Eyad Houssami, editor. Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre. Foreword by Elias Khoury. London: Pluto Press, 2012. Innana Mahkoumoun Bil Amal: Kitabat Fi Al Masrah. Beirut: Dar Al Adab, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What led you to commission and compile this collection?
Eyad Houssami (EH): As a theater director, I am always thinking about why we make theater, what plays matter where, and how to stage drama today. I also think about how characters, stories, and public dialogue—intimate, immediate, unmediated—can draw people together.
One of the problems with theater today is its insularity. Theaters are being padlocked and threatened with demolition in Beirut and Cairo. Translation of dramatic literature and scholarship into Arabic is tragically minimal in a region that translates around fifteen hundred books a year. The Arab Middle East has some of the world’s lowest literacy rates: only 70.3 percent of the region’s adult population (age fifteen and above) is able to read and write, while the world average stands at 82.4 percent.
Because theater can be dangerous and transformative, governments—authoritarian, oligarchical, and military regimes—have laid a siege around theater in the Arab Middle East, reining it in to maintain the status quo. Because theater almost never makes a profit, it is anathema to global capital and repels the greed of big money. Left with negligible funding, most theater makers, and indeed the art itself, fall by the wayside. It has become a luxury, a pastime of the elite. Theater artists, producers, and philanthropists everywhere have the responsibility to confront these challenges while safeguarding and cultivating the spaces that already exist for theater.
What drove me to commission and compile the essays that form the Arabic and English editions of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre is the same impulse that fuels my work as the director of the nonprofit theater company Masrah Ensemble: to make, develop, and foster research and criticism of theater with a focus on the Arab stage; to reconfigure audiences; and to encourage transcendent, riveting theater.
Ten years ago, when I began studying, making, and directing theater as a college student at Yale, I noticed how theaters in the American Northeast were segregated and populated by narrow demographics. Vanguards like playwrights August Wilson and María Irene Fornés were among the minority in an artistic universe that marginalized the voices of the oppressed, of those whose “mouths are on fire with song,” as Aunt Ester says in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. “That song is powerful. It rise up and come across the water. Ten thousand tongues and ten thousand chariots coming across the water.”
[Production still from Masrah Ensemble’s open rehearsal of Mud by María Irene Fornés, Beirut, February 2013. Photograph by Jowe Harfouche.]
Research and scholarly production expand the discursive terrain of theater as a discipline, and subsequently of theater as an ephemeral civilizational phenomenon. As I write in the introduction to Doomed by Hope, the accounts of scholars and artists lift theater from its fleeting moment and resurrect it in the imaginations of readers in another time and place. Thus, through theater writing, performance embarks on a journey that swiftly transcends borders and languages.
So Doomed by Hope—as an Arabic-English book and as an international theater series of performances, readings, workshops, and talks which we have already presented in Beirut and the American Northeast at Columbia, Yale, Rowan University, NYU, and Bard College—has become a vehicle to engage artists and scholars in a discussion about contemporary Arab theater and also to stage plays and performances by the very artists featured in the book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
EH: The essays revolve around the repertoire and reverberations of the late playwright Saadallah Wannous in Arab theater today. Authored in spring 2011 as revolutions were unfurling across the Arab Middle East, the fourteen contributions include literary analyses of drama, histories of theatrical production, and narratives about making and teaching plays. Half of the texts were authored in Arabic, and the other half in English. We translated every essay to either Arabic or English.
Scholars such as Ted Ziter, Rania Jawad, and Asaad Al-Saleh analyze specific plays by Wannous like Soirée for the 5th of June (1968) and The Elephant, the King of All Time (1969), while other contributors consider contemporary theater—playwriting, pedagogy, and performance—in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian Diaspora. Playwrights and directors, including Zeina Daccache, Rabih Mroué, and Sulayman Al Bassam, reflect on their own practice through the prism of Wannous’s legacy, whereas Jawad Al Asadi evokes memories of collaborating with him.
What emerges is a collection of essays that privileges experiential and personal accounts alongside more traditional scholarship. The book opens with an arresting forward by the great novelist Elias Khoury, who has also written plays and in the 1990s directed the Beirut Theater, forced to close its doors in December 2011. The photography, mostly by Dalia Khamissy, features specially commissioned portraits of the very artists at the forefront of the struggle to defend theater.
Doomed by Hope departs from Wannous, whose monumental plays incited audiences to rise up against tyranny decades ago, to offer a tangled history of Arab theater in times of revolt. It also documents the insights of intelligent, sensitive Arab theater artists and rigorous scholars in a moment of cataclysmic change. The book testifies to the singular force of playwriting, an artistic and literary craft that chronicles history, orchestrates dialogue, and forges culture.
