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NY staging of Palestinian prisoner drama shows rising US awareness on conflict

Israel/Palestine
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The Island, Palestinian production from Jenin Freedom TheaterThe easiest way to encapsulate the shift in the elite American understanding of the conflict occurring before our eyes is that nearly 8 years ago, under pressure, the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled a drama about an American idealist who died in Palestine (“My Name Is Rachel Corrie”), and ten days ago it hosted a wrenching drama about Palestinian prisoners, played by Palestinian actors, one of whom said after the show, as Tony Kushner and Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater sat beside him on stage, that Palestine has been occupied for 65 years.

The show was The Island, Athol Fugard’s two-man play set in an island prison in South Africa and adapted to the Palestinian scene by the Jenin Freedom Theater. The two actors were the astonishing Faisal Abualheja (left above) and Ahmad al-Rokh. Al-Rokh made the comment about a 65 year occupation.

Oskar Eustis seemed moved to be sharing a stage with such spirited players, and he brought out the message:

The issues raised by The Island– from South Africa to Palestine, they vibrate and resonate and are completely alive…

Of the tensions between the prisoners as they rehearse a play-within-the-play of a prison production of Antigone, Eustis said they showed “the incredible difficulty of solidarity under conditions of oppression.”

Abualheja, the taller and more animated of the two actors, echoed the thought:

This is a play that talks about us. Yes. This is our play.

As Alia Malek wrote in Al Jazeera America, the play merges Palestinian and South African realities, in what is now a solid artistic/political tradition.

American consciousness didn’t come first. The Jenin Freedom Theater created this production for Palestinians first. The two men performed it in Arabic in Jenin; and speaking with some nervousness, Abualheja related how painful it was to do so.

“Prison in Palestine is a very sensitive subject. Because each house has experience of the prison.” In one family, they may have had 5 years of a family member imprisoned. In another 20 years.

So: who are you as an actor to try to mimic conditions that people in your audience know better than you?

Abualheja spoke of the night that a famous former prisoner came to the show, a man who spent 27 years in Israel prisons. “My heart was like this,” Abualheja said, flapping his hand against his shirt. “You miss one thing,” the ex-prisoner said afterward– they used their shoes as a pillow.

“That’s exactly what cultural resistance is. We in the Freedom Theater, we are not just actors, we are freedom fighters.”

While al-Rokh told an artist’s story of the Israeli invasion of Jenin in 2002, in which scores were killed. His uncle in Saudi Arabia had sent him a Play Station. It was somewhere under the rubble. Al-Rokh was determined to find it and dug angrily through the wreckage. Media came up. “Your mother is under there?” “No. My Play Station.” The media went away; and I say it was an artist’s story because it made Palestinians human in a way a million flyers cannot.

Again: These statements were made to applause on a New York stage. That is a sign of how much consciousness has been raised in a few years. And in the house were several people who have helped to make that change, including Kushner, Malek, Udi Aloni, Adam Shatz, Lillian Rosengarten, Felice Gelman, Dinky Romilly, and Terry Weber.

Director Gary English was proud to be pushing political change. Americans are still under the influence of the Exodus narrative we got in the 60s and 70s. This is “my own act of solidarity,” he said, his attempt to be “transformative.”

Kushner sought to square the circle, to reconcile the oppression shown in the play with the possibility of Israeli consciousness-raising. Will you bring the production to Israel, he asked?

Gary English said, “We can’t. Palestinians are not allowed to go into Israel from the West Bank. It’s illegal. In fact, these guys can’t even get permission to go to the Jerusalem consulate to get a visa. They have to go to Amman. It is easier for them to go to the US than to Haifa.”

While Abualheja spoke of how it used to be, when Israelis came to Jenin to buy vegetables because they were cheaper. Then the second intifida came, and “the Palestinians become a nightmare….[Israelis] are afraid to speak Hebrew in Jenin.”

Of the nightmare, Al-Rokh, a solid and turbulent presence, said, “We can’t go there and they can’t come to Jenin. They think if you go to Jenin we will eat you.”

And Abualheja reminded us, “It’s a dream for us to visit the sea in Haifa.”

It is the dream of a blazingly-talented Palestinian actor in a refugee camp that he will be able to go to the sea less than an hour away. Can that also be an American dream? Give that one a few years.

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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13 Responses

  1. October 8, 2013, 3:43 pm

    In my eyes this is a most welcome phenomenon – Palestinians taking care of their own destiny. Not waiting until Egypt and Syria and Jordan will “liberate” their “occupied” land. Seeing that this is not working and still waiting that another body from the outside, like PLO or Sadam Hussein will do the job for them.

    The first time they really took things in their own hands was the First Intifada which was a real popular uprising with minimal violence and confused Israeli reaction. It was this Intifada that led to Oslo process with all its hopes.

