Articles, Reviews, Volume 3

Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora

Theatre Communications Group's Inside/Outside:
Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora
Two Book Reviews by Michael Malek Najjar and Hala Nassar
Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora
Edited by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi
Introduction by Nathalie Handal
Theatre Communications Group, 2015, 400 pages, print and e-book.
Arab StagesVolume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

We have received two thoughtful reviews from different perspectives and we consider that these differing perspectives on this important new book should both be presented — the editors.

Review by Michael Malek Najjar

Billed as the first anthology of its kind, Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora is unique because it is the first compilation to group these plays as specifically Palestinian, and because it includes plays from both Palestinian-born playwrights and those writing from the diaspora. In their preface, Editors Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi write, “Our aim in this first-of-its-kind collection is to contribute to the process of putting Palestinian theater on the map, to give it space both in its homegrown as well as its global and diasporic forms.”[1] Wallace and Khalidi are clear that this is only a sampling of Palestinian plays and their play choices were either originally written in English or translated from the Arabic; however they urge readers to seek out other Palestinian plays written in any language. The larger point they make is how Palestinian plays, which are often “critical of Zionism or Israeli policies” fall victim to “censorship, pusillanimity and discrimination when it comes to putting Palestine onstage.”[2] They also reject the notion that both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict must be represented in a volume like this one, citing that this strategy limits free speech about Palestine, deprives works of being judged on their own merits, and that this need for balance adversely affects the weaker side (the Palestinians). They also believe that Palestinians need no permission to narrate their stories, history, or visions for the future. “We, as editors and writers,” they continue, “believe that Palestinians possess this inalienable right and, in fact, have always exercised it despite the heavy odds against them. We only hope that more and more people will listen to what they have to say.”[3] This very brief preface gives a glimpse into Wallace and Khalidi’s motives for editing this anthology, but it would have been interesting had they also included their individual travels to and experiences in Palestine,[4] their involvement with the cultural sanctions and military embargo on Israel,[5][6] and their own personal work writing political plays that dealt with this subject.

Nathalie Handal’s fine introduction provides a sweeping history of Palestinian theatre, reminding readers that there were indigenous Palestinian performance traditions that predated the more Western-inspired theatrical techniques that predominated from the 1850s onward. She divides Palestinian theatre into several eras: “Roots, The Ottoman Empire and British Mandate Period”, “Post-1948 Nakba”, “The 1967 War to the First Intifada”, and “Post-Oslo, The Second Intifada to the Present.” Regarding the book’s title, Handal writes,

The title Inside/Outside…implies a more fundamental truth, the tragic fact that Palestinians whether inside the occupied territories or Gaza, or in Israel, or scattered worldwide are all inside/outside whatever parameters their situation dictates—whether it’s physical or national, psychological or emotional…The visible and invisible divides are endless. Every Palestinian is inside/outside of their particular confines determined by whatever fate they were dealt after the Nakba. [7]

Handal instructs readers that Palestinian productions were mainly created through improvisations rather than based on written plays, and that research in this field is challenging because so many works were lost or destroyed. Furthermore, she writes that Palestinians were primarily interested in drama as literature.

The latter may explain the lack of production photographs or other performance information about the original productions of these plays. By lack of inclusion of production photographs, reviews, or other performance-related materials, the anthology decidedly categorizes these plays as literature rather than as performance texts. By not including these items the editors have created an anthology that is geared more toward those who study and perform theatre rather than for a wider audience that might wish to understand how these plays might have been realized onstage. Where Handal’s explication of Palestinian theatre history succeeds in its length and detail, her one-paragraph introductions to each play included in the anthology are all too brief. Rather than providing longer, more comprehensive prefaces for each play, the editors instead rely on short playwright notes, factual production histories, and playwright biographies to guide readers through these works. It would have been helpful had the editors taken the time to include critical analyses, placing the individual plays within a greater theatrical context.

