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Francois Abu Salem

[Francois Abu Salem. Photo via the author.] [Francois Abu Salem. Photo via the author.]

François Abu Salem passed away on 1 October 2011, taking his own life in what one Palestinian theatre artist described as “his last bow.” His death has instigated numerous discussions among the cultural community in Palestine on the alienation of artists from society at large and within the theatre world itself in Palestine, the role of theatre in social and national struggle, and the debate on who is a Palestinian. While the substance of François’ contribution to the theatre is debated, there is little question that he is one of the most influential figures who worked to establish modern theatre production in Palestine. As a theatre director, his name is linked to the beginnings of the contemporary theatre movement, specifically in the early 1970s through the 1980s, as well as the establishment in 1984 of El Hakawati [The Storyteller] Theatre in East Jerusalem, considered the first professional Palestinian theatre space under Israeli military occupation.[1]

Born in 1951 and carrying French citizenship, François Gaspar grew up in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, where his Hungarian father was a well-known surgeon, in addition to being a poet and photographer. After a few years of high school in Beirut, François later trained in Paris with Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, widely acclaimed for the innovative and collaborative nature of their productions. Returning to Palestine in 1970, impacted by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and the 1968 mass social movement in France, he began collectively making theatre with a group of friends to respond to the major socio-political changes taking place. Forming Balalin [Balloons] theatre troupe, they put on a number of performances and organized the first Palestinian theatre festival in 1973 in the West Bank. It was at that time that another Balalin member gave François the nickname “Abu Salem,” a name that he subsequently adopted and by which he came to be known in both the Arab world and in Europe.

Recalling his early theatre experiences in Palestine when I interviewed him in 2007, François said: “It’s a long story of taming and being tamed by the audience all the time.” He was not articulating a notion of domesticating the art of theatre and its audiences in Palestine, but rather a certain practice of theatre. Describing El Hakawati performances held in Palestinian villages in the Galilee that had no halls or stages to host their theatre productions, he recalled how El Hakawati members would come to the village a few days earlier to build an outdoor stage equipped with sound, lighting, and curtains. Troupe members were hosted in villagers’ homes, as villagers shared in the theatre troupe’s preparations for the elaborate production. “When they came to the performance,” François said of the villagers, “they were part of it…they felt it belonged to them somehow…so we were theirs, we belonged to them.”

François’ work drew on a range of sources and personal experiences particular to the socio-political landscape of Palestine. Various cultural-political encounters and interventions over the years, and specifically nineteenth-century colonial infiltrations, impacted the heritage of local Arab performance traditions and shaped the content and form of modern theatre practice. That plays François worked on took up issues of identity, exposing stereotypes and contradictions within characters and the larger contexts around them, reflected not only François’ positioning within Palestinian society, but also that of the other theatre artists with whom he worked. Jalili ya ‘Ali (‘Ali the Galilean) (1983), for instance, follows the story of that which “is not from the inside and not from the outside,” in other words, “one of those, Palestinian-Israelis????” as noted in the production’s brochure. Using a satirical style, we not only see the life of ‘Ali as performed by others, but also ‘Ali’s reaction to his own theatrical representation. Bi-ism al-Ab wal-Umm wal-Ibn (In the Name of the Father, Mother, and Son) (1978) uses exaggerated and grotesque imagery to show oppressive elements of the colonial power, masked in a discourse of civilization and modernity, as well as those within traditional Arab society that effect all levels of the family structure.

One of the few theatre artists who worked through the decades without institutionalizing his theatre work, François continued to collaborate with Palestinian theatre artists across Palestine, not adhering to Israel’s ghettoizing borders. He made theatre with Palestinian actors living inside Israel and those in the Occupied Territories, not only following the 1967 war but also after the arrival of the PNA in the 1990s and the second intifada, when it became increasingly difficult for Palestinians to travel within Palestine. While there have been border crossings and collaborations among Palestinians, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli separation policies have generally circumscribed acts of making theatre since the second intifada.

Recognized during his lifetime as a major figure in the local theatre, François was committed to developing, pushing, and questioning theatre practice in Palestine.[2] At the start of In the Name of the Father, Mother, and Son, two actors emerge from the audience, singing: “Get up, oh sleeping ones…wake up, wake up, wake up…We are not prophets but human…Help us direct light onto the world…our turn has come to speak—to speak, to scream, to expose.” Addressing the audience, they make tangible a significant aspect of François’ work. Provoking both actors and audience to review their own lives and the roles they play in the politics of power in Israel and Palestine, such a practice breaks down the separation between on and offstage.

What is perhaps unique about François is how his positioning within local Palestinian society mirrors perceptions on the theatrical art form itself in Palestine. For as theatre in Palestine is often situated within frameworks of East-West, and specifically colonial, encounters that provoke discussions on theatre’s role and adaptability within local cultural contexts, François is described by local and non-Palestinian scholars and artists alike as embodying an East-West polarity, a meeting-place of Orient and Occident. While misinformation on his origins runs through the literature in Arabic and English,[3] François’ status as a foreigner-local, like the theatre, dominates how both his figure and contribution to theatre in Palestine is analyzed. Circumscribing both the theatrical art form and an individual within such binary frameworks, however, reduces rather than explores the complexity of each; for what is provocative about François and the theatre is how they refuse to be categorized within a singular, linear narrative of origins.

The death of François Abu Salem follows the death of another major figure committed to theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer Khamis, who was murdered in Jenin refugee camp on 4 April 2011. Juliano, also noted as being a product of culture-crossings, moved from inside Israel to Jenin refugee camp to develop theatre activities with the youth of the camp. While each played very different roles in the local theatre, both François and Juliano were marked by their origins in some way. Even if incorrectly, each had to be situated by their origins in order to explain their practice: Juliano as being the son of a Palestinian father and a Jewish-Israeli mother, François a Hungarian father and a French mother. Perhaps it was such culture-crossings that enabled both to question the roles we play offstage. “We are all responsible for the destruction of Palestine,” Juliano once said, and “we must take responsibility.” The question of how we are responsible is not to be understood by any one reading; however, in naming us as responsible, we all have the potential to act.

“All my life, I felt that I belonged to these people,” wrote François in his last play that was never performed. “But maybe these people don’t want me,” he continues. “I can only say this to you now: Don’t confuse the issue…do not mistake me for those who have occupied your land,” are his last lines. Sometimes, if not always, it is necessary to blur the lines between actor and character, between theatre and reality. They cannot be separated, nor can François be separated from the people he felt he belonged to and the land in which he was buried.

Notes
[1] Although it is no longer under the administration of El Hakawati members, the theatre remains active today under its current name, the “Palestinian National Theatre.”
[2] In addition to recognition in Palestine and abroad for particular theatre productions, in 1997 he was awarded the Palestine Honorary Prize for Theatre by Yasir Arafat.
[3] Beyond the fact that François’ family name Gaspar is rarely known, his birthplace has been variously listed as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and France, and most often his father is erroneously identified as being Palestinian.

 

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