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Forum Theatre in Palestine

With Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about Forum Theatre in Ramallah, Palestine at ASHTAR Theatre with Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem. We’re so excited to have them both here. But before we jump into questions for them, we want to give a brief intro into Forum Theatre.

Marina: Yes, so Forum Theatre is a type of theatre created by Augusto Boal, who was a very influential Brazilian theatre practitioner. It falls under the umbrella term of Theatre of the Oppressed, also known as TO. Boal’s techniques involve using theatre as a means of promoting social and political change. In the Theatre of the Oppressed, the audience becomes active such that, as “spect-actors”—see what they did, they combined with the words “spectators” and “actors”—“spect-actors.” Great. So in their becoming of spect-actors, they explore, show, analyze, and transform the reality in which they are living.

Unlike usual spectators, and even different from usual actors, they have the power to stop and change the performance. As part of Theatre of the Oppressed, the issues that are dealt with in Forum Theatre are often related to areas of social justice with aims to explore solutions to oppression and anything else that is featured in the performance.

So I’m going to give you a really quotidian, everyday example. Imagine a Forum Theatre piece at the grocery store. So there are three actors, one who is ringing up the items, one who is purchasing items, and the person behind them in line. The person purchasing items starts to give the employee a hard time about how slowly she’s moving, questioning the price of the items, saying things that might be considered microaggressions. She is creating a scene and she’s making the employee upset and uncomfortable for just doing her job.

At that point, the facilitator stops the play. This facilitator is sometimes called the Joker because they are neutral and like a wildcard. They are to hold an impartial view of all of the interventions that follow. The facilitator then asks a spect-actor to come into the scene. Here, the audience member, now the spect-actor, can tag in as one of those three characters, or they can become an additional character. So in this instance, they might choose to be a store manager, another employee, an additional shopper in line… The world’s their oyster. Then the facilitator starts the scene again, this time with the spect-actor inside the scene. They play it out and improvise until the problem of the scene is solved or until a new problem arises from that situation.

So after the intervention has happened, the facilitator asks the audience to evaluate what has happened. They also facilitate the interventions that the spect-actor does to make sure that there are plausible interactions. So anything that’s implausible is to be avoided. So for instance, if a spect-actor says, “Poof, suddenly you’re nice,” or “Suddenly a tsunami comes and washes everyone away,” the Joker or facilitator has to intervene or redirect the scene. You can imagine that this is a great way to help figure out how to solve problems that might be happening because sometimes in a situation that’s arising like at a grocery store, we don’t have actions at the ready to do. But doing something like this with people of all ages can help people feel ready for these situations.

I have an Augusto Boal quote from the book Theatre of the Oppressed here that I think is really helpful,

Maybe the theatre itself is not revolutionary. But these theatrical forms are without a doubt a rehearsal of revolution. The truth of the matter is that the spectator-actor practices in a real act even though he does it in a fictional manner. While he rehearses throwing a bomb on stage, he is concretely rehearsing the way a bomb is thrown. Acting out his attempt to organize a strike, he’s concretely organizing a strike. Within its fictional limits, the experience is a concrete one.

Nabra: Another quote that I love from that book is, “I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theatre is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.” That really captures what Forum Theatre and all Theatre of the Oppressed does and why I love this practice.

We’ll be talking about Forum Theatre in Palestine through ASHTAR Theatre. But I did want to mention that Boal did Forum Theatre with Israelis and Palestinians while he was alive. I saw a video of a short play that he did over there about a border crossing in which a Palestinian person wants to bring his sick father across the border to get better medical treatment, and the Israeli military is not allowing them to cross.

So the audience members, who were a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, were invited to switch out for one of the actors, becoming a spect-actor. Some chose to be the person bringing his father across, some the father himself, etc. So Forum Theatre is a really great way to approach very controversial topics because it almost literally has people step into other’s shoes and see a complex situation from many perspectives. A solution that you think might be simple may not and usually does not play out in the way you expect it to in real life with real people. So, it always allows people to explore a situation in all of its complexity and in, really, the messiness of being humans interacting with each other.

Another quote from Boal—he’s just so brilliant—that captures the spirit… He says, “Often a person is very revolutionary when in a public forum; he envisages and advocates revolutionary and heroic acts. On the other hand, he often realizes that things are not so easy when he himself has to practice what he suggests.” I’ve done many Forum Theatre workshops recently in Seattle as a training about microaggressions for a local org, based on real scenarios that happened in their organization in the past. So that’s another kind of way that Forum Theatre can be a training tool and can examine— whether it’s really controversial topics like the Israeli-Palestinian relations or something really everyday in the United States, like microaggressions that are happening within a group of people.

