From 3-5 April 2014, I attended three notable theatrical productions that dealt directly and indirectly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Diary of Anne Frank at Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre, directed by the Artistic Director of Bethlehem’s Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society Abdelfattah Abusrour; a workshop production of The Admission by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner at Washington D.C.’s Jewish Cultural Center; and a private reading of Peace, a new one-act play by the Palestinian playwright Hanna Eady and the Seattle-based playwright Ed Mast. In all three instances, Palestinian culture makers played a significant role in narrating and performing an alternative perspective on the conflict, thus intervening in a public sphere that is often heavily saturated by unchallenged Zionist narratives. More notably, the increasing self-presentation of Arab and Palestinian artists indicates a developing awareness of the necessity of native involvement in Middle Eastern performed narratives as formerly distant and one-dimensional portrayals of Arabs have traditionally produced failed and propagandist dramas. Finally, the presence of artists including Abusrour, Hanna Eady, and Leila Buck on the scene, as well as many talented others across the United States, suggests that Arab voices can no longer be denied self-representation with standard industry excuses, such as “we couldn’t find the right actor” or “there is no such thing as Arab or Arab-American drama.” In the last decade alone, the emergence of a new generation of skilled English-speaking Arab and Palestinian performing artists promises a transformation in both the cultural and political arenas.
Palestine and its supporters have long suffered an undeclared moratorium on direct communication of Palestinian narratives through mainstream channels of media and government. For an entire generation within the Euro-American heritage, particularly in the U.S., the mere utterance of the words Palestine and Nakba has been rendered taboo. Key signifiers such as Palestinians, expulsion, massacre, and Apartheid Wall have been politicized and controversialized. Simultaneously, Israeli signifiers such as Arab Israelis, War of Independence, Jewish State, and Security Fence have been widely adopted. Thus, the normalization of Israeli-Zionist narratives in rhetoric has effectively complemented the gradual and literal displacement of Palestine post-1948. In this context of conscious and unconscious denial, often within and beyond the bubbles of academia, the rise of a leftist and often liberal theatrical canon on the conflict in Palestine, Israel, the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. plays a significant role in the gradual erosion of the rhetorical embargo on debates concerning Palestine. In the struggle for a “permission to narrate,” or rather, the “permission to perform,” the theatre has functioned as an alternative site of resistance in plays, such as My Name is Rachel Corrie and Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children. As powerful stakeholders in the private spheres of policy think tanks, mainstream media, and Capitol Hill continue their embargo on Palestinian narratives, the theatre becomes a necessary public forum of hard-hitting negotiations of self and the Other.
Palestinian Suffering and Holocaust Sensibility
I had directed Abusrour in Arthur Milner’s Facts, which toured throughout Palestine in 2012. Abusrour displayed intense and tireless engagement with the Palestinian struggle. Since its foundation in 1998, Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society has become a site of cultural resistance in the Aida refugee camp and a necessary visiting station for foreign peace activists in the West Bank. I was shocked to hear of Abusrour’s intention to direct the quintessential holocaust play, The Diary of Anne Frank. How would friends and family members in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp react to his directing of a story of Jewish suffering during WWII? Would colleagues in the theatre community accuse him of normalization? How would his Palestinian experience inform the story of a Jewish teenage girl and her family prior to their arrest and slaughter in concentration camps? Would his participation in this production place him in the unenviable position of either subverting his own activism or potentially undermining the story of Anne Frank? Countless questions and dilemmas piqued my curiosity. In the outcome, Abusrour’s production demonstrated the necessity of Palestinian narrations of Jewish and Israeli narratives, not only to mute accusations of Holocaust denial and to revise unreliable representations of Palestine, but also to establish a clear juxtaposition of pre-1948 Jewish suffering and post-1948 Nakba denial among staunch supporters of Zionism.