J: How does this collection connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EH: Masrah Ensemble is committed not only to artistic creation but also to the research of theater, culture, and dramatic literature. I have for the past ten years married the practice and study of theater, but I always did so individually. And I had never done a book. The collection and Doomed by Hope theater series more broadly have generated a collective—indeed, a proto-ensemble—that engages in performance and scholarship for diverse publics across the world.
[Doomed by Hope Theater Series at New York University, featuring reading of scenes from Could You Please Look into the Camera? by Mohammad Al Attar. Photograph by Greta Scharnweber.]
In addition to the shift of my work from the individual to the collective level, Doomed by Hope also differs from my past projects in that it has a major focus on modern history. By virtue of their roots in the legacy of Saadallah Wannous, the book and theater series encompass more than forty years of culture, society, and literature. In the past, I wrote almost exclusively about contemporary theater.
Finally, the Arabic-English nature of the project certainly signifies a step towards multilingualism, which I believe to be requisite for theater today. We live in a world saturated by screens that exert fantastic influence on the human imagination, by media that fragment, distract, and dehumanize entire national, transnational, and linguistic communities. These forces insistently pressure us to perpetuate inequalities, exploitation, and violence.
But on the stage we are all human. We become human together through theater. Our imaginations work collectively. We are intimate with strangers in theater. Even if we don’t know what that character might be saying, we can understand what she is feeling. The more that strangers mingle in theater, the more trust we create in the unknown and in our shared humanity.
Working in Arabic and English in theater is one modest effort to intervene in the largely hostile climate of the interstitial space—charged with invasion, occupation, colonialism, crisis, and violence—between the two languages. My previous work explored literature, scholarship, and performance in or translated to English and, in rare instances, French. I didn’t have the linguistic capacity to do otherwise. I was relying on what had been shepherded across language borders in decades past. But in Doomed by Hope and now in Masrah Ensemble’s work more broadly, I am working in Arabic, too, thanks to the support of fellow translators, my tutor Samar Awada, and patient collaborators.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EH: The book is first and foremost for theater audiences, students, scholars, producers, and artists, especially those in the Arab Middle East. We live in a region decimated by insurmountable borders, remnants of colonialism past and present. A theater artist in Gaza will probably never be able to share a theatrical experience with another in Baghdad, for instance. (In the first half of the twentieth century, an actor could have taken the Palestine Railway to Aleppo and transferred to the Baghdad Railway, continuing onwards to Iraq.) The distance between Gaza and Baghdad is less than the distance between Chicago and New York, than between London and Berlin, Beirut and Istanbul.
The radii of theater—and therefore of societies—is shrinking despite the fact that we live in an era of greater interconnectivity and advanced transportation. Why is that? And why does it matter? Why do we need theatrical dialogue between societies?
Without unmediated encounters with imagined realities on the stage, we forget how to live. We become alienated from strangers. We jeopardize our shared humanity. We isolate individuals and barricade communities, rendering them easier manipulate and exploit. It becomes easier for us to kill, bomb, and enslave one another. We tighten the limits of our imagination.
Doomed by Hope is therefore an effort to expand the horizons of theater and to bridge otherwise cloistered communities. I hope that it will draw together a community of Arabophone and Anglophone readers who champion or will come to champion the urgency of theater.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EH: During the first half of 2013, Masrah Ensemble produced open rehearsals of an Arabic-English rendition of Mud by Maria Irene Fornes and the second iteration of the international Doomed by Hope Theater Series, and we are preparing for the launch of what I believe to be the first playwright residency program in the Arab Middle East. The residency will bring together a playwright working in Arabic and another—a friend of the Ensemble based in New York writing in English—in Beirut for a couple months in spring 2014 to develop two new plays in tandem.
The Theater Series launched in December in Beirut with a production of Jennifer Jajeh’s I Heart Hamas and Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You and readings from the repertoire of Wannous and Baghdad Wedding by Hassan Abdulrazzak followed by a talkback with the author. This spring, the series—a program of productions, readings, workshops, film screenings, and talks—traveled to Columbia, Yale, Rowan University, NYU, and Bard College; Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar and Egyptian writer and director Dalia Basiouny participated along with myself. In May, I gave a Doomed by Hope talk at the Alif Institute in Atlanta, Georgia; this July, I will travel to the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in Utah, where I have been invited as an artist-in-residence; and in August, I will present the project to audiences in Adelaide and Sydney.
