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Theatre in Palestine

Nabra Nelson: Salam 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 Africa or MENA theatre from across the region.

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

Hi, everyone. Welcome to a special episode of Kunafa and Shay in these very challenging times. We're recording this on January 9th, 2024 in the midst of an ongoing genocide in Palestine. The past few months have been an indescribably difficult time. As most of you know, my research is on Palestinian theatre, so I wanted to bring you a specific episode that focuses on Palestine and performance.

Nabra: How can theatre make a real impact in moments of social and political crisis? During a time of ongoing genocide and brutal occupation in Palestine with an exacerbating humanitarian crisis, this special episode focuses on Palestinian theatre and political action across borders. We discuss ASHTAR Theatre’sThe Gaza Monologues and Jackie Lubeck's To The Good People of Gaza. Then Palestinian actor, writer, and scenographer Jeries AbuJaber joins us in conversation about what is currently happening in the West Bank and Gaza and his experience as a theatre artist in Palestine. AbuJaber also shares his experience as a clown with RED NOSES International and the performing he's done with them in the West Bank and virtually in Gaza.

Marina: But first, I want to contextualize what's happening in Gaza. My hope with these remarks is to provide some context for what's happening in Gaza for the past almost twenty years. In August of 2005, Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza after thirty-eight years of occupying it since 1967. The next year, Hamas won a democratic election with a 46 percent majority popular vote. Israel, the US, and other countries did not like this and attempted to overthrow the election results. Israel then imposed a blockade on Gaza consisting of a series of sanctions that have continued to this day, which severely limit how much electricity is available in Gaza, their water supply, restricting the imports that were able to get into Gaza and closing the borders so that Palestinians in Gaza could not leave the country. One of the many ways this affects the citizens of Gaza, for example, in order for cancer patients or people who have needs that exceed the capabilities of Gazan hospitals, they need to apply for a permit from Israel to travel to Jerusalem or another hospital within the West Bank that can take care of them. Often, these permits are denied.

In 2017, 54 percent of the people who applied for permits received them with at least fifty others dying that year as a direct result of being denied life-saving medical treatment. This is something that Jeries will talk about a little bit more because he got to work with some of these children who are then given permits to access medical treatment outside of Gaza. Israel also controls the aerospace and coastline, giving Gazans limited space in which they can fish or swim. In 2006, Dov Weisglas was quoted as saying, "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger.” A document was later found that showed Israel calculating the amount of food that Gazans needed to avoid malnutrition and would let that amount alone enter Gaza.

For more than a decade, when analysts described the strategy utilized by Israel against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, they used a metaphor. Israeli forces were "mowing the grass.” The phrase implies that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are weeds that need to be cut back.

Nabra: Here is a very brief and incomplete history of the bombings in Gaza. In 2008 to 2009, there was a twenty-three day bombardment with about fourteen hundred Palestinians killed. In 2012, for eight days they were bombed with 174 Palestinians killed. In 2014, fifty days of bombing with twenty-one hundred Palestinians killed in Gaza. 2021, for eleven days of bombing, at least 260 people were killed. And all of these murder statistics are often underreported or folks who are missing that are not accounted for. Right now, The Guardian reported, quote, “Gaza's Ministry of Health says that at least 22,835 Palestinians had been killed by January 7th,” which is two days prior to when we're recording, with another 58,416 reportedly injured. That figure does not distinguish between combatants and civilians but an estimated 70 percent are women and children. About seven thousand more are reportedly missing and most likely dead. The 22,835 dead represent about one in a hundred of Gaza's total population. They have been killed at a rate of just under 250 a day.

Marina: So let's begin by talking about the solidarity performance that most people are probably familiar with, The Gaza Monologues. The Gaza Monologues were written by youth in Gaza after the 2008-2009 bombardment. In 2010, Iman Aoun, artistic director and co-founder of ASHTAR Theatre in Ramallah, who we've had on the podcast before, contacted Ali Abu Yasine who would work with the group and help them write and tell their stories.

ASHTAR Theatre asked that people read these monologues in November as an act of solidarity with Gaza and with all Palestinian people. The two of us participated in one with Golden Thread and Aviva Arts, which is archived on HowlRound. We'll link it in the episode transcript. I also want to highlight an anthology of plays that my advisor Samer Al-Saber edited. The book is called To the Good People of Gaza, and they're plays by Jackie Lubeck and Palestinian children. This is the first anthology of youth plays from Gaza and the wider Palestinian region, and it ties together nineteen plays produced by Theater Day Productions, one of the foremost community theatres in the Middle East. Written by playwright Jackie Lubeck, this collection responds to the siege on Gaza and the Israeli military operations from 2009 to 2014, reflecting how Gazan youth deal with trauma, loss, and urban destruction.

