In the new play, Camp David, President Jimmy Carter muses, "Put an Arab and a Jew on a mountaintop in Maryland and ask them to make peace. What was I thinking?"
36 years ago, Carter did get Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together for two weeks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, where they signed the Camp David accords; the two countries have not been to war since.
Camp David, which is now running at Washington's Arena Stage, tells the story of those tense weeks between two enemies — and an American president who inserted himself in the crossfire.
Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy plays Anwar Sadat, and Tony winner (and Law & Order stalwart) Ron Rifkin is Menachem Begin.
Nabawy tells NPR's Scott Simon it was easy to portray a man that many people remember. "As you see, I look like him," he jokes. "Of course I don't look like him at all, and this was extremely a big challenge. But I wanted to bring his soul, his spirit, his dignity."
Rifkin on what united the people at Camp David
These are four people of faith, great great faith ... different faiths, but faith nonetheless. They believe in the idea of God, they believe in the love of God. So everything they do is based on this extraordinary faith.
On Sadat's support of Nazi Germany, and accusations of terrorism against Begin
Nabawy: He was fighting the British, because we were occupied since 1882 'till 1952 — 70 years of British occupation. This is what he was doing — he did not support them just because he loved them. No.
Rifkin: But I have a line in the play where I say, you and your love of Mr. Hitler.
Nabawy: And I say, I did admire him because he fought the British as I fought them.
Rifkin: And I say, in your terrorist career!
Nabawy (reciting): You have the blood of hundreds of innocent people on your hands ...
Rifkin: And then I say, you, the convicted assassin, call me names? So it's, all that is in there.
On playing such historically important figures
Nabawy: This is huge, it's, what am I doing in my career? It's a big risk as a character, as an actor — how can I transfer myself to this very very controversial spirit and soul like Sadat ... he considered himself the father of Egypt ... and Sadat learned English through the Reader's Digest, which is amazing.
Rifkin: We all come to it with our own personal histories. I was born in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, I come from a Hasidic family, and the music in my head is the music of Eastern Europe. So our worlds collide as artists, as people with imaginations, and we bring all these collision of histories together and explode on stage in this play. Which, by the way, as Khaled said, is a play for the world — it's not just about Egypt and Israel, it's about all of us.
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