Alive from Palestine
Memory as Identity
Three actors hold branches with leaves to suggest a forest, while another gently shakes a small tin thunder sheet and the fifth crumples a piece of plastic and whistles. Then amidst a cacophony of overlapping, and seemingly unrelated monologues, five actors standing in five lanes of light with a chair for each upstage shout portions of personal stories: “There was a white dove, alive! I have five tattoos! Get into the boat! Your marital status is under investigation!” They cross silently to pick up sweaters, cross upstage, put on the sweaters, and commence flailing about. Their arms are inside the sweaters around their waists as they attempt to wrap armless sweater sleeves around each other’s necks or slap at each other in mock combat.
The group breaks and a woman (Shaden Kanboura) begins a story about being asked to dance at the Damascus Opera House after a long and brutal yet also exciting competition. Another actress, (Khulood Basel Tannous) begins to critique her performance—directing her in the moment—and a frustratingly funny exchange continues between them as the first is trying to tell the story and the second is trying to contain herself but returns time and again to comment, lift Shaden’s head, or pull back her shoulders in a sort of simulated rehearsal meta-text.
We learn that the dancer received a phone call from her mother a few minutes before the performance in Syria, and that her father has been arrested:
SHADEN: What do you mean where am I? At the theatre. The show starts in a bit… Is something wrong?
KHULOOD: I’m sorry but I’ve got to stop you. Let’s do this section like it’s real, like she’s just calling you now.
SHADEN: But he’s telling the story after the fact.
KHULOOD: Let’s just try it once. Do it for me. I’ll call you like his mum is calling now. (She makes a noise like a Nokia phone ringing.)
Rather than focusing on the maudlin or sentimental, we see the events with perspective. This suggests one of the first themes of the night: memory as a prerequisite of identity.
The substitution of the gender pronoun “he” for “she,” or “I,” suggests this is not a story from the actor’s life but someone else’s. In the story the character’s dilemma is whether the character’s devotion to the father is best demonstrated in continuing with the performance or returning home to comfort the mother. The character decides to perform and finishes with the image of performing in front of an audience, but the only thing the character sees is the father. The sequence ends not with the a sentimental ending to the story but with the relationship between Shaden and Khudoora breaking down into an argument:
SHADEN: (From the story)…and then I realized, if there was anything I could do for my dad in prison, (Khulood presses Shaden’s arms to her sides and pulls her head up. Shaden is frustrated but continues.) When I went out on stage, I didn’t see the audience or the actors. I only saw my (Khulood pulls her head up again.) father.
Yes, Khulood! Pardon? What? A paragraph. Just a few lines! (Without a comment.)
HENRY: (who attempts to intervene): Can’t you control yourself?
KHULOOD: I don’t know why you’re yelling.
SHADEN: Because, Khulood, I don’t get what you want. What’s the point of all these comments? I can’t do it exactly like you want it. I’m sorry. As hard as I try, I can’t. I’m not going to start looking like him.
The effect suggests a sub-dialogue between rehearsal process and performance that functions as a metaphor for the nature of remembered experience and its impact and sets up the evening where different versions of stories conflict or at times are conflated. Rather than focusing on the maudlin or sentimental, we see the events with perspective. This suggests one of the first themes of the night: memory as a prerequisite of identity.
Shortly after, Husam, who left the stage earlier with a suitcase, appears in a “cactus” jacket and asks for a hug. He is ordered offstage; a scene that is repeated occasionally throughout the play. Interestingly, Husam Al-Azza is the one actor who grew up in a refugee camp, and one wonders if the continuing rejection is related to this.
Memory: Between Fictionalized and Remembered Experiences
This is the first of several sequences in the stunning new play by the broadly talented Al Khashabi Ensemble where we witness a series of profound, often absurdly profound, sequences, at times repeated with different endings and at times with a devolving self-conscious commentary on each scene that might suggest influences of Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and sketch comedy but is built on the rich and ever original development of Palestinian theatre. The lack of exposition or explanation brings the audience immediately into the experience of the actor/characters (as in Beckett or Pinter) as they move between fully conscious moments of storytelling and inexplicable confusion about their status, or what is exactly happening. Conscious and unconscious meta-text abounds. A story of stone throwing at soldiers during an army incursion (Husam Al-Azza) in the Aida refugee camp is reworked by a sort of “liberation promoter” (Raeda Ghazaleh) to alter the story from the terribly funny conclusion of a boy accidently hitting the neighbor’s son in the head with a stone meant for an Israeli soldier, to a mythic version of actually hitting the soldier. They repeat the story several times as the story is “corrected.” The actor retreats to a tightly lit space with a live microphone (another form of meta-text) as we learn that when he went home he was slapped by his mother for throwing stones because his mother had already lost a son to suffocation by tear gas. As the play crosses fictionalized and remembered experience, a kind of condensation occurs in which a theatrical reality emerges that supplants and yet incorporates actual events.
