Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays From Palestine. Edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English.
Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 13

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine, edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English

STORIES UNDER OCCUPATION AND OTHER PLAYS FROM PALESTINE. Edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English. In Performance. London: Seagull Books, 2020; pp 256 + xxxi

Reviewed by Zeina Salame, University of Vermont

Stories under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine is a vital new English-language anthology and a first of its kind. Earlier anthologies of Palestinian plays have focused heavily or exclusively on work from the diaspora (such as Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora edited by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi, Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas edited by Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi, and Six Plays of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict edited by Jamil Khoury, Michael Malek Najjar, and Corey Pond). By contrast, each of the seven performance texts in this new anthology was produced by an existing theatre institution in Palestine. The plays, created during or after the Second Intifada, engage the complex and profound impacts of Israeli occupation.

English and Al-Saber, esteemed artist-scholars, have curated an outstanding collection of plays and provided valuable contextualization. The book begins with two prefatory essays: Al-Saber’s “Anthologizing Contemporary Palestinian Theater” and English’s “Palestine: Resistance and Identity Through Drama.” Al-Saber lays out essential histories, geographies, theory, and themes relevant to the plays, and provides brief notes on each piece. English shares stories drawn from personal interviews with Palestinian theatre artists who created these works at great personal risk, then offers extended background information, summaries, and analysis. These essays assume readers possess a working knowledge of Palestinian history and some audience members may find themselves unsteadied by terms, dates, and events with which they are unfamiliar. Nonetheless, the foundation English and Al-Saber construct absolutely enhances the experience of the works providing the social, political, and historical context necessary for fully appreciating the productions. Beginner-readers should return to these opening remarks after reading the plays to even more fully appreciate their meanings and the book as a whole.

Al-Kasaba Ensemble’s Stories Under Occupation (Al-Kasaba Theatre, Cinematheque) is set in Palestine soon after the Second Intifada. Its seventeen scenes, each with a different title, explore disturbing, absurd, mundane, and haunting subjects inspired by what the characters read from the mounds of newspaper surrounding them onstage. Both elegant and chaotic, it weaves in and out of monologue, dialogue, and powerfully expressionistic ensemble work. People, props, and furniture pieces hide beneath the piles of newsprint and are revealed as scenes play out. Its six-person cast devised much of the text from their own experiences. The tragic ending — gunshots and the ensemble cascading to the ground where they die consumed by a sea of newsprint — renders a striking image of resistance against the normalization of Palestinian lives being reduced to headlines.

Abdelfattah Abusrour’s We are the Children of the Camp (Alrowwad Theatre) is set in Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee camp, the location where it was originally performed by a company of ten child actors. The piece combines direct address, reenactment, song, dance, and chorus work. A radio announcement of the Balfour Declaration is the inciting incident of the story that follows, a visceral history of post-1917 Palestine. We are the Children of the Camp is a powerful reclaiming of site as speakers share what it means to live as refugees in their own homeland. It makes an impassioned plea for change through its concluding sequence by featuring the children in moments of aggression vs. peace —first blowing up balloons until they explode, then an empty stage, and then finally a return to the depictions of its very first scene — innocent children playing happily together.

The Gaza Mono-Logues (Ashtar Theatre) features over thirty autobiographical storytelling pieces written and performed by youth survivors of the 2008 Gaza War. After months of support from a director and drama therapist, performers crafted their speeches. The tone and topics vary, some hopeful, others earnest, and some assaulting. One piece explains, “Gaza, unlike all cities of the world, doesn’t have children in it” (101). Throughout, childhood is juxtaposed with maturity that comes too soon, often as a result of tragedy. Even so, this gathering of stories strives for a radical joyousness in its demonstration of presence and community project toward healing.

Pietro Floridia’s Shakepeare’s Sisters (Al-Harah Theatre) offers a necessary intersectional perspective in its critique of patriarchy in Palestinian culture. It centers on Samira, an unmarried, middle-aged, literature professor, and her dressmaker, Nesma. After Samira teaches Nesma about Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own, an inspired Nesma secretly starts a club for women at Samira’s home. Outsiders grow suspicious and start rumors about Samira’s love life, threatening her reputation and career. Nesma’s dress forms are central to the aesthetic and the narrative, standing in for other characters in the female ensemble, serving as projection surfaces, and echoing the sculptures of Pygmalion, another key literary reference Samira describes. This piece struggles a bit on the page; the inclusion of too many story points results in a play that is sometimes didactic with little room to develop characters or ideas fully.

Ihab Zahdeh’s captivating and highly stylized 3 in 1 (YES Theatre) interrogates the efficacy of the artist in times of war. What good does an actor’s “taboo” “nonsense” do for Hebron (164, 167)? Throughout, the artist must repeatedly answer to society’s scrutiny. The piece draws from the lives of its three primary performers, who play multiple roles. The play opens with the Mechanicals scene in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, establishing irony and metatheatre at its core. As tension builds, it leans further toward absurdity and surrealism, ending in a moment that is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous.

Nabil AlRaee’s The Siege (The Freedom Theatre) invites audience members to examine (or reexamine) a flash point in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this eight-character piece, Palestinian militants of different religious backgrounds shelter inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity during a siege on that site by Israeli Defense Forces. Survivors of this real 2002 incident gave interviews informing the events of the play. Video footage, scenes set both in past and present, and a tour guide who breaks the fourth wall call our attention to different points of view. In doing so, the piece then also draws attention to biases against militants likely also present in the audience; can revealing these men as human beings — at home, with family, as friends, in love or grief — possibly intervene in stereotype? Who deserves this audience’s empathy?

If you read only one selection from this book, read Amer Hlehel’s Taha (Qadita Productions, Maraia Theater, Al-Midan Theater). A clever boy born into a poor family finds success as a merchant. Forced to flee Palestine and having lost almost everything during the Nakba, he starts over as a refugee in Lebanon. A gifted autodidact, he realizes his voice and sense of self through his love of words. In this solo play based on the real life and poetry of Taha Muhammed Ali, the performer uses direct address, reenacted conversations, flashback, and excerpts of poems as he embodies Taha. Especially successful in honoring the rhythms and heartbeats of both written and spoken Arabic even as translated into colloquial English, the piece impressively maintains its resonance across languages, offering a vivid and deeply touching story on the power of dreams.

This groundbreaking anthology shares diverse and under-reported examples of Palestinian narrative, art, identity, and experience. It will offer inspiration to theatre makers enthusiastic about globally conscious and politically relevant new work. This volume will be essential reading for artists, scholars, and students of MENA/SWANA studies (especially in theatre), global studies, political and social sciences, decolonization/postcolonial studies, and critical race and ethnic studies.

Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English. In Performance. London: Seagull Books, 2020; pp 256 + xxxi


Zeina Salame is an artist/scholar and Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Vermont (PhD, MS, MA). Recent projects and committee work with: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Artists Repertory Theatre, Golden Thread Productions, Commonwealth Theatre Center, the Guthrie Theater’s Level Nine (New Arab American Theater Works), and the National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation (Pangea World Theater & Art2Action). She is co-founder of Florida based theatre company, The 5 & Dime. Her monograph building from her 2020 dissertation “Carried in One Woman: Reflections on Arab American Female Solo Performance” is forthcoming.


Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 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, 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 Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

 

Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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