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By Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour
This Week in Palestine
I was born Palestinian, and I don’t want to do anything to change this.
I was born in a refugee camp, in my own country, and there is nothing I can do about it.
I was born under occupation, and I will do everything possible or impossible to change this.
The culture and history of nations is probably measured through what they show and what they are able to communicate to the rest of the world. Throughout history people have tried to communicate their life, culture, and environment using oral tradition, writing, drawing or painting on stones, leather, or paper, or by the creation of sculpture and monuments. In modern times, multimedia and the Internet have changed the form of expression and the capacity of that expression to reach the maximum number of people with little delay.
Palestinians are no different from other people in their desire to share with the world their history and culture. Like many other people, they intend through their expressions to counter the images constructed of themselves, their culture, and their history. Zionist propaganda has promulgated numerous fictions and stereotypes about Palestinians and their history, such as the famous Zionist slogan, “A land without a people for a people without land.”
It might be our fate to be always swinging between an occupation or custodianship or mandate or another occupation ... Perhaps this is the main reason that most of our artistic expressions are oriented towards this beautiful resistance against the ugliness of these occupations and their violence, ending with the present Israeli occupation, which is still heavy as death roosting on the chest of our legitimate and beautiful resistance.
Because we still live this continuous Nakba, as Palestinians in occupied Palestine and in exile for the past sixty-four years, and because the wolves of forgetfulness are hovering over our memories and our internationally recognised and protected rights which are excessively ignored by the state of occupation and by some pygmies of history, we continue to revive the memory for Palestinian generations, and refresh the conscience of humanity.
Palestinians have been pioneers in using numerous ways to revive this memory, remaining attached to their embroidered clothes, jewellery, and tools carried by the refugees and displaced persons who were forced to seek refuge, keeping the old rusty keys to the doors that may or may not exist anymore and still reclaiming their right to return to their homes and lands. Old people have refused to die without keeping this oral history alive and documenting it in historical books, narrating stories of refugees and displaced people in the homeland and in exile. Some of the old have died, but the young have not forgotten. Writers have written poems and novels about this continuous resistance against normalisation and the conditioning to get used to oppressed life under occupation; artists have expressed in painting, reflecting and documenting this tragedy that is still happening even today. Filmmakers and media artists have created films and TV series, meetings and seminars on television and radio, all of which revive the memory of the generations who lived the first Nakba and the second displacement, as well as the persistent policies of ethnic cleansing practiced by the government of occupation. Theatre artists have created on-stage plays that embody the entire history of our past, which has emigrated with us and inhabited our present and our future.
What makes us resist? What sets us apart as a people and makes us, despite the tragedy, find a glimmer of hope; despite the sadness, find a touch of beauty; despite severe repression, be moved by the strings of the oud (lute) and the melody of the flute? What distinguishes us as a people living under occupation when we laugh at a joke and refuse to be sad ghosts begging for pity and for our rights?
We insist on our resistance, and we refuse to budge on our rights because we want to maintain our humanity and our spirit of belonging to humanity. We reject the cages in which the occupation imprisons us through its media or on the ground to plant in the minds of the world that we are only barbaric savages who do not belong to humanity, so that even the word “Palestinian” in some countries or communities has become synonymous with “terrorist.” And because we are human beings and we reclaim, defend, and respect our humanity and our stolen rights, we refuse to give up these rights, and we resist.
Palestinian theatre came along as a means (among many others) to continue this resistance against the policies of deformation of history, transformation of geography, entombment of our identity, and interment of our culture and civilisation precipitated by the various occupations - from the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and ending with the Israeli occupation. Palestinian theatre practitioners use the most creative means to express the concerns and worries of all Palestinians. And because theatre is a refined and beautiful art, and because of the direct relationship between the audience, the performer, and the word, and because theatre is an active, interactive, and provocative means to educate, cultivate, and motivate crowds that has been used over the centuries, it is one of the most powerful, profound, civilised and non-violent tools of our beautiful resistance.
Although I’m not in the process of drafting the history of Palestinian theatre, it is worth recalling that Palestinian theatre saw its beginnings in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, through several attempts to claim its historical significance, and it may have found its beginnings through al-hakawati (storyteller) and in schools around the end of the nineteenth century, where even Shakespeare’s plays were performed.
A group of people were known to have focussed on writing for theatre between 1919 and 1949; at the top of the list were Jamil Habib Bahri and the brothers Saliba, Jamil, Nasri, and Farid Al-Jawzi. The establishment of Palestinian Radio in Jerusalem in 1936, managed by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan, contributed to the revitalisation of theatrical movement and activity, especially with the artistic participation of the Jawzi family.
During the period between World War I and World War II, many plays emerged that focussed on fighting Zionism and discouraging the sale of land to Zionists; some authors wrote plays against foreign influence and interference in the internal affairs of Arabs.
The shock of Al-Nakba hit the Palestinian theatre with great disappointment after the outstanding activity and significant milestones achieved during the British Mandate, despite the stringent British controls against political plays. Palestinian theatre artists were dispersed and emigrated mostly to Jordan, where they began Palestinian theatre activity.
After the start of the Palestinian armed revolution, many Palestinian theatre troupes were formed in some Arab countries and within occupied Palestine, despite all the barriers and constraints, as well as in the diaspora. Upon the initiative of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement Fatah, the Palestinian Theatre Association was formed in 1966 in Damascus and presented its work in several Arab capitals.
