Ramallah Hopes/Ramallah Blues

Two last plays on Sunday bring IsraDrama to a rich conclusion, with a final wrap-up and closing night party—but all that’s 19 days ago now (!) and hardly the end of the experiential journey we need to share before New Year’s Eve shuts this saga down—so let’s barrel forward, past the leave-taking, past the appreciations, past the exchanging of business cards, and more material, with more playwrights and performers stuffing scripts and promotional material into our knapsacks for our consideration…

It’s now The Morning After, December 12, IsraDrama’s done, but more traveling’s in store for four of us wanting to get a sense of the drama on the other side (of The Green Line).  We are to embark on a day-trip to Ramallah where a series of theater companies have agreed to meet with us.  A van arrives at our hotel at 9.  Our driver’s name is Muhammed, from East Jerusalem.  Stephen Stern, our indefatigable outing organizer for the day, has been working with a wonderful theater artisan, production manager and event producer who’s soon to be marrying an American educator who’s come to know our theater’s work in DC, and our contact has put together a day of visits and meetings which will allow us to get to know four very theater different companies, run by four very different artistic leaders.  Thrown into the mix: one very fine restaurant.  Darna (take the virtual tour!)  

Uneventfully, we take the fifty-minute drive toward Jerusalem, passing Kalandiah check point, then Al Amira refugee camp, and make our way into Ramallah, all without a hitch. Our first stop is a courtesy look-see at the new Palestinian Authority Headquarters, and the van stops for us to pay a visit to the white marbled grave of the late PLO Chairman, Yassir Arafat, watched over by a pair of trimly uniformed police officers.

What to say about stopping to pay respects in front of Arafat’s grave?  I’m chewing gum.  Should I stop?  I don’t.  What am I doing here, I wonder?

“We’re interested in hearing narratives,” Stephen shares, “Palestinian narratives interweaving with Israeli narratives.  That’s what our theater has consistently been about.  And beyond that,” he continues, “I’m interested in helping make known certain Palestinian narratives that have been suppressed from us, or under-told.  And to help seed the ground for more opportunities to bring Palestinian and Israeli artists together to share stories and explore potentialities.”  I buy that.  That’s why I’m here too.  And beyond that, or more practically, I’m here to take in Ramallah for a first time with my own eyes.  I’ve only read about this place.  Now, I am here.

And it’s interesting to observe all the construction behind us; the P.A. Headquarters (which were supposed to be in East Jerusalem, you’ll remember, until The Wall encroached — see our photo from December 17) is very much a work-in-progress, but it’s a clean construction site; the orderliness of the police and construction details is not only impressive; it’s comforting.  I’m reminded of The New York Times‘ Tom Friedman’s many op-ed pieces about the “don’t-take-this-for-granted” security apparatus that’s effectively been keeping things quiet in Ramallah, both for Palestinians and Israelis, and the slow, steady, economic development that’s been taking root, buying both sides “breathing space” to work toward some kind of negotiated end to the current stasis (which is to say, the continuing Occupation), and that we have Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to thank for that.  Of course, most of the “breathing space” has been squandered, and opportunities for new negotiations aren’t in anyone’s forecast.  But the calm in Ramallah this morning points to a brighter future, doesn’t it?  It has to.  All these thoughts a whole twelve minutes into our time here, bidding goodbye to the silent guards in front of Arafat’s tomb, and driving further into downtown Ramallah.

I’m soon to discover that the “breathing space” narrative doesn’t hold much weight amongst the Palestinians we meet.  The relative quiet may be deceiving too.  But to me it’s still better; a strong internal police force beats social unrest, right? (“Sure, if you wanna preserve the status quo,” say the restive.  “Peace and quiet preserves injustice.”)  So I hear that voice, but much prefer the feeling of safety, getting in and out of the van, as we arrive at our first appointment 20 minutes early and stroll about.

Our first meeting is at the Al-Kasaba Theatre where auditions are in progress.  The artistic director, the well-known George Ibrahim, is having 3rd year students of the Acting Academy audition for Albert Camus’ Caligula.  We see six versions of the same scene (Helicon and Caligula talking about the moon).  I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read nor seen the play (that truly is embarrassing)!  But these actors have studied,  know their parts, and now are vying for the lead.  It’s impressive, I think to myself, although I’m also lost; one scene after another; not understanding a word.  I shut my eyes.  Stephen tells me I even snore (for only the briefest of moments, no doubt).  But still, I’m busted.   The late nights of IsraDrama have caught up with me, and now I’m not making much of a first impression.  I snap to it as auditions break and we begin a spirited tour of the multi-floored facility.  George moves with speed from room to room.

