NYU staging of Palestinian fighters in ‘The Siege’ marked a breakthrough

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On October 12, I came out of the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s premiere of “The Siege” at NYU with a sense of elation and disbelief. A vivid commemoration of violent resistance to occupation had been put forth in an establishment venue (the Skirball Center), and everyone was the better for it. The play had been censored in the U.S. for more than a year, and even now the NYU program needed to include a response by an Israeli colonel. But that night there was an atmosphere of joyful breakthrough.

The production has now ended, and it turns out that all I sensed that night was affirmed during the run. The show was a triumph. It brought in an audience of 3500 over 10 performances; it drew scarcely any of the attacks/demonstrations/official smears that were anticipated, thereby vindicating NYU’s brave decision to go forward in spite of inside pressure; and last but not least it gave the Palestinian production company the thrilling realization that they were welcome at last in American culture.

“I went to a party after the last show and the actors were on Cloud 9,” says Abdeen Jabara. “Because of the audience reaction, because of the reviews and the talkbacks— in their wildest dreams they never thought they’d have this kind of success. And it is a morale-booster to these people, who come out of a siege situation themselves, to think, Maybe we’re doing something that’s having an impact.”

We are chipping away at the “edifice” of American ignorance of the conflict, Jabara says; and what this play did was take a sledgehammer to that ignorance. “A big chunk fell down.”

More and more, progressives are determining the outlines of Palestine in our big cities. Just look at a faceoff between opponents of the play and its supporters in the mainstream press.

“Having witnessed firsthand the ‘siege,’ a blatant terrorist outrage, I am especially outraged at this presentation,” Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents said in an article titled, “Jewish leaders condemn ‘pro-terrorist play'” in the Jewish News Service.

But on National Public Radio, the show’s co-director and writer, Nabil al-Raee, was granted the last word on similar complaints:

We made a play. We never brought a tank into the stage. We brought a play. This is why art is important to open the way for people to agree or disagree, negotiate, talk.

All we’ve ever asked for is open debate of the conflict; and this play brought a pure expression of Palestinian consciousness to the American mainstream. Ella Jacobson at the culture site Hyperallegic called the production a “gutting” representation of a reality that Americans have never experienced. One pro-Israel site did a “scene-by-scene” report on the “anti-Israel” play.  The Financial Times reviewed the show favorably, and though he was less enthusiastic, it was a coup that the New York Times top theater person, Ben Brantley, went to the show.

The importance of this production is that after it was crushed by the lobby, it defeated the lobby; progressive New York embraced it. Thus it will pave the way for other Palestinian artists to bring out their works with far less interference.

Let me quote from two rave reviews of the production that convey the cultural politics of this moment. Carol Rocamora is a playwright and translator of Chekhov. She described the raw power of the production and its provenance in Theater Pizzazz:

The power of The Siege, Freedom Theatre’s heartrending account of the 2002 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Bethlehem, is that it is told not with rage or rancor, not to punish or vindicate – but to remind us of the tragedy of an ongoing, seemingly endless war….

The Siege tells a devastating story that needs to be told and remembered, but has gotten lost in the vast number of turbulent events unfolding in Palestine in recent decades. …

This gripping, unforgettable story is being told by those who have earned the privilege to tell it.   Founded in 2006, the Freedom Theatre, based in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, is dedicated to using art and culture to create social change.

Aviva Stahl in the Village Voice pointed out the historic political effect of the show: it centered on Palestinian fighters, granting alleged terrorists not just a voice, but morality.

Last week marked a momentous cultural occasion: the entrance of a Palestinian theater company onto the New York stage, performing a Palestinian work that hinges on the voices and political perspectives of Palestinian people. After two previously planned but ultimately scrapped local productions of the play, The Siege — based on the 2002 occupation of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity by Palestinian fighters — is finally celebrating its first run in the city, a ten-day engagement at New York University’s Skirball Theater. “I kind of can’t believe it that this is happening,” said writer and co-director Nabil Al-Raee, when asked during a post-show panel on Saturday what it was like to see the work premiere in the Big Apple. “It’s really a dream.”

 In a city that prides itself on fostering a vibrant theatre scene, and in a country that claims to steadfastly defend the right to free expression, to see The Siege is to be reminded of how deeply the racial logic of the War on Terror has embedded itself into the American psyche — in no small part thanks to the complicity of our political, educational, and cultural institutions. What makes The Siege so remarkable — and perhaps so dangerous, in the eyes of its detractors — is that it doesn’t focus on the experiences of civilians, who are presumably the most palatable or relatable subjects for a Western audience. In centering the play on Palestinian fighters, and granting these characters not only rationality but also morality, The Siege humanizes subjects who are so often denied personhood, and in doing so forces audiences to question the widespread assumption that it’s “the terrorists,” and not the occupation, that are the problem….

It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s overt Islamophobia and racism; it’s much more difficult to engage with our own deeply ingrained ideas about what constitutes terrorism, and who commits it, and why. In humanizing those cast as terrorists and providing them with moral and political complexity, The Siege does exactly what great art should: It destabilizes and upends the fundamental assumptions that shape our moral and political world. It’s uncomfortable, and it should be.

Personally, it’s nice to see my own enthusiasm reflected in others’ reactions. As for the production, let’s hope that other American cities and spaces reach out to the Jenin Freedom Theatre, so their audiences too can see what all the excitement’s about.

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Let’s see how it plays in Kansas