Return to Palestine. Photo Credit: The Freedom Theatre.
Volume 10

Traversing through the Siege: The Role of movement and memory in performing cultural resistance

The Freedom Theatre, located in the middle of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, Palestine, was started in 2006 with the aim of building cultural resistance against the Zionist occupation of Palestinian land through theatre and arts. The Theatre embodies resistance both in its plays and in its functioning under conditions of occupation. In an interview, the Artistic Director of The Freedom Theatre, Nabil Al Raee, spoke about how The Freedom Theatre itself is a story, a narrative, about making art (particularly political art) under occupation. The narrative of the birth of The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp and its survival has many fragmented stages – the experiences of the two intifadas[1] of the people who founded The Freedom Theatre, deaths, killings and imprisonment of its members, massive attacks on the camp and the Theatre, and the survival of The Freedom Theatre and its philosophy of cultural resistance through all of this.

Substantial literature exists about their different plays and the role of The Freedom Theatre in resisting occupation. The Theatre has itself published a critical anthology about the various aspects of its work and its role in generating cultural resistance.[2] As their published work suggests (also felt in the quotidian work of the Theatre) there is a continuous critical debate around what is cultural resistance and how is it being reached through the Theatre’s work. Thinking through similar questions of the meaning(s) of cultural resistance and the question about realities of theatre-making within an occupied area, this paper focuses specifically on movement and memory as two modes of resistance that are deeply embedded in the processes and performances of The Freedom Theatre’s work.

In November 2017 I saw The Freedom Theatre’s theatrical production The Siege in New York University’s Skirball centre. The play is based on the siege of Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity by the Israeli military in 2002 during the second intifada (Palestinian armed resistance) when 200 Palestinians along with 13 armed freedom fighters took refuge inside the church and were trapped there for 39 days with a limited supply of food, water and medical help. The play is a retelling of the stories of six of those freedom fighters, based on their personal narratives about those 39 days under siege, their struggles and debates about the decision to continue their fight for justice or to surrender as a payoff for ending the siege.

The play opens with an enthusiastic tour guide, a native of Bethlehem, who takes the audiences on a tour to the sight of the siege, inside the Church of Nativity. On the stage the set is a close replica of the Church, with intricate detailing, arched gateways, old looking walls and ornate lanterns. It is a realistic play. The aesthetic details of the play, including the set design, sound effects of gunshots, tanks and loudspeakers, video projection of actual footage of the siege and even the smell created through the incense smoke, transport the audience back in time, to a depiction of what happened inside one of the holiest sites of Christianity during the intifada.

The Siege. Photo Credit: The Freedom Theatre.

The play, written by Nabeel Al Raee and directed by Nabeel and Zoe Lafferty, brings to us a different narrative of the event, a counter narrative to the Israeli propaganda. Most Western media reporting the event during the intifada reported it as a terrorist attack on the Church. The play, carefully crafted through research and interviews with the now exiled fighters, breaks away from either glorifying or demonising the fighters as terrorists. The gun shots, cries of a wounded soldier, shouts of anger and frustration, the violence and the general loudness of the play, all create an atmosphere in which the reality of the fighters trapped in excruciating circumstances is portrayed. On the other hand, there are scenes where these armed men are seen fighting boredom as they play games, talk about delicious feasts in times of extreme hunger, have conversations about religion and philosophy, and remember Mahmood Darwish’s coffee and Marlboro cigarettes. The fighters come across as normal human beings caught in an extraordinary situation. The encounter between the audiences and the performers in a live theatrical setting allows a relation to form from which the audiences can relate to the characters and the narrative.

Further, in a realistic theatrical production like The Siege, the audience, removed from the actual time and space of its happening, witnesses the re-enactment of the historic event. It is this re-enactment and the idea of witnessing that disturbs the complacency of the Israeli occupation. Performance of The Siege in New York was thus mired in controversy and attacks and attempts to ban its performance. Some of the actors were denied visas to come to the U.S. for the show.