Marina: This is all actually how I became a fan of ASHTAR Theatre. I was in Ramallah and went with them as they toured one of their Forum Theatre shows to local YMCAs and other venues. It was really exciting to see young children, who were the target audience for most of these, see ways they could intervene in situations to progress moments forward and to think critically in difficult situations. So now, a little more about Iman and Edward and their theatre in Ramallah, Palestine: ASHTAR Theatre.

We are so glad to have with us today Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem. About Iman: she is an actor, director, and dramaturg. Iman has an extensive record on stage, on screen, and behind the scenes. She was a member of the world-renowned El-Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem in the 1980s. In 1991, Iman co-founded ASHTAR Theatre Productions and Training in Jerusalem and has been instrumental in directing and devising several productions for the company. An internationally recognized theatre trainer who specializes in the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, Iman is also an initiator of the project 100 Artists for Palestine in 2003.

In 2010, Iman developed The Gaza Mono-Logues, a documentary theatre performance based on the personal stories of a group of children from Gaza. The monologues were distributed to various partners around the globe in October 2010 and were performed by 1500 youth in more than 50 cities in 36 countries. Aoun produced and performed at ASHTAR Theatre’s Richard II, the Tour du Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as part of the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012. She was also the initiator of the international call The Syrian Monologues based on the stories of Syrian refugees in 2015–16. She has been coordinating the One Billion Rising in Palestine from 2014–16, a global call to end violence against women and girls initiated by V-Day. She continues to lead ASHTAR Theatre and work regularly in difficult social and political contexts. She is a board member of the Palestinian Performing Arts Network and other Palestinian art organizations.

Nabra: A bit about Edward Muallem. He holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre studies and is one of the founders of El-Hakawati Theatre in 1977. In 1991, he co-founded ASHTAR Theatre with Iman where he is currently the general director as well as an actor, director, and drama trainer. Since 1994, he leads drama workshops with children and youth. Since 2004, he leads several workshops in the Forum Theatre technique locally and regionally and is the director of the Biennial International Theatre of the Oppressed Festival organized by ASHTAR Theatre. It’s so lovely to have you both.

A man sits on his knees on the ground facing a woman who also is sitting on her knees. They are making eye contact. Between them is a box and behind them are items strew on the floor.

Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun perform in Oranges and Stones. Idea & Direction: Mojisola Adebayo. Music by: Rami Washaha. Technician: Mohammad Ali. Supported by: Sida - Sweden, through PPAN.

Iman Aoun: Thank you. We’re very excited as well. Thank you for having us.

Marina: Of course. So your bios tell us a little bit about how you got your start in theatre. But if you had to pick moments that really sort of propelled you forward in theatre, how would you identify those?

Edward Muallem: Okay, so in 1977, I was studying at the Hebrew University in the theatre department. I was studying theatre and geography. I’ve made some friends from the Galilee also studying Western theatre. That year, we met with a director from Jerusalem named Francois Abu Salem. He asked us to work with him and to make a play. We agreed to work with him. It was basically a first play called In the Name of the Father, the Mother and the Son. He said that we must call us something because we have made a play. We called our theatre Hakawati. This was the beginning of the company in 1977.

Since then, we started to work people from Galilee and from Jerusalem. We had the big theatre perform locally. In 1980, we had the first international tour, as pertaining to the company in Europe. This tour made us really a big success. As a group, we started to do work on a daily basis. We became officially a theatre company because we had lots of people who were inviting us to perform in Europe. Also we had some income from our tours in Europe. So we already had, like, something because we started as amateurs and now became like a theatre company with salaries, and we work full-time with a company. In ’84, we started— we initiated the theatre El-Hakawati in Jerusalem, the first theatre building, which we renovated as a company, as the group ourself. We were six members. It was the first theatre company, theatre building, in Palestine, in Jerusalem, fully equipped. Iman, we meet her at that time in ’84.