“Theater is not a part of daily life for the Palestinian,” he tells us.  “We’re creating a new tradition.  We don’t have theater houses in every Palestinian city — so we decided to invest in a center for the community; a film center, and proper theater and now a traditional training academy.”  We’re impressed by the many floors of activity.  We see workshops for movement and voice.  It’s inspiring.  Dozens of young Palestinians studying theater with good teachers.  Friendly smiles.

The Al Midan Theater used to present Al Kasaba in Haifa all the time, but that became impossible after the 2nd intifada, George tells us.  “It’s a miserable life. There’s no money.  I’m 65 years old.  I’m doing the job of five people.  I should be directing.  Instead I’m teaching, I ‘m stage managing, I’m administrating.  I can’t understand how I got here!”  I’m reminded of the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser’s visit to Ramallah to help in the strategic re-shaping of Al-Kasaba’s mission, and of the Al-Kasaba’s appearance at the Ken Cen’s 2009 Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World Festival where I brought some 20 students to see Al-Kasaba’s ensemble piece, “Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation.” Here’s the blurb for that alternately affecting, impressive, somewhat disjointed piece:

From beneath a mountain of newspapers, a host of Palestinian characters appear, each with a compelling tale of the truth behind the headlines: from a youth with aspirations for Hollywood, to an old man living under continual occupation, to a son calling home from abroad, to a mother losing a child, and the plight of young lovers. Together, these stories of ordinary life lived in the most extraordinary circumstances put a human face to the Palestinian experience as told by actors from the only professional multi-purpose venue in the Palestinian territories. Performed in Arabic with English surtitles. Followed by a post show discussion with director and Al Kasaba founder, George Ibrahim.

Of course I don’t realize this back in 2009 or even last Friday, but I now see that one of the stand-out performers from “Alive From Palestine” is, none other than Khlifa Natour, the actor who so wowed us on Friday in Haifa in the shows Ulysses on Bottles and In Spitting Distance.  Here he is in DC…

Alas, funding for Al-Kasaba’s Academy is faltering. And there haven’t been any invitations back to the US since the last tour. We ask about any current collaborations with Israeli-based institutions or artists…

George interrupts: “I hate this word collaboration! No more co-productions.  We’ve stopped.  And I used to do many.  But we just cannot work with Israelis anymore. The checkpoints have become a complete impediment. Israelis are afraid to come here. They know nothing about life here now.  To younger Palestinians, you cannot explain to them the meaning of working together with Israelis. And the Israelis are making it worse and worse everyday.”

In 1994, Ibrahim was involved in the joint Israeli-Palestinian production of Romeo and Juliet together with Israeli director Eran Baniel. David Hare described that production in his solo show, Via Dolorosa, interviewing each director separately. Their  Romeo and Juliet took eight years to pull off and, from both accounts, was a miserable experience for all. “When we did Romeo and Juliet, at the end, I knew I had been used. Not by Eran personally, of course, but by the Israelis. I would never do it again. Least of all now.”

This is how George is remembered in Via Dolorosa:  “‘But let me tell you this–he leans forward to reveal the ultimate secret–‘artistically we were better. Our side was better by the certification of everyone who was the play.'”

A memorable section of the play — I’m now remembering David Bryan Jackson’s wonderful performance of Hare becoming so many of the subjects whom he interviewed back then — and it’s funny, of course, to have been introduced to George first through a play, and now to be in his office, hearing him a bit more reflective. And despondent. The “ground was hard for peace back then too. No Israeli theater bought our Shakespeare. It languished.”

Eran Baniel remembers the production of Romeo and Juliet vividly.                           In Via Dolorosa he tells Hare:

It was not a production about love, but about hate. You know that bit where everyone lines up and sort of says, “Fuck you, Montague” and “Fuck you, Capulet!” We cut all that. Because Israelis and Palestinians go straight to the emotion; you pick up a stone and throw it straight away… From the very start, the Palestinians said, “We are not going to have all that nonsense at the end where the families kiss and make up and say everything’s going to be all right.” In the present context, what would that mean? Like a stupid Israeli, I took it personally. I was insulted. I said, “Rabin and Arafat had shaken hands; why can’t the characters in the play?” Of course, it’s only when you begin to see yourself as the occupier and them as the occupied — and all that means — that you stop taking things personally, as personal insults.”

