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Wael Adel Zuaiter: One-man show captures a Palestinian life cut short

Extraordinary play delves into the life and death of Fatah's former representative in Rome, who was killed by Mossad a half-century ago
A one-man play co-written and performed by British Palestinian actor Bilal Hasna on the life of Wael Adel Zuaiter (Photo by Alessandro Davison)

Wael Adel Zuaiter, lover of Dante’s poetry, of Mahler’s music, of opera, art exhibitions and parties, was shot dead outside his home in Rome on 16 October 1972 by Mossad.

He was Fatah’s representative and the first of 10 Palestinians (plus Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway) assassinated in the Mossad operation Wrath of God after the killings of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by the Black September group.

Zuaiter’s friend, Mahmoud Hamshari, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s representative in Paris, came to Rome for his funeral and told Zuaiter’s friends: “I’ll be next.” Weeks later, he was assassinated in Paris.

Today, Zuaiter has come to life in an extraordinary one-man play co-written and performed by British Palestinian actor Bilal Hasna. The play, For a Palestinian, is transferring from a sold-out run in London to Bristol’s Old Vic Studio from 13-15 October, and it will surely find other theatre homes thereafter. Wherever you are coming from, it is worth the train journey.

Hasna morphs into Zuaiter in 1960s Rome. He's in his early thirties, polite and gentle, in love with a new world of Fellini, Pavarotti, Puccini

Hasna first plays himself as an excitable 19-year-old non-Arabic-speaking Palestinian student in London. When a family wedding invitation arrives in his inbox from a cousin he barely knows, requiring him to travel to Jerusalem in five months, he launches into a Wikipedia and YouTube study of Palestine: “Become an expert, you know? Reconnect with my roots.”

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A chance reference to Zuaiter catches Hasna’s imagination, and he is disappointed that even his father, his reference for all things Palestinian, has never heard of the man. “I start finding resemblances with myself … We’re both Palestinians living in the West. And Zuaiter has a sister,” he says, noting that Zuaiter was also creating the first Italian translation of The Thousand and One Nights, “and I’ve read The Thousand and One Nights”.

On stage, Hasna morphs into Zuaiter in 1960s Rome. He’s in his early thirties, polite and gentle, in love with a new world of Fellini, Pavarotti, Puccini, Sophia Loren and Rome’s espressos and red wine. Strings of dried sliced oranges decorate the stage as Zuaiter talks of Jaffa, oranges and growing up by the sea to a painter whose sandalled feet and a strip of yellow dress are all he can see behind a picture hanging from the ceiling.

The painter says she also grew up by the sea - “blue, Sydney” and he pronounces them as bound to find each other, “people of the sea”, before she disappears into the crowd.

Chianti and dancing

Then Hasna is Zuaiter’s landlady, Mariuccia, “79 years old and wearing every single one of those years on her sleeve. Beautiful in the way that only life can make you.” Mariuccia makes lavish weekly dinners for her random collection of lodgers and their friends.

Hasna is also the annoying English aristocrat Cori, the worldly Salvatore from Sardinia, then again Zuaiter, blushing deeply as Janet, the artist from Sydney, appears for dinner. Among confused talk of Algerian independence, Palestine, art exhibitions and more, Mariuccia talks of love, and Hasna is Zuaiter and Janet dancing. Five years of Rome life fill with Zuaiter’s translations, Janet’s painting, chianti, espressos and much dancing. 

Zuaiter’s friends included writers Jean Genet, Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini. A tiny echo from that time is captured in the 1963 Peter Sellers film The Pink Panther, where Zuaiter flits past David Niven as a waiter.

Ghassan Kanafani: The life of a Palestinian writer
Read More »

But on 5 June 1967, after Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Zuaiter sets off at 3am in a Fiat 125 with a Palestinian friend to drive through five countries and two continents to fight Israeli troops - much to Janet’s incredulity, as she points out he can’t even kill ants in the kitchen.

In Beirut, after driving more than 3,000 kilometres in five days, Zuaiter finds cars stopped and everyone in the streets hugging, because the war is over: “They all say the same thing. Khalas. Khalas. It’s over.”

Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank are now occupied by Israel. Zuaiter returns to Rome and begins the work that would ultimately bring his death: “I help Palestine in the only way I know: speaking to people … students at the universities, taxi drivers, waiters at the coffee shop. We start holding meetings in Mariuccia’s flat every Thursday.” 

Then Hasna again becomes a stooped, smiling Mariuccia: “Here? In the living room? Well, we must help you get set up, non? On y va!” 

Then he is again Zuaiter, a man altered: “I teach the people who come about the Nakba (1948) and the Naksa (1967), and everything in between. I show them pictures of my home that is no longer my home. Pictures of the refugees, of my family.” Italian solidarity with Palestine has remained constant ever since.

Art installation

Another assassinated Palestinian intellectual, Ghassan Kanafani, killed the same year by a Mossad car bomb in Beirut with his 17-year-old niece, Lamees Najim, lives today through his books, which are read by every Palestinian; his plays produced around the world; and his portraits on street walls across Beirut.

Before the imaginative tale of Zuaiter’s life was written by Hasna and Aaron Kilercioglu, his death had been witnessed around the world through a powerful mixed media installation by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, titled “Material for a Film”. It won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and has been shown in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, London’s Whitechapel Gallery and the Biennale of Sydney.

Hasna has crossed half a century to create an unforgettable memorial of a Palestinian life

Jacir’s exhibit contains video interviews with Zuaiter’s friends; old photos; pages of Dante’s Divine Comedy that he carried around (as the whole book was too bulky); and an old Arabic copy of The Thousand and One Nights from his jacket pocket, pierced with one of the 13 bullets shot towards his head and chest. Unforgettable is an installation of 1,000 blank white books, shot by the artist with a .22 calibre gun, like the assassins used.

Jacir includes a memory from Zuaiter’s friend, the late Italian musicologist Bruno Cagli. In 2005, he told her: “I couldn’t believe that someone who dedicated his entire life to intellectual, cultural and moral reconciliation between peoples, could have been targeted. I couldn’t believe that it was possible that a foreign state could send killers to a country like Italy, and to a city like Rome, and that Italy was defenceless in those circumstances.”

Jacir also highlights a quote Zuaiter used to end an article for the newspaper L’Espresso shortly before his death, from the English mystic Francis Thompson: “That thou canst not stir a flower without troubling of a star.”

In his play, Hasna has crossed half a century to create an unforgettable memorial of a Palestinian life.

"It was a terrible mistake," one Mossad official admitted in an interview four decades later, while, according to Ronen Bergman’s 2018 book Rise and Kill First, The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations, another said, "Zuaiter had nothing to do with the killing of the athletes."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Victoria Brittain worked at The Guardian for many years and has lived and worked in Washington, Saigon, Algiers, Nairobi, and reported from many African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. She is the author of a number of books on Africa and was co-author of Moazzam Begg’s Guantanamo memoir, Enemy Combatant, author and co-author of two Guantanamo verbatim plays, and of Shadow Lives, the forgotten women of the war on terror. Her most recent book is Love and Resistance, the films of Mai Masri.
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