Iman: So yes, I joined the El-Hakawati Company in ’84. I was still studying at university at that time, doing my BA in social studies, psychology, and social work. When I met them, I just fell in love with the whole company, with the approach with the critical ideas that they present, and the style of work. Because personally, I started to do also amateur work before that when I was still at school. But then for me, this was like my first theatre school, real theatre school. I learned so much from El-Hakawati, from Francois and from all the group members. Hakawati, in itself, the group was really the beginning of a turning point in the arena of theatremaking in Palestine because it was the establishment of a theatre building and company. At that time, everyone else who really followed the footsteps of the professional performances, professional establishment, followed the footsteps of Hakawati Company.

Edward: Yeah. In ’80, I was still at the university and we were touring in Europe. I was asking my teacher at the university to take off the course, leave like three months. They were telling me, “Just go because what you are doing more important than what you are studying here at the university.” So they were really very helpful for us. They were giving us something to do at home, like work at home, and that’s it. So they really liked what we were doing at that time.

Iman: Well, Hakawati was really a group that had its own style, its own perception of how theatre should be performed. It was also an avant-garde theatre company because Francois had been coming back from Strasbourg where he studied. He used to work with Ariane Mnouchkine. Then when he came back, he had all these new techniques that he had introduced into Palestine, Palestinian theatre. Everything that had to do with improvisations, with being extravagant on stage and really presenting sociopolitical issues. Yeah. So it was really a trademark of what he had wrote onto the Palestinian stage.

Edward: Also, very visual, this is the most important, very visual.

Nabra: That sounds amazing. I was just going to ask you: Hakawati is still an established theatre company, is that true?

Iman: No. Unfortunately not. It is a building, the building that company had created, it’s still there, it still functions with the name. But it’s also the National Theater/El-Hakawati. Just to give resonance of what the company was able to do. But after Hakawati, when Hakawati dispersed into many different companies, every two persons in that company—we were about eight—had established a new company, a new—

Edward: Organization, organization.

Iman: —organization, a new vision. Edward and myself, we have chosen to really go into the education part of training young people, youth and adolescents, from age of fourteen to twenty-four. We wanted really to establish—and we did establish in the end—the first theatre school in Palestine. Because up until that moment, training was haphazard. People would not really follow a curriculum to study theatre. But what we did is a three-years curriculum, training the young people and giving them the chance to further their studies, and also preparing them to enter international theatre schools, if they want to proceed in this domain.

Edward: We didn’t have theatre training programs before ASHTAR. When we started ASHTAR, the aim was to start a theatre training program, which we did not have. That’s why we said we want to do something which is a new for the Palestinian youth.

Iman: It was also the time after the first intifada, where the young people were going out of school or there were curfews and closures for months and sometimes for a year or two. So we wanted really when the students started to go back to—

Edward: To school.

Iman: —to normal life, let’s say, in ’91, we wanted to give them a platform to express themselves. We wanted them to really find out possibilities, new possibilities, of how to express their feelings, their angers, their ambitions, their horizons and to cultivate their creativity because they lost it for a long time. That’s right.

Edward: It was not easy. At that time we were under occupation, and we are still. But the Israeli governor, this was before the Palestinian schools in the West Bank—

Iman: Education system.

Edward: The education system.

Iman: Yeah.

Edward: —So we could not go to the governmental schools. We have to go only to private schools in Ramallah and in Jerusalem. It was not easy also to work with boys and girls both during the intifada. So we had to work a lot with the feminists to convince them that it’s important that we have boys and girls, and that we have this program for them during the intifada.

Iman: What is really amazing in the bough of development of the social aspect of Palestinian society is that when we started our project, when we established ASHTAR Theatre in back in‘91, the society was a little bit suspicious of the arts in general. They didn’t know where it would lead these young people, how important it might be for them. They didn’t understand the meaning of self-expression even.

So we worked very consistent and hard to a point where everybody started to want to have drama in their school or in the classroom or at university, in the different organizations, etc. The problem now is that the curve is going down again. We are facing regression again in the society unfortunately, because what is happening is that the society, with all the political walls, if you want, that are built in front of any possibility of any solution on the ground. As well as the fact that there’s health problems. There are economic problems, there is also the social and the religious fanaticism that is growing.

So people are going backwards somehow, going into protecting themselves and closing up themselves. So the fact that now it is even, again, difficult to really bring boys and girls together because we have... For decades, we passed that point. But then now we’re going back as if to the first square.

Edward: Yeah.

