“Who are you playing?”
“Gertrude. But only today, I’m just helping—”
“Oh, hi, Mama.”
I laughed. “You’re Hamlet.”
“Yeah.” Wael ran a hand through his hair. His cheeks were a little pink. On the drive with Mariam from Haifa into the West Bank, one of his songs had crescendoed from the car in front.
Over the shuffles and chatting, Mariam called, “Sit your butts down, please, we don’t have all day. We’ll start by going round the room …”
I knitted my fingers over my crossed knee. Mariam nodded at the bearded man in glasses to her right.
“Majed,” he said. I recognized him from TV. “I’m Claudius, and the Ghost.” In an American show, or a film; I was pretty sure he’d played a Pakistani terrorist.
“Amin, Horatio.” A younger, curly-haired man, leaning on his knees and holding his script with two hands.
“George,” said a mustached man in a T-shirt with the slogan love heals. “Francisco, Rosencrantz, and Fortinbras.”
“Polonius, I am,” said the oldest in the room, portly, with wrinkles from smiling and a close white beard. “Polonius. And my name is Faris.”
“Thank you, Faris,” said Mariam. “You are also the Gravedigger.”
“Yes,” said Faris, “that is correct. I am also the Gravedigger.”
“Wael,” said Wael. “Hamlet.” He turned his head slightly and his lips twitched.
I said, “Sonia, Gertrude. But just for today. I’m here to help out.”
Mariam blinked a few times.
“Laertes,” said a tall bald man. “I mean, I’m Ibrahim, and I’m playing Laertes.” He had a slightly rural accent.
“And Guildenstern,” said Mariam.
“And Guildenstern,” said Ibrahim, “and also Barnardo,” raising a finger, remembering. He laughed in a way that made me think he probably fancied Mariam.
“And I’ll be reading Ophelia, for now,” said Mariam. “Quick reminder of the plot and then we’ll start. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sees his father’s ghost on the ramparts of the castle Elsinore. Ghost says, My brother Claudius murdered me, stole my throne and my wife Gertrude. Revenge me! Hamlet is tormented. He becomes cruel to his sweetheart Ophelia, he’s disgusted with his mother, and everyone thinks he’s gone mad. In fact, he’s pretending to be mad. Claudius is suspicious and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Some actors arrive, and Hamlet instructs them to do a play about a king murdered by his brother. After the play, Hamlet shouts at his mother and accidentally kills Ophelia’s father Polonius thinking it’s Claudius. Ophelia goes mad, drowns herself. Hamlet kills Ophelia’s brother Laertes in a duel, then finally kills Claudius—who also kills Gertrude by mistake. Hamlet, poisoned by Laertes’s sword, dies in the arms of his friend Horatio. At the end, Prince Fortinbras invades Denmark. Okay? Ready, everyone? Let’s begin. Act One, Scene One.”
As she read the stage directions—“The castle of Elsinore. In one of the towers. Darkness”—my nerves spiked. I’d had no time to look over the play, which was translated into classical Arabic. Speaking conversationally was one thing; reading a literary translation of Shakespeare aloud, in front of other Arabs, while acting, was something else. How fortunate, I thought, that Gertrude has hardly any lines in this play.