Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad

Apr 12, 2021

Eitan Zimmerman, the protagonist in Wajdi Mouawad’s play Birds of a Kind, doesn’t believe that chance, fate, divine intervention, or “other such nonsense” (6) determine what happens in the universe. Yet when he meets the young woman Wahida, whom he will fall hard for at first sight, he struggles to explain such a fateful meeting. They had been brought together by a particular book he kept seeing on the tables of a university library in New York whenever he went there, which was hundreds of times. He would always see the book but never the person reading it. Finally one day he finds Wahida. She’s an American grad student of Arab Moroccan descent, working on her thesis about the 16th century figure Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan or Leo Africanus.

Eitan is a German Jew from Israel doing genetic research at Columbia University. For two years they share a blissful relationship, then Eitan invites his parents from Berlin for a visit to New York and life changes irrevocably for the young couple. His parents’ fierce hostility to the relationship leads Eitan and Wahida to Israel on a search for his family origins and his true identity. Birds of a Kind approaches the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of one family’s complicated history and shows that the hope of reconciliation can survive even the direst circumstances.

            The play opens with the initial encounter in the library between Eitan and Wahida, but by the end of this first scene, the action has already shifted well into the future. Wahida’s monologue to conclude the scene begins as she describes a date they go on in New York and ends with her in a Jerusalem hospital, standing over the comatose Eitan. In the fourth scene, “Perfect Skin”—scenes are numbered and given titles—Wahida is seated in a Jerusalem café. She orders a coffee, and the waiter tells her it’s late and they’re closing soon. The waiter exits, and a female Israeli soldier sits down at the table and begins questioning Wahida. She is no longer in the café but in an interrogation room. She will soon be fully naked, her legs spread, as the soldier begins a body search that leads to a sexual assault. Moments later there is the sound of an explosion. The television reports news of a terrorist attack on the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan. This radical disruption of time and place, which serves to destabilize the play’s narrative, is characteristic of an allusive form of realism. Unseen forces such as memory, history, coincidence, or inter-generational trauma, are continually at work within the world of the play taking the characters by surprise, often shocking them. Eitan denies the proposition that life is determined by the unseen or the inherited. He believes science and rationality explains one’s life and the workings of the universe. Unfortunately, for him, his rather ordinary life in New York is turned upside down without warning or apparent reason by an array of forces he is powerless to stop or control. In the scene cited above, for example, while Wahida was separated from Eitan and detained for interrogation, Eitan was crossing the bridge that was soon to be blown up by Palestinians. Why was Wahida spared and Eitan left in a coma?

            Eitan does not feel wholly defined by his Jewish identity, unlike his parents, David and Norah Zimmerman, whose identity as Jews means everything to them. Is Eitan unaware, however, of the depth of his parents’ bond to their people, tradition, and history when he invites them and his grandfather Etgar to visit him in New York where he will introduce them Wahida? He doesn’t mention her before they arrive. His plan to break the news to them at a Seder at which he has arranged to have a rabbi preside doesn’t go well.

            His mother Norah fears that if he were to marry Wahida, he would be denying his identity as a Jew:

                        She’s not Jewish, and she’s an Arab . . . I’ve got nothing against Arabs, but she’s an Arab, so she’s his (David’s) enemy . . . No tribe can stand seeing one of their children leave for the enemy camp . . . (34)

Eitan responds that what he has inherited from his parents is not the suffering, guilt, and trauma that so defines his parents’ sense of themselves. When it comes to his love for Wahida, not even his identity as a Jew can transcend the love he feels for her (36-37). David feels utterly betrayed at this:

                        DAVID. Do you see this knife?

                        EITAN. I see it.

                        DAVID. If I stab you in the throat, what will happen?

                        EITAN. You’ll be guilty of infanticide.

                        DAVID. Make a life with this woman and you’ll be guilty of parricide. (38)

            After his parents return to Berlin, Eitan says, “I can’t believe that man is my father” (38). Eitan decides that he will conduct a DNA test on the utensils his parents and grandfather used at the Seder. What he discovers from the test will take him to Israel to reunite with his grandmother Leah who separated from her husband Etgar some five years earlier when Eitan was fifteen-years-old. He wants answers from her to the question of his father’s paternity.         

            The search for his father’s identity occupies the second half of the play. While Eitan is lying unconscious in the hospital, the search is taken up by Wahida, who intuitively understands that the whole family must be brought together around Eitan. She tells Etgar, Eitan’s grandfather, after he arrives at the hospital, “I apologize for being so brutal, but if you want him to heal, you have to tell him the truth” (67). In saying this, she is also alluding to the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for the recovery of a long-buried truth that will allow reconciliation to become a possibility. What is this truth? It is not stated directly in the play, but it has to do with an old “lost dream” that envisions peoples and adversaries living as one. Eden, the female Israeli soldier who interrogates Wahida, expresses this idea to Eitan, when he regains consciousness:

                        Let it (the truth) shatter us all, as long as what we love is spared . . .It’s a graveyard (the war) and we can’t escape it because we’re all grieving the same lost dream that has never been properly mourned. (70-71)

Everything depends on the promise found in the relationship between Eitan and Wahida. The love they share goes beyond national and religious identity. Alas, this promise will remain unfulfilled by the end of the play when Wahida discovers the Arabic identity she thought she had purged.

            In a kind of mystical dialogue with the subject of her thesis, Hasan al-Wazzan, the Moroccan Arab who converted to Christianity and became Leo Africanus in exchange for his freedom, Wahida is inspired by Wazzan to undertake her own search for identity. “I went to the other side of the wall,” she tells Eitan. “I wandered in the dust of Palestine and I felt I had come home” (86). Eitan compares their now diverging lives to the birds he sees above them. The two of them are like the birds “flying back and forth from both sides of the wall,” he says. “When they are over there, they are there, when they are here, they are here . . . here and there at the same time” (90). Wahida agrees with this paradoxical analogy to their relationship. They may be separating, she says, yet they can never be separated. “We have to believe in our reunion,” says Wahida (90). They, like the nations they were born into, are the birds of a kind.

            Eitan and Wahida find a way to remain both together and apart. They are led to conceive of this impossible reconciliation by the character of Wazzan and the story he tells of the bird who plunges into the sea to experience its “strange beauty” (109). The bird had been warned about the fish beneath the surface and told that if he joined them he would die. Once underneath the water, however, he adapts just at the moment of death and finds that he is able to breathe and then live among the fish. “I am one of you,” he says (109). This story pertains as well to the life Wazzan spent as a Christian in Rome, living “between two worlds” (19): perhaps one strategy for overcoming the hardening of identities that leads to intolerance, hatred, and violence. Birds of a Kind reveals that the poetry of narrative provides a way into the space between those shifting worlds.

Birds of a Kind
by Wajdi Mouawad
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2019, 115 pp., 18.95
ISBN 978-1-77091-990-7

Dale Lakevold is a playwright from Minnedosa, Manitoba. He teaches English and creative writing at Brandon University

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