RW/OR Interview

"Alive from Palestine": Theater from Occupied Territory

by Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1161, August 4, 2002, posted at

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Every play takes you on a trip. When the house lights dim and the stage lights go up we get ready for a visit to a world of the imagination. In Alive from Palestine (Stories under Occupation) that world is made of giant mounds of crumpled-up newspaper, conjuring up images of debris and rubble. As the play begins, human hands slowly poke their way through the mounds of paper. Within moments seven Palestinians emerge, come together and begin a synchronized dance. Perched on a swing on top of the stage is a figure made out of newspaper--always watching, always there--like a god, a king or some force that reigns over their lives. The actors dance for this figure and appear to worship it or at least to submit to it.

For the next 70 minutes the Palestinian actors--all members of the Ramallah-based Al Kasaba theater company--take us on a journey through their lives. Performed in Arabic with English translations on a screen above the stage, the actors tell us the stories of Palestine in monologues that rake across your heart-- bringing the color, tears, anger and humor of the Palestinian people to full life.

We meet the father who sits in a corner softly talking to a schoolbag as if it were his son--in that bewildered voice adults get when they try to make sense out of the whimsy of children. The father examines the contents of the bag and asks the boy about the things he finds--a sandwich with only one bite taken out it; a pencil stuck in a small sharpener; a notebook that contains the boy's thoughts about being a child trying to play in a playground as soldiers and helicopters approach. Only at the end does it become clear that the boy is dead when the father promises to pass on the boy's belongings to his brother--and a minute later remembers that he has no other children.

The play is remarkable in bringing out the humor--the ability to laugh at the truly absurd moments in their lives as well as at the enemy and at themselves--that is an essential part of humans being able to stand up against the most oppressive situations. Young lovers sneak a meeting at a café on a firing line. They exchange tokens of their love--like people everywhere--except these gifts are various types of missiles, bullets and other weapons. Then there is the story of a suitcase that bemoans its fate in belonging to a Palestinian refugee instead of to a socialite passing through the fanciest airports of Europe and America.

A mother speaks to her son who is living in London. She keeps telling the son the worst possible news but then always softens the blow by adding the words "praise god" and then finding an upside to tell. "Your uncle Jawad, I didn't tell you/ Your uncle Jawad was martyred/ but praise god his kids are all right/ The little one was shot/ in the eye/ but he's all right."Eventually she tells of a missile entering the house as they speak, but assures her son that everything is still okay because it went back out through a window. The actor who wrote and performed this monologue--Hassam Abu Eisheh-- based it on a phone conversation he overheard between a mother and her oldest son shortly after the funeral of her youngest son. Eisheh said the old woman shined with the power and will to survive that is now so ordinary in Palestine.

In one of the funniest moments of the play, a man and a woman are trying to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and they find themselves stuck at a closed checkpoint. After reviewing every conceivable option and deciding none of the normal detours would work, the two decide to get to Jerusalem by traveling completely around the world--through the U.S., Cuba, South America, Japan and finally approaching Jerusalem on the other side only to find that checkpoint is also closed.

Reclaiming the humanity of the Palestinian people is at the heart of the play. A young man complains about not being able to choose the way he dies but seeks solace in leaving precise--and sometimes very funny--instructions for his funeral. Another man strolls alone at night and suddenly finds himself trapped in the spotlight of a helicopter hovering over his head. He speaks to the spotlight, telling the details of his life. The man is frozen in the light--imprisoned by the soldiers in the chopper who never answer him and yet defying them with his story.

A young woman tells how her brother was shot and wounded as the family drove to visit their relatives. A soldier's bullet had pierced the car and narrowly missed dealing her sister a fatal wound when the brother pulled her over to protect her. The woman's voice trembles as she tells how this situation was passed off as normal and ordinary. She goes on to list dozens of extraordinary happenings that are now accepted as ordinary life. "Death has become normal, and/ bleeding has become normal too. Fear and despair are normal/ The checkpoints are closed? It's normal, we'll go around the back, what do we care.../ My brother had a bullet in his behind? Normal.../" She struggles to hold tight to her humanity by refusing to accept this situation.

By the end of the play the actors are once again buried under mounds of newspapers--all reporting the horrors of living under occupation in Palestine as normal and ordinary news. But now the actors burst out of these graves and, in a frenetic dance, they destroy them. By telling their stories they have broken through the newspaper caricatures of their lives and they have captured the hearts of the audience. In a final moment the Palestinian people appear on stage as a strong and brave people who dream, imagine, cry--who have not lost their ability to laugh at the absurdities they face, and who, most of all, have come through their lives determined to struggle, to survive and to win. Alive from Palestine presents a people and place that is anything but ordinary, and in doing so the play itself is a beautiful and extraordinary work.