The first theatre production of the Palestinian National Theatre was The Trial of the Man Who Did Not Fight, written by Mamdouh Adwan and directed by Hassan Oweini. Afterwards, the troupe presented the play The Birds Build Their Nests between the Fingers under a new title, The Chair, written by the poet Moein Bseiso and directed by Khalil Tafesh. The play has gained great fame and wide acclaim not only in the Arab world but also in many European countries, as it represented Palestine in the Arab Theatre Festival in Rabat in 1974. According to Khalil Tafesh, “Mamdouh Adwan’s play, The Trial of the Man Who Did Not Fight, marks the beginning of the creation of Palestinian theatre in the full sense.”
The troupe has also presented People Who Will Not Die, written by Fata Althawra and directed by Sabri Sondos; The Road, written and directed by Nasruddin Shamma; and A Concert for June 5th, written by Saadallah Wanouss and directed Aladdin Kukes.
The Palestinian theatre movement witnessed remarkable development after 1967. The first theatre gathering in the West Bank was held in February 1975 under the name (تجمع العمل والتطوير الفني) “The Collective for Work and Artistic Development” as a theatrical landmark in occupied Palestine preceded and followed by many important theatre groups that appeared in various West Bank cities, including The Theater Family - which turned into Balalin (Baloons) then Bila-Lin troupe, Dababees (Pins), Sandouq Elajab (Box of Wonder), Alhakawati (which was the first professional theatre), the Palestinian National Theatre, Al-Kasabah Theatre in Jerusalem, which moved to Ramallah under the Palestinian National Authority, Ashtar for Theatre Education and Training, Sanabel Theatre, Aljawal Almakdisi, Alrahalah, Qafilah, Theatre Day Productions, Inad, Alhara, and Yes Theatre. In addition, theatre and art associations were also established in refugee camps and include Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society in Aida Refugee Camp (that I founded with some friends), Almasrah Asha’bi in Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp, and Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp. In the 1948 areas of Palestine we have also witnessed the emergence of Almaidan Theatre, Alseerah, Shiber Hurr, and others; and in Gaza, Theatre for Everybody, among others.
Al-Nakba and the subsequent Palestinian tragedies cemented most of the theatrical works presented by the Palestinian theatre. As the Palestinian director Fouad Awad stated in a talk delivered at the Festival of Carthage in Tunis in 2004, “I am confident that the Palestinian play will return to the time and place that stopped everything for us in Palestine - the Nakba of 1948.”
Awad continued, “In fact, the lack of balance, or the imbalance, is a component and a basic element in the drama of the Palestinian play in general, one which is based on the principle that we had a house and a land, and we had a beautiful life in the village or the city or the countryside; but the circle of life tore apart the tissue, and the war tore us apart so that we were no longer one family and one people.”
And because we are people who love life, and because we do not want to weep over the past, and because we exist and we resist, many theatre plays have focussed on the Nakba. I wrote and directed the play, We Are the Children of the Camp, which retraces the history of Palestine starting with the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917. The play includes the 1948 War, the exile of Palestinians into tents, the recollection of demolished villages and the new Hebrew names they were given, and the refugee camps and their locations. The play also includes children’s impressions of their lives in the camps, the Intifada, the claims of the Palestinians, the claims of the media, accounts of the checkpoints, and the experience of oppression. The play concludes with so-called peace negotiations.
Alrowwad theatre children’s troupe in the Aida Refugee Camp has performed the play in many countries. The press reviews included the following headlines: “Between laughter and tears, Aida Camp kids embodied Palestinian suffering.” “The theatre play - We Are the Children of the Camp - creates another reading of the history of the Palestinian cause.” “The History of Palestine on the stage.” Our last play, which toured in France and Luxembourg in 2011, was an adaptation of the caricatures of Naji Al-Ali. I adapted and directed this play to remind our people and the international community of the commitments to the rights and values that we share as human beings, and that this “Handala” is not simlpy Palestinian, rather he represents the conscience of humanity.
Yes, I wanted to express on stage, through theatre play creation, the on-going suffering of Palestinians and make it possible to re-read history as we have lived it and as we still live it; I wanted to disturb the Arab and international silence through local and international theatre tours, because I want our memories to remain vivid, with our past, present, and future; I want Palestinians and others to remember the Arabic names of our villages, which were destroyed and renamed mostly by Zionist bandits and the Israeli occupation. And I want to say that we as a people resist Israeli violence also in ways that are peaceful and beautiful, using theatre and the performing and visual arts. But this type of beautiful resistance does not mean giving up our rights and being satisfied with the crumbs and remnants of the political agreement tables of Oslo and Geneva, the shameful initiatives from people who have lost their sense of honour and have given up the internationally recognised rights of their people.
The embodiment of the Nakba and the still-bleeding Palestinian wound on the stage is not because we love sadness and want to weep over our tragedies. Rather it is a commemoration of the Palestinian and international memory and consciousness, and a desire to communicate our tragedy to the public as we lived it and as we continue to live it, not as others would like it to be communicated. The greater aim is to enable emerging Palestinian generations to re-read their history and tragedy in order not to forget, because to forget one’s rights is an unforgivable crime, and to alienate these rights and give up is an even greater and worse crime.
Abdelfattah Abusrour, PhD, is a writer, actor, and painter. He studied theatre in Paris and was a founding member of Paris Nord Theatre. In 1998, he founded, with some friends, Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Center for Children in Aida Camp-Bethlehem. He has written numerous plays, among them Far Away from a Village Close By, which won first prize in London’s 2006 “Deir Yassin Remembered Festival.” He was the first Palestinian to be awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for his work in “Beautiful Resistance,” giving the children a possibility to express themselves through creative arts. He is general manager of Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center and president of the Palestinian Theatre League since 2009.
See PDF www.thisweekinpalestine.com/i169/pdfs/article/beautifulresistance.pdf