Nabra: In the nineteen plays within this anthology, the reader and theatrical producer witnesses experiences of a forgotten youth besieged by a silent international community and a brutal wall. The plays are arranged into five different thematic series, which include family entanglements, loss, and the fundamental goodness and resourcefulness of human beings. If you haven't seen them, they're very much worth checking out, not only if you do theatre with youth but for everyone.

Marina: I also wanted to mention a piece that I actually don't know much about right now, but it was a piece that several friends of mine were working on with The Freedom Theatre when I was last in Palestine and Jeries who we're having on our episode today was part of for a while before he went to Prague for his masters. But it's called Gaza Metro and it actually performed in Jordan yesterday. One of my friends there went to see it and it's being performed in Baghdad next. So what I know of it and why I wanted to spotlight it now is just that it's a very distinct theatrical work which is looking at stories and conversations of passengers on a fictional subway train in a fictional underground area in the Gaza Strip. And so this sort of speculative fiction realm is something that perhaps people aren't used to thinking about when they're thinking of Palestinian performance and it's a piece that I hope that we can all see at some point in the future.

I also wanted to mention just quickly, and Nabra and I, I’m sure can talk about this on our next season as well, but something that we've talked about throughout especially our first season of Kunafa and Shay is that in the United States post 9/11, a lot of the theatre that people were making in the States was, MENA and SWANA theatre specifically, was trying to prove to the world that they were human because there was so much dehumanization happening to brown people after that time. And it's been really kind of wild to see the reporting and things happening in Gaza for so many reasons but also because we literally see Gazans and other Palestinians saying “we're humans” and it's because they've been called human animals. It's because of these things.

But again, we're seeing this dehumanization and it just feels so much reminiscent of other things we've talked about where now in the States we were really hoping to be past that narrative of now people who write Middle Eastern, MENA, SWANA, plays are expanding to different things than the human narrative. But it feels like because of what's happening in Gaza, in many ways, we've circled back to this having to prove Palestinian humanity and a lot of brown people in the United States who've been targeted in hate crimes, Muslim and Palestinian folks. So it's just something that I wanted to mention as a thought now and then hopefully we'll continue to be able to discuss and analyze this, but it's worth seeing these patterns, especially as they repeat themselves and especially as we're looking at how they repeat themselves in storytelling.

So now let's focus on our guest, Jeries AbuJaber. Jeries AbuJaber is an actor, scenographer, and stage manager. He specialized in scenography and stage management in park through Al-Harah Theater in Beit Jala, Bethlehem in Palestine. He has experienced performing through his work in theatre, over six years of training, workshops and working on professional projects in Palestine and abroad. After six years of working in the performing arts, he decided to pursue his master's degree in directing of Devised and Object Theatre in the Academy of Performing Arts and Prague Theatre Faculty, DAMU Czech Republic. He's also a professional medical clown in the RED NOSES International organization from 2014 until the present. In this organization, he works with children, parents, elderly, and medical staff. They provides outreach to people outside hospitals and work with other programs that allow them to have a broader reach as well. I, Marina, met Jeries in the summer of 2022 in Palestine. We first met in Nablus where we were both seeing a play and then we got coffee afterwards with two friends.

The next time that I saw him was for a production that he wrote and was the scenographer for in Bethlehem, which is still one of my favorite plays. After that, we quickly became friends and I had the privilege of getting to learn about Jeries's work in the theatre throughout that summer and last summer as well. He's truly one of the most talented people I know and I'm so grateful he's joining us here today. Jeries, it is so great to have you with us but also very sad as we cannot ignore the awful situation that is ongoing in Palestine.

Jeries AbuJaber: Hello. Hello, Marina. Hi, Nabra. I’m really happy to be here with you and I’m really glad that you gave me this chance first to see you because it has been a bit long time or for me, it’s a long time to be here with you online, but let’s meet personally soon as we can. And yeah, we can’t ignore the situation and it’s really, really hard being really not able to move, not able to visit, not able to see people, and that’s really missing the family and the friends and everyone, and you never know what will happen and how bad can it reach, but it’s a thing that I believe that truth will win and really the positivity has to fill our hearts anyways. So I’m really happy to meet you.

Marina: Yes, we are too. And I am so glad to get to hear you talk because you're right, the positivity, we need that in our hearts. But also, we were exchanging voice messages maybe a month or so ago, and you said something that I thought was so very you because it's poetic in the way that you speak that you said right now—“this is too much for our hearts and minds to carry.” And I was like, that's such a good way to describe what's happening because every day it feels like, how can we continue on carrying these things that are happening? I know that your family is in Palestine and also your friends and I can't imagine how hard it is to be away from them right now while this is happening. How are they? Can you tell us a little bit about what's going on with them or anything you want to share about what's happening in the West Bank?