Nabra: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing all of that. I mean, what a journey and especially, I mean, that idea that you’re going back to the beginning is very unfortunate to hear. But it also, it sounds you have those tools to bring you back to those moments when there was real transformation. I think Forum Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, is just such an incredible practice to make voices heard that don’t feel heard and really work towards a really specific social change. So, can you talk to us about how you started doing Forum Theatre and started doing Theatre of the Oppressed in Palestine and how ASHTAR Theatre kind of came to be out of that?

Iman: Yes. So after the third phase of our existence back in ’91 to ’97, even to ’95, we were really training young people inside schools and universities; we were an outreach program. In ’95, we took a space in Ramallah. We created our home, the ASHTAR Theatre. Whereby the students started to come to us instead of us going there. But always because of the political turbulences and the occupation that we live under and the imposing of checkpoints that kept from ’93 until ’97 growing in number and in places, up until they reach 740 checkpoints in the small area of the West Bank.

We have felt that we are losing our audiences. Because before, when we had our theatre, people would come from Jerusalem, would come from Jericho, or from Nablus, wherever they could come from. But then by the year, and with the imposing of these checkpoints, every governorate had been a sealed prison for the people. So people were not able to really move freely from one place to another. So we thought that we need a different program, an alternative program, whereby we would go to the people where they are instead of waiting for them to come to us.

At that time, we had some, let’s say, literature knowledge of Theatre of the Oppressed that I have known by doing my thesis on psychodrama. So I learned from psychodrama about Theatre of the Oppressed. Then we had also a collaboration with a Swiss company called Maralam Theater. Peter Rossler, who was the director working with us, he knew the technique, he had seen the technique. Because in Switzerland, they already have learned a little bit of the technique of Forum Theatre.

So together, we thought, okay, maybe this is the forum that we need. This is the layout, the way out of being excluded from our audience. So if we do plays that are talking about the people, to the people, for the people, and to engage them and to talk about them, so maybe that would be the way again into the excitement of the audience to come back to see theatre. That would be easier for us to take our place and go to them because Theatre of the Oppressed has this approach of being light and being profound, but easy to reach out wherever you are, with whoever you want to be with.

A woman dressed in white kneeling on the floor and cutting off the peel of an orange. She sits in front of one sunflower.

Iman Aoun in Oranges and Stones. Idea & Direction: Mojisola Adebayo. Music by: Rami Washaha. Technician: Mohammad Ali. Supported by: Sida - Sweden, through PPAN.

Edward: Yeah. When we thought to start, to make the first play, we really were afraid that people will not interact with us. But the director said, “I don’t agree with you.” He said, “I am a foreigner. But I see that your people are very warm. I’m sure that they will interact with you.” So we said, “Okay, we try our best production and we’ll see.” It was really big success, because everybody wants to go on stage. They want to talk, they want to solve the problem that we were dealing with. So that was a big success. We have many stories about interaction with the audience in the plays that we have done in the Forum Theatre.

Iman: Over the years.

Edward: Yeah, over the years.

Iman: Yes.

Edward: One of the stories, the first play that we did, we had a performance in summer camp in Tulkarm.

One of the students, a girl, she wanted to come on stage, and she wanted to replace the girl who was oppressed. She said, “I want to come to the stage.” She went fast to the kitchen and she came with a knife. She wanted to kill the oppressor. The Joker stopped her, he said “Stop. You are not allowed to use any accessory from outside of the stage.” Then we have to make a rule in our plays. One of the rules that you are not allowed to use an accessory from out of the stage and no violence on the stage. So this was one of the issues to solve that we had at that time, at that year.

Iman: Yes.

Edward: The second year for instance we have our trade inside the family. We had a girl who came on stage. I was the oppressor at that time. She wanted to face me to talk with me and she started to cry. And she could not say anything because this girl, she faced rape inside the family. It was her story obviously. She was only crying, she came, she was looking at me and then crying, only crying.

Iman: I mean, let’s say other positive encounters with the audience as well. Once, we were performing a play about early marriage. One of the women— And we were performing in one of the refugee camps. So a woman that is almost a grandmother, she stood up and she said, “Well, thank you so much for sharing the story. You’re telling the story of my mother. You’re telling the story of me, my daughter, and even now my granddaughter who is going to be forced into marriage, but I will not allow it on my dead body. I learned a lesson today. Thank you for opening up my eyes.” So that’s also an important factor. Everybody was really sobbing in the audience, on stage, everybody was clapping to her. So I hope that she was able to really face that situation of her daughter. Yeah.