[Reading from Baghdad Wedding by Hassan Abdulrazzak, Doomed by Hope Theater Series, Beirut, December 2012. Photograph by Jowe Harfouche.]
The response to Doomed by Hope has been overwhelming, and we hope that the Theater Series will continue to travel. Similarly, we endeavor to stage Mud in festivals around the world.
I also hold a day job as the managing editor of Portal 9, the first Arabic-English journal of stories and critical writing about the city, and we just completed our second issue, “The Square,” which will be distributed internationally this summer. I’m currently preparing for our autumn 2014 issue.
J: What does this collection contribute to discussions about the role of art and performance in the Arab uprisings?
EH: It was a coincidence—or perhaps fate—that intertwined Doomed by Hope with the uprisings. We had intended to launch the call for papers in 2009, when the inimitable Prince Claus Fund confirmed their support of the project. But due to a number of unexpected challenges—including my deportation from Lebanon (I returned in mid-2010), the project stalled. It wasn’t until two years ago that everything came together and that I announced the call for papers at the Sharjah Biennial March Meeting on 15 March 2011, which just so happened to be the first day of organized national protest in Syria and days before NATO warplanes began bombing Libya. So we commissioned the essays in a moment of turbulence.
From the outset, one of the goals of the project was to deepen the theater discourse, which all too often reduces performance to how it explicitly tackles topics deemed to be “political.” Notions of origin, authenticity, censorship, nationhood, postcolonialism, Islam, and dissent frame and saturate discussions about culture, usually assessed and interpreted in terms of its political cunning to the exclusion of its aesthetic, poetic, philosophical, and psycho-emotional qualities. We strived to coalesce these approaches to thinking about art by foregrounding intellectually abstract questions in the call for papers.
These ambitions were slightly thwarted by our timing. Many contributors felt compelled to write the uprisings into their essays. While the collection does capture the zeitgeist of the early phases of the revolts, Doomed by Hope is by no means about the role of theater in the Arab uprisings—only a few of the essays directly address the uprisings. Some do not even acknowledge them.
Instead, the book underscores the potential transhistoricity of theater. For instance, Zeina Daccache takes us inside Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison, where she directed an adaptation of a Cold War teleplay by American Reginald Rose. Scholar Margaret Livtin considers performances from the last decade presented in festivals in the US: Khamsoun (2006) by Jalila Baccar, Richard III, an Arab Tragedy (2007-09) by Sulayman Al Bassam, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue (2006), which features a Puerto Rican-American family, whose three generations served in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
Alongside these essays, and perhaps as a counterpoint to them, Katherine Hennessey links performances in Yemen in 2009-10 to youth protests in Sanaa, noting how they “mirrored” aspects of those productions. Asaad Al-Saleh parallels Wannous’s dramaturgy of audience interactivity in Soirée for the 5th of June with how youth “resort to social media networks to organize protests that lead to revolution…Creating a dialogue within the theater is an implicit call to launch a dialogue in reality.” The essays from Egypt attest to how theater can construct collective memory in a time of revolt.
In sum, Doomed by Hope traces threads of cultural history that have registered and informed, but by no means caused, what happens within and without the theater today. It reveals how artists have for decades—even centuries—defied the prescriptions of despots and aesthetic hegemonies in order to agitate for new ways of being human, of acting as citizens, of existing as a society.
Excerpts from Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre
From Edward Ziter, “Refugees on the Syrian Stage: Soirée for the 5th of June”
In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Soirée for the 5th of June (1968) by Saadallah Wannous was the only Syrian play to directly address its nation’s defeat by the Israelis. Beyond the simple audacity of discussing such a sensitive subject, the play is remarkable for its insistence that the event be taken as an opportunity to define a Syrian identity in defiance of a state that had rendered its population deaf and dumb. The play openly asserts that Syrians are saddled with a false and incomplete identity because their government has denied them free speech, and that this persecution resulted in defeat in the 1967 War. What is much less transparent, however, are the strategies through which Wannous attempts to induce his audience into such a controversial self-imagining.
The process, I will argue, entails two interrelated steps, both of which reverse the hierarchy of representation. First, Wannous invents a site of free exchange where none exists by imagining a theater in which audience members are fully empowered to reject the planned bill of fare and substitute questioning, debate, and their own spontaneous performances. Second, Wannous stages this revolutionary theater through interventions of the voiceless. The refugee—the figure whose presence and representation are objects of considerable control and concern throughout the Arab world—upends the performance when he innocently notes the difference between his experience of flight and that represented in the official culture of state theater.