Jeries: Yes, yes. It's like the thing when you are really far away, you just feel that you want to help and you want to be beside them and you want to support them psychologically, mentally, and just talk to them and feel that you can be part of the suffering that they're passing through because unfortunately it's not happening only in Gaza, but they're also murdering people in the West Bank. And the West Bank is really getting really so much pain and so much more tears and people are losing their houses also and people are losing their kids and their families and there's so many people are becoming prisoners inside the Israeli jails because of nothing and they don't have any reason to take them. And unfortunately, it's becoming very, very dramatic and very, very unbearable because I'm just seeing all of this and I have never experienced this extreme of how they are dealing with humans or I would say the “animal humans” that they're really describing us, unfortunately.

So I am really psychologically not really able to be stable anyways. Since the last semester, I have been trying really my best to give to the university and to work and be Jeries, the one that everyone knows, but everyone is seeing that I am trying to be productive, but there is a limit always and there is something that's stopping me from being myself. It's not normal to see a genocide that is happening and it's not normal to act like everything is fine, everything is okay, and I can’t be in this duality of being really, life is okay and people here are also enjoying their life, living their life normal and I’m like just living into this hard situation to express myself. And sometimes or most of the time I’m preparing to be alone and to be at my room and just spending my time alone and, okay, this is making me more connected to the internet and to see people, but this is the only way that I have.

There is some Palestinians here and some people who are supporting, but also it feels like you can see people every time, and we are not used to live like this in Palestine. You came and you experienced and the Arab countries is different. We are always getting out, always meeting each other, always supporting each other, always understand what we are passing through because we are passing through in the same thing, so we feel each other more. So that’s why it’s really psychologically not really relaxing at all. So until now, I’m not really able to really imagine that it’s really normal at all. So yeah, I always call my family, taking care that everything is fine. I’m checking on them. They are calling me more because they need also this courage and this support from me to always be around them and to feel that, “Okay, Jeries, our oldest son who is really have always the responsibility, and he is responsible,” so they want to feel this and I am always there for them.

But yeah, they are really sad. They are not really also able to live their life normal. So yeah, it’s really crazy. Yeah.

Nabra: Of course. Yeah. And can you tell us where are you right now and what have you been doing, whether that’s advocacy or artistry or just taking care of yourself and your family from where you are?

Jeries: Yes. So I am from Bethlehem, Palestine originally and I decided to come to Prague, to Czech Republic in last year. Not last year. It was like 2022. Oh, the time. Oh my God. Time is running really crazy. So in 2022, in November I reached here and I started my master's degree in Directing of Devised and Object Theatre and it's like contemporary theatre directing and devising. So it's really a very true thing that I really wanted to do since a long time and I'm really happy that I have chose this field of work, because it is a part of my artistic work is that, I don’t like so much of limits and so much of conditions that you have to make art because art can be really powerful and there is so much ways that you can really express yourself. And this is part of my way of how I can be a director and how I can be a creative creator.

So I’m here since one year and two months and I will finish here in June, the two years master, and I can’t imagine how time is passing really crazy, but I will have another one year here to write my thesis because it can be a good possibility for me to use the facilities that the university gives, like library, books. And also there is a tutor that they will help us during writing the master’s thesis. So it is really good to be here and also making connections. I would say that this university has people, educational team that they are really very caring and they’re really very supportive and that makes me really happy because also part of what I’m dealing through is there is these people who are really giving me the chance to express myself as much as I can through my art. And at the same time, they’re really supportive and they understand what is happening. So I think this is really a nice gesture from them to go on with what I’m passing through politically and mentally and at the same time artistically. So yeah, that’s me.

Nabra: And what are you planning on doing after your master’s?

Jeries: I don't know really. It's blurry. And I really believe that building up a career not only in Palestine, many places, and let's be more logical that our theatre in the world—if you don't have connection, if you don't have people that you know, if you don't spread your artistic work and knowing people, that will be really only limited place that you can do your own stuff. But if you are really spreading the word and knowing people and making relations, it really builds a good thing for your career. So that's what I'm truly trying to do. But I will not give up on Palestine ever, and I will not feel that I have to go out because I'm really shocked. I think this is a time that everything is very clear for Palestinians and very clear for what is happening as war and genocide. That is really how they're dealing with us. Even though, they had to close my bank account because I am Palestinian. It's really a very crazy way of how they are dealing with the stuff.

And this is what I want, to spread a word for people and for people who are in Palestine, not for the people around the world, especially Palestinians don't live into the lie of “this is the heaven.” It's not heaven. Western countries is not heaven. It's not really different from anywhere. And Palestine is so beautiful and Palestine has a lot of beautiful human connections.

