Grey Rock, written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, La MaMa Theatre, New York, 3-7 January 2019.
Fifty years after the moon landing, a group of Palestinians on US visas performed Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Grey Rock in New York City for the first time last January. This comes in the context of a long history of censorship and protest towards Palestinian artistic and cultural expression in the city. In one review of Grey Rock, a New York Times piece lists a few such instances. There has been consistent institutional resistance to Palestinian inhabitation of theatrical space in the United States, mirroring a wider denial of Palestinians from space, and insistence on their displacement. This is not just a polemical point; it is the context in which the play is shaped.
The play on space here is threefold: the space of land Palestinians are displaced from, the theatrical space they are struggling for, and in the context of Grey Rock, outer space where the rocket will be launched. Such multiplicities of meaning are instrumentally present throughout Grey Rock. The play handles multiple narrative levels that interpenetrate to tell a personal story intrinsically linked to the political. What makes this play so ingenuous is its particular use of metaphor, conflation of subject matters, and unorthodox treatment of form. All of this comes together to raise questions about the relationship between politics, art, and representation, as well as opening up spaces to rethink our politico-cultural imagination.
[Banner for Grey Rock, taken from La Mama website: http://lamama.org/grey_rock/]
Grey Rock tells the story of Yousef, played by Khalifa Natour. Yousef is a sixty-three-year-old retired Palestinian physicist who decides to build a space rocket and launch it from his shed in the occupied West Bank village of Abu Kash near Ramallah, to the moon. Why?
[The] rocket is going to be a middle finger [to the occupation]. You think a kid throwing a stone on a tank, or a kid sending a kite with a burning tale across the border of Gaza changes anything? No. They know it does not. But it reminds the world that Gaza is there. It reminds the world what they want to forget. This is the same. If someone can get a rocket to the moon from Palestine it’s a celebration of our creativity, of our ingenuity. It proves that we can be something (my emphasis).
Yousef is interested in the potential of this move to reimpose the Palestinian struggle onto the consciousness of the world. Times columnist Alexis Soloski observes how launching a rocket to the moon is a clear allegory for artistic creation: making something that demands the attention of the world to attest to its creativity and ingenuity. Zuabi himself alluded to this idea in a post-show conversation with Phillip Himberg, artistic director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program: “the same optimism that exists in that shed in Abukash, is found in our rehearsals,” he said.
I believe him. I would even go further to say that the cathartic potential of the play relies on the willingness of the audience to identify Yousef’s quest for the moon with the immediate quest of the Palestinian actors on stage, thus identifying the space-launch with the launch of Grey Rock.
However, can Yousef really reach the moon?
Throughout the play, the audience is taken from considering him insane and incompetent, to gradually believing in him as he makes a compelling case: “All the information is out there, it's on the web for anyone to use: blue prints, calculations, everything. It is not that we are ‘inventing the wheel’; we are just recreating it. There are even DIY videos on the regular web . . . on the dark web you can order everything from assault weapons to jet fuel.” The audience gradually starts to believe in Yousef’s ability to execute his outlandish project, and thus an optimistic sense of “they can really do this!” is generated in the theater space. This sense of “they can really do this,” which fluctuates in intensity, applies to Yousef’s space project, but is also extended as an extra-diegetic reference to the Palestinian cast occupying the theatrical space in their struggle for expression.
As the play progresses, Yousef’s seemingly preposterous idea is used to explore differences and tensions in Palestinian society, as characters react differently to it based on the positions they have taken in relation to the suffocating status quo. Different Palestinian subject-positions are investigated in the process. One subject-position—the traditionalist whose primary mode of relating to others is through victimhood and shame—is explored through the character Jawad, played by Alaa Shehada.
He is about to marry Yousef’s daughter Leila, played by Fidaa Zaidan, but he is tormented by societal concerns over her father’s space mission. Jawad subordinates Leila to models of being, societal standards, and signifiers that rob her of her autonomy—that is, she must be from a “safe and respectable” family. She puts this in simple terms: “If I stay with you, I will not be me. I will be what you want me to be: your wife, raising 3.6 children, working part-time in something that I hate, and spending my evenings in endless political talks in a well-furnished living room in Ramallah.”