Edward: She wanted to pass a message to them.

Iman: That’s right.

Edward: She wanted to tell that my daughter will not marry.

Iman: My granddaughter.

Edward: My granddaughter. Yes. She was thirteen years old.

Iman: Yeah. It’s also important to know that sometimes, years later, you encounter people like in the streets or they come to the theatre to see something else. Then they say, “Well, I mean, Theatre of the Oppressed was one of the best things that happened to us in life, the fact that we learned with you the technique, or the fact that we have seen this play, and it really affected my decision and so and so.” So there’s always these flying sentences that we keep hearing from the students or audience members. We do know that, I mean, it’s a strong tool, thanks to Boal and his company, and everybody that really developed this technique. That it’s a jewel that we all cherish and share in the theatre world. Because I mean, it is the small and big miracle that happens on stage, a small miracle because it is very individualistic sometimes. It’s a big miracle because it really can move groups and ideas and social movements.

Edward: I am working now with Jerusalem here. I’m training them on the Theater of Oppressed. For two months, I was teaching them acting. Tomorrow is the first day where they will be introduced to Theatre of the Oppressed. I’m sure it would be really something special. I’m sure, yeah.

Nabra: Yes, I’m sure. Are you doing that all virtually right now? The training with the people you’re working with?

Iman: No. He’s training in person.

Edward: Yeah. The visuals with other organization. They asked me to train a group—

Iman: Face to face, yeah.

Edward: —face to face, yes, not online. Once a week I train the group. They will become a trainer at school and drama clubs, and they want training to use the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Iman: Since COVID, I’ve been training online Theatre of the Oppressed, with different groups from the US. Really. Yeah.

Marina: Yeah, that’s amazing. Yeah. Well, I love your articulation too, of the small and the big miracle and you’re still finding ways to make these miracles happen even with COVID or otherwise. I know that COVID is not the only challenge that you’ve faced in your work. Can you speak to any of the other challenges or things that you’ve had to overcome to continue to make work? Especially because you’ve been making work throughout so many different political changes, too.

Iman: I mean, one of the great, great changes or challenges that we are facing at the moment is the grantmaking and support, international support. As you know, being under occupation, being an emerging country that doesn’t really have means to live on, we don’t trade much. We don’t really have anything to create or to establish our strong economy. So that’s why we live on international grants and international grants really support everything, almost from the government till the smallest group in Palestine. Now, the cultural scene and human rights scene, and all the civil society organizations were, for years, supported by Europe, big deal. When I say Europe, the EU and also the different—

Edward: NGO solutions.

Iman: And to that—

Edward: Donors, donors.

Iman: —donors. Governments.

Edward: And private donors.

Iman: And private donors and church, everything else. So the EU lately, and it started late 2019, they impose—

Edward: Like US, like US.

Iman: Yes, but they imposed the clause on their contract that says that whoever would take the money cannot really support any political group. Of course, no one does. That’s obvious. But they said, “And you have to vet, you have to know who your people are and who your beneficiaries are, and you have to make a vetting on them.”

This is really crazy because when we serve our community, and the young people, and schools and all of that, we cannot really go and do that, A. B, then they said, all the Palestinian parties are terrorists, according to the US terrorist list. Not according to the UN list, but according to the US terror—

Edward: To the USA.

Iman: —the USA. So this means that all our struggle, all our political frictions and all our resilience had been put on the line, on the verge of breaking down. They are asking the civil society to condemn itself.

Edward: Disregulate.

Iman: And it’s a struggle. Absolutely. So that’s why it’s a big challenge at the moment. We refuse to take the money from the EU or any—

Edward: European government.

Iman: —European government that really imposes that clause or that condition on us. Of course, the US had imposed that from early 2000, I mean, after 9/11 I think. So this is the situation, the support is draining. The governmental support—

Edward: Almost zero.

Iman: —yes, almost nonexistent. On top of that, they are imposing new laws that would put censorship. Now, this is really, really very, very new. This is two, three days ago, they started to impose censorship on civil society and no freedom of expression. So it’s really hard. We have the occupation with all that it’s really doing and closing all possibilities on us and embarking us and erecting also supports not only the concrete walls, but social, psychological, economic, political, whatever, just name it. Then you have—

Edward: The Palestinian government.

Iman: —the Palestinian government and the international government. So we have to go underground in order to be able to work. That’s what is left to us.

Edward: Yeah. That’s the situation today.

