An important show has come and gone, and with that a variety of media reports, features, and reviews. The Al Kasaba Theater company made its DC debut as part of the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque Festival. Peter Marks did a major feature on the play — for which he interviewed me at length, the gleanings of which, apparently, wound up on the cutting room floor–and I let him know how supportive we were of the play being shown here in DC; how we invited the artists of Al Kasaba to take part in a Peace Cafe panel discussion with our Israeli and American artists on the subject. Imagine Motti Lerner, who was here all week, in dialogue with the many wonderful performers, the director, and the producer of Al Kasaba! Imagine Sinai Peter and Hannah Ha-Kohen participating from afar. Imagine if we’d still had been presenting the artists of the Cameri Theatre and their production of PLONTER? (postponed now, of course…)

And so imagine my surprise at today’s article in Al-Aribiya’s on line edition that had me as the sole representative of the Jewish community of Greater Washington expressing “concern” about the production — that it wasn’t “balanced enough” (never a criticism of mine uttered in advance of the show, nor in any forums, or privately, thereafter). To be sure, someone in the Jewish community must be upset that that ALIVE FROM PALESTINE: STORIES FROM THE OCCUPATION took place. But not me!

Here’s the link to the article. And below my response to the Kennedy Center’s Director of the Press Center. And then below that, the Al-Aribiya article published in full.

Dear John,

I tried to leave a comment in support of the production of ALIVE FROM PALESTINE: STORIES FROM THE OCCUPATION at the Al Arabia site, but the comment section does not appear to be registering my remarks…

…Just to follow up on today’s story, (“Does play about life under occupation needs Israel POV? In DC, Palestinian play draws fire for no balance”), I want to make clear that Theater J is not a “Jewish Group” that’s “concerned” about the presentation of this show. We’re supportive of it!

I brought 30 of my students from the University of Michigan and University of California at Berkeley to Thursday night’s show and we stayed for the talk-back and we’ve shared with each other online already how important it was to hear and see these stories on a DC stage. That’s been my position all along and I congratulate everyone involved in the Arabesque Festival for staging such a gorgeous festival. The Al Kasaba company is a crucial piece of the festival and there is absolutely no fire being drawn from this theater company.

I approached Alicia Adams over the spring of 2008 as we were planning our overlapping “Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival” to see if we might create a forum for interaction between our Israeli artistis who are with us from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ramat Ha-Sharon and elsewhere (involved in THE ACCIDENT and BENEDICTUS) as part of a community wide Peace Cafe in conjunction with Anas Shallal of Busboys and Poets, my partner at Theater J in convening Peace Cafe discussions. I understood from Alicia exactly why the Kennedy Center did not want to have its festival participants taking part in a cross-cultural/interfaith dialogue. I understood that the festival is an “Arab Festival” and not a Middle Eastern Festival engaging in political discourse. I have publicly remained extremely supportive of the presentation of the theater offerings and of all the gorgeous installations and other cultural programming.

I feel that the play ALIVE FROM PALESTINE is a very good show, nuanced and full of variety as it undulates between satire and sincere appeals. I do feel it has some limitations as a work of art, but what show doesn’t? I’ve only seen it on DVD before and I have never cast aspersions on any aspect of the show — it should only have run in DC for longer than 3 performances — but that’s not a criticism; only a wish to see an important exposure to Palestinian culture be extended.

Perhaps there are other “Jewish groups concerned” with an unbalanced play. Theater20J understands that art needs to be passionate. It needs to be complex and full of life. It often needs to be well-argued, but that’s not a pre-requisite. We don’t think that this play “needed to show both sides.” It can choose to be anything it wants. If the Israel that the characters interact with is to be shown exclusively by sniper fire, helicopter gun ship noise, left-over bullet casings and tear gas canisters and roadblock/checkpoint delays, so be it. That reflects a dominant element of how the Occupation is perceived by the characters in this play. Is that sad? Yes. Is it life-like? In many ways, yes. In all ways, no. Palestinians in Ramallah know Israelis — Israeli doctors, social workers, theater makers, even Israeli soldiers — in other capacities, to be sure. Some other Palestinian theater maker can choose to render those portraits. We understand what Al Kasaba has created and it is legitimate and deserved the voicing that you provided.

