Palestinian theater, past and present

Palestinian theater continues to be a means of artistic and political expression.

al-monitor Palestinian actors perform the play "Animal Farm" at the Freedom Theater in Jenin refugee camp, March 28, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Topics covered

politics, palestine, israel, culture, cultural conflict, censorship, artists

Feb 24, 2014

As Palestinians, we remained in our land to live as citizens of the State of Israel, and our national cause has not been resolved since 1948. Theater is a branch of an active culture. Its main mission is to help inculcate national identity and build up awareness in an audience of creative professionals in areas requiring a refined level of cultural, aesthetic, creative and national awareness. Therefore, the present topic is tightly related to our national cause. Although the creative artwork made by theater people does not directly address the political and national cause, it is certainly connected to our particular history and geographic location … and our national identity.

What is the point of elaborating on the issue of nationalism and politics? The topic that needs to be addressed is the identity of Palestinian theater for the Palestinians of 1948, who were forced to choose between two things: accepting the blue Israeli ID card, or leaving the homeland and turning into refugees outside the country, along with the rest of their brethren displaced in camps and around the world.

Theater is not a common consumable commodity, but rather a cultural field par excellence that needs content and form to take theatrical artwork to the highest level possible. Since Palestinian theater is under the authority of the state where it exists, namely Israel, and simply because there are two conflicting causes, namely the Israeli occupation and the just Palestinian cause, we are required to reflect what we want to say theatrically, if this artwork is produced and prepared to be a Palestinian theater or show that has its own identity, form, being and civilization, and that it is closely related to its Palestinian roots and Arabism. The common point between all this is that theater has a human quality in the first place.

From isolation to creative awakening

We were under Israeli military rule until 1964. The occupation used to take strict, repressive, military actions against us. Then civilian rule was established. We did not have any remarkable theatrical traditions. Given that theater is a public and collective art, there was no theatrical activity at that time. There was an almost total disruption from the Arab world, which we were completely convinced would be our support and would save us with a rescue army. We have waited a long time for [the Arab world] to actually help us, not merely with slogans, so that we go back to it after the new occupation separated us.

Since the late 1960s, particularly in the mid-1970s, there has been a Palestinian and Arab creative awakening in many cultural and national fields, including theater. Some individual troupes and artists have emerged. However, it remained volunteer work and a hobby more than a profession. Theater was not enough to make money. This pushed those involved in theater to have another job for a living and to spend their free time in theater. There were no institutes or schools teaching theater. At that time, the start had to necessarily take place in the city, because theater is ​​civil and city activity, although there were troupes in villages along with al-Masrah al-Nahid of Haifa, Al-Masrah Al-Hadith in the city of Nazareth, and in the (Arab) city of Jerusalem from the 1970s, until the Palestinian Al-Hakawati Theater was established.

The other type of arts had a better chance to survive and spread, as is the case of poetry, which represents an extension of the ancient Arab traditions through our Arab history. Poetry, writing and painting are taken up by a person, while theater is difficult, as it combines all type of arts and needs to be assembled, and there must be an audience when performed. Therefore, theater is a collective public art, which is difficult under hard political circumstances. As such, authorities found in theater an inflammatory art that raises awareness collectively. As Israeli authorities are aware of their interests, they drafted laws based on their own interests, and forced Palestinians not to violate them. They developed a systematic and smart plan to put educational curricula under their thumb. They were selective in the way they applied this curriculum through principals and teachers who are subject to the curriculum and ready to firmly apply it under supervision from inspectors and intelligence agencies. In a dangerous and systematic brainwashing plan, the largest age group of our people, the one ranging from childhood to the end of high school, was found under a misleading curriculum that falsified history and built up the awareness of us being affiliated with and dependent on Israel. The aim was to take us to where we waived our Palestinian identity and contented ourselves with our sectarian, religious and familial identity.

