Heartbreak and history combine in Palestinian drama

October 25, 2015

Inside/Outside — Six Plays from Palestine & the Diaspora
Edited by Naomi Wallace & Ismail Khalidi
TGC Books, 2015
Sykes-Picot: The Legacy
Edited by Kenneth Pickering
Arts Canteen, 2015

There is a long tradition of drama in Palestinian culture, but it is not a written one. This point is made by Nathalie Handal in her excellent and detailed introduction to Inside/Outside, a collection of Palestinian plays.

Palestinian theatre was — and continues to be — created through collective improvisation. It has its roots in oral storytelling traditions.

In his statement introducing his play Tennis in Nablus, Ismail Khalidi describes how he grew up hearing stories of the 1930s Arab revolt against the British rulers of Palestine and the formation of Palestinian identity.

He was also driven to add his story to the mix by what he perceives as a Zionist mythology that obscures the true history and context of the situation in Palestine.

Khalidi highlights the absurdities of the language used between oppressors and oppressed. The play opens with an old man, a vegetable seller and something of a poet, addressing the soldier that stops his cart as “your highness”.

His gorgeous story of why eggplants must be transported at night both mocks the soldier and placates him, showing the power of language against force.

His story so baffles the soldier that the soldier is glad to let him go.

Keffiyeh/Made in China, by Dalia Taha, is a collection of short monologues, dialogues and three-sided conversations illuminating ordinary lives within the extraordinary situation under occupation.

The context is shocking but the stories are familiar — whether to punish or reward a child, why you need clean underwear, writer's block. This invites the reader or audience to identify with the characters and imagine themselves in the same situation, while highlighting how ludicrous it can sometimes be.

Hannah Khalil, in the first play she ever wrote, Plan D, has a family drama deliberately removed from the Palestinian context, as she did not want people to watch it with prejudice.

Though the play is about Palestine, it can be transferred by the director to any country, making universal the theme of a family relationship coping with a situation of immense strain.

Handala is a departure in that it is adapted by Abdelfattah Abusrour from the cartoons of Naji al-Ali, who was assassinated in London in 1987. Like al-Ali's cartoons, the play amplifies the voice of those silenced by modern Western history. This is a form of bearing witness, an unarmed, artistic resistance that the author calls “beautiful resistance” — a wonderful term for all of the works in these two books.

Betty Shamieh's Territories continues the theme of bearing witness. Her play tells the story of a nameless Muslim woman captured during the Crusades.

603 by Imad Farajin has detainees in an Ashkelon Prison winding around and around each other's words, close to insanity after their near-decade of incarceration. When freedom finally comes, they don't trust it.

The plays in Inside/Outside have incredible wit and beautiful use of language between them. The plays collected in another book, Sykes-Picot: The Legacy, are more raw, simpler in their language and characterisation, but more powerful for that.

The Sykes-Picot accord was the plan implemented by the treaties ending World War I. It divided the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France.

Together with the Balfour Declaration, which promised leaders of the Zionist movement a national homeland in Palestine, the Sykes-Picot agreement created the situation in Palestine today.

The stories told in this book veer from the immediate and heartbreaking to the historical in the shape of the first and last plays in the book.

Hannah Khalil makes another appearance with two works. The first, Bitterenders, which like Plan D has a family setting, comically places the occupation within a single home. The living room is divided down the middle between the Palestinian family who lived inside it at first and a group of Jewish settlers who have taken the space.

The settlers have vanished — for reasons that are unknown at the start of the play — and the Palestinian family are unsure what to do. The characters are funny, warm and playful, even foolish.

The grandmother seems somewhat senile and childish, playing with a doll and calling it her baby. The horrible truth behind this madness is only revealed at the end, as the rest of the family flee and she is left behind, playing hide and seek with her lost child as the walls are about to be bulldozed.

The author expertly draws the reader or audience in with light-hearted comedy, and abruptly pulls the curtain to reveal the tragedy behind it.

Bitterest of Foes by Joshua Hinds imagines a conversation between the three final sultans of the Ottoman Empire as they reflect on what went wrong. Like a Greek chorus, they comment on their own demise and the loss of the old Arab world, ending the play by predicting further bloodshed.

They blame Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and French diplomats who negotiated the eponymous accord. But their infighting and embarrassment shows they also blame themselves and each other.

This last play is a little didactic and discursive, but a useful reflection on the political history of the Arab world before Western intervention.

Khalil's very short play The Worst Cook in the West Bank continues the theme of bitterness with the symbol of burned grapevine leaves.

Hassan Abdulrazzak's two plays are just as sharp, but introduce a lighter tone, though their subject matter is just as serious.

In the first, Sderot Cinema, inspired by an article in The New York Times, a liberal Jew from New York visits Israel and is horrified by the locals watching the bombings of Gaza with beer and popcorn.

Significantly, she is pregnant — an expression of hope that in the future Jews, as much as Palestinians, will bear witness to this horror.

In Abdulrazzak's second play, The Tune is Always Better on the Outside, the entire situation is represented by two people drawing chalk circles in a game of which neither of them knows the rules, which they have been instructed to play by a third party. Both behave more and more shockingly in their desire to win.

With these two new volumes, directors and theatre companies have plenty of strong material to bring to wider audiences.

[Reprinted from Electronic Intifada. Ellen McAteer, director of the Poetry Trust and founder of the Tell It Slant bookshop, was one of the Scottish writers involved in the collection of Palestinian poetry A Bird is Not a Stone.]

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