East Jerusalem theater fights to keep doors open

The Palestinian theater El-Hakawati, the only cultural institution of its kind operating in East Jerusalem, is drowning in debt and faces closure yet another time.

al-monitor Amer Khalil, director of the Palestinian National Theater (El-Hakawati), holds a court order outside the theater in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Nov. 27, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

theater, palestinian human rights, palestinian culture, palestinian-israeli conflict, east jerusalem

Dec 22, 2015

El-Hakawati Theater in East Jerusalem is considered the Palestinian National Theater. Three weeks ago, on Nov. 29, El-Hakawati, "The Storyteller," was spared immediate closure after it managed to raise a third of its debts, amounting to 600,000 shekels ($155,000). The theater’s creditors and the court agreed to grant El-Hakawati an extension to raise the rest of the money it owes.

This is not the first time that the theater has faced closure. About a year ago, it was almost forced to shut its doors when the Municipality of Jerusalem demanded that it pay its accrued municipal taxes amounting to 3.5 million shekels ($907,000). Donations and grants from supporters and groups around the world, particularly from European organizations, saved El-Hakawati that time.

The problem is that the financial crisis the theater has faced for years is not the only hurdle it must overcome. The deteriorating security situation in the city and the fact that the current right-wing government in Israel considers El-Hakawati an extension of the Palestinian Authority (PA) bode ill for the theater as well. The theater’s managers, staff, actors, supporters and friends (all of whom have gotten fewer and fewer over the years) have gone from one crisis to the next, struggling to remain open and protect the theater from the storms brewing all around it.

El-Hakawati began in 1977 as an amateur theater troupe based in the home of its founder, Francois Abu-Salem. At the time, its repertoire consisted mainly of plays for children in East Jerusalem. Over time, it expanded, and by 1984, it was prepared to move into a home of its own, a unique building adjacent to the American Colony Hotel.

That El-Hakawati is seen as Palestine's national theater has set it on a collision course with the Israeli establishment. In 2009, the police issued a closure order for the theater to prevent the opening ceremonies of the Palestinian Literary Festival from taking place there. Former Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovich explained at the time that according to the Oslo Accord, the PA was barred from organizing any activities in Jerusalem.

Another closure order in 2013 was even more controversial. The minister of internal security blocked a children’s puppetry festival from taking place in the theater, claiming that it was funded by the PA. This decision led to widespread public protests by Israeli artists and theater staff, demanding that El-Hakawati be granted artistic freedom.

Financially, El-Hakawati is caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, it has absolutely no interest in receiving budgetary support from Israeli institutions. This is to ensure (according to its perception) that it remains free of Israeli supervision or, worse, Israeli censorship. On the other hand, it is also afraid to receive support from the PA, so that Israel does not order another closure under the pretext that the theater is actually an attempt by the PA to gain a foothold illegally in this complex city.

“We have the same problem as all other Palestinian cultural organizations,” the theater’s artistic director Amer Khalil said in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “We receive no government support. We survive mainly off the donations of European states and organizations. We are trying to raise donations, to hold a fundraiser and even to raise money on Indiegogo. This is the Palestinian National Theater. We must be independent. We need our independence.”

The theater’s staff and supporters realize that even if they get through the current financial issues, they will still have problems surviving in the long term due to deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and in general. They say that up until the second intifada (2000-2005), tens of thousands of people from all over the West Bank visited the theater annually and many of its productions were performed in theaters throughout the West Bank and Gaza. But the audience has declined since the second intifada, and even Jewish theater aficionados of alternative theater no longer come.

“Conditions in Jerusalem are tense, and that just exacerbates the situation. The checkpoints, the separation fence and the denial of access to Jerusalem for Palestinians living in Palestine make it impossible for us to expand or even maintain our audience. Right now, everybody is suffering,” said Khalil. “Now our audience has been limited to people living in East Jerusalem only. Even some of the people living in the suburbs can’t come, while people who can come aren’t in the mood for theater. It’s the last thing on their mind.”

Daoud Kuttab, one of the founders of the El-Hakawati project and an Al-Monitor columnist, speaks sadly about this dream that is drifting away — to build an influential cultural institution. ''What happens to El-Hakawati is a sort of micro cosmos reflecting what is happening between the two peoples. The ''problem'' allegedly is that El-Hakawati is our national theater. As such, we wished for it to be significant and with intellectual depth. A national theater is a title with a meaning. But in reality, if ever people arrive to the theater, it's because they happen to be in Jerusalem, to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque or do shopping. El-Hakawati has turned from a national theater into a provincial one, without any vision to spread around.''

Referring to the survival of the theater and the dream of its founders, Kuttab said, ''The important question is in which way the theater will survive. Probably not in the format we dreamt about and hoped for. We dedicated too much blood and sweat for us to give up on it and let it die. It will probably be operated in some other format because the building has a historical value that can be used. Perhaps as a venue for events, weddings, things like that. But a real national theater under the current circumstances, that would be very very difficult to achieve.''

Amer Khalil adds that in the past there were some intriguing attempts at collaboration between El-Hakawati and Jewish Jerusalem’s Khan Theater. “When I was still an actor with the El-Hakawati troupe, we would perform in Israeli theaters. At one point, we even put on a joint show with the Khan Theater. It was a great production, but the message that it relayed was deceptive. When you appear together, Jewish and Arab actors work hand in hand, but that is not an accurate reflection of the situation. It’s an illusion. Besides, Palestinians can’t come freely to Jerusalem to see a joint production. How can we cooperate if only one side actually benefits from it?” he asked.

Today, a joint Arab-Jewish production seems inconceivable. Extremist forces on both sides have gotten stronger, so that even if the managers and actors of both theaters wanted to put on a joint performance, they might well be considered collaborators.

Khalil has no interest in performing plays that focus on the security situation in Jerusalem either. ''I don’t want to cover politics. I simply have no interest in that. I hate politics. It took us 15 years to produce anything about the first intifada,” he explained.

“I like nice stories, so I wait until we have the reason and the opportunity to tell good stories. It is my job to crack open the door so that people can get a breath of fresh air. I want people to come to laugh. Right now, I need to give people a place where they can relax, enjoy themselves, rest and escape, if only for a moment, from the depressing reality all around them. That is why it is so important for us to fight for this place, for this theater.”

If El-Hakawati is forced to close, it will be a harsh blow, and not only to theater lovers either. It would foreshadow a worsening of the situation faced by the Arabs of East Jerusalem. They will have lost another foothold that anchors them to the city. Yet while no one from the theater would dare mention it for now, they all realize that, seemingly, the die has already been cast. No theater can survive when its loyal audience is unable to attend its shows.

Nevertheless, Khalil is in no rush to abandon his dream.

“I dream of putting on a politicized play intended for an Israeli audience,” he confided. “I don’t want to do it as a kind of protest. I don’t have any bad intent. I just want to show them the Palestinian reality that they don’t have a chance to see. At the same time, I want to put on a politicized Israeli play about how they suffer from terrorism. I don’t know if I can fulfill my dream, but in any event, I can’t stop fantasizing about it.

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