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The Future Is in Culture

A Conversation with Iman Aoun

Four years ago, I brought a delegation of young theatre artists from New York to the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival to perform an original show and participate in a cultural exchange with Palestinian theatre artists. For all of us, it was our first trip to Palestine. More importantly, this trip marked the beginning of an ongoing collaboration that has brought ASHTAR artists to New York to showcase their work and collaborate with local artists. In July, I returned to the 2022 ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival in Palestine as a documentarian to photograph and shoot a short film about the festival. Following the festival, I sat down with ASHTAR Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director, Iman Aoun.

Ash Marinaccio: I was so happy to see you and everyone at ASHTAR in person this year. It was a close call because, as you know, shortly before the festival I was dealing with COVID.

Iman Aoun: Oh yes, I remember.

Ash: COVID has made it challenging to plan live events and has made the theatre feel particularly insecure. How has the pandemic impacted you and your work at ASHTAR?

Iman: For a whole year, COVID was raging in Palestine. From March 2020 through March 2021, it was very hard. We had to stay inside most of the time. In the second year of the pandemic (2021), we went back to work and started making films instead of plays because it was still dangerous to bring everyone inside the theatre. So, ASHTAR made films and started to present them locally and internationally.

Ash: Where are these films? Are they available for the public to watch?

Iman: Well, we made three films: The Wonder School, A Long Story, and The Gaza Monologues 10 years: The Dream Continues. The first two are available on our YouTube Channel. Currently The Gaza Monologues 10 Years: The Dream Continues is being presented in film festivals across the world, so it’s not available on the public channel yet.

The pandemic showed how effective virtual theatre could be in creating and reaching new communities. We did the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival’s fifth edition hybrid, which was dynamic. It brought people together from areas of the world that we wouldn’t be allowed to have on the ground in Palestine, like Sri Lanka and Gaza. People who live in those areas are disconnected from us and can’t enter through the border, so it was lovely to have people connect internationally in that way.

ASHTAR also got to be part of international projects that we wouldn’t have been able to take part in otherwise. Virtual theatre honestly undid borders and opened new dimensions of collaborations, and that is important. That is something we will continue to foster. We want more collaborations. We want people to visit us. We want artists to come to Palestine and see for themselves what is happening. No matter what people see in the news, they will never understand the issue unless they are here.

Five actors posing in a workspace.

Students and participants in the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival by collectively devising a movement piece in a workshop led by Peter Hussey, artistic director of Ireland’s Crooked House Theatre. Photo by Ash Marinaccio.

Ash: I agree with you. Speaking of, one of ASHTAR’s signature events is the International Youth Theatre Festival. This year’s festival closed on July 10. This was the sixth iteration of the biannual festival, which brought youth theatre delegations from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Romania, and the United States. Can you share your process and pedagogy for ASHTAR’s youth work?

Iman: ASHTAR does four years of training for young people. We follow a curriculum that is based on practice. They start with forming a unity between young people who come as novices and are fresh. They learn what it means to be onstage. They learn how to use their voice. They learn how to use their body and to create a connection with the space and each other. During their first year, they do a small production from a local or international fable. In their second year, they dive into more improvisations, stage business, and action. They also start to analyze text and do a bigger production based on Greek mythology.

In their third year, they learn how to develop and produce a major production. They learn what creative staff is needed behind the scenes and what is expected of them as actors in terms of rehearsal and creative development process. They take either Shakespeare or another well-known writer and start to understand the characters, intentions, and relationships. Their fourth and final year, they learn about social theatre—mainly Theatre of the Oppressed and how it functions.

Our main goal is to give the young people in our community a platform where they discover their own voice and learn about themselves before they learn about life. Through theatre, they are able to better understand life and social situations. They start to form opinions about life, situations, their country, their personal world, and being citizens. I always say we do not just create theatremakers, we create professional citizens.

We graduate a new group each year, and this year we have graduated our eighteenth class. That gives us pride because we know we are creating a group of people who are able to criticize, see things from a new point of view, and be more engaged in the social life of their society. And that in itself is an essential factor in our education.

An actor sewing a colorful piece together.

Participant Rama Al Ashqar sews a large puppet for the final street performance. Photo by Ash Marinaccio.

Ash: What is your proudest moment from this year’s festival?

Iman: One thing that makes me proud is the fact that we were able to maintain lots of partners over the years—both internationally and with the locals. We always have the same participants coming back and new participants joining us. We reached over a hundred youth participants in Palestine this year. We had fourteen performances—three of which we were able to run consecutively—and had an important conference for the first time. Additionally, we organized a half-day conference with Palestinian and international theatre artists. The conference gave a platform for new and different artists to talk about their work.

Ash: The conference was a new component of the festival. It was necessary and informative to hear Palestinian theatremakers and artists discuss their own history and work in Arabic with English translations for the international participants.