On 3 April 2014, I attended the opening night performance. Abusrour told the story with cultural sensitivity. His production concept situated the audience in hiding with the Jewish characters in the play. The stage was raised to the level of the upper balcony of the theatre and the audience seating surrounded the actors in a thrust stage arrangement, thus reproducing the claustrophobia of the low ceiling of an attic. The heat of the lighting instruments suffocated the air. Abusrour, along with his designers, placed the actors and the audience in the same stifling conditions of fear and paranoia. At the end of the play, after the black out and as the audience applauded a truly magnificent performance, an actor in Nazi military attire entered to center stage and motioned to the cast to enact their curtain call. Like controlled robots, they bowed to the audience’s thunderous applause. Speaking in German, the Nazi soldier ordered the cast to exit. He then ordered the audience to leave through a single exit, filing in familiar line-ups. Everyone descended the staircase to the ground level of the theatre. Through a dark corridor, they saw more Nazi soldiers, who directed them to signs identifying various concentration camps.
Abusrour’s production presents an ironic ending, especially when seen through the lens of a Palestinian subject position. During the curtain call, we are caught off-guard as we find ourselves applauding for a Nazi soldier, who orders us to the slaughter. Furthermore, the production leaves the Nazi soldier as the last man standing, suggesting that genocide and ethnic cleansing has not ended with WWII. The director’s note at the end of the production’s program states: “I feel connected to this tragedy by what happened later and [is] still happening today, with its impact on my daily life as a Palestinian who was born and still lives in a refugee camp in Palestine.” He continues: “The Diary of Anne Frank is about today, about injustices that are ongoing and justified in the name of those who suffered. It is about our humanity and our truthfulness to our values and what we stand for. It is about the perils of remaining silent and complicit with injustice wherever it happens, against whomever it happens.” Abusrour’s empathetic production acknowledged the suffering of a Jewish family in the Holocaust, while demanding the application of “Never Again” to the suffering of the Palestinians since 1948.
1948: A Play Against Denial
Motti Lerner’s play, The Admission, tells the story of Giora, the son of the former Israeli army general Avigador, who is reported in the play to have ordered a massacre in the fictional village of Tantur (based on the real Palestinian village of Tantura). When Avigador is stabbed by his neighbor, Ibrahim, Giora investigates the reason behind Ibrahim’s anger and discovers his father’s possible involvement in a 1948 massacre in Ibrahim’s village. The journey of discovery leads the audience to learn about the interpersonal relationships between a Palestinian and an Israeli family in the Galilee. The play concludes with the complete erasure of all evidence that could potentially indict Avigador and the Israeli military, despite clear signs of the alleged massacre. Lerner based his play on the events surrounding Teddy Katz’s master’s thesis, supervised by the historian Illan Pappé at the University of Haifa. The thesis asserted that the massacre in Tantura had taken place. After a scandalous controversy, Katz’s research was dismissed and he did not earn his degree. Not long thereafter, Pappé left the University of Haifa.
[Hanna Eady and Leila Buck, foreground, Pomme Koch background- the Palestinian family members in Motti Lamer`s The Admission. Photograph courtesy of C. Stanley Photography]
When artistic director of Theatre J, Ari Roth, announced a full production of The Admission, COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) campaigned for the cancellation of the play by calling on donors to withdraw support from the theatre. Believing in the necessity to “fully hear this challenging play,” Roth decided to present a “barebones” workshop production. Israeli director Sinai Peter hired two Arab-American actors, the Palestinian Hanna Eady and the half-Lebanese Leila Buck, to play the roles of Ibrahim and his daughter Samya, respectively. Both actors brought credibility to these characters, deeply engaging with the characters’ history as victims and descendants of the village of Tantura. Eady’s occasional sounding of Palestinian colloquial phrases situated the conflict in a credible cultural landscape. In performance, both actors asserted the legitimacy of the Palestinian experience.