The Freedom Theatre, its actors and the Palestinian population at large, however, are accustomed to such routine restrictions and control by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli occupation functions to create an all-encompassing siege on the Palestinians. The movement restrictions through physical impediments such as checkpoints, roadblocks and permit systems controlled by the Military administration create an architecture of occupation that governs every aspect of the lives of Palestinians. It geographically divides Palestinians into isolated blocks that fracture the society’s cultural and social fabric. Moreover, systematic attempts to erase Palestinian memory and history function to disallow Palestinian identity and the demand for a Palestinian nation to be sustained.

In the face of such tactics of occupation, the fluidity of theatre – its power to fold together different spatial and temporal locations, transporting the audience – allows it to be a force of resistance towards the siege that the Israeli occupation constructs and the epistemicide that it performs.

Freedom Bus and Return to Palestine

The Freedom Theatre’s productions, touring to different cities and villages within the West Bank, are in themselves acts of countering the occupation. As the plays and the artists travel within the West Bank, sharing stories of Palestinians living in different zones that face different forms of military oppression, the performances bring the Palestinian communities closer to the realities of each other. The process facilitates construction of a shared Palestinian identity.

One of the Freedom Theatre projects specifically focused on such an exchange was ‘The Freedom Bus’ started in 2011, part of which involved artists, activists, journalists, etc. travelling to different cities and villages within the West Bank with the aim of building alliances and promoting collective action. In this Freedom ride, they used an interactive form of theatre called PlayBack theatre through which the actors gathered stories from the audiences and performed those stories as improvised pieces at that location. These stories then travelled to other villages and cities to be performed there. Through this process, the artists associated with The Freedom Theatre gathered a number of stories that were later interwoven into a play.

One of the plays that came out of this process was a production called Return to Palestine. The play, directed by Micaela Miranda, weaves in stories from the Jenin refugee camp and city, the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, Mufaqara and Gaza.

Return to Palestine. Photo Credit: The Freedom Theatre.

The play revolves around the story of a young boy named Jad, an American born Palestinian, who comes to Palestine for the first time. Through Jad’s journey, as he travels from the US to Israel to the West Bank, the audience witnesses how the occupation functions – he goes through an interrogation at the airport, racist attacks, check points and other forms of violence. Jad’s narrative and his travels through the West Bank bring together the real life accounts of a Palestinian living under occupation that were gathered during the Freedom Bus’s tour.

The play is choreographed in such a way that it can be performed anywhere – on stage, street, or any other space. It is minimalistic in terms of set design and costumes. Live music through a traditional Palestinian musical instrument, an Oud, provides the background score to the performance. The actors stand on a small rectangular platform, which is the performance space, and the theatricality of the play is brought out through the movement and physicality of the actors’ bodies. Actors use Jacques Lecoq-inspired mime movements to create various visuals of deserts, wind, waves, the road journey through the Fire valley, etc.

Movement thus holds a central focus in the play, both in terms of performance through actors’ bodies, and the process of making the play, which included working on the different stories from different cities which were brought together seamlessly into a single narrative.

Return to Palestine. Photo Credit: The Freedom Theatre.

The play resonates deeply with the audiences within the West Bank. It provides for them a moment of attachment, as they see their lives being performed on stage, as well as an understanding of how other Palestinians are facing similar oppression. Return to Palestine thus becomes a way of bringing together a shared reality of the Palestinian community and a collective Palestinian consciousness.

London- Jenin

The Freedom Theatre is not only working towards building resistance but has also taken the role of preparing cultural leaders in Palestine.[3] A recent play that I saw titled London- Jenin was performed by two alumni of The Freedom Theatre’s training school – Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada. The duo, who believe in the power of comedy as a means of resistance, are now professional comedians and theatre artists working within the West Bank as well as collaborating with artist groups abroad. Faisal, during an interview about the play, quoted George Orwell saying “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” The play, which they say is a white comedy, is a narration inspired by their personal experiences.