The Al Kasaba theater company brought Alive from Palestine (Stories under Occupation)to the U.S. for a very brief tour. They did five performances at the New Haven Theater Festival, one performance in Los Angeles and one more in San Francisco. The theater company has moved on to eleven performances in London and will then visit a few other spots in Europe. The future of the company once it returns to Ramallah is unsure. The Israeli army has attacked their theater three times since April and caused massive damage to their equipment and the inside of the building itself.

I was able to spend some time with the director of the theater company, George Ibrahim, and the director of the play, Nizar Zubi, the day before their performance in Los Angeles. We talked about the play, how it developed and the situation in Palestine.

RW: How did "Alive from Palestine" develop? I read in the program notes that it was very much related to the development of the current Intifada.

Nizar Zubi: When the Intifada started it actually caught everybody by surprise. We were in the midst of starting a new production; we were in the pre-production phase of starting a new thing. Then the Intifada started and we had to shut the theater for a while because we just couldn't get there. It was very dangerous in the beginning until we understood what the situation was. Then the actors, the management, me--all of us--started to get together and think about what is the right way to keep the theater open. This was our first goal. So the first performances at that period were more like memorials. We had a big rate of mortalities within a week, a hundred and something Palestinians killed. So it was just to open our chests a bit to let the agony go out. And it was open stage performances for every Palestinian artist that wanted to come. Our theater was there and open and if you wanted to come and use it you were welcome. That was George's contribution for the Palestinians to speak out.

RW: What did that look like?

NZ:It was funny because, like everywhere there are sections and groups amongst the artistic Palestinian world--which isn't a very big world. I think that this was one of the few times that everyone left everything aside and people who don't talk to each other came and were on stage together so it was a very interesting period. That lasted for two weeks. People attended the theater regularly and were trying to do anything just to do something. We read poems. If you knew how to sing you sang. If you knew an instrument you played it. If you could dance, you danced. It was a way of expression, a Palestinian vaudeville.

After these two weeks the troupe felt that we were the only ones who were still doing it. Our guests were attending less so we started doing our own shows. At the beginning I went to George and I asked if I could try adding something to the whole show, pasting it together a bit. He was listening and wanted me to give it a try. He gave me a big break. The idea was that we would all do something. He said okay let's do it; the idea was to lift the level of the show up to something more artistic and less raw. The first thing we did was to add some conceptual visual paste, something that would keep the monologues or pieces together in a visual form. Since that moment, every evening we added another layer of artistic material. The aim was to get as close as possible to a theatrical show without making it a show. We had a lot of arguments on the direction of the show, but we both agreed that it shouldn't become another theater show because it was very private. Every story came from the actors. So we tried to get as close as we could to a conventional theater show without falling into that trap.

So the next layer after the aesthetic one was that we started finding motifs and dramatic conceptions inside the work. And then we started working as a group more and more with the actors being in each others' monologues. Before that I added a lot of movement as a way to paste things together, movement passages as paste. Slowly it became thematic. It was a very intense time. We had these shows every week. And every week it was a new show, a new conception, a new set, new monologues, new direction. So it was a different show every week. After a while it became a real burden for us. This continued for nine months. Sometimes it was crazy. We would finish a show and the next morning everybody would meet with new material and we would have a day to build a set and block everything. We became very professional in doing this....

It was very hard to paste this piece together; it was maybe the hardest piece to paste. The reaction that led to this show for me--and the way the set design developed--was not only that we became ordinary news for the world but that we became consumers of news and we started talking about ourselves as news. In Palestine we are news addicts; you have to be because the situation changes so rapidly that if you are not following the news it could be dangerous or tedious. So we are very connected to the news. In a way that first period of the Intifada was a news period. Everything settled down, the first shots settled down and all we knew about what was happening in different cities and so on was via newspapers and via television. And that was the way we talked; we started talking like newspapers. So that was what brought this play up. Not only was the world regarding us as news, it is also that we started talking about ourselves as news too. I was talking with the actors about this and it was very funny because there were whole quotes of news in that period that everybody knew. You'd start a sentence and somebody else would finish it up for you because this was the news.

RW: When artists deal with really topical issues it seems that there is often a spontaneous pull for the art to become didactic. How did you folks deal with this pull?

