Ismail Khalidi's Tennis in Nablus:

Mining History for the Origins of the Conflict

by Michael Malek Najjar

Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus, labeled a “tragipoliticomedy,” views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of historical fiction.  The play, set in 1939 British Mandated Palestine, relies on hindsight for much of its effectiveness.  In many ways, viewing the Palestinian situation during this period of time can bring clarity to this extremely complex issue. Although Jews and Arabs (Christian and Muslim) were being dominated under British rule, Palestinians believe it was a decidedly pro-Zionist British mandate which both trained and armed Jewish immigrants.[i] Set in Nablus, the play offers a view of Palestine when Arab resistance was focused squarely upon the British during the period that Jews were emigrating from Europe at the onset of World War II. If there was any doubt about how the British administration viewed the citizens of their Mandated Palestine, British General Sir Walter Norris Congreve once wrote, "I dislike them all equally. Arabs and Jews and Christians, in Syria and Palestine, they are all alike, a beastly people. The whole lot of them is not worth a single Englishman!”[1]  It is Khalidi's view that British colonial rule was ultimately replaced by Zionist settler colonial rule and, later, Israeli occupation.[ii]  

The crux of the politics of the play is found in the British struggle to maintain control over Palestine, the European Jewish desire for a homeland during their persecution at the hands of the Nazi regime in Europe, and the Palestinian quest for freedom, dignity, and self-determination. From the European Jewish perspective, as voiced by Hirsch in the play, the situation for the Jews in Europe had become completely untenable. For the Palestinians of the time, embodied by Tariq, there is the burning question "Can we both live here? Or is it going to be one of us?" It can be argued that neither ultimately finds satisfaction.

All of the characters have compelling reasons to fight and die for Palestine during this period, yet peaceful coexistence is nearly impossible when radicals rule the day and when an imbalance of power denies the rights and freedoms of one side to ultimately benefit another.  The moderates of the play are silenced by those who wish to seize power through violence and deception rather than coexistence. The playwright manages to humanize both sides through an intentionally Palestinian position. In the preface to their edited anthology Inside/Outside: Six Plays From Palestine and the Diaspora, Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace write about the fact that Palestinian plays are often “culturally delegitimized, derailed and delimited by the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ wherein the Israeli perspective is always/already privileged.” It is their view that presenting both sides of this conflict in anthologies, for instance, is problematic because to do so limits and shapes free speech about Palestine, depriving the work of its right to be judged by its own merits, and because there is already an imbalance in the conflict that adversely affects the Palestinians due to their being the weaker party in this struggle.[iii]

The play’s decidedly melancholy ending presages the actual historical events following the failure of the Arab uprising which, according to Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi, led to five thousand killed, ten thousand wounded, and over five thousand detained. Khalidi writes, “…the suffering was considerable in an Arab population of about a million: over 10 percent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled.”[iv] Tennis in Nablus sets the stage for the events of 1948 known as al-Nakba or “the catastrophe” by Palestinians. By dramatizing the situation that preceded the establishment of the State of Israel, Khalidi provides the historical context for the intractable situation we see now in Palestine and Israel.


[1] Quoted in One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the Mandate by Tom Segev. 1st American ed. New York: Metropolitan, 2000. Print. 9.

[i] For more about this issue see "The Haganah by Arab and Palestinian Historiography and Media" by Sarah Ozacky-Lazar and Mustafa Kabha. Israel Studies, 7.3 (Fall 2002), pp. 45-60.

[ii] Khalidi, Ismail. Personal interview. 26 January 2017.

[iii] Wallace, Naomi and Ismail Khalidi. “Preface.” Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora. Edited by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi, TCG, 2015, N.pag.

[iv] Khalidi, Rashid. “The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure,” in The War for Palestine : Rewriting the History of 1948, edited by Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print. Cambridge Middle East Studies ; 27.