So we say congratulations and that’s it. The artists and crew of Al Kasaba are invited to attend our Sunday performances of THE ACCIDENT at 3 or 7:30 pm today… I invite others from the Festival or the Festival staff to attend as well.

I hope this clarifies Theater J’s support of the show and our continued interest in being part of a community-wide conversation.

All best,

Ari Roth, Artistic Director, Theater J


Sunday, 01 March 2009

Does play about life under occupation needs Israel POV?
In DC, Palestinian play draws fire for no balance

“Stories Under Occupation” hopes to make the stories of Palestinians living under occupation more than just a number in the newspaper

WASHINGTON (Muna Shikaki)

It’s difficult to organize any Palestinian event in the United States that doesn’t ignite some level of controversy. A Palestinian play performed as part of an Arab art festival ignited controversy in some artistic groups in Washington when the organizers of the festival failed to provide an Israeli perspective to balance the play.

“Stories Under Occupation,” a production of Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba theater, was performed Thursday and Friday as part of the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque festival, the biggest Arabic Art event to date in the United States.

Jewish Groups Concerned

“Politics is part of everyday life, part of the reality of the Palestinians “Michael Kaiser, Kennedy Center. The play has been seen by audiences in=2 0more than 23 countries and has won numerous awards. It shows snippets of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation and was inspired by the start of the second Intifada in 2000.

There are no Israeli characters in “Stories Under Occupation” and the only way Israel is depicted is through gunfire and fighter jet sound effects.

The Kennedy Center said some Jewish groups expressed concern that a political play about Palestine was shown without providing a balanced context. The director of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser, defended the decision to include a political play in an arts festival “politics is part of everyday life, part of the reality of the Palestinians.”

“I understand the play shows the reality of life in areas like Ramallah, but it’s not the only interaction Palestinians have with Israel ” Ari Roth, Theater J

Ari Roth, artistic director for Theater J, a theater affiliated with the Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C., said he approached the Kennedy Center last spring when he heard about the plan to include “Stories Under Occupation” in Arabesque, and offered to organize panels between Arabesque’s Palestinian and Arab performers and some of the Israeli and Jewish performers at Theater J.

The Kennedy Center said it was not interested.

Roth, who attended the Palestinian play, said he does not oppose showing art that only represents one perspective, but “was disappointed the Kennedy Center rejected our offer to start a dialogue.

”I understand the play shows the reality of life in areas like Ramallah, but it’s not the only interaction Palestinians have with Israel,” he told

An Arab festival

The Kennedy Center’s Arabesque festival is the biggest Arabic Art event ever in the U.S.

Alicia Adams, director of international programs at the Kennedy Center said Arabesque, which includes more than 800 artists from 22 countries, “is an Arab festival, and not a Middle Eastern festival.” She said the Center has organized an Israeli festival before, and frequently hosts Israeli and Jewish artists.

Politicizing the festival by including an Israeli element would have most likely alienated many Arab artists and led some to boycott Arabesque. To compromise, the Kennedy Center organized a question and answer session following both sold-out performances of “Stories Under Occupation.”

The goal of the play, said Al-Kasaba director George Ibrahim, is to show Palestinians’ everyday life and to remove them from the cycle of being “a number in a news item in a newspaper.”

More than a newspaper number

“Those are our stories, our lives; they’re not politics, they’re reality ” George Ibrahim, director. In the play the actors come out of piles of newspapers to tell their stories.
Some scenes are comical. One features a dialogue between a Palestinian man and his suitcase, who wants to be ow ned by a beautiful, perfumed woman who will travel with it through modern airports instead of being owned by a Palestinian refugee going through dusty checkpoints.

Another scene shows a pair of Palestinian lovers exchanging gifts of empty bullets and used tear gas canisters. Other parts of the play are more serious monologues portraying Palestinians who talk about refusing to normalize what they say are the absurdities of the occupation.

“Stories Under Occupation” was performed in Arabic with English subtitles in front of a mostly friendly house. During the question and answer session that followed one of the performances a woman wondered why Israelis were not asked to participate with their own stories to balance the play out.

Ibrahim, the Palestinian director answered: “Those are our stories, our lives; they’re not politics, they’re reality.”