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Theatre as Advocacy/Palestinian Theatre

With Ahmed Masoud and Hanna Eady

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 analyses contemporary and historical Middle Eastern North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: 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 a 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: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

In today’s episode, we talk with two Palestinian writers and theatremakers about using the theatre as a tool for political and community advocacy efforts. From the stage to the streets, theatre can illuminate under heard narratives, reveal different perspectives on political events, and humanize the struggles of groups. There is a long history of theatre as a tool for advocacy in the Palestinian community in the U.S. and abroad. In this episode, we talk to Ahmed Masoud and Hanna Eady who have been using the art form as a way to bring awareness to the conflict in Palestine, give audiences concrete tools for change, and provide direct relief to Palestinians internationally.

Nabra: So, let’s introduce our guests. Hanna Eady is a Palestinian American theatre artist. He founded the first theatre in his native village in Buqu’ya where he wrote his first play Art and Politics in 1976. He worked in Haifa’s Al Nahidd Theater and Hagefin Theater as an actor in leading roles. He returned to his village to direct The Road by Palestinian poet Hussein Muhanna about the 1987 Palestinian Intifada. Hanna has [an] MFA from the University of Washington School of Drama and Directing and a BFA in Theatre from the University of Wisconsin. He also has a BA in Social Work and Psychology from the University of Haifa. He is the founder of New Image Theater in Seattle, Washington, writing and directing world premieres, such as Abraham’s Land, The Land of Milk and Hummus, and Bosnia-Moya, and other plays like Iranian Nights, Macbeth, and Seeing Double with the S.F. Mime Troupe. In 1993, he returned home to create a docudrama about the internal Palestinian refugees in Israel and co-created Sahmatah, Memory of Stones with playwright Edward Mast.

It showed in U.S., Europe, and Israel/Palestine for over 18 years. As an actor, he played Ibrahim in the U.S. and Hebrew productions of The Admission by Motti Lerner. He co-wrote The Return with Edward Mast directed by Sinai Peterson that premiered at Al-Midan Theater in Haifa and then at Mosaic Theater in Washington, D.C. He wrote and directed several plays for Alhaneen Theatre in Nazareth, such as Al-Am Matta, Love Tunnel, Hajjar El-Arab, and Sahmatah, [and] Under the Pine Trees. In Seattle, with all its members, including myself, he started Dunya Productions, premiering Flood with his daughter, Jenna Eady, Letters From Palestine in the Time of COVID, and Loved Ones, Families of the Incarcerated. Dunya also did a virtual co-production of Ahmed Masoud’s The Shroud Maker with Medina Theater Collective in Chicago. Upcoming will be The Mulberry Tree in New York.

Marina: Ahmed Masoud is the author of the acclaimed novel Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda. Ahmed is a writer and director who grew up in Palestine and moved to the UK in 2002. In 2019, he worked with Maxine Peake on Obliterated, a theatrical experiment and artistic protest. Ahmed’s theatre and radio drama credits include Application 39, Camouflage, The Shroud Maker, Walaa (Loyalty), Escape from Gaza. Ahmed is the founder of Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre where he wrote and directed many productions with subsequent tours in the UK and Europe, including Unto the Breach, Between the Fleeting Worlds, Ila Haif, and Hassad. After finishing his PhD research, Ahmed published many journals and articles including a chapter in the Britain and the Muslim World: A Historical Perspective by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Most recently, Ahmed launched his new artistic initiative called PalArt Collective, and he has a new book coming out in May. For more information, check out his website.

Ahmed and Hanna, we are so excited to have you with us today. Thank you for joining us in our podcast space.

Hanna Eady: Thank you.

Ahmed Masoud: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Nabra: So, we want to jump right in. Today, we’re talking about really theatre’s advocacy, which is such a huge topic in Palestine and Palestinian theatre in the diaspora, all over the world. So, first to start out, which might be kind of a big question potentially: How did you both get started doing advocacy work?

Ahmed: I can jump in here if that’s okay, Hanna. So, I think doing advocacy work, I think for me, as a Palestinian who grew up in the Gaza Strip in the eighties and nineties, I don’t think I had a choice in terms of doing advocacy work. I think, by being there by default, I’m just an advocate of Palestinian existence in the first place. And that is something I think a lot of Palestinians in my situation also find themselves in is that our existence in itself is resistance… being there and being sort of an advocate to our tradition and culture and history, but also the kind of injustice that we face as well on a regular basis. But I think my sort of artistic advocacy work—because I don’t do political advocacy. I just write, and I’m a writer—I think started in London—really when I moved to London back in 2002 to complete my PhD in English Literature.