Theater J’s production of Lerner’s play moves the topic of investigating the Tantura massacre from the realm of absolute denial to the space of public debate. An informal poll during the post-show discussion confirmed that the play did not change the opinion of the audience members about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor did it convince them of the occurrence of the massacre in 1948. But such lofty goals cannot be expected of one production, one theater, or one playwright. The play, however, contributes to the creation of an alternative space, beyond the usual dialectics of denial and affirmation. In effect, the advent of a debate in a Zionist heartland, in Israel or in the United States, suggests that the nationalist war mythologies of Israel’s “war of independence” and the “David versus Goliath” narrative of 1948 have become increasingly unsustainable among American Jewish supporters of Zionism. Whether by design or mere coincidence, Israeli plays against Nakba denial have contributed significantly to the humanization of the Palestinians in recent years. Without a doubt, the participation of Palestinians in such cultural productions has inspired necessary questions about absolute narratives of Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish morality. In portraying Palestinian characters with indigenous sympathy, the performers encourage the audience to earnestly witness a collective memory of historical events on the brink of complete erasure.
Nagging Guilt and the Impossible Peace of Mind
In a private residence in Washington, DC, two actors, the playwright, and a small audience of approximately fifty members gathered to experience a dramatic reading of Hanna Eady’s new play, Peace. Co-written with the Seattle-based activist and playwright Ed Mast, this original script tells the story of two Hebrew-speaking characters in an Israeli city. What begins as a casual encounter, between a mechanic working on Shabat and a woman seeking information, eventually leads to the revelation of an old incident that captured the attention of Israeli and Western media for a short period in 2010. Based on an actual recent case of “rape by deception” in Israeli courts, the play unfolds to capture a snapshot of a structural system of injustice. From the beginning of the play, the cryptic dialogue suggests a volcano of subtext. The playwrights ask: How can Palestinians survive a systematic legal, economic, and social oppression in Israel?
Eady and Mast introduce an Israeli character ridden by guilt. The sensitive and multi-layered representation overcomes stereotypes and humanizes the oppressor in the world of the play, leading to difficult questions. The playwrights delve into the psychology of the oppressor, construct a rational argument for unjust behavior, and deeply analyze an event that quickly disappeared from the public sphere. The investigation of the interpersonal relationship between the two characters broadens the debate from the dichotomy of innocent victim versus immoral oppressor to a complex case study of seemingly rational subjugation. Although the playwrights don’t indict the Israeli character, they do not relinquish the right to assign responsibility for inequalities committed in the name of justice.
Peace identifies an often-denied feeling that haunts participants in the Zionist project of building the state of Israel. After an injustice has been committed, a feeling of guilt lingers among the oppressors, prompting a return to the scene of the wrongdoing. When the guilt festers and becomes unbearable, an oppressor attempts to correct the outcome in the form of a token gesture of “peace.” In Peace, the Israeli seeks forgiveness or possibly, a retraction, but the structure of inequality prevents reconciliation even when the guilty party offers consolation. The genius of the script rests in the authors’ decision to transcend the debate over the initial incident of injustice, thus overcoming the tired and often flawed negotiations of historical claims. Instead, the script establishes that the oppressors recognize their complicity and guilt, but they create an intricate system of argumentation not only to publicly assert their claims of innocence, but also to survive the internal battle within their conscience. The play stresses the evitable outcome of an injustice denied: nagging guilt rages within the oppressor and Peace can only be an impossible state of mind.
In these three days of early April 2014, I witnessed a development in the narrative-battle that plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since its inception at the end of the nineteenth century. Undeniable voices, both Israeli and Palestinian, signaled that public debate cannot be undermined by claims of absolute innocence or rationalized rhetoric in argumentation; rather, a new era of admission is upon us. Palestinian cultural agency, combined with the desperate need for psychological relief in the Jewish, Israeli, and Western public spheres, has asserted itself as a narrative force in performance. In the last decade, more than ever, the theatre has become the forum of choice for engaging stakeholders in a rigorous debate of inner demons and denied sentiments.
[The Diary of Anne Frank runs until April 27, 2014 at Burning Coal Theater in Raleigh, North Carolina. Presented by Busboys and Poets, The Admission production returns for an extended run from April 30, 2014 – May 18, 2014 at the Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre in Washington, D.C.]