Fathers and sons, heists and homelands in Habibi

Habibi 3Aleph Ayin and Nora El Samahy are son and mother in the world premiere of Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s Habibi, a co-production of Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts. Below: El Samahy. Photos by Pak Han.

Love, tension and desperation are deeply felt in Habibi, the world-premiere production of Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s drama about always feeling away from home. This is yet another co-production from Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts that lights an oil lamp from within a dark subject.

On one level, the central relationship between a father and a son is completely recognizable by anyone from anywhere. Tariq (Aleph Ayin) should be in college, but he can’t really be bothered. He gets fired from crappy jobs and spends a whole lot of his time doing nothing in the tiny Mission District apartment he shares with his dad, Mohammed (Paul Santiago), a museum security guard.

They’re scraping by, and in their cramped quarters, they fight a lot. Tariq sounds like a spoiled, contemptuous brat when he’s talking to his dad – every sentence practically drips with a sneer and an eye roll. Mohammed is rigid in his own way, loving his son fiercely but holding too tight, lecturing too much.

Their strained existence – expertly directed by Omar Metwally – is familiar and relatable, but there’s so much more to their story. This isn’t some crabby family working through its suburban angst.

This family’s roots go back to Palestine, where they faced violence and after the destruction of a home, they lost their homeland. The only family heirloom that remains is an oil lamp that sits portentously on the mantel. It’s a tenuous connection to a past that is both cherished and fraught with complexity.

Playwright Abu-Hamdeh zeroes in on the personal relationship between father and son and lets the details of what life is like for them as immigrants slowly seep in. Mohammed keeps a very strong tie to his roots, while Tariq is very much the assimilated American, complete with the requisite bad attitude and disdain for his father’s attempts to connect him with family history.

Habibi 1Though less than 90 minutes long, Habibi (the name is a term of endearment for a man) is dense with emotion more than plot. Abu-Hamdeh expands the scope of the drama beyond the Mission apartment to include Nadia (Nora El Samahy), a museum docent who also has Palestinian roots.

How her story leads her to Mohammed and Tariq gives away too much, but she’s obsessed with art heists and what drives someone to steal a work of art – is it for monetary gain or is it the result of some deeper connection to the art itself?

El Samahy is extraordinary polished as the docent – lively and engaging with a twinkle in her eye. Then we get flashes of her real life, the loneliness of her childhood in various boarding schools, the salvation she finds in great art and artists. Nadia is a fascinating character, and it would be great to focus in on her a little more.

We do get more El Samahy (always a good thing) when she appears as the ghostly form of Tariq’s mother, who had abandoned the family before she died.

The plot kicks in fairly late in the play, which makes certain characters’ choices seem somewhat rushed. With actors as good as Santiago and Ayin playing father and son, with the super-charged complexities of their relationship so readily and powerfully apparent – the scene where they play soccer is priceless – we could spend less time delving into the troubles of Tariq and Mohammed and more time leading up to and following the moment of decisive action.

Metwally’s compelling production benefits from an incredibly realistic set by Tanya Orellana that turns into an art museum, and, indeed, a piece of art, courtesy of Aubrey Millen’s dynamic projections.

Habibi fascinates with its blend of intimate family drama and a more expansive cultural landscape. Like Terell Alvin McRaney in his Brother/Sister Plays, Abu-Hamdeh pulls his actors out of the play’s reality by having them read certain stage directions or, with a shift of Ray Diaz’s lights, they address the audience directly. These constant reminders that we’re watching a play do occasionally block the flow of emotion of the drama, but there’s so much packed into this beautifully performed play that there’s emotion to spare.


Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s Habibi continues an extended run through Nov. 21 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415 626-2787 ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org for information. Thursdays are pay what you can.

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