And I realized the level of—I’m sorry to say, but—ignorance amongst the kind of public here in the UK and in Europe in general where people just did not know about Palestine or the Middle East or the culture or the art. It was a difficult time because it was immediately after the war on Iraq. So, there was a lot of anti-Middle Eastern sentiments in Europe, and anti-Muslim sentiments as well. And anti-Christian, anti- everything from the Middle East, basically. So, I felt like I needed to explore that and sort of give something to the audience here where it makes them think a little bit. To see us differently through theatre, through art, through dance, through music. I wanted to include food as well, but I couldn’t cook at the time. I’m much better right now, but also food is now becoming a thing, really. Palestinian food and the Middle East, and you know...

But back then, what I’ve... what I chose as a medium for advocacy was actually dance and dabke dance. And I created a dance company, or a dance theatre company, called Al Zaytouna back in 2005 where we did brave and unique shows where we did dabke in a contemporary way. One of them was adapting Shakespeare’s Henry V [into] dabke, set in Palestine. So, you could see how crazy it was but really got a lot of attention.

Hanna: Yeah. I think I can divide my work into two phases in my life, once before I came to the US and in Palestine. And the difference between me and you, I guess, is that you were at the front, at the... in the middle of the battle. I grew up inside Israel with an Israeli citizenship. And we were raised to believe that we are going to be the bridge between the Israelis and the Jewish people and our other half of the Palestinian nation in the West Bank and then, the Arab world. So, we were [fools] to believe that peace is what the Israelis want. And soon after they opened the roadblocks between Arab villages because the whole country was declared a military zone, basically. If anybody wants to move from one place to another, we need to apply for a permit, just to move, just to go to work, just to go visit his family.

We... Right away we knew it’s going to be a fight. And I think I was at a young age when I realized that… when I wanted to do theatre work, everything, every script has to be sent to a censorship office in Jerusalem for these Israelis to actually go through it and black out whatever they want, or never send the script back, or change the title if the title has the word “Palestine” in it or anything like this. So, we realized that we... It’s going to be a fight. And I think that motivated me. It didn’t give me the gun to fight, but it gave me a tool to fight, which is theatre. And I realized it’s a very powerful medium because political theatre to me, it’s defined as... It doesn’t matter what you say, and what you want, and what you write. If the government comes in to close your theatre, you’re doing political theatre.

And that was so energizing to me and to the small group of kids. We were kids. I was fourteen when we did the first play, and the first play was Art and Politics, alfanu walsiyasa. And then, I moved to Haifa, which is a city, a bigger world than my small, tiny village up in the north. And over there, it was the same thing. The only theatre company that operated was Beit Ha’Gefen Beit Alkarma, supposedly an Arab-Jewish community center that has a theatre company funded by all these donations that come from Europe. And I... By my third year, I realized that the purpose of that center is just to continue to exist so these Israelis can just draw contributions from Europeans saying that “Look, we have Arabs with us. We treat them equally.”

They put on plays, but what kind of plays? That was the question. So, when I would be on stage and changing the script and putting back a line that they erased, I would get a warning. And after couple warnings, you get cut from your play. And then, of course, they warn me that you they’re going to fire me. And that’s when I said, “Okay, before you fire me, I’m resigning and I’m going to America.” And that’s when I left. And then a new phase in my life started when I realized that “Wow, I have to... I have a new audience and a new audience that knew nothing about Palestine.” I remember I would be asked at the theatre department at the University of Wisconsin, which was my second bachelor’s, “Where are you from?” and I would say “Palestine,” and they would confuse it with Pakistan and would confuse it...

At the time, I think Anwar Sadat was famous for doing the Camp David Accord. And they would say, “Oh, Egypt!” I said, “No, it’s not Egypt. It’s Palestine.” “Oh, Israel.” “It’s not Israel! It’s Palestine.” I mean, it was just such a struggle to find out that the naivete and the ignorance of the American audience is a fertile land for me to say, “Okay, this is where my work is going to go.” And then you go to a library to find scripts, and you... There’s nothing about Palestine. There’s nothing about the Middle East. And I was forced to go from acting to writing and then directing only because I just couldn’t find the right material, and I just started writing my own pieces. I came to Seattle for the MFA and sure enough, Seattle is a city with a heart, I call it, even during the Gulf War.

