• The Revolutionary Power of Palestinian Theater

    Isabella Hammad Reflects on How Art Can Still Effect Change

    Featured image: Ayyam Al-Khyam performed by the Al-Hakawati Theatre

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    One Friday night in October 2018, during the inaugural Palestinian Theatre Festival in Ramallah, I watched The Freedom Theatre from Jenin refugee camp perform a play called Return to Palestine. In this tightly choreographed 45-minute piece of physical comedy, a young Palestinian-American named Jad travels back to Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank, to visit his family for the first time. The black-clad ensemble of six forms a line that transforms fluidly into a car, a checkpoint, the entrance to the refugee camp, a café, accompanied by an oud, spoons and drums played by musicians sitting stage-right.

    The first lesson Jad learns about life under military occupation is one of mobility: at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv he phones his uncle, who explains that, as a West Bank Palestinian, he can’t collect Jad from the airport. He doesn’t have a permit. Jad must take a taxi alone to the checkpoint. The audience starts laughing and the laughter crescendoes when, on Jad’s eventual arrival in Jenin, his uncle pretends to be furious. You are late! he bellows. You think you are in Europe? Here, we are Arabs! We respect time! Jad cowers, then realizes his uncle is making fun. They embrace; the audience whistles.

    This last joke plays on a familiar pejorative stereotype about “Arab Time.” Similar jokes about punctuality have been made at the expense of other colonized or oppressed groups; whether you consider this straight-up or internalized racism, depending on the speaker, or some kind of resistance to the colonial imposition of European timekeeping, the stereotype ultimately serves the interests of the powerful by implying that economic backwardness depends on native tendencies rather than the economic effects of imperialism.

    But the more significant part of the uncle’s joke depends on the common knowledge that Palestinians, when traveling from place to place in their homeland, have in reality very little control over their own time. They are at the mercy of walls and fences, checkpoints between towns, ad hoc “flying checkpoints” set up on roadsides, subject to the whims of soldiers, to being forced to wait, to immense and unpredictable traffic jams. What struck me that evening was the scale of the audience’s response. It felt like a valve had been opened and laughter was pouring out. This was a big in-joke and everyone could relate. Something was being released.

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    Before 1948, the performing arts in Palestine ranged from the oral traditions of the hakawati, the storyteller who recited in cafés from a popular repertoire, the Sanduq al-Ajab (Box of Wonders) and shadow puppet theaters that had been popular across the Ottoman Empire, to music, dance and more Western-style theatrical performances in coffeehouses and nightclubs in Jerusalem and Jaffa. The memoirs of the Jerusalemite composer and musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh, first collected and published by the sociologist Salim Tamari in 2003, vividly testify to the exuberance of Jerusalem’s nightlife in the years before the Nakba.

    The 1970s were a high water mark of both art-making and the Palestinian revolution.

    Classical European-style theatre developed in Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century and quickly reached Palestine, where it was mostly an urban and elite affair. Palestinian newspaper records from the 1850s onward announce performances in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth and Jerusalem by local troupes in addition to those visiting from Beirut and Cairo, two of the largest centers of cultural life in the region.

    Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first performed in Arabic in Gaza in 1911. Jurj Abyad, the famous Lebanese actor/director and Egyptian transplant, frequently came over from Cairo (Jawharriyeh records him accompanying Sheikh Salama Hijazi to Jerusalem as early as 1908), and his troupe performed both translated European dramas and Arab plays.

    After 1948, with the establishment of the Israeli State and the destruction of native Palestinian society, Palestinian cultural life vanished. Military rule over the Palestinian population in the new state lasted until 1966: contact between Palestinians across the Green Line remained virtually impossible, and what little theatrical activity there was took place in schools or churches.

    The war of 1967 culminated in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which, in a sense, “reunited” separated parts of the Palestinian population with itself, and a fresh era of theatre commenced. Rather than repeating the classical repertoire from the days of old, however, these new groups produced devised theatre—based on ensemble collaboration and improvisation—which was partly informed by a European—and, later, a South American—avant-garde.

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    Central to this new wave was the complex figure of François Abu Salem. Born in 1951 as François Gaspar to a Hungarian father and French mother, he grew up in Jerusalem where his father worked as a doctor, and as a young adult adopted the Bedouin moniker “Abu Salem,” which obscured his European parentage. (To this day, many still believe his father was Arab.)

    After training at the newly founded Théâtre du Soleil in Paris with celebrated experimental director Ariane Mnouchkine, submerged in the world of Situationism—a matrix of avant-garde artists and intellectuals sharing a revolutionary, anti-capitalist agenda, who played a key role in the May 1968 uprisings and emphasized participation over the evils of passive “spectatorship”—Abu Salem returned to Jerusalem committed to making Palestinian theatre. In 1971 he established a theatre group called Balalin (literally: “Balloons”) which performed work whose explicit aim was to reflect Palestinian lived reality back upon its audience.