There is always this feeling that you are belonging to the place, belonging to people. There is this something that always take you, grabs you and brings you back because your memories, your people, okay, there is always I would say bad sides of everything and the bad side of Palestine—we know occupation, we know sometimes the society pressure us of how we are living, but at the same time, I am not feeling safe as a Palestinian. I'm not feeling safe here and I'm not feeling safe in Palestine, but I'm not feeling safe in Palestine because the issue that is bigger than me and this issue is if it's existing there, but there is my family and the people who gives me love that makes me safe anyways, I don't know. I miss this so much.

Marina: Yeah. Well, and as you know, Bethlehem is my favorite place in the world. I think that Palestine is beautiful. But yeah, walking through Bethlehem with you is some of my favorite memories. It’s just the most gorgeous place. And you’re right that there’s a different feeling, it’s a feeling of being with community, a feeling like everyone is looking out for each other in a different way. Even for me, a foreigner who the people were like, “No, of course you are part of this community now in different ways,” which is a very loving approach that doesn’t always exist in the Western world, which is very individualistic, which is very, I mean, a different kind of mindset.

Before we talk more about that, I just want to flag for people who are listening that I was with you when you were waiting for your visa to go to Prague. And when you’re describing the work you’re doing, it’s so amazing, but it’s even more amazing to me because I know that you had to fight so hard to get to where you are because you really had to go to lengths to get the visa and to be able to travel and to do the things you’re doing. So whenever you talk about it, I’m like, “This is incredible.” But also because you are so strong in really working to get to where you are because it’s not an easy thing to actually be able to pick up and go to do this.

Jeries: Yeah, it's part of our also resistance of making stuff because we are always... Since I was a kid until now, I have never got anything easy and I had all the time to fight for my things in order to get it and to be... Sometimes I ask myself, "Do they really see us as humans?" because it describes so much what they are really doing now. And I don't understand the support of the world to this crazy genocide that is happening. And I had to go to Jordan to apply for my visa to come to Czech Republic because we don't have an embassy that I can apply for a long-term visa, and I had to go to Jordan and I had to bring so much papers and these so much papers, all of them, you have to pay for them a lot and you have to pay for the stamps and you have to translate it to Czech because they don't accept English.

And then I had to go and they didn't accept my form. And then I came by the application and then I had to come back to Palestine. And that's all expenses and money and tiredness because also passing through the bridge from Palestine to Jordan is really very, very hard and very bad. And you never know if you pass or not, and you never know if they close it or not and from what time to what time and you have to wait. And for sure you have to be treated very bad and not as a human because you always have to believe that you are under occupation and it's really very, very hard. So I had to come back to Palestine, prepare the papers again, then go back and apply for the visa again and come back to Palestine and go back and take my visa and come back and take my stuff and go back and go to Prague.

So it was very, very, very bad and the bureaucracy is really crazy. And now I have to do it every year. I have to do it every year. But what is easier here is you are in the country. So okay, you apply for it through office here, but I can say it's easier. But the first time was really horrible. And this is not only for Prague, Czech Republic, it's also for mostly all of the European countries and the US and we have to apply for visas and it's really very bureaucratic and you have to pay money and you have to get to put in your bank account a lot of money that you don't want to be a refugee or something. So they have to know that you are not running away or something. So yeah.

Marina: No, thanks for sharing those logistics. It's something that a lot of people in the US, if they're born with a US passport, don't have to think about because we don't have to apply for visas to most places. So I think people listening will find what you just said very enlightening but also shocking.

Nabra: And to add to that, I mean, getting visas and immigrating and everything is difficult under any circumstances unless you have a US or probably UK or most European passports. But in addition to that, doing that in an occupied country is, as you've talked about briefly, even more incredibly difficult. It's something hard on top of something difficult.

Jeries: Yeah. Because if I want to talk about the details of the bridge and passing through and all of the checkpoints and all of the armies and all of the weapons that are existing on our way to go to there, it will take another episode, I think. It's really crazy. Yeah.

Marina: Well, and so I want to talk about what's happening in Gaza of course, and it's interesting because I was with you… I'm forgetting which summer now. I guess it wasn't 2023, but the summer of 2022. You and I, we had seen a show at Bethlehem live festival, that we'd seen a performance. And Jeries was really great. My Arabic for listening to very quick performances, especially at the time, was not fantastic. And so occasionally he would turn and be like, "And this is what he just meant." And I was like, "Great, thank you." But we left and we were going to go see a comedian who is performing and they suddenly told us that the comedian was canceled and it was because Gaza was being bombed. And when people talk about the bombings in Gaza, that one's not even mentioned because it was so short relative to other bombings that have happened in Gaza, which is crazy.

But when that happens, things in the West Bank really shut down in solidarity what's happening. There aren't parties, there aren't things that are happening in the same way because people of course in the West Bank have family in Gaza, life is very connected. And the Palestinian struggle is, just because you're separated by some small distance, It's still very much interwoven. And so I continue to think about that moment. But then also now we've seen this genocide continuing for more than ninety days, I think longer than any of us thought could be bearable. I mean, none of it's bearable, but it's continued for so long.