Thus, Soirée for the 5th of June transforms the carefully stage-managed visibility of the refugee into unmanageable speech. Unconscious of the revolutionary nature of his action, the token refugee rises from his seat with other invited guests and claims the stage. In this moment, the play embarks on a project of redrawing the boundaries of Syrian identity by forcing the audience to fully engage that figure who manifests the fragility of national boundaries. Wannous asks his audience to find common cause with the refugees of the Golan Heights by asserting that all in the audience have been expatriated from a proper understanding of self by a government that has colonized its people’s psyches.
Before taking up this remarkable play, some contextualization is in order. Only a few Syrian playwrights have dared to interrogate Syria’s military conflicts with Israel. As noted, Wannous’s play is unique in directly examining the 1967 War; however, other plays have addressed the war indirectly. Mamdouh Adwan’s The Trial of the Man Who Didn’t Fight (1971), which is set during the thirteenth-century invasion of Iraq and Syria by the Mongul leader Hulagu Khan, examines territorial loss and culpability. While the play makes no mention of 1967, it clearly resonates with the war four years prior. Ali Aqla Arsan’s The Palestinian Women (1971) depicts a group of Palestinians caught in the confusion of the 1948 War and then some eighteen years later in a refugee camp—the 1967 War looms on the outer edge of the play. As such, the play presents Palestinian disenfranchisement as a precursor to a catastrophe that the audience does not witness but knows is about to occur. In The Jester (1973), Muhammad Al Maghut depicts a Syrian state that is indifferent to territorial loss, despite the ubiquity of liberation rhetoric. In that irreverent play, the Andalusian conqueror Abd Al Rahman I has returned from the dead to reclaim Palestine, only to be detained at the Syrian-Israeli border by Syrian officials who extradite him to Spain for medieval war crimes in return for a shipment of Spanish onions. These four plays stand out in the history of Syrian theater for examining Arab defeat at a time when most attempts in other media to explore the Syrian psyche after 1967—particularly media involving a mass audience—did not see the light of day.
Several plays written immediately after the 1973 War embrace the enthusiasm of the moment. Ali Aqla Arsan’s The Strangers (1974) depicts a small village that allows a group of strangers to encamp, only to find that the strangers evict residents from portions of the village and eventually take over the village square. Scattered references to the 1948 War make the analogy clear: the village is the Arab world, and the square is Palestine. Only after the mayor rallies the entire village do they successfully stand up against the strangers. While the extent of their victory is not indicated, it is clear that the villagers have redeemed themselves. Mustafa Al Hallaj’s Hey Israeli, It’s Time to Surrender (1974) similarly describes Arab redemption. A young peasant woman risks her life and that of her infant to capture an armed Israeli pilot whose plane has been shot down in the war. In Hallaj’s play, a woman manifests a people’s honor and demonstrates that Arabs will stand their ground.
Muhammad Al Maghut’s October Village (1974) both engages the post-1973 War enthusiasm and subtly critiques it by noting the cost at which this partial victory came. In this play, the theft of a groom’s vineyard delays a marriage for decades despite the promises of a series of village leaders to reclaim the lost land. At the play’s close, it is revealed that the men of the village have set off in secrecy against the thieves; they return victorious, but the play’s comic hero has died in battle. The sorrow amidst celebration further complicates what is already a strangely sudden change in tone. The play is a relentless, cynical black comedy about the perfidy of Arab leaders, so it feels ironic when the actors turn to the audience at the close of the play to announce that every Arab nation supports their project of liberating the Golan, Sinai, and occupied Jordan (i.e. the West Bank).
Syria’s actions during the 1982 Lebanon War are a particularly sensitive subject, and it is not surprising that Saadallah Wannous was the only Syrian playwright to address this in Historical Miniatures (1994). That play depicts the futile resistance of a handful of Damascenes to Tamerlane’s invasion circa 1400. Characters in the play condemn the Sultan for his failure to “guide the nation in its need” or “safeguard its land and its people.” However, the real object of the play’s critique is revealed when a character recounts a dream that foreshadows the Israeli’s invasion of Beirut. In the dream, she finds herself in Beirut as iron birds roar overhead, tossing down “fiery horrible balls that echo and annihilate.” Her dream culminates as she notices that all around Arabs representing the many nations of the Arab world watch “without concern,” an indictment of all of the present-day Arab sultans. It is also worth noting the courageousness of Wannous’s play The Rape, which is unique in the Syrian cannon in presenting both Palestinians and Israelis as victims of the Israeli security apparatus. Only one other Syrian play approaches The Rape in its psychologically complex depictions of Palestinians and Israelis: Mamdouh Adwan’s If You Were Palestinian (1981), which depicts (among other things) a Palestinian splinter group that takes an Israeli archeologist, his aide, and his niece hostage.
