At Penn Museum, a one-man show on Palestinian-Israeli identity

‘In Between’ is an award-winning, semi-autobiographical one-man show by Ibrahim Miari that portrays the complexities and contradictions inherent in Palestinian-Israeli identity.

Ibrahim Miari performing on stage wearing a latex glove and holding a drum.
Ibrahim Miari performing “In Between.”

Ibrahim Mari, a performer, playwright, and lecturer in Hebrew in the Jewish Studies Program, brings to the stage of the Penn Museum an award-winning, semi-autobiographical one-man show that portrays the complexities and contradictions inherent in Palestinian-Israeli identity. As the son of a Palestinian Muslim father and Jewish Israeli mother, Miari narrates his childhood in Israel and invites audiences into the contradictions that define his life “in between” two worlds with deftness, wit, and humor.

Before the show, audiences are invited to enjoy the Penn Museum’s newly opened Eastern Mediterranean gallery, open two hours prior to start time. Members of the Penn community can get free admission to the show when they book their tickets online in advance, using the code “InBetween.”

Ibrahim Miari performing on stage.

The Penn Museum describes your show by highlighting the ‘contradiction inherent in the Palestinian-Israeli identity.’ Why did you choose to portray this contradiction? 

I think the contradiction is that each one wants to deny the other’s existence. So how can one be both? How can one identify with both, how can one have connection to both, loyalty to both identities? To some Palestinians, even to identify as Palestinian-Israeli is a betrayal because it acknowledges Israel’s existence. To some Jews, the Palestinian-Israeli identity is not legitimate because only Jews can be Israelis. It is the central struggle of the main character in the show, who on some level identifies and empathizes with both sides and therefore is always caught in between.

What is the process when developing the story?

The process of creating ‘In Between’ has been a dynamic one. What began as a series of vignettes about my parents and my childhood grew into a story that also was impacted by two major events in my life. First, an incident in which I was held up for hours at the airport security in Israel and was interrogated about my identity. Second, and a more pleasant one, was the planning and preparation for my wedding.

The play is a dynamic one. I am always sensitive and attentive to current events, and I find ways to improvise and make the play relevant. A recent example: in my performance at the Walnut Street Theater, I incorporated the 2018 Israeli Nation-State Bill, which [to quote the bill] ‘specifies the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,’ into an integral part of my monologue about not being Israeli enough. I’ve added, ‘now it’s according to the law.’

At what point did you choose to partner with the Penn Museum to present the story?

I received an email from the Penn Museum a couple of months ago inviting me to visit the new gallery and perform my play.

How can audiences who are not of Palestinian-Israeli origin benefit from the show?

‘In Between’ is a play about my life and my experiences in life. While it is particular in my case to being Palestinian and Israeli, it remains relatable to people’s own life experiences in that we all think about our own identities and how they are constantly changing. ‘In Between’ tells a personal story of someone who is on his way to tell his parents he found the love of his life and wants to get married. The play portrays family dynamics and conditioning, relationships and expectations, different traditions, and the impact of these traditions and my thoughts and feelings about different situations in my life. I recall performing one time in front of Chinese students studying in the U.S. and I remember how my story resonated with different aspects of their lives. It is a story of life, and everyone can relate to that.

Besides being an actor in stage theater, you are also a language teacher at Penn. How do the two identities intersect with one another or the show?

Teaching is another passion of mine. Back when I was a full-time actor in Israel, at the Acco Theater Center, I always found myself teaching various things: acting, dancing, and meditation. When I graduated from Boston University with an MFA in theater education, I was looking into teaching opportunities in acting but was approached by two language professors to teach Hebrew and Arabic at two different universities. I received teacher training to prepare for my new positions. I have been teaching languages for 12 years and recently received my second master’s degree in Arabic and Hebrew literature from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Having a theater background enriches my teaching. For example, I draw from the theater when I design warmup games and lesson plans that are creative and engaging. I often ask my students to reenact dialogues and improvise. I also create space for public speaking through various presentation assignments.

Who do you hope will come to see the show? 

I hope everyone comes to see the play. It was not written with a specific audience in mind. Rather like any work of art, it was created for everyone. I have performed in front of audiences of different backgrounds, cultures, languages, ages, etc. Whether it was in Europe or here in the U.S., I was always delighted to see such diversity of audiences. It is always an enriching experience for me and a privilege to share my story with people around the world.

This weekend is the opening of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery at the Penn Museum. Are you planning on visiting the exhibition?

I am looking forward to visiting the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery as I am excited to see how such a rich and diverse region is going to be celebrated. There is so much that the Penn Museum can house, and I am thrilled to be part of this wonderful addition to the Penn Museum.

Images courtesy of Ibrahim Miari.