Under this pressure, and the attempt to preserve our being and not be involved in a direct confrontation with a new powerful regime that proved capable of defeating Arab armies, we, who are eager to work in theater, found ourselves looking for a social art, and preparing and amending Western plays to fit the nature of our society. At the same time, we adopted self-censorship in a way to prevent ourselves from interfering in politics, incitement and nationalism, because what we are doing is not a secret, but rather a theater that is open for anyone who wants to attend and watch.

Local scripts became rare. Sometimes we resorted to scripts from the Arab world — which has also begun to draw attention toward cultural awareness, including theater, especially in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Morocco — and the many translated and Arabic scripts released in Kuwait. However, we lacked and still lack the backbone, which is the starting point for theater shows, namely the script for theatrical shows, particularly those scripts that balance between our national, political and social being. We do not deny that lately we have had some good Palestinian scripts that were performed. They, however, did not meet our needs to the fullest. We are proud that some writers with good theatrical knowledge are currently striving to fill this vacuum.

Encoding and implying

During the 1970s and 1980s, theater was still subject to the control of the Israeli authorities, just like movie theaters. Troupes sometimes resorted to disguising and implying their national topics, as national and political plays were banned by the security apparatus, the censorship committee and the Israeli Supreme Court. When theater was first resorted to as a mean of expression, most of the plays were distinguished by the social issues they opted for, away from handling national and political issues that may lead to an immediate clash with censorship and monitoring authorities. These have warned against interfering in politics, without adding that they mean national policy, considered by the authorities to be a form of interference in state security matters, and not “politics” in the way it serves Israel.

Certainly, this does not mean we are conclusively deducing that theater is assessed by how much the subjects are being tackled from one angle, because theater is different than direct political speech. It is a humanitarian and artistic art influencing all causes. However, the intensity of clashes between the requirements of authorities and those of the political cause at a period when national liberation is sought after — as is the case with the rest of the people who were liberated and granted the right to self-determination — has made us stress the need to take advantage of theater as a field serving the identity and national causes.

The aforementioned is proved in that Israeli censorship on plays and cinema remained until the late 1970s. Police used to attend our play “The Lost Peace,” which touched on the issue of prisoners. The police informed us that we should stop performing until we got prior approval from the censorship committee. This was not implemented methodically and strictly on all other plays, but rather on plays that had been reported as inflammatory or political. When we went on with the performance for three more shows, we received an official order to appear for investigation at the police station, along with all the cast. At the time, this put pressure on parents since there were children and girls in the cast. Some of the parents asked us to get authorization from the censorship committee.

The censorship committee included 21 members, 19 of whom opposed the play, while one Arab member was neutral and one extreme rightist Zionist approved on the play under the pretext that it would be a good and easy chance for the security agency to follow up on the reaction of the audience. Since the play was a form of a popular reaction on national and inflammatory issues, they would be able to note the reactions openly. This was better than having the Arab audience opposed to the state hiding all these reactions deep inside. It would be easier for them to monitor, arrest, try or punish those posing a threat to “security” and instigators of this type of national and inflammatory theatrical expression.

We appealed the decision to the Israeli Supreme Court. All three judges refused to grant authorization because the play instigated against Israel and posed a threat to its security. When our lawyer confronted them with the fact that not even once the word Israel was mentioned, they replied that the reaction of the audience clearly showed that the evil, tyrant, and oppressive characters hint at the State of Israel, while the audience’s cheers and applause went to the fair and good characters who symbolized Arabs, Palestinians or those subjected to oppression. When we lost hope of being able to continue with the performance, the play was turned into a book. The publication was not banned, since it constituted an individual relationship with the reader in an isolated way. Theater, however, is about a relationship between human groups gathered collectively, shoulder to shoulder, in front of a group of innovators communicating an innovative currents of reactions to these groups with an aim that closely resembles a state of demonstration.

Some Israeli critics who wrote about watching our plays concluded that the symbolization of evil in some scenes was meant to be about Israelis, especially since the performers were Palestinians. The critics had a prejudgment that performers sought to preach against occupation, evil and oppression.

