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Theatre in Palestine | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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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.

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