So I guess I would love to talk about the fact I don't think you've ever gotten to perform in real life in Gaza because of the blockade that started in 2007, but I do know that you performed virtually in Gaza, which I think is a really interesting thing and it segues into talking about one of my other favorite things to talk about with you, which is your clowning. So you've worked as a clown with RED NOSES International. Let's start by talking about that. So what is RED NOSES? You've been involved with them since 2014 and you have a really cool clown that you embody. So let's start there.

Jeries: So in 2014 I applied for an audition and it was clowning from the RED NOSES International because they have an office in Palestine, now it's in Ramallah and there is another one in Jordan and there is another ten European countries who are in this organization. So I applied for it and I got accepted in January 2014. And from that time, I have been working on a character, which is very interesting for this work that this organization doesn't ask you to do much. Only give us time and your art and be there.

And then it becomes an educational system that you can pass through. And at the same time, you are working, so you get money. So that was really a cool idea and starting with it was making me much stable psychologically and mentally, because being in the RED NOSES, it means that you are doing something very human and you are receiving from it a lot because people when they are just changing to from this suffering mood and pain, they just go with you and they become very happy and they're very, very passionated and dancing and all of the hospital and all of the elderly houses, they become very... A lot of positivity and they're just singing and they want to talk about their stories and they want to talk about their lives and it becomes very human and very beautiful.

Marina: Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I just wanted to say, so when you go in, you are not a doctor, but you go in as a clown and you go into work and you talk with sick children or with elderly people, as you mentioned. I only say this because I recently was talking to people in the US about it and they thought that I was talking about doctors who were also clowns. And I was like, "No, they're clown doctors," like you're a performer. So I just wanted to add that sentence in.

Jeries: Yes, yes, great. It's because as an artist, you are building your own character through your talents. My clown is a heavy clown, but at the same time he gets crazy and he's called Dr. Shalaby Foustuk Halaby, which means pistachio. And it's a clown that is a singer and plays music. And what is really interesting about clowning is that, as an artist, you have to be really good in improvisation, and at the same time, you have to be really good in listening and to scanning all of the atmosphere around you, all of the space. Because without this and you are not sensitive to people what they are doing and what is happening on spot, then you can't create your improvisation. You are using the material that is around you, a phone and door is knocking, someone is coughing. I don't know what. You can create your own stories through this.

A man wears a clown costume.

Jeries AbuJaber as Dr. Shalaby Fostuk Halabi

So this is for me a very magical moment. I just get into this clowning character. I put my nose and I just transform. I just finish and I just go out and I say, "What happened? How?" And just it's something like just happens and you don't know what is the secret of this mask. So I would say speak about Gaza, I was very, very, very happy. But it was in a sad time that COVID came and we had to do all of our work through virtually, I would say, like on the internet. And this was the biggest, happiest moments that we had, is to meet people from Gaza finally, because we never met, we never know them. We always talk to them on the internet and we share some stuff, but it feels like it's another country because they are blocked. They can't go out. They can't get in.

But what is really nice is sometimes that we meet also... It's not nice but it's like people are from Gaza, they come to the West Bank or to the occupied Palestine to have their treatments and they don't allow them to come. Like for children, they're not allowed to come with their parents. So they have to come with someone old. So they always come with their grandmother or grandfather. And when they come, they have cancer and they have to suffer and they have to pass through all of the stages, but they don't have their parents with them and they are only contacting them by phone and by internet. Imagine them how they are really passing through this examination without their parents. And so meeting them virtually was very happy and I didn't imagine how can I really finally meet someone from there. It's like you are talking about someone from far, far away, someone from the space because you are not allowed to meet them at all.

So it was very happy. It was like how people are there are simple, how people there are looking for life, and looking like they were like first time seeing us putting the nose and they were like, "What is this?" But then, yeah, this is a clown. I can be happy, I can be free, I can do whatever I want. And then you just like, I didn't only want to talk to them as a clown. I wanted to talk to them and deal with them as Jeries. I wanted to be this build up this relation because they are beautiful little humans that they are sitting in front of you in their beds and they just want to enjoy it because they don't have this possibility. Even though RED NOSES have tried many times to go to Gaza as special aid for children and to do something, but they never allowed us. They never gave us any permission to go there.

And that's also a very big dream for everyone from the RED NOSES Palestine to go there. We have learned through workshops in the RED NOSES online how to work on the screen with people because not only in Gaza but we were working in all of the West Bank and in Jerusalem with governmental hospitals virtually because we couldn't go because of the COVID. So that was really magical because you can use also the screen in a very different way and how you can hide and then you go up and then you create a story and then you bring... We were creating some leaflets and we were bringing some curtains with painted on it something. Some balls and throwing it and doing some funny stuff and singing together. And I was building up a crazy community that you want to enjoy your time with. So that was one of the happiest experiences I received.