Monitoring plays

Israel expanded, became stronger, and was victorious in almost all of its wars with the Arabs. It considered Jerusalem a unified city affiliated to the state of Israel and that had to abide by its civil regulations and not its occupational ones. Later on, Israel did the same with the Golan Heights. It added this part officially within its borders by virtue of a governmental and parliamentary decision. Israeli authorities abolished censorship on theater in the 1948 territories knowing that the theater turnout outside schools was very limited, did not have deeply rooted traditions for people to attend the plays and did not constitute a serious popular trend. Additionally, plays were also cautious in what to touch on, performing self-censorship, notably given that the authoritarian terrorism reiterated the seriousness of being involved in politics and national slogans under pain of punishments, suppression or losing the expected moral and financial outcome of the cast, which can keep them going with their “profession” or, better yet, their “mission” or innovative “concern.”

The Israeli authorities were convinced that schools have thousands of people constituting an audience ready for change, which led them to stick to their long-term curriculum plan. The authorities used an iron-fist approach to implement the curriculum. Any extracurricular activities, such as theater, had to be authorized by the Israeli Ministry of Education, which would watch any play that was to be performed in schools. They were convinced that entrenching a certain curriculum among generations growing up under its authority would systematically annihilate the Palestinian identity and reinforce the sense of belonging and subordination to the burgeoning state and its laws. It is the project of “Israelizing” Palestinians intellectually and educationally from a young age and until the end of compulsory education, only to have them serve the state in all its institutions, including the army, police and intelligence agency. It is a type of Israelization in an imperfect, fragmented and fragmenting citizenship. Israel is seeking to transform us into hybrid groups with an imperfect citizenship. Instead of unifying Palestinians under the Palestinian identity, it keeps them confused between being Israeli or Palestinian, considering them to be merely Muslim, Druze, Christian, Circassian and Bedouin visitors belonging to various families, religions and sects. This helps the authorities divide the already divided, scatter groups who are already scattered and implement the policy of “divide and conquer” at the highest level possible.

The Israeli authorities kept on monitoring plays through the educational system and the methodical pressure to work within the scope of the already-set curriculum, which was designed to annul concepts of identity and falsify history. It granted freedom to work outside the confines of schools without authorization, after it canceled the censorship committee. However, it tightened the grip inside schools, since they are tools that directly affect the minds of large human groups since childhood, and brainwashed the students through a strict curriculum and regulations that did not allow other forces to affect them without a special authorization within the limits of its imposed conditions.

Canceling censorship on theater and cinema in the 1948 territories was countered with the implementation of this censorship and repetition of the same experience in the territories occupied since 1967, where military rule was tightening the grip on everything, including the cultural movement.

When the citizens of the 1948 territories were allowed to enter the 1967 territories, troupes that wanted to show their plays in “the areas,” as Israel liked to describe them, had to submit a theatrical-work permit application to the military ruler. Even occupied Jerusalem, which Israel had declared a city with civil rule due to its unity and autonomy, was subject to intense pressure. The military ruler had ordered the shutdown of Al-Hakawati Theater several times, by virtue of the emergency law and under the pretext that some of the theater’s activities were provocative and directed against Israel’s security.

Specialization and professionalism

By the second half of the 1980s, art and theater enthusiasts had grown significantly. There was a rising interest in specializing in this field. Enthusiasts enrolled in higher institutes and earned certificates. They took theatrical work as a profession, relying not only on their interest, but also on education and know-how. The field thrived with new directors, actors, designers, decorators, sound and light engineers and technicians, cinematographers, fashion designers, composers, singers, musicians, dancers, makers of masks and puppets, puppeteers, monologue performers, stand-up comedians and mimes. A limited number of screenwriters wrote scripts that were close to the people instead of ones that were closer to literature.

Of course, the same fields witnessed a surge of females who graduated in various areas of the arts and took part in artworks. As a result, there was a sort of balance in the world of theater between male and female contributors. Better yet, a troupe of Palestinian actors and actresses was asked to perform on renowned Jewish stages. Thanks to their professionalism, they outdid Jewish actors, even though they were speaking Hebrew. When theater flourished in Palestine, they returned to offer the best of their wide experience to their people in a highly professional manner and with unmatched expertise.