    Among their most famous productions was Al-Atmeh, “Darkness” (later anthologized by Salma Jayyusi in Modern Arabic Drama) which revolved around a blackout in the theatre which the cast involves the audience in trying to fix. The titular darkness allows the actors to discuss the darknesses of various interrelated forms of oppression—occupation, social backwardness, patriarchy—and the play ends with the cast and audience holding candles to collectively illuminate the stage. It was a raging hit. The audiences had seen nothing like it and they were ecstatic.

    Balalin’s refusal of the fourth wall, the way they played with the separation and the proximity of performer and spectator—Brecht’s influence seems obvious here, his Verfremdungseffekt or “estrangement effect” through which plays should re-sensitize an audience to the oppressive social structures in which they live. Later experiments in Forum Theatre or “play-back,” when a troupe collects testimonies from the audience before acting them out, popular among both the Freedom Theatre and Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah, are based on the exercises of Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, first elaborated in the 1970s.

    It is wrong to think that artists can only choose between wholly imported Western forms and a local tradition that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. In fact, this is a colonial attitude.

    But these experimental strains also have indigenous roots, of which Balalin themselves were highly conscious. Dia Barghouti has recently explored the relationship between performance in Palestine and the traditions of Sufi ritual, and oral narrative traditions have long been significant for Palestinians, especially given the devastation of 1948 and the continual destruction and confiscation of archives and libraries.

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    By the 1970s, experimentalism was current in theatre across the region, too: the plays of Saadallah Wannous, one of the most prominent Syrian playwrights of the post-1967 era of political theatre, as well as Muhammad al-Maghut and Tawfiq al-Hakim, for instance, often made use of irony, allegory and metatheatrical techniques to evade state censorship and discuss the issues of the day.

    The 1970s were a high water mark of both art-making and the Palestinian revolution. The humiliating defeat suffered by the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces at the hands of the Israeli army in only six days in 1967 had altered the axis of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, which could no longer peg itself to a broader pan-Arab agenda.

    Despite his grand pronouncements and the hopes they inspired across the region, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of collective regeneration had turned out to be all puff and no firepower: with poor strategy and insufficient military infrastructure, the Arab air forces were demolished before they had even taken off, and the Israelis proceeded to decimate their infantries from the air, capturing in the process not only the West Bank and East Jerusalem but also the Jordan River and the Golan Heights.

    Following this cataclysm, Palestinian selfhood was crafted anew. And, in this moment of  creative self-fashioning, artistic production flourished, largely in keeping with Frantz Fanon’s vision in The Wretched of the Earth. Instead of replaying nostalgic folklore, Fanon insists that the artworks of a colonized people should be tied to their liberation struggle and evolve accordingly. “The formula This all happened long ago,” he writes, “is substituted with that of What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow.”

    It is wrong to think that artists can only choose between wholly imported Western forms and a local tradition that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. In fact, this is a colonial attitude. Art can and should keep up with the times—the local times.

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    Balalin, like other groups after them (there was a brief spurt of groups with similar names like Dababis [“Pins”], Sanabil [“Spikes”] and Bila-lin [“Without softness”]), performed not in the classical Arabic language of tradition, and in which those traveling troupes before 1948 had performed, but in the Palestinian dialect. So far, so Fanonian. This move towards spoken Arabic particularly after 1967 had a localizing effect—Arabic dialects are mutually intelligible to a certain point only—and while some troupes did travel regionally and even internationally, this choice corresponded to a general commitment to the particularity of the Palestinian context.

    As elsewhere in the world at the time, theater in Palestine afforded opportunities for experiments in community. Numbering somewhere between 15 and 20 members plus various hangers-on, Balalin would rehearse and throw parties at Abu Salem’s parents’ home in Sheikh Jarrah, hand-making posters and glueing them to the walls of the old city before heading to a furun for breakfast. The founder of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, Juliano Mer Khamis, also emphasized community: “You need timetables, division of labor, responsibility, solidarity—it’s a model society. Along the way, the process rebuilds the communication tools that have broken down as the society has been broken.”

    Khamis was another insider-outsider theatre figure, but one who began working after the First Intifada. (He was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in 2011.) More than Balalin, perhaps, Khamis conceived of theatre as an instrument in a “cultural intifada.” If the Freedom Theatre had a more militant ring to it, this difference might be ascribed to their respective historical moments as well as to the fact that Khamis’s group was based in refugee camp, while Balalin, though a motley crew of members from across Palestinian society, was still spearheaded by members of the urban middle class.

    Balalin disintegrated in 1976, just after the Israelis deported one of their members, Mustafa al-Kurd, following a period of detention without charge. Some, however, attributed the group’s disbanding to personal differences; still others to the fact that they were young people who eventually grew up and married or went to university. François Abu Salem went on to found Al-Hakawati Theatre in an old East Jerusalem cinema, but this project too lasted only a few years, closing its doors when the violence of the First Intifada made even walking in the streets at night an impossibility.