And what hurts me now is, did the people that I met are still alive there or what happened with them if they are... I don't know. I don't know. And this is one of the biggest really hard feelings to just, I don't want to ask about it because I don't want to know if they are or not. But unfortunately, I just see the videos and I can't imagine that these children, how the time came that they became under the rubble. I can't imagine that. I can't imagine psychologically how person can wait for death in any moment and this is what people are passing through there. Even though if you see Motaz Azaiza who is very famous on Instagram because he's showing the reality. He's waiting for his death because he is saying, "They are getting closer and they are getting closer, but when I will die, I don't know." But he lost his friends, he lost many family members. And this is the idea of living in Palestine unfortunately is everyone is losing someone.

I lost two friends in this war, in this genocide, and they are in the West Bank and one of them is a light designer and one of them is a dabke dancer. And I'm like, "I don't know how to deal with it." So yeah, it's a very, very huge feeling. I don't know. I can't imagine how the world can just see people are under all of this control and all of these walls and checkpoints and they can't travel, they can't meet any people from anywhere. And imagining yourself living in Gaza for sixteen years and you don't meet anyone else out of Gaza. You are only in Gaza and imagining yourself you are in only one city and you can't go out of it for sixteen years. So people, for example, they need to find a solution for that. And the world didn't talk about this.

Since sixteen years, they didn't see the situation, but when something little happened to the occupation, to the occupier, the whole world started talking about it. And they are supporting and they're sending weapons and they're sending money and they're sending everyone. "Yeah, kill these terrorists." What terrorism are you talking about?

Marina: Yeah. Well, I mean, Jeries, when you're bringing up Motaz and the people that you know in the West Bank who died, journalists are being targeted, artists are targeted. It's people who are not afraid to tell the truth. And in addition to countless, countless innocent lives who've just been killed just living in Gaza, but it feels in particular like artists and journalists, people whose profession it is to let people know about their own humanity, about the humanity of Palestinians, about seeing a light in the world, it's those who are targeted specifically too and so that's really awful. Allah yerhamhum.

Jeries: Unfortunately, because this is the face of genocide. It doesn't know anyone. It doesn't know, and it doesn't appreciate anyone. Seeing a video yesterday, they killed someone and they were stepping on them by the car and just going. I don't know. I just don't have any word to describe how ugly is this, how disgusting is this.

The medical clown is a very important part of healing…the medical team was telling us, "We need you. You are making our work much easier."

Marina: No, it's sort of hard. And Nabra and I are like, "How do we talk about art at a time like this?" But I think art is so important in this moment, and that's part of why we wanted to talk to you about RED NOSES because we were like when I think about hospitals, I don't always think about clowns. But you've helped change the way that I think about performance and illness and how performance can really help people who are ill and help them find... You've talked to me about the joy that if you can help the medical team and the parents and the child find joy, then they can sort of fight through the illness together.

Jeries: Yes. This is the very nice and important change that we had in the West Bank because I'm talking about the West Bank because we can be there only. The medical clown is a very important part of healing and about making the psychological status of the suffering and ill people to really get better because I would say the medical team was telling us, "We need you. You are making our work much easier." And some of them they were like... Were sometimes canceling because of the funding and sometimes... And they were like, "No, no, no, no, we will pay for it. We will just find any support from anyone and we want you to come." And this you can feel how change is really big because they are like now before in the beginning how they were dealing with them. You can see that it's technically, technical. "Give me your hand, I will put you the injection. Ah, okay, that's fine. Yalla bye.”

And then how they started playing, how they started creating stories, how they are interfering in our work sometimes. Sometimes it's too much but I really love them so much that these medical team became our friends. They became part of our work and we can't say we are something that comes from outside and we are doing our job and that's it. We became family with them because we understand where is our limits of as artists who are inside the hospital and a medical team that they have to do their work and we have to respect it and they respect our work. So we are completing each other in a way that makes it very precious. And some of them, they come new and they don't really see us still. And then when they see the others, how they are dealing with us, they just open up and they start dancing and laughing and doing the improvisations with us.

And you just look at them and you say, "Wow, you are incredibly amazing how you are helping." And the parents is sometimes or most of the time, if the child is not reacting or they are very sad or very in pain and they can't talk or they don't want to because they're in a bad mood, working with the parents makes it much more easier because parents, sometimes or most of the time, their energy affects the children. They are more influenced by them. So one time there is a story about Mustafa. He came to the hospital and he was very sad. And I was entering with my colleague, Latifah, and we were getting in the hospital and we saw him sad and his mother is crying and his father is crying and he was very sad and sitting in the middle and don't do anything.