NZ: Our play really sinks down deep into the real life of the Palestinian people. One of our biggest fears--it was George's fear, my fear and the actor's fear--that this show would become an actuality show. You know, that it would be a show that was all about what's happening today and then tomorrow it is irrelevant. Or that it would become didactic. So the focus in picking the monologues and editing the monologues--and we edited the monologues because sometimes the actors would come with a monologue this tall and we would say "take this and develop this into a monologue because all of the rest is news and is not life." I think what led us there was humanity, a celebration of life, our feelings- -what Palestinians feel, not what they promote as a political agenda or what they believe in as a political agenda as opposed to what they dream of. So our show is about their dreams and their fears and you can relate to this because you dream and fear and love and hate.

RW: Let's talk a little about how you developed these stories.

George Ibrahim:The source was our lives, our personal lives in Palestine, our stories, things that we really witnessed, things that we really felt and things we are really afraid of. Believe me, we are living in a very, very complicated life. You can have it all and then within one hour, all the human feelings can come together. You can be on stage acting and all the people are laughing, and then all of a sudden there is a helicopter up there and all the people are running home and the streets are empty again. Then an hour later everything is back to normal. This is the kind of life we are living and we have hundreds of stories, real stories that occur in our country. We have these fantastic checkpoints, as many as you want.

NZ: And these checkpoints are social meeting places. Everybody--no matter who you are or what you do, no difference of class or gender--everybody meets at the checkpoint. These are checkpoints that are outside us; it's a bigger force. It's like the deus ex machina of the Palestinians. The checkpoint is there and everybody floods into it. And George being a director of theater and somebody who just finished building a brick wall will meet and stay the same length of time at the checkpoint and observe each other. And they will share stories.

GI: And there is not only one checkpoint. Sometimes if you want to pass seven miles you have to pass four or five checkpoints. And the checkpoint is not a place where you show your ID and go on. The checkpoints in our country are something else; it's full of frustration, harassment, jokes, laughter and you are totally checked. Sometimes you even have to take off your clothes in order to let them see that you have nothing underneath your clothes. Sometimes you have to wait three or four hours to have your turn to pass through this checkpoint. And there is lots of humiliation here. And you will see people start trading things; suddenly people start selling and buying at the checkpoint. And you find coffee and sandwiches at the checkpoint because people sometimes are thirsty and starving and they want to drink and to eat at the checkpoint. This kind of checkpoint you will never find in any other place in the world. The rest of the world did not experience this like the Palestinian people.

We have this fantastic piece in our play called Checkpoint where two people, a man and a woman, want to pass from Ramallah to Jerusalem. And they are forbidden. So they try to go around, they try every detour possible and they can't. Everything is closed so they decide to go around. They decide to go through the airport and via America to get to Jerusalem. And so they go all this round-the-world trip--to New York, to Cuba, to Chile, to the West Coast and then to the Jordanian bridge and then the Jordanian bridge is closed too.

NZ: But I think the actor's connection is important; most of the material came from the actors, the actors wrote most of the material you hear on stage. My job on the material was more fitting it in right or adapting some of it. But most of what the actors brought to the stage was theirs completely. And they worked in different techniques.

Sometimes Gina, one of the actors, would sit with me for three hours and talk and Hussam would sit near us and write and that would be Gina's monologue later on. And Hussam would always come with a lot of ready material. Khalifa, one of the actors, always talked with me for a while, and then we would go into the rehearsal room and start trying things out and I would offer some direction. But the work styles were very different.

I think the powerful thing about the actors and their relationship with the people around them is that they're not intellectually cold actors. They live within the suffering, within the trouble, within the happiness, within the everyday life of a normal Palestinian. They are not separate, idolized actors; they are actors from the people. That's why the connection was so strong. That's why in that period our theater was as full as a theater can get.

In the big hall we have 400 seats and there would be 550 people; people were peeping in from the doors and standing on top of one another. This was because these shows really talked about them. These shows were Palestinian for Palestinians. I think that's why this show is so successful and I think it is why it is successful all over the world too.

RW: What kind of response did you get from the people about the play?

NZ: People came and talked to us a lot. There were all kinds of responses but this is one small anecdote that captures something. There is a vegetable market in Ramallah, and I was walking there one day with Khalifa. A vegetable vendor stopped us and said "You're from Al Kasaba?" and I said yeah we are. The vendor said, "This was the first time that I walked into a theater in my life but it was so strong for me to see us on stage." He said, "To see me on stage through you was so strong and so powerful that I'm gonna come every time now." This was the most amazing comment I heard because it came from somebody I know we touched. It was a small touch, but we did touch.