At that time, there was a dire need to move from mere volunteering into professionalism in the field. People needed to realize that theater was no longer a secondary field that did not offer horizons of professionalism because it did not put food on the table. Ambitious people seeking to become professionals established ambulant theatrical troupes and fixed theaters. To turn theater into a source of living, they established nonprofit organizations that relied on attracting funds to produce their theatrical works and manage their affairs. There was a sort of belief that theater was very costly, and sales of tickets alone would not suffice to provide for the workers in the field and to allocate a part of the returns to production.

The problem of funding

Along this trend, several theatrical troupes were formed. Some of them stopped working, while others emerged. Today, there are 20 troupes and theaters, most of which serve as associations and receive subsidies from the Israeli Ministry of Culture. Artists who are not committed to a certain troupe or theater also work individually. As opposed to ambulatory theaters, some fixed theaters that have their own halls and headquarters have become official institutions. There are almost no independent theaters that do not receive subsidies from governmental institutions. Only one or two theaters refuse to work with governmental institutions, which offer support and name, at the beginning of every season, the troupes that receive support from them. The troupes appear to be affiliated with this ministry, which seemingly gives them an encouragement grant. Meanwhile, subsidy recipients consider themselves citizens who fulfill their duties and pay taxes and are rightfully entitled to these subsidies. They do not see subsidies as charity.

Nevertheless, the unequal distribution of subsidies to Palestinian troupes and theaters has unveiled the discrimination based on political affiliations. A whopping 97% of subsidies go to Jewish theaters and troupes, while only 3% are allocated to Arabs. The budget is initially collected from us in the form of taxes and payments to public Israeli institutions. If we currently constitute 20% of the population, logically, the state should give us back 20% of the theater-allocated budget.

Despite these thoughts and justifications, I remained suspicious that the troupes are getting financial support with no return. Authorities think that if they give crumbs of the total budget to Arab troupes, they will guarantee that these theaters and troupes will abide by their institutional conditions and will remain under their control. If not, the authorities would at least ensure that when they openly declare their support for these theaters and troupes, this would imply that the troupes are connected to them. Arabs receiving the crumbs claim that they are ready to play the game since each side has its own goals. They want to have their rights as citizens and as part of the state’s institutions. Consequently, they can express their creativity within the allowed space and at least enrich their creative productions and complete them, thanks to modest financial capacities.

What makes these troupes and theaters special is that they sometimes attempted to find local writing, directing and production pertinent to the Palestinian environment. Most of the topics of other troupes were taken from outside the Palestinian entourage and lacked a trend or method distinguishing their work. They could not issue a theatrical report to explain their inclination in terms of form, content and school of thought or the unique trend that they are seeking to create or innovate to make a new leap and add a rare special flavor to the world of theater. The special form and content of Al-Hakawati Troupe and the Palestinian Asseera Theater, which they expressed through their reports, distinguished their work and made them stand out.

At this stage, theater is no longer a field of volunteer work. It has turned into a professional source of income. As most spectators are concentrated in schools, troupes have focused their efforts on reaching out to schools to display their shows abundantly. Outside schools, it is hard to get enough spectators with the least advertisement possible and with the least prior preparations and expenses. We have not yet reached the desired number of spectators who feel driven out of their houses by their addiction to theater to watch a certain play. Therefore, plays destined for the public would stop after 10 or 20 shows, knowing that production would have taken a lot of time, effort and money.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Radi Shehadeh

Recommended Articles

US protests inspire activists across Middle East
Week in Review | Human rights | Jun 19, 2020
Prosecution of blogger over Quran parody ignites renewed fears of censorship
Barrett Limoges | Press freedom | Jun 2, 2020
Two men arrested in US for allegedly helping Carlos Ghosn flee Japan
Al-Monitor Staff | Courts and the law | May 20, 2020
Israel’s top court cancels bonus plan for artists performing in settlements
Rina Bassist | Cultural heritage | May 13, 2020
Independent filmmakers dramatize COVID-19 in videos posted online
Youssra el-Sharkawy | Art and entertainment | Apr 16, 2020