From L to R: Matt Lalonde, Prithvi Kahlon, Rahaf Fasheh, Saja Kilani, Maher Sinno, Taranjot Bamrah and Dina Kawar, Photo Credits: Ahlam Hassan.
Volume 10

Amal Means Incurable Hope: An Interview with Rahaf Fasheh on Directing Tales of A City by the Sea at the University of Toronto

Tales of a City by the Sea by Samah Sabawi has received critical acclaim in its touring and several stagings in Palestine and Australia. It is an eye- opening play based on real-life experiences from the 2008-2009 Israeli siege on Gaza. It follows a long-distance love story, an illegal underground journey, a tragic death of a family, and the unconditional urge to continue to find hope within an open-air prison. By uniting poetry, romance, comedy, and tragedy, the play explores the love between those who have choices, and those who do not. It raises the question of the importance of sustaining one’s heritage and identity. The playwright, Samah Sabawi, expresses how this hour-long journey is inspired by “the strength and defiance of ordinary people in Palestine, who despite the horrific war, siege, and brutality of the Israeli Occupation, still insist that life is worth living and love is worth celebrating.”

The Canadian premiere of the play was directed by Rahaf Fasheh with the support of Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies at the University of Toronto (U of T) and was staged at the Centre’s Robert Gill Theatre in December 2018.[1]

Rahaf and I had a conversation about this experience:

Marjan Moosavi (MM): Tell me about yourself, your background and education.

Rahaf Fasheh (RF): My name is Rahaf Fasheh and I was born and raised in Amman, Jordan, in the Middle East. My background is Palestinian, my father originally from Jerusalem, and my mother from Ramallah. I moved to Toronto with my family in 2013 and continued my high school education here, where I moved on to study both Theatre and Psychology at the University of Toronto. Most of my theatre training and experience have revolved around acting and performing. I was nominated and chosen to be a member of the first City Youth Academy Programme at Soulpepper Theatre in 2019, and have been involved in a variety of Campus theatre productions, including productions in The U of T Drama Festival at Hart House Theatre. I was thrilled to announce Tales of a City by the Sea as my directorial debut because not only do I aspire to become a working director, but the play also resonates with my personal heritage and identity as a Palestinian coming from exiled refugees.

Rahaf Fasheh, Photo Credits: Haya Fasheh.

MM: How would you describe the playwright’s vision and also the theme of her play? What inspired you to direct such a play?

RF: As I was searching for the perfect play to kick off my directorial career, I was particularly looking for a Palestinian play which addresses the severity of the conflict in the region, yet does not contain strong political ideologies. After looking through several Palestinian works, I came across Tales of A City by the Sea by Samah Sabawi which stood out to me from all the rest. The play is based on real life events that Palestinians experienced during the 2008/2009 Siege on Gaza, one of the most brutal attacks on the strip. The poetry in the play was written by the playwright herself as she was surviving the siege. Not only did it avoid portraying Palestinians as political entities and refrain from making large political statements, it also illustrated Palestinian resilience against the long-standing Israeli Occupation. I was inspired to tell these stories through the playwright’s perfect representation of how Palestinians continue to survive and find hope despite the terrible conditions and sanctions enforced on them by the military occupation.

MM: What is so important about the play that should be shared with your Canadian audience?

RF: Palestinians have been suffering for a very long time due to the Israeli Occupation: they live with very strict sanctions imposed by the Israeli military, such as electricity cuts, check points, lack of clean water and food, restrictions on mobility, as well as a severe economic crisis and poverty. Not to mention, Palestinians are perceived very poorly in the media, and their heartbreaking yet inspiring stories are almost never mentioned. Hence, I believe this play is essential to a Canadian audience. It follows a relatable love story showing them that we are all alike. This play also gives another perspective on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict by presenting real-life events and experiences. It allows for room to change the audience’s previous narrative of Palestinians being solely political entities, and exposes the horrific conditions in the Occupied territories of Palestine. Furthermore, I decided to take on a Brechtian approach to the play, to allow the audience members to distance themselves from the narrative and criticize the reality of the piece, in order to help raise awareness about the severity of the Occupation.

