The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed severe economic difficulties on the arts, leaving musicians, visual artists, and theatre-makers struggling to survive. There is no doubt that this crisis has had a negative impact on nearly all forms of artistic production. However, it is particularly detrimental to performing arts that require a live audience for the full expression of their meaning. The pandemic not only brings new challenges to theatre-makers but also opportunities to reflect on their artistic practice, which has the potential to bring about much needed change. The current moment is particularly conducive to experimentation because of the collapse of many of the structures that maintained the previous status quo. This experimentation may be structural; for example, finding innovative ways to generate income instead of being reliant on international aid by creating theatre and art cooperatives. Or, it may relate to the artistic process; for example, theatre-makers can examine how certain aspects of indigenous performance traditions can be integrated into their theatrical practice. Many of these traditions have not received sufficient attention, even though they contain deeply ingrained forms of cultural knowledge that are certainly of value to the performing arts. Palestine is home to many such traditions, including dabke (folk dance), hakawati (storytelling), and Sufi rituals that have been in decline since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Despite the fact that there are numerous examples of Arab and North African theatre-makers who have incorporated certain elements of indigenous traditions into their works, such as the renowned Tunisian playwright ‘Izz al-Din al-Madani and Moroccan playwright and director Tayyeb Saddiki, there remains a tendency for Palestinian theatre-makers to draw on European plays and sources when creating new works. One of the factors that contributed to the neglect of indigenous performance traditions is the fact that Palestinian theatres have become dependent on funding from various American and European aid agencies to ensure their survival in increasingly difficult financial conditions. Many of these grants require collaboration with European and American artists, including playwrights, in an attempt to foster “cultural exchange.” More often than not, they leave little room for experimentation with indigenous performance traditions, which are often dismissed by Palestinian actors and directors who do not consider them theatrical forms.
Interestingly, scholars Mavin Carlson and Peter Chelkowski have pointed out that several of the ideals that European and North American avant-garde theatre directors aspire to can be found in indigenous Islamic performance traditions. This includes removing the distinction between performer and audience, the ability to improvise, altering the lyrics or script mid performance, and inciting strong emotional responses from the audience. All these elements can be found in Sufi ritual. Thus, theatre practitioners who are interested in creating experimental works should consider exploring if such elements exist in their own cultural contexts as they very well may be of relevance to contemporary theatrical practice.
The performances of Dina ‘Amr (who performs under the stage name Bint-Mbareh) provide an example of this kind of theatrical experimentation. Bint-Mbareh is a musician and performer who is interested in exploring the past through traditions that create a sense of community. Through her artistic practice she experiments with these traditions and questions if they can inspire new modes of resistance. Based on extensive research of Palestinian Sufi rain summoning songs, Bint-Mbareh creates an engaging performance that does not seek to mimic the past, but rather addresses the complex question of how these ritual practices relate to the contemporary Palestinian context. Bint-Mbareh spent time among communities of Beit Rima, Beit Iba, Deir Ghassaneh, and the Dhisheh Palestinian refugee camp, as well as other refugee camps and villages in the Israeli Occupied West Bank, interviewing women who were among the last generation to have performed Sufi rain summoning rituals.
This was not only an attempt at documenting religious and cultural practices that have ceased to exist, an important effort in historical preservation in its own right, but also an examination of the relationship between local rituals and contemporary theatrical practice in a performance titled Time Flows in all Directions: Water Flows Through Me. Bint-Mbareh integrated these Sufi songs into a multimedia performance that included footage from her fieldwork, projected in the background, as well as recordings of her interviews with her informants, older women who used to be part of a Sufi community. The performance is improvised with Bint-Mbareh’s live singing, which overlaps with the recordings; this also includes the repetition of certain phrases from the interviews. No two performances are the same, depending on Bint-Mbareh’s engagement with the audience. In fact, this relationship with the audience forms a central part of the performance, which is interspersed with moments of silence that are meant to create a sense of intimacy with those present. In my interview with Bint-Mbareh, she told me that she wanted to break the format of the musical concert, asserting that she did not want the audience to think of it as a musical performance, but rather to experience the sense of togetherness that forms an essential part of Sufi ritual.
To date, Time Flows in all Directions: Water Flows Through Me has been performed in London, Berlin, Amman, and Ramallah. When I asked Bint-Mbareh who this performance was for she responded: “My mother. She is the ideal audience. She is in the performance as well.” This seems to be part of Bint-Mbareh’s engagement with the question of origin, of our relationship to tradition, and the disjuncture with the past caused not only by the expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948 and 1967, but also the onset of more conservative forms of Islam intolerant of Sufi traditions. The political events that took place in 1948 and 1967 played an important role in the demise of Sufi practices in Palestine. This is because Sufism was localized, whereby members of each city or village would venerate a particular saint. The expulsions of Palestinians from their land led to detrimental financial and political losses and the loss of many cultural traditions, including saint veneration.
This disjuncture between the past and the present forms a prominent part of Bint-Mbareh’s performance. The use of recordings and footage from her fieldwork makes the audience aware that she is engaging with material from another time, another place, of a shared past that many Palestinians may not even be aware of. Yet the improvised dialogues and singing involve the audience in the artistic process while underscoring the present political and cultural moment, and thus represent an acknowledgement of the loss, disjuncture, displacement, and desire to return to one’s origins.
Although Bint-Mbareh has not seen any of these rituals—since they are no longer performed, she could only learn about them through interviews—she retains some of the most fundamental principles of Sufi ritual. This includes improvisation, altering text in the middle of a performance, breaking the rhythm with silence, the use of call and response (with the recording), and attempts at removing the distinction between the performer and audience. All these elements can be found in Sufi ritual, ones that I have seen frequently used during my fieldwork on the Shadhiliya and ‘Issawiya orders of Tunisia.
The importance of Bint-Mbareh’s work lies in the fact that it revives musical Sufi content otherwise at risk of disappearing while encompassing a method: techniques derived from ritual that stress the importance of indigenous performance practices. Cultural preservation is about content and aesthetics, including the very notion of what constitutes performance. This is yet another aspect of Palestinian Sufi culture that Bint-Mbareh has internalized. During our interview, she insisted that when she was singing these rain-summoning songs she was actually trying to make it rain, and, on more than one occasion, it did, including after her Amman performance that was preceded by a draught. Indeed, Sufi ritual is never merely a performance. It has many practical purposes including the acquisition of divine protection, healing, increasing fertility, but perhaps above all, it is a means to explore and better the self. Thus, everything that occurs in the performance is connected to our day-to-day lives and serves as a means of transforming the world and ourselves. And this is precisely what Bint-Mbareh sets out to do by reviving these long-lost Sufi songs, inviting the audience to join her in this search for origin.
In addition to the use of Sufi content and techniques, Bint-Mbareh’s performance contains an important political dimension. Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land has led to the loss of both water resources and local cultural traditions. Summoning rain is an act of reclamation of the natural resources of which Palestinians are deprived, and of the culture that Israel persistently seeks to annihilate. And much like the Sufi who desires to return to her/his origin (God), Bint-Mbareh takes her audience on a journey that does not deny the disjuncture that has occurred, but confronts it, bringing to light the importance of this quickly disappearing local Palestinian Sufi culture.
For more on the performances of Bint-Mbareh see her instagram page: @bintmbareh
 In James Harding and John Rouse (eds), Not The Other: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2006) 125-145; Peter Chelkowski Ta‘ziyeh, “Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran.” Performing Arts Journal 2, no.2 (1977): 31-40.