What Jawad does to Leila is precisely what Zuabi wants to avoid doing to the Palestinian subjects he is representing in Grey Rock. There is a stubborn refusal throughout the play to allow political signifiers to take precedence over the characters in a way that would overdetermine them. It is in this light that we should understand the character of physics-savvy philosophy student Fadel, played by Ivan Azazian from the Palestinian alternative rock band ElContainer.
Fadel accidentally uncovers Yousef’s plan while delivering shipments to him, and he desperately wants in: “I am stuck here . . . sorting cucumbers. I need something to think of. Some kind of challenge. I am going out of my mind.”
Fadel got a full scholarship to Rice University, but ended up not enrolling and now works at his father’s vegetable shop. The audience is then immediately informed—interrupting their presumptions—that it was not a visa issue. The play refuses to subordinate Fadel to the narrative of the subject overdetermined by bureaucratic forces. Zuabi has an indirect but nonetheless palpable way of tapping into this, without framing Fadel in a grid that overpowers him. So instead, we find out that it was Fadel himself who decided not to go to the United States precisely to stay in Palestine, out of a profound but undisclosed love for Leila. He has a will, and he acted on it. No occupation or power structure can change that.
The play ensures that the Palestinian subject does not get fixated in a power-relational grid that restricts its potentialities. The director’s position is clear and unapologetic, as he articulated it in the same post-show conversation: “Palestine is ancient. It has only been occupied for seventy years. That is a minuscule portion of its history. There are people in this room older than that!”
For Zuabi, to liberate the play and its characters from the political narratives and signifiers of Palestinian liberation, which are arguably voided of their subversive potential in this theatrical, New York City, politico-cultural context, means—paradoxically—to be profoundly Palestinian.
Something feels iconoclastic and sacrilegious about the play because of this. It employs ironic distance and humor, and unlinks long-held political signifiers from so-called Palestinian subjects. It is not different from the feeling of unease or sacrilege that one feels while watching an Elia Suleiman film, whose work is humorous and uninterested in traditional approaches to representation. Suleiman describes his films as structurally consisting of “free-floating tableaux in a kind of subconscious montage.”
In a comical scene half way through the play, Yousef decides to use the mosque minaret as a launching pad for the space rocket. The mosque’s shaykh, played by Motaz Malhees, is staunchly opposed to the idea, which he considers as verging on blasphemy and problematically American in conception. The shaykh’s attitude and suspicions of America are understandable, and according to the pamphlet advertising the play, Grey Rock ostensibly explores “how US culture has permeated and influenced Palestinian culture.” The predominant American influence on Palestine, however, does not require much exploration: the United States is a powerful and unequivocal supporter of the occupier, and Zuabi articulates this unreservedly. At the level of his artistic expression, however, he is less interested in resorting to polemic for the politico-cultural purposes he wants to achieve. Something seems insufficient about polemical explorations in literary creation: the frame curbs potentialities and its mode of operation is restrictive. Zuabi is more interested in a kind of exploration that affirms Palestinian potential, as autonomous subjects that remain fundamentally free. He insists “we [Palestinians] have nothing. And so we have absolute freedom.”
Zuabi is, nonetheless, careful about how he represents Palestinians. But it seems like he mostly knows what they are not: Grey Rock is not about Palestinians as fighters or victims. What he is struggling against are the signifiers, narratives, and representations of Palestinians that tie them to pre-existing subject-positions adapted to the status quo and impoverish the politico-cultural imagination. The entire plot of the play can be read as a microcosm of this effort: a rocket from Palestine, not to Israel, to the moon.
A crucial question arises, however: how can we honestly explore the influence of the United States on Palestine in a way that celebrates Palestinians as autonomous subjects, freed from the signifiers—political or otherwise—which Palestinians are often defined by, such as the questions of the 1948 Nakba, ethnic cleansing, and exile? Does the play not risk depoliticizing the Palestinian subject in this endeavor? The answer lies in the form and not the content of the play.