    However the huge negative of the Oslo was that it let Arafat and PLO getting inside the West Bank and Gaza and imposing themselves on the Palestinians. Instead of continuing along the lines of the First Intifada they led to the most awful phenomena in the recent human history – suicide bombings hoping to break Israel’s back. Instead that broke the back of the peace process, caused a sharp shift in Israeli electorate to the right and consequent freezing of any real negotiations.

    Now the Palestinians seem again to wait when either Hamas or liberal left in Europe and US or born in Qatar, raised in Egypt, educated in Tel Aviv University Omar Barghouti will liberate them. N. Finkelstein alluded to this very clearly in his well known interview complaining about the lack of real mass struggle (apart of a few one man NGO’s) inside WB or Gaza.

    Perhaps small actions like this theater show indicates that Palestinians want to take their fate in their hands again. I am absolutely sure that if not for those from outside imposed “solutions” we would have reached peace with Palestinians long time ago.

    This is to say that it is my strongest opinion that what is going on on this blog or on BDS or in Hamas or Hezbollah actions while causing lots of grief to both sides will not lead to the solution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. It serves carriers and provide a living of people on this blog, or BDS activists or Hamas/Hezbollah leaders and terrorists etc but not the Palestinians people.

    This is not so with the artist on the theater show so they indeed supply (unfortunately a very faint) glimpse of hope.

    • October 8, 2013, 5:42 pm

      Moderator – please post my comment. It is posituve, it is vital, it is important. For all involved. Please post my comment.

      • talknic
        talknic
        October 9, 2013, 1:24 pm

        fnlevit ” please post my comment. It is posituve, it is vital, it is important. For all involved. Please post my comment”

        Sick bucket anyone?

        “.. it is my strongest opinion that what is going on on this blog or on BDS or in Hamas or Hezbollah actions while causing lots of grief to both sides will not lead to the solution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict”

        How about Israel simply gets out of Palestine for once … After all it was GIVEN completely gratis the territory for a state and has since had its forces in other folks territory.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        October 9, 2013, 2:28 pm

        “Moderator – please post my comment. It is posituve, it is vital, it is important. For all involved. Please post my comment.”

        Typical self-important, demanding zio. Learn some manners, you ingrate.

    • Shingo
      Shingo
      October 8, 2013, 10:28 pm

      It is posituve, it is vital, it is important.

      It is patronizing, it is dishonest and it is typical hasbara.

      However the huge negative of the Oslo was that it let Arafat and PLO getting inside the West Bank and Gaza and imposing themselves on the Palestinians.

      Stop lying. The PLO were the one and only leadership of the Palestinians, which is why the Israelis helped create Hamas – to try and weaken the PLO.

      Secondly, as Miko Peled points out, the only reason Rabin agreed to talk to Arafat was because the Israeli leadership were confident there was no possibility of a Palestinian state. They knew they had killed it by 1993.

      Instead that broke the back of the peace process, caused a sharp shift in Israeli electorate to the right and consequent freezing of any real negotiations.

      Another lie. The peace process was broken by Sharon, who came to office with the stated aim of “suspending the peace process in formaldehyde”.

      Now the Palestinians seem again to wait when either Hamas or liberal left in Europe and US or born in Qatar, raised in Egypt, educated in Tel Aviv University Omar Barghouti will liberate them.

      No, they are poised to go to the UN and do it themselves, but the US keeps giving them bags with money to stay away from the UN and the Israelis keep threatening the with violence if they do.

      N. Finkelstein alluded to this very clearly in his well known interview complaining about the lack of real mass struggle (apart of a few one man NGO’s) inside WB or Gaza.

      Yes , the PA security forces were created to crush this mas struggle. Even peaceful
      non violent demonstrations are met with violence and BDS has been made illegal.

      Perhaps small actions like this theater show indicates that Palestinians want to take their fate in their hands again.

      What an ignorant and patronizing racist you are. BDS was created by the Palestinians as a non violent movement. It is a perfect example of the Palestinians taking their fate in their hands, yet like all Israeli apologists, you consider it unacceptable.

      As for Hezbollah, they are no threat to Israel so long as Israel behaves itself and stays out of Lebanon. They have nothing to do with the Palestinian struggle.

      Get out of Palestine.

      • miriam6
        miriam6
        October 9, 2013, 4:14 pm

        [email protected];

        Stop lying. The PLO were the one and only leadership of the Palestinians, which is why the Israelis helped create Hamas – to try and weaken the PLO.