A man on the left bending down to pick things off a stool and a woman on the right standing up straight and looking down at him.

Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun in Oranges and Stones. Idea & Direction: Mojisola Adebayo. Music by: Rami Washaha. Technician: Mohammad Ali. Supported by: Sida - Sweden, through PPAN.

Nabra: It’s ironic how it’s true that the more challenging theatre becomes to create, the more important it becomes, which is ironic, but it seems to be very true. I mean, knowing that you’re training other young people in Theatre of the Oppressed right now is crucial. I mean, that underground movement, I think, in the face of all these challenges becomes more and more important to continue. So thank you for continuing that work despite everything that you just shared.

I know that one of the other products that y’all worked on, that we talked about actually in a different episode about verbatim theatre, is The Gaza Mono-Logues. I know that approached a lot of the social and political situations that were at the forefront of your mind at that time. Can you talk to us more about The Gaza Mono-Logues as well, and any other projects that you’re working on that integrate verbatim theatre as well?

Edward: It’s your project. It’s your project

Iman: It’s our project. It’s ASHTAR’s project. Anyway.

Edward: Here, I do nothing.

Iman: Okay. Gaza Mono-Logues is really like an answer to the vicious war that happened on Gaza in 2008, 2009, for twenty-two days on the civilians. The raiding from the sky, raiding from the ground, killing the people, destroying the infrastructure of the society in Gaza, and tightening up the prison that was already there. So our history with the Gaza group of ASHTAR Theatre goes way back into ’92 when we started to train in Gaza. Then both of us, we were not able to enter Gaza anymore in 2000 because of the siege and because of the procedures of the wall and the closure of the strip.

So other colleagues of us continuing the training inside. Then we continued with our graduates who became graduates of theatre inside Gaza to continue our projects with young people to train them and to reach out to different community groups. So, in 2009, I was in close contact with my colleague, Ali Abu Yasine, who’s on the ground there, not knowing really what to make. My idea came, or an idea came to my mind, that maybe we should really go back to the young generation and try to hear from them what is happening. Even the UN didn’t really take the report into consideration after the massacres and the attack.

So I thought maybe the voices of young people who might be more heard than the politicians or the reporters. So that was the initial initiative and aim or role is to give a platform, to give a voice for those young people. Besides all of that, wherever there is a war, whenever there is a war, the individuals become shallowly. They become nonexistent, they become casualty of numbers and injuries. So we stop hearing about who they are, their dreams, their ambitions, their livelihoods. So theatre, if it’s about anything, it’s about that. It’s about our life, and our love, and our emotions, and our aspirations.

So the idea was to give them theatre, to give them the tool to speak up. Through that tool, they were really able, with the training and the support, both from my side and from Ali, who was training them on the ground and directing, later on, their performance, and the psychologist who was also onboard with them. They were able to do a fantastic job in telling their life story before the war, during and after the war. So those different, very sincere stories of these young people without censorship, without cutting, without redirecting. They were able to say what they wanted to say. They were able to reach out. We were able to connect many people around the world who believed in this cause and in this dream.

Apart and beside this idea, we also wanted to say that young people, if they don’t have a voice now, they would never have it. Youth from around the world, if they don’t learn about other youth and young people of their age, and their challenges, their suffering, their ambitions, they would never know. So youth should really learn how to be in the shoes of others because as I always say, youth of today are leaders of tomorrow.

So I wanted better leaders for this tomorrow. But it seems that the tomorrow always brings us more challenges that we do not really dream of. But I could say, with strong faith and strong, also, love to all the young people who really were engaged into this project that they’ve learned a lot. We still hear from them. They have sent us messages, or some of them have sent messages this year, because it’s ten years for The Gaza Mono-Logues. Their messages always have gratitude and hope and solidarity and wish for a better life, which is what we all need.

Marina: Absolutely. Edward, you gave me a copy of The Gaza Mono-Logues when I was in Palestine. It’s so nice to see that it’s in print in the United States right now, other people can read this really moving piece that you worked on with these youth. So I know that you have two other books that I think you’ve put together recently, and I would love to hear about those. I also think you have a summer theatre festival, so sort of two questions I guess, about the new books that you’ve written and then also your theatre festival in the summer. I don’t remember if it’s geared just towards youth or not, but I love hearing you talk about your work. Also the the idea that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. So yeah.