I change my assessment. Ibrahim has not grown sad about this advent; only angry. “We reject the idea of Israel as a ‘Jewish state.’  And I have lots of Israel friends whom I accept as friends.   The Jewish people came in and took our land and then kicked us out. We moved to Jerusalem. We moved to Ramallah. Now we are re-Occupied. They don’t allow me to perform in Tel Aviv.”  We talk of other visits to the States; an earlier tour of Alive From Palestine. “We were a big hit in New Haven in 2003. But we were never invited back.”

Al-Kasaba is certainly the biggest of the theaters in Ramallah; the most internationally recognized. But the lament of struggle is everywhere. The shortage of funds. A spread-thin staff. But no shortage of visitors. There’s a large group in the waiting room who’ll soon be taking our place, seeing the same promotional video; getting the same engaging tour of the struggling Academy. It’s a Life in The Theater – but with no talk of  hopeful resolutions at the end of Romeo and Juliet.

We next meet with Dr Abdel Fattah Abu Srour, General Director of the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society, Bethlehem.  He’s the only PhD in the bunch.  And he’s driven up to Ramallah to meet us for lunch.  Trained in marine biology but now a poet, playwright, producer and educator — he’s made a career of his artistic calling, leaving the science behind. He’s easily the most polished presenter we’ve met.

Abdel Fattah Abu Srour, Raymond Bobgan, Manal Hilaneh, actress Nisreen Faour and Mirna Sakhleh

“We are not born with genes of hate and violence.  Our goal is to create a beautiful theater of resistance — To be creators of the change. We don’t have the luxury of despair. Everyone has a role in change making – freeing himself. Nobody should get used to humiliation and violence. Theater is about change.”

American playwright Tony Kushner is head of the Alrowwad advisory board, “but is very, very busy,” we’re told.   Much of the company’s funding comes from France — the videos on their website are all in French.  There’s something compelling and authentic about Abdel’s intensity, but then I realize that much of what he’s telling us is basically boilerplate off the theater’s website.  So be it.  He must take hundreds of meetings like this.  I try to keep up with him.

He doesn’t believe in painting The Wall–turning it into a work of art–like so many other art groups have been doing. “The Wall should remain ugly. Because it is.  It is illegal and ugly.”  He speaks of his theater company’s “struggle to remain independent vs. the necessity to survive.”  They’re mostly doing youth theater — that’s where the need is — but Alrowwad refuses to accept funding to work on other people’s agendas.

“You want to work on AIDS?” he parrots some international foundations throwing funding moneys around.  Alrowwad refuses such grants.  Alrowwad would prefer to make plays about practical health issues like dental hygiene; not AIDS.  “There are only 67 cases of HIV among the Palestinian population.  Why work on AIDS?”

So what other kinds of projects are they pursuing?  Any partnerships?  “We do not work with Israelis,” he tells us. “We will not make a show of cooperation, sending children to summer camp, singing kumbiyah, dancing, holding hands, like Monkeys in a Circus.”  That’s not the last time we’ll hear this phrase, and it underscores George Ibrahim’s earlier antipathy about partnering with Israeli artists.

“Hamas is now moving to cultural resistance. Armed struggle has become unarmed struggle.”  This is where the identity of the company wants to locate itself; within the movement of cultural resistance.  “In 1929 – Palestinian Christian women organized the first coordinated demonstration against the British Mandate – 120 cars honking in unison…   ‘Where is the Palestinian Ghandi?’ everyone always is always asking!  Well, there are hundreds of Palestinian Ghandis, right here, right now!”

Abdel is adapting The Silence of the Sea (about the French Resistance in WWII) or maybe it’s The Salt of the Sea, and we discuss a screening of the film he’s just presented at The Wall — with lots of cursing and nakedness.  Imams came to him that night to reprimanded him; Abdel needed to apologize the next morning.  Other works of his include “We Are The Children of The Camp” (a multi-generational presentation), and “Don’t Blame it On The Wolf,” a Palestinian riff on “Little Red Riding Hood” and an inverse of Douglass Love’s “Blame It On The Wolf.”

