A script that may never be finished

When Saleem Azzouqa first wrote a pivotal scene in his semi-autobiographical play, "Salam Shalom," two gay lovers were depicted arguing over a fictional suicide bombing.

But this was no ordinary couple. One of the men was an Israeli Jew, the other a Palestinian Muslim, and the site of the imaginary bombing was Tel Aviv. Soon, the playwright realized he need not invent dramatic twists for this story. The nightly news would provide all the material he needed.

When "Salam Shalom" was performed in San Diego in 1996, he opened and closed the play with a recording of "The Song of Peace," which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been singing at a rally in Tel Aviv just before he was assassinated by a Jewish extremist on Nov. 4, 1995.

After an Israeli army incursion into the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in 2002 left more than 50 Palestinians dead, Saleem rewrote a scene, erasing references to suicide bombings and substituting dialogue about Israeli aggression.

Three years later, after a bombing in a crowded Tel Aviv market killed three people, Saleem (he uses only his given name) tore up the scene again and returned to the topic of suicide bombings.

Now with "Salam Shalom" in its fourth run in Los Angeles, events in the Middle East have swept through the script again, this time to include the 2008 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. Now, as the lead character, Nabeel, and his Israeli boyfriend, Yaron, try to reconcile their relationship with the conflict dividing their nations and their families, Nabeel ponders the disparity between the Palestinian and Israeli death tolls while Yaron worries about a brother and friends who could be called to fight another war.

Revisions to the play have become a constant, turning it into a living chronicle of the conflict. Scenes change and dialogue shifts to reflect the latest developments.

When he first wrote "Salam Shalom," Saleem didn't anticipate the ceaseless rewrites, but he has come to view the script as a fluid record of the suffering, perhaps never to be finished.

"I know in my lifetime the conflict will not end, so I never wanted to lock the play in one format. I wanted to write the play as a vehicle to express the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said the playwright, who lives in Los Angeles. "Some people asked, 'Why don't you change the ending to a happy ending?' Well, because we still don't have our rights."

"Salam Shalom" (the words for "peace" in Arabic and Hebrew ) is a two-act love story that Saleem wrote 15 years ago, after the breakup of a two-year relationship with an Israeli-American business student at UCLA.

It is a gay Middle Eastern take on "Romeo and Juliet" that follows the couple from a first meeting marked by distrust to growing respect and finally to mutual attraction and understanding.

But the larger religious, ethnic and political forces are too powerful and complex for a happy ending. Nabeel and Yaron move back to their families in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively, where they meet in cafes, hotels and a shared apartment.

Eventually, Nabeel is forced to choose between his loyalty to his land and to his boyfriend.

The play was first performed in workshop at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood in 1995.

Since then, it has gone through four major revisions and 10 productions, mainly by experimental and gay-oriented theater companies at venues with 50 to 150 seatsin L.A., San Francisco, San Diego and Palm Springs. It also had a successful run at the avant-garde Pact Theatre in Sydney in 1997.

Reviews have been mixed. A 1996 appraisal in the Los Angeles Times described the characters as "seasoned debaters pitted against a time clock" who "launch into charged political exchanges upon first meeting -- and most meetings thereafter."

The latest incarnation is in a seven-week run at the 99-seat Greenway Court Theater of Fairfax. An L.A. Weekly review of the production pointed to the drama between the main characters and the unspoken sexual tension as the play's beauty, but went on to say: "Talking it all out, as this play also tries to do, is just a clunky and literal exercise in pedantry."

Saleem, 48, says he didn't set out to write a political tract. He wanted to tell a story about the human condition that would make people on both sides rethink their assumptions.

Because the story is set in modern-day Los Angeles, Israel and the West Bank, he found the endless barrage of headlines impossible to ignore.

"I'm always watching the news -- oh, the wall," he said, referring to the controversial barrier of fences, trenches and concrete that Israel constructed on Palestinian land to prevent suicide bombers from crossing the border. "You know, maybe I could add something in the play about the wall -- Oh, Jenin. . . .. It's not from my imagination. I want it to reflect reality."

Like his character Nabeel, Saleem is a Palestinian Muslim. His mother was from Haifa, an Israeli city with a mixed Arab-Jewish population, and his father from Jenin. Saleem was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked.

During a recent interview at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Fairfax district, he used pieces of warm pita bread to scoop up both hummus and Jerusalem salad.

The dishes have minor roles in the play as cuisine claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis.

Saleem moved to the United States in 1985 to study for a master's in business administration at Colorado State University and eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Through mutual friends he met the real-life Yaron, who was working toward an MBA at UCLA.

In Los Angeles, Saleem came out as a gay man, an experience captured in the play. (When Nabeel tells his father about his sexual orientation, the family patriarch wonders how he failed his son.)

Initially, Saleem and the real Yaron used discussions about politics as an excuse to see each other.

Eventually, they began dating and moved in together.

After the breakup, a friend encouraged Saleem to write a play about the relationship as a form of therapy.

Ty Donaldson became involved with "Salam Shalom" in 1998 when he played the part of David, Yaron's soldier-brother. When the play returned to Los Angeles in 2005, Donaldson was director.

When he came back to direct this year's production, Donaldson looked at his script and notes from 1998 to see what Saleem would need to update.

"It's interesting how there's always been some struggle and strife," Donaldson said. "On one level, we could have put it up exactly as is and it still would have been as poignant and powerful."

But adding references to the latest upheavals -- such as construction of the Israeli separation wall and the Gaza incursion -- make it more relevant and immediate, he said.One constant in "Salam Shalom" is that Saleem has always played the role of Nabeel. But the script has had to be adjusted to reflect the passage of time. Now Nabeel is a doctoral candidate who goes to UCLA to conduct research in the musical cultures of the Arab world.

To reflect the 20-year gap between Saleem and Yaron (played by age-appropriate actors newly cast for each production), the script is now peppered with comments recognizing the obvious age difference. At times on stage, the pair look more like professor and student than like lovers.

"We are just very different, and obviously I am older," Nabeel tells Yaron in the latest version of the script.

"I have a very old soul," Yaron responds.

Saleem says he continues to play the role because no one else could bring the same authenticity.

Also, he has trouble finding other acting roles, in part because he's been told that he doesn't look enough like an Arab

"Nobody gives me work, so I create my own work," said Saleem, an event promoter who taught business classes at community colleges before he was laid off last year. "Every time I go to an audition, 'Saleem, you don't look like an Arab, Saleem you don't sound like an American.' I was stuck in the middle."

With the play again on stage in Los Angeles, Saleem hopes to find investors to help him take "Salam Shalom" from stage to screen. If a movie deal ever materializes, he would have to commit to a final version that would live forever, unchanged. Until then, he will have free rein to revise his draft of a screenplay.

"I think things will change and will change for the worse," he added, referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "It doesn't look good."

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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