They say, they... You could go to bookstores and not find one book about the Middle East because people just went to the bookstore to find out where Iraq was in 1991 because they wanted to know. They wanted to know. And I decided to stay in Seattle because of that. I thought, It’s not Canada, but still a mixture of Canadian and American culture. And I started the New Image Theater here and that’s where my work started with a new company doing political theatre. We did a piece by the San Francisco Mime Troupe—it’s called Seeing Double—that opened 15 January 1991 when bombs were falling on Baghdad, and it was sold out. And it was an extended run, only because of that. People just wanted to know what... “Where is Palestine? Where is Baghdad?” And it was a farce. It was a comedy, but people still wanted to come during the war to laugh and feel the sharp edges of a political satire, I guess.

Marina: Yeah. Well and I mean, I think that’s a great transition into the next question about... You both use different media to create your work, Ahmed, you write novels and plays and dabke, and Hanna, you write plays. You direct. You act. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to find what media works best for you and the stories you want to tell and the advocacy you want to do?

Ahmed: Sure. I mean, I think for me really, it’s all about storytelling. I don’t think the medium is the kind of important part here. It’s more around that I have a story to tell. A lot of stories to tell. Stories about people, about a place that I love, stories about unusual situations and circumstances. Most of my work—in fact, all of my work is set in Gaza. On purpose. I choose to write that the location is set in Gaza, Gaza City, Jabalia Camp. All of the Gaza strip, the areas in the places in there. My novel Vanished was set in there. My new novel coming out in May, also called Come with Me, also set in Gaza. The Shroud Maker, all of those are in Gaza. And there’s a reason for that because I want to tell stories and I want to tell stories about the people, and the place, and the names, and the smells, and the tradition, and the history, and the culture all mixed in one place.

Very much… I’m very much influenced by a Spanish writer—he died recently—Carlos Ruiz Zafón who wrote The Shadow of the Wind. I don’t know if you’d heard of it. It’s an incredible novel. He writes only in about Barcelona. All of his works are set in Barcelona, in Spain. And I find that fascinating how you can actually focus on something so local and make it so global. I want people to read about Palestine and think of us as normal people, as any nation, any humans. We have the good and the bad, we have the hero and the villain. We have all of those. We are like any other society. We’re not aliens. We’re not just a bunch of terrorists somewhere, the uncivilized, et cetera. No, we’re like everybody else. We have history and traditional culture.

I think the choice of medium, in terms of how to present to the audience, it really depends on the kind of the reach. So, I love theatre. I think theatre is the best, really, outlets. I think it conveys a lot. It engages the audience; people walk out and then they remember the play for a long time. I mean, you remember plays far better than you remember books, for example. The trouble with theatre is that it’s very limited to those who just come and see the play. It’s also far more expensive to do because you have... You need a budget for actors, production, directors, lighting designers, et cetera. Whereas a novel you’re just sitting there, somewhere in a dark cafe in Paris as I was in the last few days, just writing on your own and creating this world and then... But obviously longer and harder because you have to get it published. You have to go through an editing process and all of these things.

I think, yeah. I think, all of those mediums are just tools to tell the story. And for me, it’s about storytelling. And I think Hanna would agree that Palestinian society has a long tradition of storytelling through the Hakawati, for example. It’s a Middle Eastern thing, generally a Levant thing, where you have somebody in a cafe telling the story or telling people a story... You’d argue that the Bible and the Quran are sort of storytelling. So, it’s a really... The One Thousand and One [Nights], all of these things. I think the storytelling aspect of the Arabic culture, and Middle Eastern culture, and Palestinian culture is actually stronger than theatre because theatre is generally new to the Middle East. I think just sort of late nineteenth century, whereas the kind of storytelling through novels and books is much, much, much older, even older than Europe.

So, I think really what I care about—an answer, is a long way to answer your question, but—what I care about is the story itself. At the moment, I’ve got this story in my head, I really want to write it. And in fact, I was having a conversation with somebody recently and it’s like, “Is it a novel or is it a play?” And I thought, It doesn’t matter. Just write it and then see what happens, see where it goes. The medium will come to me later, I suppose. But the story is more important.

Hanna: Absolutely. Yeah, we are storytellers. I mean, we just tell stories. That’s a tradition, I guess. But for me, I found myself waiting for an idea to fall on me. And when you’re so preoccupied with Palestine and what’s going on—which is really not a usual thing. I mean, when you look through history, it’s just horrific and you can’t go to sleep without thinking, Okay, what’s going to be the news the next day in the morning. What else can they do to us? And, how can my people continue to survive with this? So, I think the idea or the ideas falling on you it’s... it’s a process of... it’s a part of the creative process when you dig yourself out of all the stuff that just fall on you.