        You are trying to imply here that Palestinian Islamism was virtually non – existent before Hamas.
        Not so.
        After the creation of the PLO and the 1967 war the Israelis certainly favoured Palestinian Islamism as a counterweight to the more ideologically threatening secular PLO – but Hamas itself was an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

        A look at this article by Ramzy Baroud shows that ties between the Egyptian Islamists and Islamists in Palestine date back to the 1930’s before Israel even existed;

        Since the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Ismailiyya, Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna and a few others, it quickly found in Palestine a rally cry to unite Muslims through the entire region.
        The first link between the movement and Palestine was formed in 1935, when Abd al-Rahman al-Banna (the founder’s brother) visited Palestine and met with the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
        The Brotherhood became visible during the revolt of 1936, as they communicated the Palestinian message with an Islamic tone to the rest of the Arab world. The cause of Palestine promptly became the central mission and calling of the Brotherhood, as Hasan al-Banna himself headed the newly founded General Central Committee to Aid Palestine.
        More, in April 1948, when most Arab governments delayed in partaking in the defense of Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood deployed three battalions of volunteers. Estimates of the number of Brotherhood volunteers in Palestine during the war and the subsequent Nakba vary, but Hasan al-Banna himself noted, in March 1948, that the movement had approximately 1,500 volunteers in Palestine.
        The relationship between the Brotherhood and Palestine had it ebbs and flows, but the rapport was never completely severed. Even before Hamas was officially established 1987, the movement functioned under various classifications, all directly affiliated with Egypt’s Brotherhood.

        http://www.onislam.net/english/politics/middle-east/455243-hamas-and-the-brotherhood-reanimating-history-.html

      • Shingo
        Shingo
        October 10, 2013, 7:43 am

        You are trying to imply here that Palestinian Islamism was virtually non – existent before Hamas.

        No I am not, and you’re doing what you always do when you haven’t got an argument – creating straw men. My point was that the PLO were the one and only leadership of the Palestinians and all you can come back with is that the Muslim Brotherhood existed.

        So what? Hamas did not come into existence until the 1970s. It did not get any kind of foothold in Palestine until Israel began opening door and funding them.

    • eljay
      eljay
      October 9, 2013, 1:56 pm

      >> This is to say that it is my strongest opinion that what is going on on this blog or on BDS or in Hamas or Hezbollah actions while causing lots of grief to both sides will not lead to the solution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

      You know what else won’t lead to the solution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, perfesser?
      – Israel’s on-going theft, occupation and colonization of land outside of its / Partition borders.
      – Israel’s refusal to end its on-going theft, occupation and colonization of land outside of its / Partition borders.
      – Israel’s refusal to honour its obligations under international law.
      – Israel’s refusal to be held accountable for its past and on-going (war) crimes.
      – Israel’s refusal to enter into sincere negotiations for a just and mutually-beneficial peace.

      >> … please post my comment. It is posituve, it is vital, it is important.

      It is the same old Zio-supremacist b*llshit, perfesser.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      October 9, 2013, 2:27 pm

      “Instead of continuing along the lines of the First Intifada they led to the most awful phenomena in the recent human history – suicide bombings hoping to break Israel’s back.”

      Suicide bombings were hardly the “most awful phenomena in the recent human history.” Hell, the occupation, itself, is much more awful.

      “Instead that broke the back of the peace process, caused a sharp shift in Israeli electorate to the right and consequent freezing of any real negotiations.”

      Baloney. The israelis had no interest in a just peace. They were using Oslo as a strategy to further their aims of stealing the maximum amount of Palestinian land they can, without regard for the human rights of those whose lives they destroy.

  2. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    October 8, 2013, 5:23 pm

    RE: Of the nightmare, Al-Rokh, a solid and turbulent presence, said, “We can’t go there and they can’t come to Jenin. They think if you go to Jenin we will eat you.” ~ Weiss

    FOR THE STAGGERING IMPLICATIONS OF THIS “NIGHTMARE”, SEE:
    “Rich People Just Care Less”, By Daniel Goleman, N.Y. Times, 10/05/13

    [EXCERPT] . . . In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.
    Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.
    Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences,” a theme repeated by Vamik D. Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who was born in Cyprus to Turkish parents. Dr. Volkan remembers hearing as a small boy awful things about the hated Greek Cypriots — who, he points out, actually share many similarities with Turkish Cypriots. Yet for decades their modest-size island has been politically divided, which exacerbates the problem by letting prejudicial myths flourish.
    In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends.
    Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. Mr. Pettigrew, who was born in Virginia in 1931 and lived there until going to Harvard for graduate school, told me in an e-mail that it was the “the rampant racism in the Virginia of my childhood” that led him to study prejudice.
    In his research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those demonized “others” were “just like me.” . . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/rich-people-just-care-less/

  3. seafoid
    seafoid
    October 8, 2013, 6:19 pm

    Exodus is the famous story where the zionists have to leave behind Jewish morality in order to build the jewish state. After a while they couldn’t care less. It was turned into a film by the Brothers Grimm with Ariel Sharon as the serial killer who was turned into a pumpkin.

    Very hard to see Zionism controlling the narrative for much longer. These young Palestinians are inspirational.

  4. MRW
    MRW
    October 9, 2013, 5:49 am

    Damn. I wish I could have been there for this. Good for Oskar.

  5. romweb
    romweb
    October 9, 2013, 9:40 am

    This “shift in the elite American understanding of the conflict occurring before our eyes” is in part because of all the work that many have done in Palestine and in the US. Since 2006, Mondoweiss has been an integral part of the conscious raising movement.

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