When the Broadway show The Band’s Visit swept the Tonys this year, I decided I needed to see what all the fuss was about, in spite of it being set in Israel. Or maybe because.
The 90-minute musical, based on a 2007 Israeli film, has a mirage-like quality to it — but it’s hard to tell at first if it’s a good mirage or not. The story is about an Egyptian police band of musicians that arrives mistakenly in an Israeli desert town in the Naqab/Negev, and they have to spend the night because there is no bus out until morning. Egyptians don’t have a ‘P’ sound in their language, hence P is pronounced as a B. If you’ve been to Egypt, you know that ‘Bebsi’ is ‘Pepsi.” As the show opens at the bus depot, their inability to pronounce the letter ‘P’ is what brings them to the wrong town.
As Ben Brantley puts it in his New York Times review, the Egyptians “board a bus… for an engagement at the Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva. Thanks to some understandable confusion at the ticket counter, they wind up instead in the flyblown backwater of Bet Hatikva.” This “understandable confusion” is the opening scene in which the Egyptian buying the whole band’s bus tickets is trying to tell the ticket agent where they want to go. The young Israeli woman in the ticket booth is trying to understand which of the two towns he wants to go to and for comic relief, keeps repeating the town names louder and louder with emphasis on the B that the Egyptian can’t replicate. Everyone laughs in the audience and the story quickly moves on. However, I cringed at this supposed comic relief scene of “confusion.” Would it have been as funny if a Chinese person was trying to say he is going to a city starting with the letter ‘L’ that he couldn’t pronounce and the agent kept saying the word louder and louder? To my ears, this was a racist joke that the audience didn’t recognize as such — a racist joke that the whole show was based around.
Nevertheless, the affable Egyptian musicians are full of life; their vitality brightens up the stage and the Israeli desert village they have mistakenly stepped into. By contrast, the Israeli denizens are all vacuous and devoid of life, with empty lives and empty futures. The Band’s Visit quickly becomes a musical about the emptiness of life in this Israeli town and all its yearning for meaning.
Not everyone sees it that way. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones wrote that “There is no mention of any macro Arab-Israeli conflict whatsoever. No need. This is a remarkable and boundlessly compassionate and humanistic piece of theater. It lets us know that that is as absurd an enmity as all the other things about which we fight.” Absurd an enmity? Is it absurd enmity to want to return to a homeland you have been expelled from and to fight for it? It’s not absurd if you are singing about losing your homeland in The Sound of Music!
Jones is right on one point, though; there is no mention of Palestine, Palestinians, or any “enmity” in the show. As if by not mentioning Palestine, it doesn’t exist.
The show would have you believe that this banal story could happen anywhere and that this Israeli village could be seen as an unimportant “anyplace.” What the show is trying to convey is that it could just as well have been a border village, say, in Spain with a band of musicians coming from Portugal and brightening up life in a dull town. It is trying to say that the story is about the universal human condition of suffering, yearning and longing and tries to posit Israel as just a normal country with normal problems.
But Israel is anything but normal and this story is specifically set in Israel where deep longings, it turns out, are insurmountable from the inside; the Israeli characters themselves cannot see their way out. The life force has to come from outside, from somewhere completely different and other, and it comes from of all places, the Arabs. Each one of the Egyptian musicians is accommodated for the night by a different “generous Israeli” who in the end benefits from the life force the Egyptian brings into their home. Each host has their own family problems, which the life force magically solves. Without this outside infusion of life, which is referred to as “something different” by the alluring, languorous Israeli cafe owner Dina, there is just frustration and ennui in the Israeli village. There’s no name for the life force because they don’t know what they’re missing in Israel; it’s just “something different” that they know not in their dull – but “normal” — lives.
It is clear that the Israeli villagers needed the Arabs who come and light up their world before they get on a bus and leave the next morning. And it’s clear that theirs is an authentic, ancient culture, which the Israelis covet deeply. In a scene in which Dina sings passionately with great longing to the straitlaced band leader whose culture prevents him from showing his own failings, her yearning and emptiness takes on an urgency as she longs for the old days when the life force came to her through Egyptian radio and brought the voices of Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif through her mother’s transistor radio.
The music by David Yazbek which makes up the original songs is distinctly Eastern in tone and does lift the mood, but when the band members start to play actual Arabic music that is not appropriated and is authentically improvised as per Eastern musical tradition, the place comes alive. You don’t want them to stop playing. Through the 90 minutes, two or three musicians get a spotlight on them at a time, playing in different corners of the stage as divertimento, giving us a taste of what we will be missing when the band finally gets to the right town to perform. I found myself wanting them to abandon the infuriating story so they could just sit and play their instruments — which they finally did after the cast’s bows. Finally, the band was front and center, but as a tack-on at the end.
Unsurprisingly, there was never any mention of the reality that is Israel and the full picture which includes human rights abuses, land theft, appropriation, or anything else that would shatter the specious façade that Israel tries to maintain: that it is a regular country of hard working people who just want to make a life for themselves in a hostile land and that a few evil Palestinians and Hamas terrorists ruin things for everyone. This omission is the most dangerous kind of normalization, letting Israel off the hook and normalizing it to the point that the Israeli protagonist yearns for something she can grab on to in the culture they are blotting out, something she found alluring and invigorating in Umm Kulthum’s songs and Omar Sharif’s movies. In other words, the show uses the Arab characters and culture as far as they can serve the Israeli characters and the Israeli narrative, and then sends them on their way.
Let’s remember that this is the country that has appropriated hummus and falafel and called it Israeli food, and cannot abide Palestinians having the right to return to homes they lost 70 years ago at the creation of their state, but insists that all Jews from around the world have a right to “return” after 2000 years. This is also the country that has just passed a new law codifying inequality by legalizing discrimination based on one’s religion. If you are not Jewish, as 20% of the population within Israel’s 1948 borders is not, you can and will now be legally discriminated against. In legal terms, Israel is the country that has just codified apartheid and made discrimination constitutional. This is not normal. It’s no wonder that normalization projects are so important; they normalize the unacceptable.
Imagine this show set in South Africa during the apartheid era with a black band of musicians coming to a desolate town of white settlers and infusing their dreary world with life, humanizing them, even as their own people are dehumanized by the metanarrative. How would we see that story? Would it be permissible to let the settlers off the hook?
Still, The Band’s Visit was awarded 10 Tony Awards. Only a handful of shows have ever achieved that status, such as Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly. Was this sweep out of guilt by the voters who know what the real Israel is and they can’t bear to call it out? Was it out of relief that, phew, this shows Israel as a “normal” country? Was it out of wishful thinking that this makes the liberation struggle of Palestinians disappear? Was it out of comfort that this washes away the dirty image Israel has today?
Whichever reasons prompted the approximately 750 voting members of the American Theatre Wing to vote for this 10-Tony sweep this year, the musical is in fact normalization of Israel to an extraordinary degree. And it is deeply distressing because such grand normalization makes the work of achieving justice for all the people in the region even more difficult than it already is. The Band’s Visit does the work of the Israeli propaganda wolf, but in sheep’s clothing.