    When I started writing Enter Ghost, my novel about theatre in the West Bank, I spoke to a few members of Balalin. They spoke wistfully but not uncritically of their time in the group. One described the experience as “emotionally fulfilling,” before adding: “in the context it was a very important milestone in the revolution, in the Palestinian resistance.

    In the mid-70s there was a big boom of cultural activities, poetry, theatre, novels, you know—literature just flourished, the literature of resistance. I would like to put us in that context.” “We thought we were creating new stuff,” said another, with fond irony. “To change the world.”

    Theater is an art of the ephemeral. It is an experiment in living in the present. It is, according to Peter Brook, a battle with conditioned impulses. It’s also an art form that requires money and institutional backing for longevity.

    Funding for the arts in the Occupied Territories is dominated by international donors, and such money usually comes with strings. Al-Midan theatre in Haifa, the most established major Palestinian theatre within the civilian space of the Israeli state, was forced to close its doors in 2015 after producing a play based on the letters of a political prisoner name Walid Daqqa, which prompted the Israeli Ministry of Culture to withhold state funds, even after the theatre successfully petitioned the high court.

    This hostility to theater perhaps had to do with its transitory nature: as a live, essentially unrepeatable art form, theater can be unpredictable and even volatile.

    The old Balalin members may laugh now at their youthful aspirations for theater’s disruptive potential, but the fact was that, of all the arts produced by Palestinians, theater was for a time especially hard-hit by Israeli censorship. Before the Oslo Accords (1993-1995), productions in Israel were obligated to submit their scripts for approval by the Ministry of Interior’s Committee of Censorship of Plays and Films, and the censorship committee of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Plays in the Occupied Territories were additionally obliged to pass the censorship of the Military Government.

    During the First Intifada, Hamlet was on the list of books banned in the West Bank because certain lines in the “To be or not to be” speech—including “to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them”—were considered an incitement to violence. The building that housed Al-Hakawati Theatre was closed down fourteen times between May 1984 and March 1987 and seven times between March and May 1987, on charges varying from threats to the security of the state to lack of permits.

    The performance permit for a 1981 production of a satirical play called Mahjoob, Mahjoob, about a guileless Palestinian collaborator, was rescinded by the Israeli authorities on the grounds that the company had departed from the original text submitted to the censor. On the night of the performance, security forces turned up in Nazareth to shut the play down, and threatened to arrest the cast. In 1976, the politician and literary critic Hanan Ashrawi wrote: “No theatre group has ever performed without having one or two of its members in jail.”

    This hostility to theater perhaps had to do with its transitory nature: as a live, essentially unrepeatable art form, theater can be unpredictable and even volatile. It can incite action—the double meaning in the English word “act” is brought to life in the Palestinian context. It’s also an art form comprised of bodies occupying space. The backbone of the Israeli occupation is a military regime whose principal mechanism of power is the control of bodies in space.

    Artists these days, and particularly the young, are sometimes overly optimistic about how directly their work can affect political realities. They hope to change hearts and minds, inspire empathy, challenge propaganda, alter foreign policy. Such wonders may eventually come to pass, but soft power is slow.

    In the heyday of Palestinian committed art, however, which corresponded to a general period of artistic commitment across the Global South in the context of the Cold War and Non-Alignment, art and action did dovetail and form each other in a quite extraordinarily direct way. Today, the performing arts may not often galvanize their audiences as they did in the 1970s but they can still offer something beyond the aesthetic—a space for social self-reflection, a chance to process trauma together, gathered around a hearth.

    I keep thinking of something the artist Vera Tamari told me about exhibitions of visual art that, post-1967, she and her colleagues used to put on, to which “hundreds and hundreds of people” would throng. Tamari, another member of Balalin, was one of the founders of the League of Palestinian Artists, which organized exhibitions of work from across Palestine and the diaspora. In the absence of professional gallery spaces, they exhibited in schools and municipal centers.

    The images were full of symbols. The colors of the Palestinian flag would soon be banned (famously, painters would joke about the impossibility of depicting watermelons). The visitors, Tamari told me, “walked so close to the paintings, as if they wanted to smell the paint.” She demonstrated by holding the palm of her hand right in front of her face.

    This image of people putting their noses right up to the canvases, looking for themselves, strikes me as both simpler and more vital than Brecht or Boal, or even Wannous or Maghut. That representation could quench a deep basic need of human beings to see themselves reflected, and to experience the pleasure, the bright light, of recognition.


    Enter Ghost - Hammad, Isabella

    Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad is available via Grove Atlantic.

    Isabella Hammad
    Isabella Hammad
    Isabella Hammad was born in London. She won the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction for her story “Mr. Can’aan.” Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions and The Paris Review. The Parisian is her first novel.

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