And I was like, "It must be hard work today. So let's get in and prepare ourself and let's see." And then I went to the room and we changed. And then we met, me and Latifah and we were like, "Okay, so how do you feel?" "I feel down because this is like I saw this outside." And I told her, "No, no, okay, let's make a game together." And we started making a game and bringing some energy and getting out of this mood. And then we felt that, "Okay, the energy is better. Okay, let's go, let's go." And each one has their own tool, artistic tools and everything, then the objects that we can use in the hospital. And we played first with one child before, which is a preparation for him to understand what we are doing. And then when we finished with this little... She was a little girl and she was really happy and laughing and with the bubbles and everything was really nice with her, but he was still in this bad mood because his mother started crying more and crying more.

And I was like, "Okay, let's go for him." And then we went for him and I asked him, "Okay, what is your name?" He told me, "Mustafa." I told him, "I am Dr. Shalaby." And he say, "Okay. And what you are doing?" And he told me like, "I am here to test if I have cancer or not. And if I have cancer, I have to stay here, and if I don't, I will go home." And I told him, "But you know that you are a very strong man. Look at you. So if you have it or not, you will beat it anyways. You are strong and it will be fine." And this when his mother started... When she was hearing me what I'm saying, she started crying more and crying more and crying more. And I'm like, "Okay, I have to work with her." Then I just stopped with my colleague and then we looked at each other and, okay, I looked at her and I started singing for her a love song and a love song for Abdel Halim. (sings a line of the song)

And she was like crying, crying, crying. And then she looked at me and she couldn't catch herself and she started laughing and crying like crazy and laughing and laughing. And her husband looked at her and he started laughing too and the child started laughing too. And they were like all of them laughing and I was so happy. And then we started having the energy more and more and then we started playing with him and he forgot all of his pain and all of what he was thinking and all of his thoughts, and he left everything and he fallen in love with Shalaby and he was giving me everything. And when we finished with him and his mother and everyone was really in a good mood, I told him, "Yeah, promise me that you will be strong even though you have it or not," and he told me yes.

He had it, he had the cancer and he had to stay in the hospital. And he was every week just asking about me. He didn't want to meet anyone else because he felt that I made his mother laugh. I made his mother feel happy. I made his mother change her mood. And that for him was, "Oh my God, this is a magical... This is a magical clown. I want him to be with me," and they want to see him all the time. And what is really hard is you can't as a clown professionally to make a personal relationship with them because unfortunately we have also to save ourselves and we have to go on with our lives. And if we have a relationship with them, then it will be like I will get into a depression more and it will be really affecting me professionally.

So then I just started to make it less visiting because other clowns has to go and they have to meet him. And he was all the time preparing for me stickers and he was drawing some stuff and giving it to me. And then I was walking into the street and he recognized me without my nose and he was from far away, "Hey, Shalaby." And I was like, "Oh my God, Shalaby, so this is my clown. Someone knows me." So I was like, "Okay." Then I just looked back and he was like, "Shalaby," running and opening his arms and he wants to hug me. And I'm like, "Oh my God, what I have to do?" Then I was like, "Ah, yes, hello, Mustafa. How are you?" "All good." And his mother is laughing and she's have holding the video and she's making a video of me and him meeting, and that was really funny.

And in a very good way, I had to do protecting the personal space Shalaby Facebook account. And I added him there because he was insisting. So I was like, "Okay." And then I didn't see him and I asked about him because I was insisting that I would like to know what is happening with him. And he was out and he's good, healthy and everything is fine. But unfortunately, in the first year of joining the RED NOSES, six kids died I met, and that was really horrible feeling. But it's really nice also from the RED NOSES that they are really caring about this. So they give us psychological treatments. We go and see people who are specialized in this and they give us some, how I can say it, defense mechanism maybe. Like how to really protect ourselves because this is a clown and this is your character who is dealing with people, but this is not Jeries and this is not your personal personality. So, yeah. This is one of the stories.

Nabra: Something that you said earlier that you’ve reinforced through these amazing stories is that you as an artist allow these children to be happy. And that by itself is so incredibly powerful, especially in the midst of illness, in the midst of war, in the midst of a brutal, brutal, violent occupation, just that permission to be happy is really revolutionary. And I’d love for to also zoom out and to ask you what you see as the role of artists during times of war and genocide, whether that’s how you consider your role or what you think others should be doing across the world at a time like this.