Soirée for the 5th of June is structured around an elaborate theatrical conceit; the audience has supposedly come to the theater to see an entirely different play, The Murmur of Ghosts. This fiction is introduced soon after the curtain rises. After an initially unexplained delay, an actor playing the embarrassed director of The Murmur of Ghosts steps forward to apologize for assembling an audience despite the fact that the play cannot be performed, but the tickets had already been issued and a number of guests invited. No mention is made of the actual advertised play, Soirée for the 5th of June, or its playwright, Saadallah Wannous. Instead, this director explains why he felt it was important to commission a play on the recent war, a play entitled The Murmur of Ghosts, written by “Abd Al Ghani.” No one in the audience has ever heard of Abd Al Ghani, but he is supposedly a well-known playwright and the author of this evening’s entertainment.
The “director” begins to recount his initial conversations with Abd Al Ghani with an actor from the troupe playing the supposed playwright when suddenly the “real” Abd Al Ghani emerges from the audience and offers to play himself. Their conversation about a potential play is illustrated by the troupe, which performs scenes from The Murmur of Ghosts, the inexplicably unperformable play. As the summary/dramatization is relatively brief, the director explains that the troupe will now entertain the audience with folk dances. It is at this point that a refugee from the Golan interrupts the proceedings with questions that send the show in a very different direction.
From Rania Jawad, “Saadallah Wannous in Palestine: On and Offstage Performances and Pedagogies”
The Elephant in the Textbook
Perhaps because of its continued importance and the critique it levels of a phenomenon prevalent in the Arab world through the decades, The Elephant, the King of All Time was included in what has been referred to as the “first” Palestinian national curriculum, created under the Palestinian Authority as a product of the Oslo Accords. Initiated in the late 1990s, the curriculum was progressively introduced into schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 2000 to 2006. The final lesson in the Arabic language and literature textbook used in the last year of high school (tawjihi) is on the genre of theater and includes Wannous’s play. The version of the play printed in the Palestinian textbook, however, gives the last word to the King. “Your request will be granted,” he says in response to Zakaria’s request to find the King’s elephant a wife and populate the city with their offspring. “You may go,” he responds to the people, laughing. The textbook version thus ends with the enacted story before the actors comment on the pedagogy of the play.
Omitting the actors’ direct address following the King’s dismissal of his subjects leaves the power in the hands of the King while also removing a reflexive device of theater. Both, in effect, serve to disempower the audience, whether by indirect association with the people who are immobilized or by removing direct reference to the audience’s intervention in the story. The pedagogy of the play rests on a belief in the audience to reflect on the questions put forth and to intervene in the course of events, which the actors—and Wannous—predict to be even bloodier. By omitting the direct address ending, the textbook, on the other hand, leans more toward a passive role for the audience, based on a pedagogy of right and wrong answers and memorization, as evidenced by the textbook analysis following the play and the subsequent questions for students to answer. Although the altered ending in the textbook is most likely a case of “simplifying” the teaching and study of theater, the omission is significant.
What the textbook offers is one example of how theater is taught to Palestinian students, in this case graduating high school students in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As is generally the case in “national” and streamlined curriculums, the knowledge and experience of the students is not part of the learning process. The most basic and essential component in the educational process is therefore left out. The discussion on the genre of theater, however, is more complex. Addressing the “absence of theater in Arab culture historically,” the textbook lists some of the main reasons put forth by Arab and Western Orientalist scholars alike: the geographical environment and nomadic culture, the nature of the Arab mind, and the religious factor. Each of these arguments is followed by a question meant to challenge the assumptions behind it, and then concludes by advocating a more comprehensive understanding that includes internal and external “social, economic, political, literary, artistic, and local factors.”
[Students and theater professor Rania Jawad, Birzeit University. Photograph by Yazan Khalili.]