The six plays include Tennis in Nablus by Ismail Khalidi, Keffiyeh/Made in China by Dalia Taha, Plan D by Hannah Khalil, Handala by Abdelfattah Abusrour (adapted from the cartoons of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali), Territories by Betty Shamieh, and 603 by Imad Farajin. The anthology concludes with “Further Reading,” which includes a bibliography of books related to Palestinian issues.

Regarding inclusion of plays and playwrights, the editors are interested in the notion of “Palestinianness.” For Handal, however, the amount of one’s Palestinianness is not in question:

Can one person be more Palestinian than another? Is a theater maker less Palestinian because he isn’t born in Palestine or has never been or does not speak Arabic or writes in a different language? …. Can identity be measured?[8]

This is as much criteria that the editors, and Handal herself, give for the inclusion of these playwrights. Not all of the included plays directly deal with issues like the Nakba, the occupation of Palestinian territories, or the daily violence that has marked this ongoing conflict. That said, these plays definitely touch on Palestinian history, politics, and the occupation both directly and indirectly. Before receiving this anthology, I imagined a set of pointedly political plays that dealt solely with the Israeli/Palestinian question, but the politics in some plays were decidedly more pronounced than in others. For instance, Tennis in Nablus dramatizes the pre-1948 British mandated Palestine while Territories focuses on imagining historical figures like Saladin. Other plays like Keffieh/Made in China and Plan D, are contemporary dramas that rarely mention Palestine at all. Handala and 603 are much more direct in their treatment of politics by including contemporary issues that include imprisonment of Palestinians, life in refugee camps, notions of resistance to occupation, and prisoner exchanges.

All of the plays evoke a sense of separation, displacement, violence, and the pervasive suffocation of living under occupation (British, Israeli, or otherwise). This violence is dramatized in many forms—be it the persecution of protagonists in Tennis in Nablus and 603, the verbal images of physical violence in Keffiah/Made in China and Plan D, or the historical-fictional representation of violence in Handala and Territories.

Inside/Outside is an important addition to the dramatic theatre canon. First, it boldly declares that there is such a thing as a Palestinian playwright and that Palestinianness can be claimed no matter where playwrights were born or in which language they write. Furthermore, this anthology demonstrates that there was not only a literary and dramatic tradition in Palestine that predated the foundation of the state of Israel, but also that there was indeed a rich and thriving culture despite claims that Palestine was “a land without a people.” This collection, following the UN General Assembly’s vote to accord Palestine Non-Member Observer State status and the Vatican’s recognition of a Palestinian State, is extremely timely. Although a set of plays in print may pale in comparison to these larger diplomatic interventions, an anthology like this situates Palestinian theatre as a legitimate art form in and of itself, one that deserves its own recognition free of any connection to other plays. As Handal’s introduction notes, Palestinian theatre since 1948 has been subject to Israeli censorship, compulsory permits, the imprisonment and detainment of theatre artists, governmental destruction of theatre buildings, and assassinations and suicides of theatre makers. Despite all of these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Palestinian theatre continues and thrives. Handal writes,

In tracing their theatrical journey, we witness how Palestinians have boldly and ingenuously created theater despite their imposed fracturedness…The shadows on Palestinian stages remain most silent when they take voices apart to retell not only what is unbearable but what is possible—acts of justice.[9]

These plays, though varied in their dramaturgical styles and geographic origins, provide valuable insights into Palestinian artists at this point in history. There is a growing global awareness about Palestinian issues, and the theatre is most definitely a part of this consciousness. Plays like these can go a long way toward counteracting the seemingly endless litany of negative narratives that pervade the media regarding Palestine. Finally, as important as it is to have these plays in print, the greatest change occurs when plays like these are produced, performed, and experienced by audiences. One can only hope that, in the coming years, dramas like these will be added to the theatrical seasons of academic and professional theatres.