Jeries: I think in the beginning I was like, “What does art mean and how much does it worth doing it if there is a genocide? What I have to talk about? Why do I have to talk about?” Then educating people became very important about Palestine and about what is happening. And this is working because people are waking up and they’re seeing the other face of this occupation that they have been dealing with before and saying, “Yeah, they have to exist and they have to take,” and no one’s saying about anything about people to die or anything. But at the same time, there is a genocide that is happening. Come on, people wake up. And here it becomes, okay, as an artist, how can I really be active? Because if I am not able to help in Palestine and I don’t have anything to do because I am only here just receiving, receiving, receiving, receiving, talking to people, trying to encourage them to be better and feel better, I would say.

So I was like, okay, my project now is about Palestine and I’m now creating my new project here. It’s talking about losing love, losing land, and losing a friend of mine that he committed suicide in 2014. So it’s about loss and grieving. I made a really big research about trauma and grieving, and I discovered a lot in me that I didn’t know that it’s existing and I didn’t give the time for myself to grieve because I can’t because I am still living under this occupation and I’m still living under this hard situation. So I am always passing through these traumas since I was a kid until now. But now I am a free country, which is full of safety, I have the time to research about myself, what is happening with me. And thanks for sure to tourism, to the educational team here. They are really helping me so much and they have passed through before into this, also experienced some of them.

My biggest… I don’t like the word of weapon because I have a trauma from the weapon word anymore. So my biggest tool is I am because of what I have passed through, I am a storyteller. I am a good storyteller and I have discovered that, and I have discovered that newly that I have this because of what we have passed through, and this is a very important research that I have been passing through that or I think looking for is that trauma survivors are great storytellers and they know how to give. And from that, I just spoke about Palestine everywhere. In the university, anyone meets me. I see a big change because this is my mission because trauma survivors has always the feeling that they have a mission over their shoulders and they have to change and they have to give. And to say like, “Okay, you have to educate yourself.” I am not here to convince you. Maybe you have to search to look for stuff.

So I am working on my project and I think it will be my graduation project. So this is my mission is to do this. And for everyone who are artists and they know how to express, because without art, COVID didn’t pass. And without art, this genocide will not pass because genocide is shown by video, by pictures, by drawings, by everything that, any tools, Gaza people were not able to receive tools and objects because it was prevented from the occupation, but they were drawing and making sculptures on the sand, on the shores, and on the beach of the sea because art has many ways and it’s very strong and this is how we are expressing it. And that's really a very important tool as artists to really feel if you are not stable, you can make about it work. If you are stable, you can make about it work, and you can let people know what you are passing through. And we have a lot to talk about and we have a lot to spread and to let people see what’s real and what is happening.

Nabra: That's so well said. And just the idea of how to use our art right now and the importance of the spotlight and the voice that we have as artists is incredibly important to highlight that we can tell the story. We can shift focus at least to the story if it's not our story to tell. Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, their entire 2024 season is about Palestine now and I'm sure there are other places that are shifting focus to make sure that we will focus on Palestine, we'll tell the stories, we'll elevate the voices, elevate the advocacy, and also not forget—make that a longer term conversation. And so, yes, we urge all artists to do that. All people really with their spotlight to elevate, to amplify voices because at least we can do that, if not, of course, all the other advocacy.

Jeries: That’s really much appreciated because, yeah, it’s really a strong tool. And I would say there is this sentence that was said to me from the beginning when I started. They were telling me, “But don’t victimize yourself,” and I’m not victimizing myself. I am coming out of this. I am a victim of your system. I’m victim of all of that what you are doing. So I’m not victimizing myself. And I decided that my art will not be victimizing, but I have all of the disgusting things that you do. I will put it on the table and I will show you that you are doing this.

Nabra: Yeah. And also, and that art can have that complexity. It can tell so many aspects to a story without feeling one dimensional and that’s also incredibly important.

Marina: Jeries, thank you so much for this. It’s always great to get to hear you talk. I’m glad that this time now other people get to hear you too instead of me just being like, “My amazing friend Jeries said this.” So thank you for sharing everything that you did with us today. The work you do is so important. And then just spotlighting Palestine now and continuing really to not look away from what’s happening as it does feel like a lot of Western countries are looking away and we can’t. So we want to continue to, as you both have just said, spotlight Palestine. So thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

Jeries: Thank you so much for this opportunity. Also, it’s really a treatment for me because when I’m talking about it with people that understands what is happening, it makes me feel that I am really human again and I’m just really having the opportunity. And I wish that this genocide will stop as soon as possible and there is really an exact and real and clear decision that will be taken as humans and as governments. There is a big gap from this and that, and unfortunately it’s not becoming really a normal life anymore. So what I really wish is that people can really be powerful and they speak out and never push away your beliefs and the cause that you have to fight for in order to be really human again. And thank you so much for this chance. Thank you really.

Marina: Thank you. Shukran ktir.

Marina: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching HowlRound wherever you find podcasts. If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. 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 the howlround.com website. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and contribute your ideas to the comments.

Nabra: Yalla, bye!

Marina: Yalla, bye!

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