Tel Aviv police couldn't have driven home the message of Israeli refugee play "One Strong Black" any harder if they'd been in the cast themselves.
On Thursday evening, according to various refugee aid organizations in Israel, 30-year-old Darfuri asylum seeker Babaker "Babi" Ibrahim — who plays a wayward Tel Aviv cop in "One Strong Black," and arrests asylum seekers on suspicion of possessing of stolen property — was arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property.
Aka, he wasn't able to show police a receipt for a bicycle parked outside the barbershop where he works.
Eyal Feder, district director of the Garden Library, the group behind the play, said that before cops pinned the bicycle theft on Ibrahim, they first tried to nab him for possessing a stolen phone (he had the receipt) and an expired visa (he showed them his valid one). And when they finally landed on the bicycle charges, said Feder, police used his new status as a suspected criminal to then strip him of his visa at the Ministry of Interior and lock him up under Israel's infamous, year-old Anti-Infiltration Law, which can be used to instantly convict any migrant without a trial.
"It couldn't have been written better in a Kafka novel," said Feder.
In the play "One Strong Black," which debuted one month ago at migrant hangout Levinsky Park and has been touring Israel ever since, a troupe of six Darfuri asylum seekers critique the Israeli government and police for their harsh handling of African refugees. They also poke fun at incompetent government employees — who are, even outside the refugee community, notorious for turning simple clerical procedures into day-long migraines.
According to a review of the play in the Jerusalem Post, Ibrahim also played a second role as a visa agent at the Ministry of Interior (and the irony grows):
In one of the opening scenes of the play, [actress Musa Salkoya], along with several others, waits patiently to apply for a visa at the Ministry of Interior. The visa agent, portrayed brilliantly by 29-year-old Babi Ibrahim, is more interested in having an obnoxious cell phone conversation with a friend than helping anyone waiting in line.
Just like that, the gap between the Israeli experience, and the Sudanese experience was suddenly bridged. Who among us hasn’t dealt with some frustrating form of Israeli bureaucracy, or a grocer who wouldn’t hang up the phone to assist us? Sudanese, Eritreans and Israelis found themselves laughing side by side—every member of the audience was decidedly in on the inside joke.
The play was conducted in Hebrew to reach a wider audience. And because Ibrahim "has such great Hebrew, he played all the roles in Israeli bureacracy," said Feder.
"We really hope this has nothing to do with the show," he said of Thursday's arrest. However, Feder and other activists are highly suspicious that police were aware of Ibrahim's role in the play, given the absurdly ironic, life-imitating art circumstances of the arrest — and the fact that, according to Feder, the policeman who arrested Ibrahim "called him by a nickname that we only use in the theater group."
The suspect, though his bicycle charges have reportedly been dropped, now faces indefinite imprisonment in that hellhole of a desert prison in Southern Israel, where the government is slowly sending the thousands of African asylum seekers who populate South Tel Aviv. Although the infamous detention center was once reserved for those caught hopping the border or involved in more serious crimes, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein updated the Anti-Infiltration Law this month to include all suspects of "low-level" crimes as well, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Tel Aviv Police Department didn't answer calls for comment, but did release this statement to Haaretz on Saturday:
The suspect was arrested in connection with a bicycle theft. The police have enough evidence to tie him to the incident.
Ibrahim's supporters aren't buying it. They rallied outside Attorney General Weinstein's mansion in Herzliya over the weekend, enraged that the recently expanded Anti-Infiltration Law had so soon been used to put away one of the most peace-loving, solution-oriented asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. "He's such a great person, with a will to start a dialogue," said Feder.
A blazing Facebook campaign called "Free Babi," created just this afternoon, has already inspired dozens of messages and videos of support from Israelis sympathetic to the refugees' cause. Unfortunately, though, an initial request to the Supreme Court by representatives from Hotline for Migrant Workers to free Ibrahim — on the grounds that his arrest was illegal — was thrown out yesterday. Activists are soldiering on, and plan to file another request at the district-court level.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim is being held at the Givon prison near Ramla, awaiting his fate at the migrant detention facility in the desert. More on the asylum seeker's backstory, via Hotline for Migrant Workers:
Babi has been living in Israel for seven years. He arrived to Israel after being persecuted by the Sudanese regime for over two years. During his B.A. studies in the city of Khartoum, alongside his work in high-tech, Babi got involved with social and political activism. Babi and his friends led gatherings in the courtyards at the university (since this was the only place where it was possible to hold them), and talk to the young masses about freedom, equality, liberalization and the need to revolt and bring down the dictatorial regime in Khartoum. One day, regime forces raided his mother's house and brought him for questioning. In the hostile interrogation, the regime offered him – since he was a leader- to join them and become a regime agent in opposition gatherings. Babi agreed to do so to secure his freedom, but returned to his dissident activity once released. Starting that moment, Babi was targeted by the regime and had to often change his hideout in Sudan. The regime did not stop persecuting him and Babi had to flee to Ethiopia, then Kenya and finally to Egypt, where he planned on settling. However, following the Mustafa Mahmoud Massacre, in which 27 refugees were shot in cold blood while holding a peaceful sit-in in front of the UNHCR offices in Cairo, Babi, along with many other refugees, felt unsafe in Egypt and decided to try to reach Israel.
And now that Ibrahim is attempting to grow a dialogue on the refugee issue in his temporary home country, he's gotten himself caught in what looks to be a sick game on the part of the Tel Aviv Police Department. Either that, or some divine director had a very meta plan to show Israel that the human-rights abuses rampant in "One Strong Black" are anything but fiction.