Michael Malek Najjar is an assistant professor of theatre arts at the University of Oregon. He holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from UCLA, M.F.A. in Directing from York University (Toronto), B.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of New Mexico. He is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), and an alumnus of the British/American Drama Academy (BADA), Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, Director’s Lab West, and RAWI Screenwriters’ Lab (Jordan). He directed the world premiere of Jamil Khoury’s Precious Stones and a staged reading of his own play Talib, both at the Silk Road Theatre Project, Chicago.  He is the editor of Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef El Guindi, and Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader and Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present published by McFarland & Co., Inc. Publishers.


Review by Hala Nassar

Arab theatre has long been understudied and marginalized within the field of theatre and performance studies. However, in the last four years it has started picking up the pace with the publications such as Hamlet’s Arab Journey by Margaret Litvin (2011); The Theatres of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia by Khalid Amine and Marvin Carlson (2012); Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre, edited by Eyad Houssami (2012) and Political Performance in Syria: From the Six Day War to the Syrian Uprising by Edward Ziter (2015). Therefore it is an immense pleasure when a new anthology of plays by Palestinians contributes to the growing field.

Inside/ Out: Six Palestinian plays from Palestine and the Diaspora divides the selection of plays into three from historic Palestine, and three from the diaspora. The plays, some of which have already achieved international recognition and some of which have won awards, are accompanied by authors’ statements as well as a synopses about the writers and their artistic achievements. Stating what prompted and inspired them to write, some of the playwrights refer to specific historical events that took place in Palestine or elsewhere; others explain what theatre means to them, or how certain Palestinian figures, characters, and cartoons have influenced their work. However, the plays are not selected or arranged by a common concept. In fact, they vary in terms of subject matter, time, history, and theme. What they have in common, however, is their authors’ Palestinian identity. Hence many of the plays — with the exception of Territories — may be read as microscopic “narratives” about Palestine and the Palestinians.

The first play in the collection is Tennis in Nablus by Ismail Khalidi. It takes place during the 1930s revolt against the British Mandate policies that sought to pave the way for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The play starts in a slow pace, but quickly picks up its momentum as we are taken to different locales within the city of Nablus. In spite of the painful subject matter, elements of humor offset the British brutal and oppressive techniques against its subjects, whether in Ireland, India or in Palestine, and serve as a tool to voice reject of the British tyranny and as a survival tactic. The play also touches on a sensitive topic, recalling the fact that many Palestinians sold their lands and estates to European organizations that were managed by Zionists.

As the British mandate in Palestine comes to an end and Israel comes into being as a state in 1948, more than three-quarters of the Palestinians suddenly became refugees, whether in Palestine or in neighboring Arab countries. Plan D by Hannah Khalil retells some of the stories of these refugees as well as those of their descendants. The play focuses on their past life in Palestine and in doing so demonstrates the enormous impact of al-Nakba on individual Palestinians and the social fabric. The title refers to a specific military plan or operation that resulted in forcing Palestinians out of their homeland. Although the plan is not directly and explicitly mentioned in the play, its influence is omnipresent throughout the text.

By 1967 many more Palestinians had been driven out of their lands as Israel expanded its borders. The famous Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali successfully manages to portray the plight of Palestinians by creating Handala, a cartoon of a poor ten-year-old- barefoot boy who turns his back and clasps his hands as a protest to the Arab régimes’ impotence in helping the Palestinians. Abed al -Fattah Abusrour, in his play Handala, adapts this cartoon as a topic in order to convey both the resilience and the resistance of Palestinians. Living under occupation and suffering from Israel’s dehumanizing and oppressive measures as well as dealing with the constant undermining of any resistance has been the daily experience of Palestinians since 1948.

