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.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A new play has opened in which 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? Well, 36 years ago, he got Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together for two weeks at the presidential retreat at Camp David, where they signed the Camp David accords. And the two countries have not been to war since. The story of those two weeks between two enemies and an American president who inserted himself into the crossfire is told in a new play, called "Camp David." And in this corner of our studio, playing Anwar Sadat, is Khaled Nabawy. He's one of the best-known actors in Egypt and appeared in a number of Western films, too. Thanks so much for being with us.
KHALED NABAWY: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And at the very same table, playing Menachem Begin, is Ron Rifkin, a well-known stage actor. He won a Tony for his role in the revival of "Cabaret." Thank you very much for being with us.
RON RIFKIN: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Let me ask you: People remember these men. How do you play them in a way that measures up to our memories?
NABAWY: This was very easy for me, as you see. I look like him.
SIMON: You look like Anwar Sadat? You've got about three times...
NABAWY: Technically, yes. I'm very..
RIFKIN: That's an ironic statement. You can't see him.
SIMON: Three time as much hair as I remember on Anwar Sadat.
SIMON: SIMON: I mean, you still - had the angular good looks and bearing of Anwar Sadat, and you're about half his age. But other than that...
NABAWY: (Laughter) No, 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. I believe at one point in time he was facing the world alone - the Arab world, I mean.
NABAWY: And this was a very tough situation for him.
NABAWY: And because, you know, when he went to Jerusalem, I believe that he thought that it's done, that he will take everything.
SIMON: This is when President Sadat went to Jerusalem and made a visit there...
NABAWY: Yes, but when it came to the negotiations, no. It was very tough for him.
RIFKIN: The thing about these characters are, these are four people of faith - great, great faith. They actually pray in...
SIMON: They're different faiths, so...
RIFKIN: Different faiths but faiths 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.
SIMON: I mean, one of the things you notice - although you don't necessarily need the script to know this - Anwar Sadat, during World War II, supported the Nazis because...
NABAWY: He did not support the Nazis.
SIMON: Supported the Germans against...
NABAWY: No, he was fighting the British because we were occupied since 1882 'til 1952 - 70 years of British occupation. This is what he was doing. He did not support them just because he loved them. No, he...
RIFKIN: But I have a line in the play where I say: You and your love of Mr. Hitler. And what do you say?
NABAWY: And I say, I did admire him because he folds the bed sheet as I fold them. This was...
RIFKIN: And I say, in your terrorist career...
NABAWY: Who is...
RIFKIN: So it's like...
NABAWY: ...you have the blood of hundreds of innocent people on your hands.
SIMON: Yes. Yeah and I - well - and so Menachem Begin was considered a terrorist because of Deir Yassin and...
RIFKIN: The butcher of Deir Yassin. And then I say, you the convicted assassin call me names? So it's - all that is in there.
SIMON: What's it like to play Anwar Sadat in Egypt?
NABAWY: This is huge to play Anwar Sadat. For an actor like me, this is huge. What am I doing in my career?
NABAWY: It's a big risk. As a character, as an actor, how can I transfer myself to this very, very controversial spirit...
NABAWY: ...And soul like Sadat. Sadat is the father of, you know - he considered himself the father of Egypt. And this is why we were very keen to have...
RIFKIN: He was in prison.
NABAWY: Yeah, he was in...
SIMON: Well, they - he and Begin were both in prison.
NABAWY: Yeah. And they both learned English in prison.
SIMON: Yes. I learned that in the play, which is extraordinary. Well, didn't Begin refer to it as his university?
RIFKIN: He does. He says, for me, prison was like a university. And he was at the Gulag twice - in Siberia twice, and that's where he learned to speak. (Laughing) I'm laughing because we have these lines - we try to compete with each other. I learned the Slavic languages.
NABAWY: Next time for me was French and German.
RIFKIN: I also learned Italian.
NABAWY: Persian also for me.
SIMON: You guys ought to go into show business. You're very good.
NABAWY: And Sadat - sorry to - Sadat learned English through the Readers Digest...
NABAWY: ...Which is amazing.
SIMON: There's a lot going on in this play, isn't there?
RIFKIN: Yeah, and I think that we all...
SIMON: In and around this play.
RIFKIN: ...Come to it with our own personal histories.
RIFKIN: You know, I come from a particular world. 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 of this collision of histories together and explode onstage 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, I feel.
NABAWY: And now President Obama, which I admire a lot...
SIMON: Wonderful - come and see your play.
RIFKIN: I don't think he's been to that theater yet. You know, he's a busy guy. I wish he'd come. I think that...
RIFKIN: I think he should take a night off and see this play.
NABAWY: Yes. Yes, to see the real diplomacy.
SIMON: Well, Khaled Nabawy, who plays Anwar Sadat, and Ron Rifkin, who plays Menachem Begin; in Lawrence Wright's new play, "Camp David." It's now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., through May 4. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.
NABAWY: Thank you for having us. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.