The high price of guilt, marital servitude, lost love


By Jerry Tallmer

‘Lord of the Flies’ style betrayals doom teacher and student

The opening words of Anna Ziegler’s “Dov and Ali” are good enough to quote. They are spoken by a 16-year-old Muslim girl named Sameh, a headscarf-wearing high-schooler in Michigan who, before the play is ended, will have been forcibly railroaded by the males of her family (more exactly, airlifted) out of the U.S. and into a life of loveless marriage and servitude and silence and baby-making — to an aging widower in far away Pakistan. 

Barack Obama, who in his pivotal Cairo speech had taken pains to include a few words of his own about the status of women in Islamic societies, would appreciate Sameh’s summation: 

“Once upon a time, in the middle of a school in the middle of Detroit in the middle of the United States of America, there was a confused teacher and there was a precocious student. One had the short cropped hair of a soldier and one had hair in constant need of a trim. One happens to be my idiot brother. Both had fathers whose love was opaque, hard to measure and make out…” 

The confused teacher is Dov Gold, 30-ish, Jewish, the son of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi to whom Dov does not dare admit his, the son’s, deep fondness for a tall blonde shiksa “whose idea of spirituality is a really good movie” — more yet “[w]hose love I can only return in a world in which I no longer exist to my parents…”  

The precocious student is Ali, 17, Muslim American, fiery young dissident, troubled self-seeker, brother of Sameh, semi-obedient son of their old-school Muslim father. The kind of kid who will go out of his way to provoke teacher Dov into saying: “Ali, do you want to have a civilized conversation or a sparring match?” But whose jabs like: “Don’t all Jews ask those sorts of questions — Who am I? Why am I here? What am I meant to do?” — is really talking about himself. 

A point of issue between them is the book Dov has assigned the class to read, William Golding’s stark, disconcerting 1954 “Lord of the Flies,” in which, among a handful of youthful castaways on a remote jungle island, a boy named Jack — a Fascist in the making — incites the murder of two other boys, Piggy and Simon, for the greater good of the greater number. 

To Ali, Jack’s actions are “entirely natural.” To Dov, the teacher, the rationalist, those actions are savage. “Is it savage to want to survive?” asks Ali. And the stormy set-to goes on from there. 

This is the same Ali who will betray his sister — lead their father to where the defiant girl is dancing with her Muslim (but unapproved) boyfriend. And that Ali will feel guilty for it — Jewish style — for the rest of his life. But Sameh will never be able to spring free of her life of marital servitude, Islamic style. 

Are you now or have you ever been a schoolteacher, an interviewer inquires of “Dov and Ali” dramatist Anna Ziegler. 

“Yes,” she replies with a touch of amusement, “I’ve taught high school, and right now I’m teaching top 5th grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. When I wrote the play I was teaching English lit at a Jewish day school outside Washington, D.C.” 

That certainly must lie somewhere behind the birth of the play, along with “Lord of the Flies”? 

“Yes,” the playwright says, “ ‘Lord of the Flies’ did indeed, and it’s a great teach.” 

I never liked that book, says the interviewer. 

“No, it’s not a pleasant book,” she concurs, “but it certainly is a provocative book, and it did inspire the play, at least in part. But so did a number of things, including the fact that I, who am not particularly religious — I come from a Reform Jewish family — was teaching at a religious school. And also the fact that I had a colleague at that Jewish school, a woman teaching English, post 9/11, who was a Moslem. 

“There was certainly never any confrontation, but what would have happened if…” she lets it trail off. 

If 17-year-old Ali destroys his own beloved sister, along with any possibility of ever again seeing that sister, when forced by their rigidly Muslim father into precisely such betrayal, then Dov Gold, twice Ali’s age, kowtowing to his own Fear of Father — more exactly, of breaking the heart of the Orthodox rabbi father with whom Dov cannot even communicate — will instead kill off the love affair with Sonya, that tall blonde shiksa who has given Dov such uncomplicated joy. 

“I think both characters, Dov and Ali, have parent problems,” says the Manhattan-born, Brooklyn-bred young woman, daughter of two lawyers — she’ll hit 30 on December 9 — who created those two characters. 

And yourself? Parental problems? 

“There were years in which I disagreed with my parents over something they did behind my back, but at least the pressures put on me don’t have any religious source.” 

“Dov and Ali” got enthusiastic reviews upon its world premiere last summer at London’s Theatre503. An earlier play of hers that won some attention was “BFF,” which for those of you (and me) who don’t know cybernetic baby talk means “Best Friends Forever” and is about two teenage girls in suburban America. 

Is one of them you, Ms. Ziegler? 


A play of hers that has had various readings but, as yet, no production, is “To Be Fair,” described by its author as “about a Middle East woman who befriends — I should say befriends and seduces — two teenage American boys.” 

Seems worth a shot. 

“I agree,” says its author. 

She is a product of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Saint Ann’s School, Yale (BA in English), the University of East Anglia (degree in poetry), and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (MFA in Dramatic Writing). 

Lives now in Brooklyn Heights with her boyfriend, Will Miller, an attorney for New York City. And no, he’s not Jewish, not Muslim. 

“It’s interesting for me to think about people who are in a different position than I am,” says the playwright who is not Dov, not Ali, not Sameh, and, for that matter, not a tall blonde shiksa named Sonya.