From L to R: Prithvi Kahlon and Saja Kilani, Photo Credits: Mira Salti.

MM: During the process of deciphering the themes and doing character analysis, did you or any members of your group feel the need for a dramaturg or research dramaturgy? And by dramaturg, I mean someone who can at least describe the context in which the play was written, or can provide you with a sort of historical and political background about the events of the play, its motifs, or its history of production?

RF: I acted as both a director and a research dramaturg throughout the process of the play. I believe that it is necessary for the director to also take on the role of a dramaturg, especially when working on a play based on weighty and true events. I am also interested in dramaturgy as much as directing! I heavily researched the context in which the play was written, including the lifestyle in Gaza back in 2008, the history of the Free Gaza Flotilla boats, the illegal underground tunnels, the governmental and political standing of Gaza, as well as the statistics and timeline of the Operation Cast Lead (the 2008/2009 seige on Gaza). It was remarkable how true the events and timeline of the script were. The actors did a great job of keeping up with the research in order to back up their characterizations and choices, and stay true to the reality of the play.

MM: In your set design you made use of fabrics a lot, also the costume design was one of the strengths of the performance. Tell me about the significance of these choices in creating the overall aesthetics of the performance.

RF: In the early stages of creating the vision for the play, my set designer, Snezana Pesic, looked up a lot of images of Gaza and noted how grey and dull the city’s skyline was, due to ongoing mass destruction. However, she was inspired by the amount of color found amidst the grey through the clothing lines, the people, and Palestinians use of fabrics. It was beautiful to see how much ‘fertility’ was found amidst torn buildings and rubble. So we decided to recreate how fertile the land was by recreating the Apartheid wall, and have it fully covered with clothing lines. The decision to hang costume and set items on the clothing lines to be used throughout the play went hand-in-hand with my goal to go with a Brechtian take. Allowing the audience to witness the set and costume changes on stage not only reminded them of the artificiality of the play, but also allowed them to take a step back from the story-line and think twice about the reality of the events of the play. Not to mention, fabrics and embroidery are a huge part of Palestinian culture, so this set design immersed the audience members to the culture in a different and unique way.

Set Design by Snezana Pusic, Photo Credits: Ahlam Hassan.

Recurring words which elicit imagery in the play include land, roots, sea, fire, and air. My costume designer, Mira Salti, noted how they are all related to the four elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. This inspired the costume designs. Each actor described their character in accordance to an element, which inspired the color scheme of their character’s costume. For example, Saja Kilani compared her character, Jomana, to Earth since she is rooted in culture and nationalism. Hence, her costumes included earthy tones, or flower patterns. On the other hand, actors Maher Sinno, who played Ali, and Dina Kawar, who played Lama, both compared their characters to water, due to their easy-going attitude and urge to continue to live and dream despite the horrific conditions. Hence, their costumes consisted of mostly blue and yellow prints. Along with the colors signifying elements, Mira and I wanted to make sure the costumes also included traditional wardrobe elements, such as Arabic calligraphy in some, and Palestinian embroidery in others. We also used the costumes to highlight Palestinian persistence to continue to find hope and love despite the brutality of the siege, hence as the play escalates into a heartbreaking funeral scene of Lama’s family, we see the slow diminishing of colors. This scene is automatically followed by Lama’s wedding scene, which brings back all the colors and oriental dress!

Top Image from L to R: Taranjot Bamrah and Prithvi Kahlon.
Bottom Image from L to R: Saja Kilani and Matt Lalonde, Photo Credits: Mira Salti.

MM: Throughout the play, we see different characters tallying on the wall, was this emphasis on counting suggested in the script or your directorial choice?