I want to like this impressive and charismatic man, clearly very smart, probably brilliant.  But I’ve pushed back at his earlier cynicism about inter-cultural efforts;  “monkeys in a circus.”  I suggest that joint ventures don’t need to be saccharine, or adolescent,  or the subject of mockery.  But we’re at Ground Zero of the boycott movement, where a refusal to partake in conversation with Israeli artists or institutions is a given.  Abdel is a warm man with a cold philosophy and a tough assessment about geo-political reality.  The bridges to be built right now are all internal ones, within the Palestinian community.  I understand that.  But I also recognize that I have no role here, at least not as a producer.  I tell him I’d like to read his work.  But will he send me a script?  What would I do with it?  We don’t share a vision.

As at IsraDrama, it’s only belatedly–half way through our trip–that we begin to hear from female artists.  Mirna Sakhleh is an actress and educator [note, new correction to original text] at the Al-Harah Theatre.  She joins us at the wonderful restaurant, Darna and we sit next to each other, enjoying the hearty assortment of salads, spreads, and kabobs.  I’ve heard about Mirna in advance, a full 8 months ago, from Yvonne Rock, stalwart member of the Swedish delegation, while we were vacationing in Sweden this past summer, as Yvonne described a play that sounded just fascinating at the time:  A work about Palestinian collaborators in a delicate dance with Israelis trying to recruit them.  And yes, it sounded promising at the time (go figure).  Now I’m realizing, as Mirna describes the plot in far greater detail, that the play, called “The Trap,” feels much more like a stern, public service announcement, warning young Palestinians to steer clear of all Israelis for fear of being co-opted, hood-winked, compromised.  I now wonder why I was so eager to hear about it…

“The play is about preserving the Resistance.”  It shows how Israeli settlers, soliders, and commercial employers seduce, bribe, and entice Young Palestinians into giving up names of anyone who might be deemed a threat, whether it be children who throw stones, or activists more centrally involved in organizing efforts.  The Israeli tactics follow two different forms: “You either make someone really afraid, or you give him lots of money.”

More from my note-taking:  “The play presents seven case studies — starts with an Israeli giving a 13 year old Palestinian 500 NIS  for a job; asking for names in return; then offering to help with a  grandfather’s hospitalization; asking for more names; this time of those heading a local cell — until the 13 year old realizes his employer is a spy. Tries to withdraw. But Israelis don’t want him to leave. They offer him girls. Settlers then ask for cooperation from his sister. In another case, they seduce a Palestinian with drugs. In another, Segal, a settler woman says, “We can get you into university.  We can help with your ID’s and passports…. You work with us, or we kill your father.”

And this is why the word “Collaboration” is not used by theater people in Ramallah quite the way it so blithely is back in The States.

Mirna continues to tell more about the Al Harra Theatre, including a project underwritten by the Municipality of Health on AIDS.  This catches  Abdel Fattah’s attention and we smile at each other.  His theater turned that grant down, but Al Harra is pursuing it with conviction.  [NOTE: THIS DESCRIPTION IS SLIGHTLY INACCURATE:  PLEASE SEE COMMENT #1 FOR CORRECTION]

Lunch comes to an end.  We take pictures of each other.  The actress Nisreen Faour has traveled down from the Galilee–it took her 3 hours to get to us–and she’s seated at the other end of the table, so we say hi and goodbye in virtually the same breath.

Everyone’s going separate ways, save for us Americans, as we move onto our last stop for the day… The most politically radical theater of all (great…), The Ashtar Theatre, run by Edward Muallem, General Director, and his charismatic wife Iman Aoun, Artistic Director.

Edward and Iman are co-founders of the first Palestinian theater troupe some 25 years ago, El Hakawati Theatre – where George Ibrahim cut his teeth as well.  But Edward and Iman pursued a brand of theater practice mining the philosophy of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal and his “Theatre of the Oppressed.”  It includes an interactive component between audience and performer that we actually used in November during Robbie Gringras interactive presentation, “The Big Blue Tent and Jewish Dissent.”  But that’s about the closest an Israeli conceived piece is going to come to Ashtar’s Theatre of the Oppressed.  Much of Ashtar’s work is conducted in Gaza, and their play,”Gaza Monologues” was recently presented at the United Nations in 16 languages.  Ashtar’s goal is to train students in a conservatory setting so that they may be able to enter drama academies around the world.  Iman volunteers that her theater is staunchly pro-boycott — cultural and academic — and that they don’t believe in bridge building that simply reinscribes a normalized relationship with Israel, and she doesn’t think artists should be used by governments like “trained monkeys in a circus.”