Edward: Yeah. Well, during the COVID, we were sitting at home, we thought that we need to use our time. So I had this idea in my head since many years that I want to break some of El-Hakawati plays and make them in a book because all the history of Hakawati is scattered everywhere. If anyone wants to do any study, any research about the Hakawati, you have to meet with many people to bring the history of Hakawati. So I thought maybe it’s my duty to collect some of the work of Hakawati. In the time for Hakawati, we were doing that performance or rehearsals, we were recording all the rehearsals. My duty was to write down all the notes—o everything I had with me until now. So I collected four plays. I wrote the text of the plays, and I made them in a book. Then now they are published. So I give them for free to anyone who wants the book.

The second book is the Forum Theatre plays ASHTAR Theatre we made during the years, about thirty-three Forum Theatre plays. So I choose twenty-three plays from Palestine, that we did in Palestine with the company of ASHTAR and with our community groups, and another four plays that I did in Iraq. I trained in Iraq for three years. I made many plays with the three companies there. We put them also in our book, so we have a book of twenty-three plays of Forum Theatre. So this is about the two books. Now, with the group that I’m working, the next week, we will publish the manual for the training of Forum Theatre, so that they can have with it them. So that they can read it with their trainees. Yeah. Iman, you can talk, yes, about the youth festival.

Iman: Yeah. Well, the youth festival coming up in July 1 through the 7 will be our fifth edition. But since the festival had started back in 20—

Edward: —12.

Iman: —12, as a continuation of the success of The Gaza Mono-Logues. Also to keep the pace with the different groups and companies that we were in contact with. This is why we wanted to do an International Youth Festival and bring in those young people who really wanted to learn more about Palestine and who participated in The Gaza Mono-Logues, and it was really that. Then it continued to be one year after, every other year or every two years or every other year because in the year in between, we used to have Theatre of the Oppressed and International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed, bringing also companies from around the world to perform for our community. It also lasted for two weeks, sometimes three, sometimes four weeks, even. It was really an extensive season the first time we started and then—

Edward: It was five weeks. The first one.

Iman: Yeah, exactly. It was a more a season than it was a festival, and then it became a big festival later. So last year, we were supposed to have our fifth edition, but COVID came so we had to postpone. This year, we will have it in July, as I said. But it’s going to be a hybrid festival, whereby our local youth from different theatre companies will be performing live, face to face with the audience, but the internationals will be performing online. We will be showing the audience on the screen. So this is the festival.

Edward: With some workshops.

Iman: Absolutely. Every time this youth festival happens, it happens with continuous workshops from the first day till the last day where the young people will learn new techniques, they will share different approaches of theatre. This year, we will also have webinars about Black Lives Matter—Black Lives Matter and racism. The title of the festival is Artivism. So they will discuss also in a separate webinar about what it means, artivism, how young people could become artivists, so to do art, to do good art, an excellent art, but the art should be engaged with society.

Nabra: Yes. That’s my philosophy as well. I’m so excited about that. Yeah. Our last question is looking towards the future. Of course, your festival is in summer so that is propelling the future of theatre in Palestine. But we wanted to know big picture, what do you believe the future of theatre looks like in Palestine?

Edward: You wanted to say it.

Iman: Listen, I mean, as theatremakers, and as also Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners, we know that life is not always rosy. We know that challenges are always surmounting. They’re not really discerning. But sometimes we also face frustrations. But that doesn’t mean that we are stopping. It means that we have to take a deep breath, look deeper, look into new possibilities and look around us because we have learned and we know from long ago that to make real influence, we have to be collectively working together as not only theatremakers, but as culture makers, as artistic performers and artists from different approaches and different venues and different paths.

Edward: We say we have to think out of the box how we can continue. So we have to think of new ideas to make us continue and survive also.

Iman: Sometimes you don’t find the solution, but the solution comes to you from the weakest segments in society. They bring it on your table. So we’re keeping our antennas out, our ears and sensations alive, to really know how can we go about that new era, new challenge, and for a new change.

Marina: Yes. Wow. Well, thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to have you here with us today. We’re so grateful to hear about your work and to just get to see you and share this space with you for a little bit. So thank you so much.

Edward: Thank you also so much.

Iman: Thank you. Thank you, Marina. Thank you, Nabra. Really, I mean, it has been great to talk to you.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons. We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Marina: Yalla, bye.

Nabra: Yalla, bye!

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Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea (or, in Arabic, shay!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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