Set in an immigration office’s waiting room, the play London- Jenin is a humorous portrayal of the experiences of these two comedians from Jenin who grapple with the questions and uncertainties of migrating to another country: Whether to move to London, a city that promises a successful artistic career and the luxuries of the first world, or to go back to one’s homeland where familiarity and a sense of belonging hold strong? Here, in this waiting room, the two worlds collide as memories of Jenin wrestle with the aspirations and dreams of living in London. The play moves through varying emotions, making certain subtle social and political comments, and delving into philosophical questions about home and identity; all this while keeping the humour intact, which allows a humanistic connection with the audience. The simplicity and minimalism of the form of the play complements its rich content. Empty chairs lined in different formations transform the scene from that of a migration office to that of an aeroplane.

The preparation for seeking asylum is in itself a challenge for the two Palestinian protagonists, from preparing documents to having a convincing premise for migration. Alaa and Faisal discuss their options and look into the possibilities of playing stereotypes for both Arab and English sensibilities. For a Palestinian/Arab man, a convincing case for seeking asylum in UK would be if he were gay.

Faisal talks about the small simple things that he misses about home, like the one last barbeque that his mother prepared for him before he was leaving for Britain. In Palestine, the idea of one last time (which is to do anything and everything as if it’s for the last time that one is doing it) dominates people’s consciousness as the occupation creates a reality where there is no guarantee of what the future holds. In addition to this, Alaa shares his extreme fascination with Dr. Martin shoes, available in London, which have a lifetime warranty. Contemplating whether to buy the shoes or not, Alaa tries to find out if and how the warranty of the shoes would be valid – were the shoes taken to Jenin.

 

[1] Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.

[2] Johansson, Ola, and Johanna Wallin, editors. The Freedom Theatre Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine. LeftWord, 2018.

[3] Sheta, Mustafa. “We Are Not Producing Artists, We Are Creating Leaders in Society.” Thisweekinpalestine, 2018, thisweekinpalestine.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/We-Are-Not-Producing-Artists.pdf.


Rashi Mishra I am a theatre practitioner and researcher from India, working at the intersection of theatre and politics. I received my MA in Performance Studies from Tisch School of Arts, New York University. I am a recipient of Gallatin Global Fellowship in Human Rights from NYU, as part of which I have worked with The Freedom Theatre (Palestine) researching and writing about the role of theatre within the Human Rights discourse.


Arab Stages
Volume 10 (Spring 2019)
©2019 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: Maria Litvan

Assistant Managing Editor: Joanna Gurin

Table of Contents:

PART 1: Toward Arab Dramaturgies Conference

  1. A Step Towards Arab Dramaturgies by Salma S. Zohdi
  2. A New Dramaturgical Model at AUB by Robert Myers.
  3. Dancing the Self: A Dance of Resistance from the MENA by Eman Mostafa Antar.
  4. Traversing through the Siege: The Role of movement and memory in performing cultural resistance by Rashi Mishra.
  5. The Politics of Presenting Arabs on American Stages in a Time of War by Betty Shamieh.
  6. Towards a Crosspollination Dramaturgical Approach: Blood Wedding and No Demand No Supply by Sahar Assaf.
  7. Contentious Dramaturgies in the countries of the Arab Spring (The Case of Morocco) by Khalid Amine.
  8. Arab Dramaturgies on the European Stage: Liwaa Yazji’s Goats (Royal Court Theatre, 2017) and Mohammad Al Attar’s The Factory (PACT Zollverein, 2018) by Sarah Youssef.

PART 2: Other

  1. Arabs and Muslims on Stage: Can We Unpack Our Baggage? by Yussef El Guindi.
  2. Iraq’s Ancient Past as Cultural Currency in Rasha Fadhil’s Ishtar in Baghdad by Amir Al-Azraki.
  3. Amal Means Incurable Hope: An Interview with Rahaf Fasheh on Directing Tales of A City by the Sea at the University of Toronto by Marjan Moosavi.
  4. Time Interrupted in Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 71* Years by Kari Barclay.
  5. Ola Johansson and Johanna Wallin, eds. The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine. New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2018. Pp. 417 by Rebekah Maggor.

 

www.arabstages.org
arabstages@gc.cuny.edu

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

Arab Stages is a publication of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center ©2019
ISSN 2376-1148

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