So, I find myself in my office... I don’t know, I don’t want to turn the camera around, but I have ideas that are on a small piece of little paper to... Books that I read halfway and then I just tear half of it and when it becomes so much that I’m just buried with it, I normally either ask for help, which is find another playwright to collaborate with, which I found. I found Edward Mast is a local playwright here that has a great connection to Palestine. And he can understand my pain and my creative process, and he comes to the rescue. Or I just have to organize myself and say, “Okay, I’m going to leave this mess alone and go to another mess and find myself preoccupied with another idea.”

But the... Once I see it in front of me, as a clear idea for a play, and like Ahmed said, it’s a story. And I just have to grab onto what I call a commanding image. Where is the seed? What started this whole idea and not let go of it? And then create the story around it. Then, I go into creating the story and think of an American audience. I mean, some of my plays were translated to Arabic, even to Hebrew, the last one. I really wanted to talk to the Israeli audience, but I wanted to make sure that it’s not too didactic. It’s not too angry, and it’s not preachy.

And I was fascinated with Brecht. So, the Brechtian style kind of took over for a while on me. Not to have the illusive mist kind of a cloud over the audience and have them sit in darkness. I mean, Brecht said, “Turn on the lights, keep the audience awake. Don’t make them... Just enjoy and be entertained with what you have. Keep that distance between them and what they’re watching, so they can always judge. They can always evaluate what’s going on. And motivate them and change their attitude after they see the play,” because you really want people to act afterwards or to think. And it could be a small act, and it could be marching in the streets in a demonstration. It doesn’t matter.

So, that’s my style in writing and also in directing. So... And I’ll give you a quick example. We wrote a play called Sahmatah Under the Pine Trees, which is about a destroyed village in Palestine, in 1948 and the journey of a grandfather going to visit the site of his village. And it’s based on a real story, people that I knew in Palestine that were forced out of their village just a mile away...mile and a half away from their village. And from 1948 until now, they still look over, watch their village, and can’t go to it because they’re not happen... not to be Jewish. I mean, they don’t have the right to go back to it.

And the opening of that piece, I insisted that we would do it on the site of the village. And when we did that, it was... It’s not just a theatre in a dark black box. It was an event. You would just watch people, two or three hours before the place starts walking and hiking up the mountain to get to the village, to the top of the village, so they could actually see the play on the site of the village. And some of those people got a permit from the Israeli authority controlling that area to come and watch their story on the site of the village. So, that was not just any simple theatre; that was a huge event. And then from on the play was performed always outside, like in soccer fields, and cliffs, and in theatres too. And in old castles: the crusader’s castles all over the Galilee, half destroyed, half still standing up. So, that’s my style is that it’s not just words and books and in dark places, inside theatres, but actually events.

Marina: Something that seems to happen often—and Hanna you already talked about this a little bit—is pushback to work. And are there times, or what are those times where you’ve both received pushback on your work and how do you address it? And often the pushback is related to Palestine, specifically. Hanna, you were talking about how you couldn’t have specific lines and that made you actually quit as…I think, fourteen still at the time that you quit? Or maybe a different age. But do you want to start with that question, Hanna?

Hanna: Yeah. Pushbacks. I mean, my whole life has just been fighting the pushback. Well, it actually started in my village. My village is 5,000-year-old village, Buqu’ya in the Galilee. It’s ancient and it was... It’s the only village in historic Palestine that has Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Druze (D-R-U-Z-E. Druze), and an old Jewish community. So, there is two churches. There’s a mosque. There’s khilweh for the Druze, and there’s a synagogue for the Jews. And when I started that theatre company Shuruq in the village. We did couple plays, and then I remember one night I was just visiting friend and going home. And the village is dark. We didn’t have electricity and stuff. And I noticed that there’s a little light flickering inside the elementary school where we actually used to rehearse, you know. We used to take a classroom. And I went in there and all of a sudden, my company, the actors, and a whole bunch of other people sitting there having a meeting. And the meeting was about to get rid of me and bring a Druze guy who knew a little bit about theatre from another village because I was a Christian, and the majority of the village was Druze.