Grey Rock was produced by Remote Theatre, an American theater company started by Alexandra Aaron, dedicated to bringing “theater artists who are isolated, geographically or politically to New York City to develop new work, tour internationally and have their voices heard outside the confines of their region and reach.” So the play is already political; it is born out of an activist endeavor to give voices to the hitherto politically and discursively muted. Every time there is a meta-theatrical moment during Grey Rock, we are reminded of this.
And Grey Rock is filled with meta-theatrical moments. One such moment comes when the shaykh goes to warn Yousef of the impending Israeli invasion of his shed. In a desperate attempt to keep the invasion at bay, Yousef decides to give a speech on camera to “the international community” to garner support for “the first Palestinian space mission.” As Yousef starts his speech, he turns to the audience in the theater and addresses them, resulting in a conflation between the international community’s support for Yousef’s space mission, and the audience’ support for the Grey Rock cast as representative of the wider Palestinian struggle for expression.
The conflation works well due to the allegorical nature of the subject matter of the play, but the use of the English language also has an interesting role in facilitating it. Zuabi says it feels foreign to write in English, which gives it a plasticity and makes possible a kind of ironic distance. “Whereas with Arabic, it feels ‘hump,’” he says while gesturing to the heavy load on his chest. That is to say that Arabic is so loaded a language, so heavy, that the listener’s attention will be entirely consumed by its content. There would be little room for ironic distance. With English as a second language, it is lighter and less deeply engraved in the trauma of our psychic and political history.
Therefore, having Grey Rock in English allows the audience’s attention to be more flexibly shifted away from the content of the play, and towards its form. Take these five Palestinian actors speaking in heavily-accented English as a second or third language: the misplaced emphasis on this vowel or that syllable matches how out-of-place they feel, so rarely allowed in this space, framing their case in English to be accessible to New York City’s experimental theater audience.
The English language thus plays a formal political function in the play. It creates a sense of estrangement and calls attention to the theatrical means of production: the audience is reminded that these are native Arabic speakers, Palestinian actors, coming on visas to have their voices heard. Thus—as part and parcel of the play’s form—we are reminded of the long history of Palestinian suppression. Therefore, the politics repressed from the content of the play return in the form to remind us of the Palestinian artists fighting for expression on the stage in front of this American audience.
The meta-theatrical moments are cathartically charged due to the flurry of metaphor that identifies Yousef’s project to go to the moon with a wider political, even existential, project. Leila is only later convinced of her father’s space-mission when she identifies it with this wider metaphorical project:
Scientists think the moon was created from a large impact on Earth when it was still a molten mass ninety-five million years ago. That impact knocked off material from Earth into space, and from this robbed mass the moon consolidated . . . the moon was robbed from Earth, and Earth wants it back. Everything on Earth on the molecular level contains this sense of loss, of longing.
[Fadel explaining the wider metaphorical project to Leila, photograph by Carlos Cardona]
The space-mission then becomes merely another universal articulation of longing for Palestine. Reaching the moon, which in the metaphorical language of the play implies returning to Palestine, becomes here akin to a motion of universal astrological truth, like gravity itself.
More metaphorization takes place as Yousef attempts to convince others of his space mission. In a heated argument, the shaykh tells Yousef that his space mission is an American invention and does not belong to the holy land, to which Yousef retorts “our land is so burdened with the past and with conflict, so layered with prophets and stories. It is so heavy. It is hard for us to break free. We cannot even leave it in our imagination.” And so, to leave the heavy Palestinian land (and to launch the space rocket) amounts to a departure from the heavy burdens of the past, of the conflicts, of the prophets and the ancient structures that haunt and determine us. Therefore, it is almost an absolute abandonment of oneself and one’s history, a destructive erasure. What is also abandoned and erased is Yousef’s political subjectivity as Palestinian, and so the act of launching the rocket and going to the moon constitutes—as a contingency of universalization—depoliticization.