RF: This decision was actually not found in the script, as the playwright wanted to avoid political statements much as possible. I agreed and respected this decision. However, as I was researching about Operation Cast Lead, I came across the statistics of fatalities during, before, and after the siege through B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. I found that the statistics were very interesting since there was a huge number of Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza in comparison to Israeli civilians and soldiers. In addition, the numbers really showcased the severity and reality of the siege. Simultaneous to my research, I was taking a Theatre and Statistics course during the semester which opened my eyes to the importance of statistics when dealing with factual events in theatre. Hence, I decided to organize the statistics I found in accordance to the events of the play which spanned a whole year. I incorporated these numbers within the transitions, where I had a cast member go up to a chalkboard to tally the numbers of deaths which occurred in Gaza in between each scene. The final number presented at the bottom of the tallying was the number of deaths from the end of Operation Cast Lead to 2018. This decision was made to remind the audience of the severity of the siege, and the reality of the conditions in Gaza. I left it up to the audience members to research how many Palestinians died in comparison to Israeli soldiers by totaling the number of deaths on the blackboard. Most importantly, I placed these statistics, which are commonly mentioned in news broadcasts, paradoxically side-by-side to the personal stories found in the play. My goal for this is to allow the audience to see the faces and stories behind the numbers- something people often forget exists.

MM: I’m familiar with the symbolic character of Handala in the cartoons of Naji al-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist. In his cartoons, Handala is a little boy and the symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance. In the final scene, the cartoon girl version of Handala is displayed; was that your decision? What was the inspiration to choose a feminine version of Handala in the performance?

RF: During her search for inspiration, my set designer Snezana took note of the viral Banksy graffiti found on the Gaza strip Apartheid wall. She came up with the great idea of having one of his artworks to be the final revealed image at the end of the play. I expressed how I was also interested in adapting Palestinian art to allow for the representation of Arabic artists on stage. I then showed her Handala and what he stands for, which brought us into creating Amal, Handala’s sister, placed in front of a rendition of one of Banksy’s graffiti works. Amal represents and is inspired by the strength, defiance, and resistance of Palestinian women. Her hair is messy and curly, resembling the defiance of the sea, a recurring theme in the play and the symbol of freedom to Palestinians. Her hands are clasped behind her back, standing side by side with Handala, as a sign of rejection to not only Western-based solutions, but also the Israeli Occupation. Audience members only witnessed Amal as an element of surprise at the end of the play as the final pieces of fabric were taken off the wall. Amal means hope, symbolizing the incurable hope that Palestinians possess; hope that someday Palestinians will have the right to the land, the right to return, and the right to be free.

From L to R: Matt Lalonde, Prithvi Kahlon, Rahaf Fasheh, Saja Kilani, Maher Sinno, Taranjot Bamrah and Dina Kawar, Photo Credits: Ahlam Hassan .

MM: The play is now on the Victorian Certificate of Education syllabus. To you, what was the significance of including a Palestinian play with this subject as a university production? What is the significance of including such a play in the drama curriculum of Canadian universities?

RF: I strongly believe that the inclusion of such a play in the drama curriculum of Canadian universities is essential to theatre education for two reasons: the content, and the possibilities it contains for theatrical practice. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the most brutal and complex conflicts in history, as it has been ongoing for over 70 years. This play not only helps raise awareness about the conditions in Palestine, but it also opens up the conversation to multiple universal topics such as migration, children and human rights, colonization, apartheid, occupation, and the essence of human survival. Not to mention, I believe there needs to be more diversity in the curriculum, and Arabic representation in the Canadian theatrical world is very scarce. This play also holds plenty of opportunity for theatrical practice through Samah’s incredible script-writing which includes spoken-word poetry, basic scene-work, double mise-en-scenes, and abstract staging. I really think the play deserves to be in educational curriculums world-wide; It has been extremely successful through its productions and exemplifies theatre’s powerful ability to touch hearts and inspire audience members.

MM: You directed this play as part of the final project of your directing course. What kind of support did you receive from the department and your professor? To what extent did the work depend on the volunteers’ assistance? As a student working in the university setting, what was the most challenging part of working on the script and staging it?

