LONDON — One of Britain’s most successful playwrights, Steve Waters, has taken on the thorny topic of Middle East politics with an ambitious 10-part drama about the birth of the State of Israel for the BBC World Service radio network.
“Miriam and Youssef” is about two young and idealistic people — one a Jew from Eastern Europe, the other a Palestinian Arab. It has an unusual narrative arc, with Waters introducing the characters in 1917 rather than in the immediate run-up to the birth of Israel in 1948.
The show launches April 29 on the BBC World Service website, and will be also be available as a podcast immediately.
Waters is a professor of scriptwriting at Britain’s University of East Anglia with a starry back catalogue of plays for stage and radio, frequently based on real events with a fictional twist. He had a 2017 stage hit in “Limehouse,” which traced the rise of Britain’s centrist Social Democratic Party after it was founded in 1981 by a group of dissident Labour politicians. (The play’s closing night packed a shock of its own as three of the surviving founders turned up in the audience, to the slight consternation of the actors.)
Reviewing one of Waters’s most recent plays, the Guardian’s veteran critic, Michael Billington, quoted German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel, who asserted that “in a good play, everyone is right.” Waters certainly takes that to heart in “Miriam and Youssef,” where the listener hears not just the Jewish and Arab viewpoints, but also the unenviable story of the British Mandate and its officials, told through the eyes of fictional British civil servant, Harry Lister.
Waters, who lives just outside Cambridge, is cheerful and good-humored with a proclivity for meticulous research — lots of it.
“I love pretending to be a historian, and I dived into the words of people like Tom Segev, Hillel Cohen, Benny Morris and Walid Khalidi. This was just fantastic historiography to draw upon,” Waters tells The Times of Israel.
A mix of fact and fiction
The genesis of “Miriam and Youssef” comes from Waters’s previous drama for BBC radio, last year’s nine-episode “The Fall of the Shah.” It was an experiment and the first of it kind for the radio station, which was looking for an interesting way to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Waters’s idea of making a multi-strand radio documentary, but which mixed fact with fiction, was an immediate hit and it made the producers want to work with him again.
“Last January [in 2019], “The Fall of the Shah” was being broadcast and we had already begun to talk about the next project,” says Waters. “There was a mutual interest in exploring the birth of the State of Israel, so that’s when we began.”
Given how long production can often take, “Miriam and Youssef” has been completed remarkably quickly. Final recordings and editing took place in January and February this year, finishing, luckily, just before coronavirus lockdowns put a halt to almost all culture and arts initiatives on radio, theater and TV.
The 10 half-hour episodes trace the stories of the woman and man who become neighbors and friends when Miriam Cohen and her mother Sara settle in Palestine after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Listeners hear the adult Miriam talking about her early experiences on a kibbutz, mirrored by the adult Youssef Bannourah, recalling his time with his family in Deir Yassin. This was the Arab village just outside Jerusalem which was later to become notorious as the scene of an alleged massacre in 1948 perpetrated by right-wing Jewish militia.
In Waters’s telling, the idealistic Miriam winds up at the newly established Hebrew University, telling its first president, Rabbi Judah Magnes, of her hopes for her new homeland. Youssef, meanwhile, son of the leader of Deir Yassin, is offered work at the British Mandate offices. Inevitably, political upheaval engulfs both of them — and each becomes involved in violent resistance movements.
“[Steve Waters’s drama] is a deeply human story of two young people full of ideals,” says commissioning editor for BBC World Service English, Simon Pitts. “They both have a need for home and for a place to feel rooted in. The history of the creation of Israel is a turbulent one and this drama series is about people caught up in events, sometimes out of their control, and is about people wrestling with their consciences.”
“Miriam and Youssef is also a story of survival and about the very fragility of existence,” Pitts says. “Set against the backdrop of major events taking place around Jerusalem and across the world, this is big-scale drama for podcast and radio listeners.”
The episodes are filled with a full accompanying soundtrack and an atmospheric background. In Deir Yassin, for example, Youssef’s family are stonemasons and the dialog is accompanied by the sound effects of tools hitting stones. Episode three focuses on Jerusalem’s holy places and it’s easy to picture the scenes at the Western Wall as Arab workers under British direction squabble with Jewish would-be worshipers.
Middle East melting pot
The cast of the series reflect the melting-pot nature of the Middle East, from Israeli-born Shani Erez, who plays Miriam, to Amir el-Masry, born in Cairo and who has made his home in Britain, who plays Youssef.
British Jewish actors Daniel Rabin as Menachem Begin, and Elliot Levey as David Ben-Gurion, appear with Iranian-born Dana Haqjoo, who plays the controversial Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Sargon Yelda, also originally from Iran, plays Musa Alami, a Palestinian thinker who has a dramatic encounter with David Ben-Gurion in one of the episodes — a meeting which really happened.
Waters, who spent time on Kibbutz Dalia in northern Israel as a young man, adds a healthy measure of wit to his narrative, laughing at the “contrivance” of making the fictional Sara and Miriam Cohen search for their cousin when they reach Palestine — but no matter how much they search, they can’t find David Grun. He has of course, by the time the women arrive from Europe, transformed himself into David Ben-Gurion, as they are kindly informed by a kibbutznik they meet.
It might sound far-fetched, but Waters said he wanted to present a story in which his own characters and real events mixed inextricably.
Most of all, however, Waters wanted to show the “really interesting ambiguities” which characterized the British Mandate, a period in history which he believes to be “an astonishingly undertold story.” To that end he created the conflicted British civil servant Harry Lister. Lister is instructed to carry out the orders of his masters in London, even as he watches the conflict between Jews and Arabs escalate due to the Mandate’s repeated mishandling of the situation.
“The character of Lister,” says Waters, “attempts to build bilateral relationships between the different communities and faith groups. Harry is responsible for overseeing the holy places [in Jerusalem], and finds himself in some very tricky positions there.
“He’s quite well-meaning… but anyone who tries to make things work is only as good as the person running things, and when the next High Commissioner [after Herbert Samuel] comes in, everything falls apart. The Foreign Office changes direction… the point is that their minds [that of the British government] were not on Palestine a great deal of the time.”
“Towards the end of the Mandate,” Waters says, “Britain made so many errors, were so embattled and had such a siege mentality, that [it] led to the really disastrous decisions of the 1940s.”
Waters admits he would have loved to write 40 episodes rather than the 10 to which he was restricted. But he has treated the whole project like a play.
“I saw it as a three-act structure, with the first act setting out building blocks and context of the 1920s,” he says.
The second act deals with the highs and lows of the 1930s as the prospect of impending war in Europe turns Britain’s focus away from Jerusalem; and in the last three episodes Waters highlights the steps which led to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, including a whole episode devoted to the crucial vote at the United Nations in November 1947.
Last year, as part of his research, Waters went to Jerusalem, but made a side trip to the Palestinian territories.
“The fallout for the Palestinians of the birth of the State of Israel is, of course, ‘Naqba,’ or catastrophe,” Waters says. “And that displacement undoubtedly resembles the Diaspora that many Jewish people were dealing with for thousands of years. There is a poignant irony in that, and an insoluble one, in some respects.”