have given the piece a programmatic subtitle: “Can love triumph?” The 30 young people who stand on the stage in the last scene respond to this question with a yes. Standing ovations thank the actors for their passionate message. Leonard Bernstein had the inspiration for West Side Story in 1949. Originally the piece was to be called East Side Story, take place in Israel and deal with the conflict between Jewish and Arab groups. Then the time was not ripe, today it is.

About the author: Dr. Michael Birnthaler is director of the EOS Institute in Freiburg | www.eos-ep.de