Throughout the evening we witness stories from actors (and other workshop participants from other countries who did not remain with the project) who have lived through the Second Intifada that started in 2000 and years of occupation. A sort of accumulative displacement between time and space occurs in which a psychological reality and deconstruction of identity creates an absurd and yet material “Other Place.” In this place Diaspora becomes internalized as a state of mind, while nevertheless rooted in the homeland. But one of the dynamics at work as described by director, Bahsar Murkus, is the presence of all those who participated in months of workshops whose identity remained in the “heart” of the play. One key element that persisted was this desire to find a way for them to be present—despite their absence. “How do you play absence?”
While never crossing over into political polemic, the reality of the occupation and the splintering of personalities into separate, or layered, and conflicting identities leaves us dazed by the collisions. A doctor wearing his white coat in a car is shot from a tank. A woman is shot by a sniper while going to buy milk. We hear these events told within a story by an actress (Raeda Ghazaleh) who sneaks her colleagues, one at a time, to and from rehearsal during curfew. At one point she confronts a tank whose gun barrel follows her car as she attempts to circumvent it without rousing suspicions that can turn lethal. And then we confront a man (Henry Andrawes) who cannot explain why he has a tattoo he doesn’t remember, and in one of the most touching and hilarious scenes is told his name is Ziyad and not Henry. Several times in succession Henry and Khulood pretend chance meetings to practice greeting each other so he can remember his name. Markus takes note of this connection between memory and identity as something that is broken by trauma—physical, mental, or from geographical displacement. “What happens when we forget? You start from zero.”
Palestinian Time: Waiting as a Lifestyle
Raeda Ghazahleh continues with a story about the hours of waiting she must endure while attempting the most basic of normative life tasks, such as taking the kids to school, going to and from work from Jerusalem to Ramallah. Tasks that add years of waiting over a lifetime. As the cast is indicative of how the occupation has been manifest for 50 years, since 1967, we grasp that entire lives, from childhood to aduthood are experienced entirely within a lifestyle of waiting: waiting at checkpoints, waiting for a political solution, waiting for some set of benign international forces to understand their experience and that the occupation controls their every move.
Separated by Geography
Geographical separation is another force that works on Palestinian identity that underscores the play. In one scene a Palestinian resident of Haifa (Shaden) travels for the first time to Ramallah. We learn the logistics of traveling from Haifa by bus to Jerusalem central station, then another bus to the Palestinian bus station by the Jerusalem Hotel, and then a third bus to the West Bank city of Ramallah. She successfully auditions for a role in a play and is excited to stay in Ramallah for three months. But when attending the opening of a dance festival, the audience is welcomed and asked to stand and sing the Palestinian national anthem. As she graduated from Haifa University, she only knows the Israeli national anthem. She mimics the others but doesn’t really know what to do, as she laughs and cries simultaneously. Even as she picks up the tune, she doesn’t know the words.
While time, memory, and geography seem to be the forces that effect identity in Other Places, these actors confront the absurdity of their experience in remarkable, human terms and with a combination of clarity and disorientation that is alternately terribly funny and deeply painful.
Reconstructing Identity and Memory
Throughout the evening we return regularly to Henry Andrawes who seems confused and at times panicked by everything that is happening around and to him. Early on he tells a story about going to a kibbutz with his father who is working as a mental health nurse. It starts clearly enough, with a description of the building, the “cold” tiles, a lamp and vase of flowers, white lights. He abruptly stops in a moment of confusion that intensifies to a breakdown as we hear a loud hum and lights pulse that are placed around a square space that defines the stage. He can’t continue. Later he can’t remember why or how he came to have a tattoo on his arm. He is taught to breath into a bag and count to ten, and directed to practice swimming under water and to tread water when he gets tired.
Henry continues to wander throughout the space as though discovering its elements for the first time. He attempts to reconstruct identity or memory from bits of what has been said by other actors. We wonder if he has forgotten who he is, is he being “taught” the story of Ziyad, someone absent but becoming present gradually as the play continues. It’s as though he is like a child constructing an identity from what he hears around him, as Bashar Markas alluded to: starting from zero. In some ways, Ziyad emerges as the only real “character” in the play, the spine of it as it were, as the other actors perform material taken from their own experiences.