So... And you would think these are my friends. These are people that I’m training and working with and stuff, but I realized that there is a pressure from the Druze local council, you know, the head of the local council to say, “Okay, we got to get somebody who’s Druze, who maybe....” Because the Druze serve in the Israeli army, by the way, so they’re loyal to the Israeli government. And that was my first kind of unofficial being fired from my theatre company. And when I moved to Haifa, I already mentioned that I was... I resigned before I was fired from Hagefin Theater and it... And then in the US, or more recently, the fight against a play that is political is constant. Who would take a play about... Right now, I have a script that I’m trying to produce about Deir Yassin, but it does talk, not about just denying what happened in 1948, but actually admitting what happened in 1948.

And so, what? We committed massacres. We did war crime and everything. We admit, and so what? We did it to survive. And who is going to dare do a piece like this in the US when antisemitism is just... You can utter one word against Israel, and you are antisemite. So, it’s been that way, even updating the piece, it’s called Seeing Double with the Mime Troupe. It was the same thing. The lines and the words, and even the intention, there is a subtext that is not there. If it’s just a little bit off where you are criticizing the Israeli government, you’re in trouble. Your piece is not produced and unless you change it, unless you... So, there’s always this. And to be honest with you, it is changing. I mean, even this piece about Deir Yassin and Nabra knows that the Seattle Rep Committee for new pieces read it and approved it, and now the issue with COVID and doing it in person is the only obstacle. So, things are changing in the US.

Marina: I’m so glad to hear that about the Deir Yassin piece.

Nabra: And we’ll try not to fire you from Dunya Productions, Hanna.

Ahmed: No, I mean it’s interesting. The pushback, I think. Yeah. I think my experience mostly is here in the UK and kind of speaking directly to your Western audience as it were. Most of my work—although in English because I write in English. Again, out of choice because I’m addressing a different type of audience in general. But most of my work that I’ve done in Gaza has been very well received. So, despite how conservative this society is, some of my work kind of pushes some buttons in there and challenges stereotypes a lot. And actually, it does go down really well within the kind of Palestinian society in the Gaza strip. Most of the pushback has been in the UK here because I think, as Hanna said, the word Palestine is political and people kind of try to stay away from it, being scared of being accused [of being] antisemitic and all of these things.

And we’ve had a really tough period in the last few years with the previous Labor leadership, the opposition leadership where that was the general debate all the time around Jeremy Corbyn and being antisemitic and all these things. And it was just on everybody’s radar whether it’s correct or not. It’s not really… I don’t care. I’m a writer, and I’m an artist. I don’t get engaged in these things. Antisemitism is a real thing, obviously. It exists for... A lot of people suffer from it. But I think what we as [writers] and as Palestinians talk about is something completely different. We’re talking about a whole tragedy that happened and are suffering as Hanna said. I mean, there are some situations if, and stories. If I tell you during the last war in Gaza in May, when my family was under attack, and all of these things, it’s just horrific, and you need to express these things.

The trouble in the UK, specifically, is that they will never tell you that this is why they’re canceling a play or not allowing a play to happen. It just gets canceled, and there is no reason why. So, and I’ve had in the last few years, many events just canceled. There’s no reason. Just basically says, “Well, actually we’ve decided not to go ahead with this event.” And then trying to have that conversation with them is almost impossible. And it’s so exhausting. And you lift up the phone and you call the artistic director and say, “Hey, we’ve agreed. You’re going to put my play on. Well, what happened there?” And it’s just, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I was... We’ve decided... The board has decided that it’s not the right fit for us at the moment.” I said, “End of story and I’m busy. I don't have time.”

And then once it gets into that situation, then you become into a really difficult dilemma, which is you’ve had your work canceled. You can’t get your work produced anymore, and you just have to find different ways of going around it. So, you find a little venue and you do it one night and two nights and three nights. And it’s just simply exhausting to do that. And I’m a writer. And then my job is to write rather than try and navigate all these [kinds] of political systems. This is one problem. The other problem, which I find in the UK and we kind of in…say white culture, which I’m sorry to say or to label it this way, but it does exist. In the white privilege kind of perspective that actually they would rather have a white person writing about Palestine than me. Right? Which I find incredibly frustrating and infuriating, because how could they know?

So, the controller of the BBC Radio 4, where I did plays before with them, and I guess somebody…Matt Rhys, who’s visited Palestine once or twice to write a crime drama set in Palestine about Palestinians. And the thing is about crime fiction and drama—I might be going on tangent here but—is that it requires knowledge of the society and anthropology and class and all of these things. And then to get somebody and parachute them into that society to do talk about them, it’s just absolutely ridiculous. So, I find it really frustrating from that perspective and that’s the pushback because they know that our voice is just. And they know that we have a story to tell, and they try to suppress it by not giving you the voice in the first place without saying, “Well, actually this is what I’m doing right now,” because they can’t do that. They can’t deny an artist that directly.