RF: The work was part of the Advanced Directing Course at the University of Toronto, in which up to five students are accepted to direct a proposed play of their choice. The casting was open to everyone who wanted to audition, but consisted mainly of University of Toronto Drama Centre students and alumni. People involved in the crew were a mixture of students taking the production and design courses at the Drama Centre, as well as professors, outside hires, graduate students, and alumni students. I extend my deep gratitude and appreciation to all those who were involved in the making of this piece as everyone was extremely supportive, inclusive, and collaborative. I found the most challenging part of the work was being able to articulate my vision to everyone involved, as well as collaborate with each person’s abilities and ideas. I was very impressed with all my cohorts, as they all brought in their own ideas, inspiration, and perspectives to the piece, which only helped further my own visions. Since this was the first play I’ve ever directed myself, I believe this experience has taught me that the core of being a good director is to be able to communicate with a variety of different people who attend and understand in different ways. In addition, flexibility and openness is key, as everyone’s thoughts, ideas, and concerns matter.

The full Cast and director of Tales of a City by the Sea.
From L to R seated above: Matt Lalonde, Saja Kilani, Dina Kawar, Maher Sinno
From L to R seated below: Taranjot Bamrah, Rahaf Fasheh, Prithvi Kahlon.

MM: You are an immigrant, a member of the large Palestinian diaspora in North America. How do you describe your experience of living, studying and making theatre in Toronto?

RF: I would describe my experience so far as being exceptional. Toronto cultivates a very open-minded, inclusive, and diverse culture, making being an immigrant or a minority less of a struggle. I also strongly believe that if I weren’t in Toronto then I would not have been able to realise the weight of my Palestinian identity, nor gain this opportunity to tell the stories of these Palestinian characters. Toronto is filled with opportunities for theatrical practice, and I am very excited to continue to be involved and showcase my work through the city’s diverse theatres and to its audience members.

MM: Do you have any plan to direct another play with a similar theme in near future?

RF: I am striving to continue directing plays with similar important, universal themes in the future. I aim to use theatre as a tool to present truth, evoke change, and inspire activism. Hence, I am interested in controversial and weighty topics which elicit a feeling of urgency and importance within my audience. In fact, I have been offered an opportunity to direct Tales of A City by the Sea again with the playwright hopefully as part of its Fall 2019 Canadian tour! I am very excited to work even further on this incredible play and to have the opportunity to stage these essential stories for an even bigger audience! The tour is being planned to have different productions with different directors and cast-members per city around Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec. I am honored to have been given this opportunity and I am extremely looking forward to it.

MM: Thank you Rahaf, I finish this interview with your powerful and relevant statement printed in the play’s program: “This play is dedicated to the Palestinians who march daily against the long Israeli Occupation; to all colonized & systematically oppressed individuals; to all indigenous peoples who have gone through similar genocide & ethnic cleansing; and to my Grandparents on both sides of my family who have effortlessly managed to pass down the Palestinian heritage & resilience despite being expelled from their homes.”

[1] More about the plays previous productions, as well as the Canadian premier can be found on the official Tales of A City by the Sea Website:

Marjan Moosavi is an Iranian-Canadian theatre scholar currently completing her PhD at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. Her professional work is rounded out with dramaturgy, dramatic translation and teaching Middle Eastern and Iranian Theatre. She has articles published in Routledge Companion to DramaturgyTDR (The Drama Review), New Theatre Quarterly, Asian Theatre Journal, and Ecumenica. She is the Regional Managing Editor of Iran for In spring 2018 she designed and taught the Middle Eastern Theatre course at the University of Toronto and will teach it again in fall 2019. Recently, she has curated the first photo exhibition on the theatre (1950-1970) and traditional performances of seven Middle Eastern countries presented at the University of Toronto. Her scholarly interests include Middle Eastern and Iranian performing arts, cross-cultural and diaspora theatre, transnational feminist theories, postcolonial performance studies, and critical methodology in Middle Eastern theatre studies.

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.

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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