RW: You've said that part of what you were trying to do with this show was to create some breathing space for both the artists and the audience. Let's talk about that a little bit.

NZ:There is something about the escape from reality. For me, because the reality comes into the theater all the time, that's why we twist it to make it more dreamlike or surreal so that it will be a kind of escape. But it is an escape from something they know and with a ladder they can climb on. Because the political situation is so hard you can't just say, "Ok let's give you a terrific cabaret show." They won't come. The people want to see their lives on stage. So the escape is via the dreams. That was one of the things that led me in directing the play, in picking the music and so on.

That's one part of it, but there is another part. The life over there is yellow and dusty. It is very hot and everything is in a poor situation because there is no infrastructure. The infrastructure that was built is now destroyed. We live in a battleground. So I think for people to come into a new theater which is very beautiful and see a show which is clean and tries to be as aesthetic as possible within the circumstances we have is very powerful.

RW: So, on one hand you are really rooted in the life of the people and at the same time you are giving them a chance to dream, to rise above their situation.

NZ: And that is what led me in giving direction to the play. I want the play to really plunge into the life of the people. And from the plunge itself I wanted the play to go deeper and deeper into the dreams, the imagination, into a fantasy-like world in some of the pieces. There is lots of poetry in the show. I think that poetry is the highest form of art because it is the essence of why we create art. The images are what leads us to create....

There is poetry in life. There is poetry in this, where we are sitting. You may look around and see it is a lobby of a hotel but I say there is poetry here.

There is lots of poetry in hard circumstances, in the struggle. You know sometimes they close the checkpoints altogether and people walk through the hills. And when you have a holiday and the checkpoints are closed you'd see hundreds of people walking in their beautiful clothes, walking through the hills, through the dust and through the mud. And it might be raining and people would go through these trails, the women in their beautiful blue gowns and the men with suits and everybody would crawl out of the other side all dusty and brown. This is so powerful. This is metamorphosis in a way. And humiliating as it is, it's very cleansing because you say, ok this is my life and within this struggle and hardship I will find what is good.

This is amazing. You see people helping each other, passing baskets and so on. This is something you don't have here, at least not as strong or as concrete as that. Suddenly everything falls down and you become human to human. It doesn't matter what car you're driving, what clothes you're wearing, at the end of that trail everybody is dusty and sweating if it's hot and wet if it's raining. It is like a cleansing.

RW: I read where you said that working in Palestine today is both frustrating and really challenging for an artist. It is the most difficult and the most inspiring way to work. Let's talk about this.

GI: Let's start with the technical part. We are a company that comes from all over Palestine. People live in Jerusalem, in the Galilee area and in the different towns of the West Bank. When the checkpoints are closed, nobody can meet with nobody. So that means we cannot have rehearsals. This happened even two weeks before we came here. We wanted to rehearse and we could not. So it meant that part of us were rehearsing in Jerusalem and part of us were rehearsing in Ramallah. We did not meet. We met for the first time to rehearse together when we got to New Haven to do this play. This is the technical part. Your work is under their control; you are not controlling your time or your work.

The other thing is the financial thing. To run a theater costs lots of money. To pay wages for the people costs lots of money. People are not able to pay anything for culture these days. The Palestinian Authority doesn't have money any more--actually they started with no money. The people who used to support us from Europe have stopped supporting us because they have to support other things--giving clothing and food and so on--because of what's happening. So we are stuck alone. We are trying to find a path through all this.

The rest of the difficulties we are facing are part of our lives as human beings in our country. You cannot program yourself or your future for a week or even for a day. When you come to our reality as humans living in houses, you don't know what you are doing tomorrow. I was once caught in my house for 35 days under curfew, me and my little daughter. We could not go out of our houses. How can you program yourself and how can you live this kind of living. They give us three hours to go out and buy things to eat and on the way to the grocery I find this preparing of a collective burial grave. It was for 27 people who they could not take to their families so they decided to bury them inside the hospital premises. When you see all of this it is inhuman. And you are living as a human. There are contradictions here. I don't know what to tell you about this except to just reflect what I am feeling.

NZ: It's very frustrating because as artists our role in society is to fantasize, to imagine things. In Palestine you keep on banging against reality and the situation which is the overcloak of everything. It is always there. You can't escape it; you can't fly too high. You start shaking your wings and you bang into a checkpoint. It is very frustrating because you keep on banging against walls, walls like the political situation, our conditions and the war. But it's rewarding because of the few times you do fly. You are stronger than the situation and the reality and you just take them and swallow them inside you and use them as your raw material and fly. That's a victory. This is what keeps me working and moving until now.

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