And this is why events and a conversation like this today and having connecting with you guys is really important because then it’s getting our voice out together and talking the same or singing the same hymn sheet as it were. I would like to continue with my work, and I would like to continue putting on work, regardless [of] whether they pushback or not. And like Hanna said, I think, this is my way of resistance. I don’t have a gun; I don’t have anything. I have a pen that I write, and I’ll continue to tell stories whether they want to hear them or not. Maybe one person will hear one day and will change their perspective. And that’s enough for me.

Marina: Thank you both so much for sharing all of that. I mean, it’s amazing how many different types of censorship or pushback they...that opposition folks can find to stop this work. It’s really... It’s very creative and very, very frustrating. I would love for you to end with just what advice you might give to Palestinian and Middle Eastern artists who are maybe just starting to create and present work for and about Palestine right now, who might be in their early journey of advocacy. From your experience, what is the advice you can give them to strengthen this work across, the US and the world, really, and encourage, I guess, folks to join this work, despite the barriers.

Ahmed: I mean, I would say very quickly, I think connect with Palestinians. Try to go to Palestine; try to feel it. Try to be... If you’re from there, just go, spend the time, take your time, don’t rush into writing and the pressure to produce work. I think, think about it. Let the words, let the ideas and the stories seep into you before kind of putting it and then trying to make it authentic if you know what I mean. Just there, just be organic with it. Go to Palestine. Go to Jordan. See the refugee camps if you can. Invest a little bit of that. Connect with Palestinians; hear their stories. You don’t have to be Palestinian yourself. Anybody can write about Palestine, of course, but kind of give them that connection. Be a bridge to that marginalized community and society and nation in general. That is my biggest advice. And the other one is just write. Really write. That’s the best way; just write and write and write. And then, when you have something, you can craft it, and shape it, and make it better.

Hanna: I think for me, the most important thing for us as Palestinians in the theatre world is the unity, which does not exist within our people. We have Hamas and we have Fatah. We have this and this and this. And I notice one thing, every time I go to visit Palestine, and in Palestine, there’s at least one theatre company in every village. It’s where there’s so much theatre happening. In Haifa, there’s maybe five. In Jaffa there’s... But they don’t work together. Every time I go there, they come and say, “Do you have a monodrama? Do you have a monodrama for me?” Everybody has a monodrama. One man show because they can’t work together. And there’s so much talent, and there’s so much energy and so many topics to write about. It just... You go there... I mean, if I go there, I come back with so many ideas for so many places because there’s so much happening. But they don’t work together.

I think that my main advice to creative people, whether they’re writers or actors, is to reach out to other Palestinians in the theatre world to work together, to collaborate together. It... You have no idea how many scripts I send to Palestine and the first question is, “Well, too many characters,” because they can’t find actors who would like to work together. They want either one or two [at] the most. And so, working together is very important and supporting each other and collaborating. I mean, there’s no reason why I should go find a white guy in the US to collaborate with if there’s another Palestinian writer who is probably sitting in his home, lonely looking for another partner in his work, and maybe learning from somebody else.

So, my second thing is education. I mean, there’s so many…so much talent. Raw talent. But I think education is important. To go to theatre schools. I remember the first play, going back to Palestine to direct, was working with actors who are strong and powerful and everything but communicating with them, using terms to... Table work and break up the script before they got on their feet. It was almost strange to them because they never went to theatre school, and they thought directing is light and effects and sound, and whatever you can put on stage but not actually working with the actor himself on breaking down the script. I remember actors got so pissed off because they saw that there’s a line and there’s three dots.

And then actors said, “What are these dots? What...?” I said, “Look for them. This is subtext that you have to find.” “What’s subtext? What’s subtext?” I mean, it was... I realized that they never went to theatre school because that’s another thing in our culture. That everybody wanted to be engineer. Everybody wanted to be a business and all that. Very few going to theatre, to theatre schools, but it is changing. So, education is important. And part of the education is experience and experience comes from working with other people.

Marina: Thank you so much. It’s been really brilliant to talk to both of you and just deeply thanking you for being vulnerable and sharing your stories and sharing your frustrations with us today, as well as your incredible art that you make. So, thank you both so much for being a part of this conversation.

Hanna: Thank you.

Ahmed: Thank you. Thanks for having us. It’s been a pleasure.

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, or 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 progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com

Nabra: 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.

Marina: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Marina and Nabra: Yalla, bye!

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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