Although adhering to an East/West dichotomy and the discourse of genesis (“Researchers agree that the birth of modern Arab theater was 1847 in Syria …”), the narrative in the textbook exposes its readers to a dominant approach to Arab societies and cultures. It also performs the act of questioning ideas and perspectives put forth, specifically by academic scholarship. The few pages devoted to theater at the end of the book could then have guided the reader to an understanding that such Orientalist perspectives, whether expressed via scholarship or literature, serve larger interests that result in dire political actions and aggression impacting us, the readers of the text. Such a return to the audience, as we see in the actors’ address at the end of The Elephant, the King of All Time, makes a clear and direct link between theater and audience, pedagogy and our lives.
The technique of commentary on the performance contained within the play itself is one that Wannous develops in a number of his plays, specifically because it enables a critical reflection not only on the content of the story being enacted but also on the theater as well. In Wannous’s writings on the theater, from his Manifestos for a New Arab Theater, published in 1970, to the address he delivered on World Theater Day in 1996, a year before his death, he privileges the experience of the audience. Although the direct politicization (tasees) of his earlier writings takes a form closer to critical reflection at the end of his life, perhaps due more to the devastations in the Arab world than to Wannous’s own deteriorating health, the focus on the audience’s role in the theater is based on its resonance beyond the realm of the theater. What is gained in the theater is meant to be carried out of the theater space.
No matter what technological revolutions the theater undergoes, Wannous said in his 1996 address, the theater will continue to offer a forum in which we can contemplate our “historical and existential” condition together in a communal context. The multiplicity of dialogues that take place before, during, and after the theater performance, he articulates, is what activates and makes manifest community affiliation, collectivity, and civil society. Wannous’s speech in 1996 is essentially an assessment of the place of theater in our increasingly technologically mediated and “globalized” world. The assessment is grim, for culture as Wannous envisions it has been marginalized in favor of increasing inequalities, aggression, and social divisions.
As we see in Palestine and elsewhere, the flow of ideas, people, and technologies across borders of nation and language, while often lauded as the progress of globalization, also implies the global circulation of racist ideologies, settler colonialism, and borders that are disappearing only for communities of privilege. New concrete borders and walls are being built while old ones are often renamed or reconfigured rather than torn down. In Palestine, the “globalized” version of the world we are living in reflects both Israel’s use of global tools such as military armament, United Nations vetoes, and the further isolation and ghettoization of the Palestinian population. Teaching the text of Wannous’s 1996 speech in class in conjunction with his play and other plays written in the twentieth century—years defined by brutal, destructive wars, ongoing colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the technological advances that alter our relationship to time and space—has been as much about situating ourselves in the world today as it has been about analyzing the role of theater.
The question of theater in Palestine has been approached in numerous and diverse ways by theater practitioners, cultural commentators, and community-based and development organizations, among others. Theater in the service of national liberation—as a tool for addressing Palestinian social issues, as a measurement of neoliberal ideology, or as a threat to the “security” of the Israeli state—provides examples of certain frames used to read theater in Palestine. Here, I discuss the practice of theater in a refugee camp in the northern West Bank to offer another perspective on the intersection of cultural production, pedagogy, and revolutionary change. Evoking Wannous’s vision, I focus my discussion on how the practice of theater in Jenin refugee camp extends beyond its walls, beyond the individual, and beyond the local community.
Echoing Wannous’s words in his 1996 speech, actor and director Juliano Mer Khamis described the practice of theater in Palestine as one of rebuilding: “Theater makes community,” he said. “You need timetables, division of labor, responsibility, solidarity—it’s a model society. Along the way, the process rebuilds the communication tools that have broken down as the society has been broken.” And he meant this literally as well as metaphorically. Mer Khamis described a new generation of Palestinian youth who “have lost their language,” the inability to speak and express themselves. He specifically spoke of the children and youth of Jenin refugee camp who have been severely impacted by decades-long violent Israeli policies of collective punishment and local social fragmentation. For these reasons, Mer Khamis came to the camp in the early 1990s with his mother Arna to establish a space for theater and other creative and educational projects.
This experience was captured in the documentary film he produced in 2003, Arna’s Children. Following the death of his mother to cancer and the Israeli army’s destruction of the theater she created, Mer Khamis returned to the camp and established the Freedom Theater in 2006. According to him, the main aim of the theater, built upon Arna’s work, is to provide the children and youth of the camp with a space to “develop the skills, self-knowledge, and confidence which can empower them to challenge present realities” and to reach out beyond the limits of their own community. Making theater thus becomes a form of empowerment and pedagogical practice, a process that encourages the youth of the camp to imagine beyond what they know, to “rearrange” reality, in the words of theater.
[Excerpted from Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre, edited by Eyad Houssami, by permission of the editor and Pluto Press. © 2013 by Pluto Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]