Occupation also means being subjected to Israeli laws and courts, which is the mesmerizing subject of the play 603 by Imad Farajin. Dalai Taha’s play Keffiyeh /Made in China focuses on an adjacent subject, namely the Palestinians’ attempts to navigate through a life of endless checkpoints, separation walls, zones (whether it is A, B, or C) and by-pass roads that disrupt any sense of normal life. Lastly, Betty Shamieh’s Territories is steeped in the history of the Crusades, the Battle of Hattin and the glorious acts of Saladin. Still, such historical dramas have traditionally been used to reflect on the current historical context and the depiction of Palestine under the control of conquerors clearly has contemporary resonance.

All of the six plays included in this volume are a pleasure to read, although they are introduced within a confusing narrative about the history of Palestinian theatre that raises many concerns in someone, like this author, who has been immersed in this history. I did not feel that the introduction really succeeded in its attempt to advocate pushing the boundaries of the study of Palestinian theatre. Handal’s historical narrative can be read as an incomplete patchwork at best, containing substantial historical errors in describing the emergence of Palestinian theatre. The choice of what material to include or discard in this historical background, periodization and choice of formulations often seem capricious and arbitrary, although it must be admitted that these choices bear uncomfortable similarities with the work of a number of earlier Palestinian theatre scholars.

Handal asserts that in order to give a brief introduction to modern Palestinian theatre one must ask why “the doors to Palestinian theatre over the past-sixty years been opened and shut,” and hopes to be “able to unseal such information” (p. xvii). It is never clear, however, why she traces the roots of the Palestinian theatre back only sixty years. Previous theatre scholars, admittedly, have done little better. Darrai, for example, cannot establish the roots of Palestinian theatre at all, whereas Reuven Snir falsely attributes it to the 1930s.

The author takes the biographical accounts of Nasri-al- Jawzi (1990) as a primary source on the history of theatre in British Mandate Palestine., but this creates problems. Al-Jawzi builds his narrative, at least partially, on memory; some other parts are based on correspondence, and some on earlier sources written in Arabic on Palestinian culture. This leads to the assertion that “Palestinian theatrical productions were – and continue to be – mainly created through collective improvisations rather than written plays” (p. xvii), a claim that is clearly refuted by the plays in the volume itself, three of which were written by Palestinians living in the historic Palestine. In recent times, though, it must be said that the development and distribution of written scripts has in fact been hindered by the constant harassment of Israeli authorities of theatres working in Jerusalem and for the imposition of strict censorship rules.

In the field of Palestine studies, there are many sources in the form of personal memoirs, diaries, literature that shed light on cultural life in Palestine such as the works of Tamari and Nassar (2014); Tamari (2009); Khalidi (1997); Mahameed (1989) and Yaghi (1981) among many others. Sources are continuously being discovered which demonstrate that plays were written as early as in the 1800s. There is also considerable documentation on the number of written plays that were performed in those early years, contrary to what the author suggests (note 8).

The historical introduction makes sweeping claims and generalizations such as that Palestinians “did not practice Western-style theatre until the 1850s” (xviii). In fact, religious-themed plays were performed in the early 1830s. It is true that many of these, developing out of missionary schools, naturally had religious connotations, but there is ample evidence to show that in addition to these religious-themed plays, performances of more secular western literature on the stages of missionary schools in greater Syria also took place. I noticed other errors in the introduction in names and times of visiting and local troupes, the number of plays produced by given playwrights, and women’s contributions to the history of Palestinian theatre.

In the section devoted to Post-1948 Nakba, the introduction again follows Darraj’s survey of Palestinian theatre but there is a sudden departure from discussing theatre in historic Palestine and a branching out to consider performances by Palestinians in Israel, Syria and Cairo among other places. When discussing the 1967 War to the First Intifada, the author retreats once again to theatre activities in the West Bank, ignoring activities among Palestinians in Israel or in the diaspora. It certainly would have been more a concise work if the author limited the investigation to a specific geographic local and period, but in any case, a consistent narrative policy is needed. In Post-Oslo, the Second Intifada to the Present, the introduction eliminates years from the life of the Palestinian theatre. The narrative suddenly skips from the 1980s and the first intifada to the 1990s.