An older woman (Shaden Kanboura) made up with a clown face and using a crutch nearly falls while trying to pick up a key she has deliberately dropped. When Henry/Ziyad attempts to help, she throws handfuls of keys across the floor. Each time he tries to pick them, she throws another handful in another direction. He inserts details from previous scenes into scenes that follow. His existence itself and the anxiety he suffers seems to simply be, perhaps the ravages of a mental breakdown or some unseen malady that disconnects bits of memory and reconstitutes them into present confusion. As the other character/actors are clear about their past and present in the moment, Henry is an organic counterpoint —or counterweight—that the others seem to clearly care about but cannot quite reach. When it becomes his turn to go to the microphone, something each actor does at least once during the evening, he is visibly unsure what to say. He quietly repeats the noises he remembers from a previous sequence about war—the sound of a missile, the sound of a gunship—as we listen to the magnificent ballad by Lebanese singer, Wadih Al Safi: Oh Bird, I Will Make You Swear by the Tree Branch.
A silent piece of physical theatre follows that illustrates how occupation creates patterns that are learned and engrained into behavior. Husam Al Azza is offered a drink of water on a table. As he approaches, Raeda Ghazaleh stops him and directs him upstage. This sequence is repeated several times, as Al Azza is stopped and directed upstage again. On each turn he is gradually rendered immobile, first taped across his ankles so he has to take little steps. Then he is taped across his hips and arms so he has to hop across the stage and can only pick up the cup with his mouth. Finally his mouth is taped, so he can’t drink. When the tape is removed, he continues hopping as though he remains hobbled and bending toward the cup to drink out of habit.
Creating the Palestinian Experience
The production is complex, theatrically rich, and cannot be confined to these pages as its reach across subjects is vast with a number of sequences that seem to add up to the accumulated Palestinian experience of Diaspora and conflicted identity, whether they are from Haifa, Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Azza refugee camp.
These potent [personal] stories give way to images, that while at times unexplained, add up over time, as though an initial moment of confusion becomes a prophesy.
During her moment at the microphone, Khulood Basle Tanous offers a moment of particular lyric beauty as she recites the poem, “Never Fall in Love with a Refugee.” The often used perception of political drama holding the intersection of the personal and political simultaneously certainly applies, but the form and structure of the play transcends the often used developmental technique of using personal stories as the basis for a play’s dramaturgy. These potent stories give way to images, that while at times unexplained, add up over time, as though an initial moment of confusion becomes a prophesy. Bashar Murkus, Ala Hlehel, and this ensemble bring together the series of forces at work on individual and collective identity that collide organically often producing what Murkus calls, “trap doors” for the audience to fall through and absorb. It is original, and utterly authentic.
At the end, “Ziyad” is again swimming as he was taught by Raeda, treading water. He says:
I am Ziyad. I am swimming in the sea and the water reaches my neck. It’s not that cold. I can see the sky… in the distance. I’m very patient.
HUSAM: (Dressed in cactus jacket.) Give me a hug.
ZIYAD: I love my country. I love our house and my family. I have a lot of dreams for the future, I want a house of my own, that I’ll have the key to.
HUSAM: Give me a hug.
ZIYAD: I want to have a little family I really love, with a boy and two girls, maybe.
Or two boys and a girl. Either way, I want a girl. I need to decide. I’d love to have a daughter who looked like me.
HUSAM: Give me a hug.
ZIYAD: And if one day there’s no milk in the house. I’ll go out to buy some from the shop nearby. Milk for when we sit down together as a family for breakfast, I’d like that. I’d like to study something that I’d enjoy doing as a job later on, but what exactly I need to decide. I don’t like waiting a long time. And I like having real friends beside me. Friends who will always be nearby who will call me and suggest we meet up in the town square….
…I’d like the sofas in my house to be brown maybe or green. I need to decide. And lots of things.
I’m a bit scared of death.
And if I die I want to turn into a boat.
I need to decide.
So ends this provocative and layered evening with the image of a man floating in the sea, imagining his life but simultaneously projecting a state of mind, as though we are all trying not to drown. While at multiple moments we are offered content— that is narratives of real experiences, at others the play moves into another world—a world of metaphor, image, and loss.
The production design gives the space a theatrical and yet poetic shape. In what seems a close collaboration between Majdala Khoury and Firas Tarabashi, the space is defined with series of light bulbs into a square. A group of metal tables are used for both function and to affect an image. Vertical strip lights transform the space into a kind of expressionist game show. Physical theatre mixes with direct narrative; and confusion mixed with the concrete reality of numbers written on the blank black back wall like a huge blackboard. The stage moves from a formal shape into a visual and dramatic state of chaos, and a man floating at sea.
Directed by Bashar Murkus, and developed with the Al Khashabi Ensemble from Haifa. Ala Hielel, Dramaturg. A co-production with El Hakawati, the National Theatre of Palestine. Amer Khalil, Artistic Director. Actors include: Raeda Ghazaleh, Shaden Kanboura, Khulood Basel Tannous, Husam Al-Azza, Henry Andrawes. Scenography by Majdala Khoury, Lighting by Firas Tarabashi, production management, Laura Hawa.