Iman: Yes. That was one of the purposes of the event. The title of the conference was “Freedom of Expression and the Role of Art.” At this moment, we are getting really closed-minded in terms of policies and actions, and it’s affecting the rights of different segments of societies to express themselves freely and openly. So, an essential aspect of this conference is to really give space to these differences and to give space for thinking outside of the box; questioning and criticizing the mainstream; and pinpointing the fact that if we don’t take action, we will be losing our integrity and our success over the years—especially in the realm of art.

Ash: Something I noticed at the conference, which is very different from other conferences I’ve attended at universities in the United States and otherwise, was that people were coming in off the street, listening, engaging, and going on their way. It was very much a public forum, and ASHTAR created an environment where people felt welcomed to come in and engage. There was nothing pretentious about it. ASHTAR created an intellectual space where all members of the public were welcome.

Iman: The conference was necessary for the local community because people don’t know their history and aren’t aware of the history of Palestinian theatre. It was well-received—and at times, it was quite intense. Participants were very interested in many of the presentations. Many were new as well. The last panel discussed copyright for artists, playwrights, and creators. This had never been discussed publicly before in Palestine. We are navigating some new terrain with these discussions, and sometimes, it can be seen as threatening.

Ash: We experienced that this year when the final street parade of the festival was violently shut down by a group of angry youth believing it to be a Pride parade because of the large, colored banners.

Iman: It was devastating. Palestinian artists and culture makers have witnessed vicious attacks aimed at limiting and silencing the role of art in society. After all these years of work with the community, it was devastating that some of the community members who have never seen theatre before would brutally attack our work. That hurt us.

A man in a yellow shirt stares into the camera.

Conference participants debate and discuss critical issues pertaining to Palestinian theatre.

Ash: The attack happened on the last afternoon of the festival. Many people left with a sense of unease for the future of the festival and, most importantly, the safety of ASHTAR artists and Palestinian theatremakers.

Iman: Since then, we have had two public apologies—one of which was from the people who had committed the attack. They came to the theatre with their superiors. This apology was streamed live on ASHTAR’s Facebook page. They are young people who will end up in the army or police force one day and they are generally people who come from low-income areas and didn’t have access to finishing school. There is frustration and anger towards cultural organizations from some people who think the ideas we promote have nothing to do with traditions or Islamic behaviors. They misunderstand the role of theatre organizations and think they are there to promote international agendas. We follow our own agenda, and we have our own point of view and vision. We invite people to join that.

The second apology came from the governor of Ramallah because the police were not doing their job correctly.

Ash: What do you want theatremakers outside of Palestine to know about Palestinian theatre?

Iman: Theatre in Palestine is alive and vivid. It is one of the art forms that’s been active since the seventies. There’s always a new company that’s emerging and being created. Young people are very interested in theatre. We are facing lots of challenges, but we have determination. We have a strong belief in what we do.

We always say theatre is a virus, and you cannot cure yourself from it. As with all viruses, sometimes it makes you tired and sick because you need medication, and in the case of theatre, the medication in the form of support is not there. You need support, and the support is not there.

But here we are. We continue, and we keep creating more and more, trying to create bridges with the world. We want people to know that we are still going on despite all the difficulties. The difficulties are surmounting from the political, social, and economic point of view. We are facing a sort of pandora’s box: we’re trying to fit inside the box, and they are trying to close the box on us.

Palestinian theatre is about storytelling and being alive and continuing living, you know?

Ash: Absolutely.

A man in a parade looking up at the sky.

Rami Hassan from the Mandala Theatre, a youth company based in the United Kingdom, participates in ASHTAR Theatre’s final street parade in Ramallah. Photo by Ash Marinaccio.

Iman: You fight the forgery of your history by telling your own story and owning your own narrative because part of the fight with the colonials and the occupation is about whose story is the “right” one. So theatre and art, in general, are vital means to reach out to people because it is closer to the heart than just getting information into the minds of the people.

On the other hand, we also want to tell the world that art in Palestine and culture in Palestine is the best and most important thing that people can support because, through art, we can preserve our national identity and keep the spirit and hope of our nation alive. These things are under attack from the Israeli occupation but also from the despair inside the community, which takes on different shapes.

Ash: In the United States, there is a lot of talk and work being done to decolonize the theatre. How do you think international collaborations can be part of decolonizing efforts without perpetuating problematic power dynamics?

Iman: When you listen to Native people and give people who are more oppressed a voice, then that helps the decolonization of the relationship. Acknowledging power dynamics sends a strong message about decolonizing. In our case, artists are coming to Palestine to see us, work with us, and honor our struggle and freedom. This is meaningful to us. People from across the world are coming to Palestine and our festival already knowing of our political struggle. That sends a strong message of solidarity.

The future is in culture. The future is in giving space to youth. Palestine is a young country with many young people. We need to listen to them. We need to give them a way to express themselves and create connections. We want to connect our youth with international youth so that the next generation will be more understanding of human rights.

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