Jumping to the new millennium, the narrative becomes clearer and less confusing. This might be due to the fact that as recent history, it is better documented. Even so, the author, again makes dubious and even incorrect assertions. The most striking claim is that “the audience in Palestine from all economic and social standings have always engaged theatre makers” (p. xxvii, emphasis mine). But theatre activities throughout history can be found in missionary and national schools among other spaces in Palestine. Consequently, theatre has often catered to a select audience, and not to all social strata. From the 1970s until the present, middle and upper middle class professionals, academics, and university students have been the ones who frequented theatres in Palestine and are the ones who will end up engaging with the artists after performances. It is true that al-Hakawati in the 1980s used to tour at their own expense to bring theatre to remote villages and towns. But now the separation wall, the zones A, B, C, the restricted mobility among people and the need for military permits all work to accentuate the isolation of theatre houses from their audience, particularly those of the working class. The affluent and the middle classes are thus their primary audience.

Nevertheless, despite the many problems in the introduction purportedly covering the development of Palestinian theatre since the Ottomans, the six beautiful plays in this edited volume are a valuable contribution to Palestine Studies and to Middle Eastern Studies in general. The book will also appeal to students of non-western theatre and drama, and it will provide a valuable source for theatre researchers. These six eloquent and playable translations would offer directors, artists and actors the opportunity to stage these Palestinian texts, whether “inside” or “outside” Palestine.

Hala Nassar is an independent researcher. She was an Assistant Professor at Yale and Associate professor at Bard College /Al-Quds University. She has published widely on Palestinian literature and theatre.


Footnotes for Review by Najjar:

[1] Wallace, Naomi, and Ismail Khalidi. 2015. Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2015), xi.

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., xii.

[4] Corthron, Kia, Kushner, Tony, O’Hara, Robert, Schlesinger, Lisa, Shamieh, Betty, and Wallace, Naomi. “On the Road to Palestine: Six American Playwrights Come upon the Checkpoints–both Military and Metaphorical–that Define the Daily Realities of Palestinian Life.” American Theatre 20, no. 6 (2003): 28.

[5] Gener, Randy. “4 Positions on Cultural Sanctions: Theatre Practitioners Offer Their Views on a Call to Boycott Israel.” American Theatre 25, no. 5 (2008): 40.

[6] “The Arms Trade and Israel’s Attack on Gaza.” The Guardian 18 July (2014). Accessed August 11, 2015,

[7] (Wallace and Khalidi 2015), xvi.

[8] (Wallace and Khalidi 2015), xvi.

[9] (Wallace and Khalidi 2015), xxix.



Arab Stages
Volume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Meir A. Farjoun

Assistant Managing Editor: Nina Angela Mercer

Table of Content

  • The 2015 Egyptian National Theatre Festival by Dalia Basiouny
  • Damascus Theater Laboratory by Waseem Al Sharqy
  • The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century by Amir Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma
  • Theatre as an Optimistic Political Act: Lebanese Theatre Artist Sahar Assaf by Michael Malek Najjar
  • A Feminist Tuberculosis Melodrama: Melek by Painted Bird Theatre by Emre Erdem
  • Much Ado About “Theatre and Censorship Conference” by Dalia Basiouny
  • Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation by Jamil Khoury


  • Issam Mahfouz’ The Dictator presented in New York by Marvin Carlson
  • An 1868 Egyptian Helen of Troy play published by Marvin Carlson
  • Nahda: Five Visions of an Arab Awakening
  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Book Reviews

  • Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theatre by Karin van Nieuwkerk, ed. – A book review by Marvin Carlson
  • Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present – A book review by George Potter
  • Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora – Two Book Reviews by Michael Malek Najjar and Hala Nassar

Short Plays

  • Out of Control by Wael Qadour
  • The Village of Tishreen by Muhammad al-Maghut

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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