Zarifeh and Jaber are not your usual couple: she’s Palestinian, he is Jordanian, and no more is that difference apparent than when their rival football teams square off.
“Neither East nor West” brings to the stage with subtle sarcasm the rifts between East Bank Jordanians and those of Palestinian origin, or West Bankers.
The play spotlights proud East Banker Jaber and Zarifeh, his no-nonsense Palestinian-born wife, and their everyday differences often escalate into verbal duels.
Satirist Kamel Nuseirat told AFP his play is the first to tackle a key taboo, as it reflects the social, political and identity dilemma that has faced the tiny kingdom for decades.
“Jordanian society is divided. I can proudly say I have broken this taboo thanks to the Arab Spring” which tore down a wall of fear across autocratically ruled nations, he said.
“Many officials have seen the show and applauded. I think they got the message.”
Back to the plot.
Jaber supports Faisaly, or “The Boss” as some people call the football team considered to represent East Bankers.
Zarifeh is a staunch fan of arch-rivals Wihdat, or “The Green Giant”, named after a large refugee camp in Amman.
“We’re playing at home,” says Jaber, sporting the red-and-white chequered keffiyeh of East Bankers, a rebuttal to the black-and-white headscarf made popular by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Their curtains are a stark example of the divisions that mar the household. Half of them are in Wihdat green, and the other half are Faisaly blue.
But no matter how hard they spar over football, they also know deep down that the game is a strong bond between East and West Bankers.
“Not only are many Faisaly players West Bankers, but the club’s founder, Suleiman Nabulsi, is originally a Palestinian,” Nuseirat said.
“But it is rare to find East Banker fans of Wihdat or vice versa.”
When the two teams meet it is under tight security, and past matches have been called off after rioting.
“In all countries of the world, there are 22 players on a football pitch running after a ball. But in our country there are six million,” says Jaber of Jordan’s population.
There are no official statistics on how many Jordanians of Palestinian origin live in the kingdom, but experts say they form a significant proportion. UN figures show Jordan is home to more than two million Palestinian refugees.
Football is not the only source of friction. Rows also erupt over food: mansaf, Jordan’s national dish, or the Palestinian favourite mulukhiyeh.
Jaber likes mansaf, a traditional dish of lamb cooked in yogurt and served with rice and nuts. He refuses to eat mulukhiyeh, a dense soup made of Corchorus leaves from the jute family.
“How about you get yourself blue vegetables instead?” Zarifeh asks Jaber sarcastically when he refuses to eat green vegetables for lunch.
One day, their home is burgled. But Jaber has actually helped the thieves break in, thinking this could undermine his wife’s power.
The robbers clear them out.
“We lost everything!” Jaber cries.
He is full of remorse, and the burglary proves a turning point in their relationship.
“It is easy to destroy a wall, but it is better to bring down the barriers inside our hearts,” he says, opening his heart to his wife.
“Get me mansaf and mulukhiyeh on one table. I miss both dishes.”
Playwright Nuseirat says the thieves are symbolic of corruption in Jordan, where weekly Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations have demanded reform and an end to the problem.
Jordanian-Palestinian tensions came to a head in 1970 when Palestinian guerrillas tried to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy.
Thousands of people were killed in the infamous clashes of the so-called Black September, which today both sides have tacitly agreed to forget.
Over the years, the Jordanian and Palestinian leaderships have repeatedly rejected reports, namely from Israel, suggesting a Jordan option to solve the Palestinian conflict.
“During three months of writing and six months of rehearsals, the script was modified several times to avoid upsetting anyone,” Nuseirat said.
He said he was jailed in 1995 after publishing a book that “offended” the late king Hussein.
“Part of the artist’s duty is to tackle social and political problems that hinder development,” the play’s director, Zeid Mustafa, told AFP.
“The problem with Arab artists and writers is that they exercise self-censorship even more than authorities censor them.”
Nuseirat insists the play is not seditious.
“On the contrary, it is a call for national unity amid fears for our country,” he said.
Laith, a university student who saw the play, agreed.
“It is a lesson for all of us. We need to put aside silly differences and take care of more important things,” he told AFP.
“Let’s just remember that Faisaly and Wihdat footballers also play for a national team we all feel proud of.”