The play concludes with Yousef and Fadel successfully enlisting the support of the shaykh and collecting donations from the neighborhood for the space mission. Yousef’s speech to “the international community” goes viral and gets him enormous media attention. Millions across the world march in support of the Palestinian space mission, and the Israeli military does not invade. However, just as Yousef finishes assembling the rocket for its launch, Fadel finds out that it has been designed in such a way that does not allow for a proper landing. Yousef did this deliberately and hid it from Fadel. It was his plan all along to go to the moon, without return. Fadel is outraged: “so, all your big words about curiosity, about defiance of perceptions, about this being a historic moment, about the beauty of it all, everything you made me believe . . . was all a lie? A cover up for your ego-centrical wish to off yourself? You fooled everyone. You wrapped the truth in so much rhetoric.”
There is, thus, a personal dimension to Yousef’s space mission. In his activist past, Yousef had published a pamphlet that landed him in an Israeli prison for five years. This wasted time took a great toll on him, and his anguish was compounded by his wife’s passing while he was imprisoned. In a poetic moment of the play, Yousef recalls how during the moon landing in 1969, the whole world was engrossed by the sight of humankind on the moon. As he was watching that moment on television with hundreds of people from his village and the woman who would eventually become his wife, she briefly slipped her hand into his palm. The moon landing created the conditions for a profoundly intimate moment that birthed their love. Yousef hopes that his space mission could provide similar conditions for a young woman to slip her hand into a young man’s palm.
It is a beautiful metaphor for the persistence of the Palestinian struggle, transmitted to us generationally through our literary heroes who went to the moon, and brought us together in love and defiance.
Grey Rock is about a person fundamentally afflicted by the sheer heaviness of his condition as Palestinian. His pain is personal yet fundamentally political. To escape it, he departs from his land, and with this departure he is freed from all lands, histories, and powers. He launches the rocket and goes into space: nothingness and absolute freedom. He reaches for the moon as he metaphorizes and universalizes Palestine, and with this universalization Palestine becomes abstract and depoliticized, and Yousef becomes abstract and depoliticized, eventually blending with nothingness. He knew all along that the moment he is depoliticized, he does not exist.
 One must mention here the Palestinian literary hero Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated by the Mossad at the age of thirty-six after publishing eighteen books and hundreds of articles. In his book Palestinian Literature of Resistance Under Occupation 1948-1968, he presents a brief analysis of the Palestinian play Bayt Al-Junoon, by Tawfiq Fayyad. In it, Kanafani mentions how at first glance the play does not appear to belong to the tradition of Palestinian resistance; this connection only becomes evident on further inspection of the play’s use of symbols and metaphor and in its shuffling of narrative levels. Kanafani’s point is that the context of brutal suppression forces the Palestinian playwright to present his politics less directly—that is, the politics of the play are encoded in reaction to this suppression. The politics become less direct, but not necessarily less tangible. It is in this light that I mention the long history of suppression of Palestinian theatrical culture in NYC; it is the context that determines the strange shape of the politics of Grey Rock.
1. Grey Rock. (8 January 2019). Retrieved from http://lamama.org/grey_rock/
2. A. Soloski, “In ‘Grey Rock,’ a Palestinian Playwright Tackles the Ordinary” The New York Times (30 December 2018). Retrieved 3 January 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/30/theater/grey-rock-amir-nizar-zuabi.html
3 A. Zuabi, (5 January 2019). Address presented at a one-on-one conversation between Philip Himberg (Artistic Director, the Sundance Institute Theatre Program) & playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi in La MAMA Experimental Theatre Club, New York City.
4. Remote Theater Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.remotetheaterproject.com/
5. D. Smith, (5 January 2011). ELIA SULEIMAN, "THE TIME THAT REMAINS". Retrieved from https://filmmakermagazine.com/18141-elia-suleiman-the-time-that-remains/
6. H. Porter Abbott, “Tyranny and Theatricality: The Example of Samuel Beckett,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 1 (1988), 87.
7. Zuabi, A. N. (n.d.). Grey Rock (Draft). Unpublished.