That’s the second time I’ve heard that phrase today and if I pushed back once, I’m gonna do it again now, even as Iman is certainly the most compelling presenter we’ve met so far — I find her instantly simpatico with her warm rich eyes and her very penetrating gaze; she’s strong and sincere and worth picking a fight with, even though it’s been a long day and we’re all so tired.  So it’s a half-hearted fight — “How can you rationalize keeping your stories from an Israeli public that doesn’t know what’s happening in the kitchens and living rooms of Gaza?” I ask.  She’s familiar with the debate.  They’ve been having it for years.  “I am against normalization.  Period.”

There’s more to talk about, I suppose. We see their work on DVD; hear about performances at LaMama; productions of “Richard II” and “48 Minutes For Palestine.”  We find something of a conversational groove in discussing the scant attention given to playwrights in Palestine; there’s far more of a premium given to collective ensemble creation; the Palestinian tradition preferences poetry over playwriting — that’s where the voice of the individual artist shines; in poems; not plays.  And the best thing about Imam is her interest in us — each of us describes the theater we each run — Mara talks about the McCarter; Raymond talks about the Cleveland Public Theatre; I share the history of our “Voices From a Changing Middle East” series; Stephen amplifies and talks about his work with the students of Bard College and the interchange with Palestinians in the West Bank village of Masa; the setting up of a girls summer camp there; his undiminished hope to help bring Palestinian narratives to people who need to hear them and his unfailing determination to find opportunities to bring Israeli and Palestinian artists into conversation.

Iman takes it all in.  We share material.  We watch half of a 40-minute video about their work.  We spend more time with the Ashtar Theatre than with any other place today, and it’s hard to leave; whether it’s the lulling inertia of comfortably watching a DVD late in the day, or the hope that the longer we hang out, the more we actually might find some common ground together.  But that ground doesn’t present itself.  We simply appreciate the time we’ve given over.  The handshake I exchange with Iman is the best handshake of the day; maybe the week.  I’m not even sure what it means.

Except that it’s time to leave Ramallah.  We thought we’d be done at 5:00, and now it’s well past 6:30; the sun’s set long ago.  It took us 50 minutes to drive from Tel Aviv, but it will take us over an hour just to find our way out the back roads.  Muhammed, our driver, is lost in Ramallah, and he stops the van six or seven times, asking for directions from ever-growing groups of men huddled on street corners, or in front of tin-roofed shacks watching soccer matches on out-door television sets.  We wind our way in a pretzel 8 circle, it seems, and at just about the time when we might collectively start getting nervous, we find the Mod’in Junction, and within minutes hit the highway back to Tel Aviv, and the welcoming glow of a Western cultural capital.  Tel Aviv is home for another night and we’re relieved our day has come to a tranquil end.

photos #2, #3, #9 & #10 © Mara Isaacs


6 thoughts on “Ramallah Hopes/Ramallah Blues

  1. Pingback: Why Ramallah? | The Theater J Blog

  2. Well thank you for this article but I would like to correct some mistakes and maybe misunderstandings. Mirna is called Mirna Sakhleh an actress and drama trainer at Al-Harah Theater. Not the same person Yvone talked about. Marina Barham is the General Director of Al-Harah Theater in Beit Jala. We did not pursue the grant for aids but we were chosen by the Ministry of Health to produce a play about accepting patients with aids in the community. We were requested strongly to do it for the Palestinian Ministry of Health and the reason we accepted is that we contribute to making people aware of this disease before it spreads and that such patients are normal patients like any other illness. They need treatment and and care and not to be shut out of the community.

    Al-Harah Theater produces plays that we believe in its importance for serving our community and its needs. Any social issue is important. Theater is an important tool for creating change and empowering people. With high artistic quality any issue can be presented on stage.

    We wish that our visitors from different countries attend our shows and not only come for a short visits to speak for a couple of hours. We invite all performing artists to visit our work and spend more time with us to know more about us.

    Thank you for your blog.

  3. Thank you for this very important clarification. We’ve made a first round of corrections! More will come. We are appreciative of this first correspondence. Thank you to both Marina and Mirna, and apologies for our continued long-distance confusion.

  4. Marina (editing here!)
    I will return to your theater with great interest in seeing your work. Your goals on the project promoting sensitivity to HIV patients and awareness of AIDS in the community are only commendable and should be applauded. And your wish to share work with fast-moving visitors is exactly my wish as well — that we might slow down and really stop to take in the correct names of those we’re meeting with and fully learn and understand what’s at the heart of our art and the lives we’re portraying. thank you again for your understanding note.

Comments are closed.