STAGING ATHOL FUGARD IN PALESTINE: In the Theatre of Conflict
From a Palestine Theatre Journal
Note from the author: The following excerpts are based upon work on the ground in the Palestinian West Bank. They focus on life and work there. This piece does not, therefore, reflect the broader views of the author on the need for Israel and Palestine to eventually maintain their own states in the context of a collaborative agreement, addressing the needs of both the peoples for justice and security. It is a substantial narrative of the artistic work and the political events surrounding it. Some names, apart from those of theatre artists, educators and public figures, are changed.
Rehearsals for the first play by Athol Fugard I was to direct in Palestine coincided with a drying up of the water supply. The so-called gem of the Palestinian territories, Bethlehem, would see street actions by frustrated youths, throwing stones at the buildings of the helpless municipal authorities. I would find myself commuting from Abu Dis where I worked on helping to shape a performing arts program for the university to the ancient town of Beit Jala — and returning each night in a cab via the harrowing roads circling through the so-called Valley of Fire due to lack of access to the swift main highway reserved for Israeli vehicles alone. These were not really great hardships by the normal standards of Palestine, nor did they compete with those faced by Athol Fugard and his collaborators — whose work I was there to stage — over three decades earlier in South Africa. I have always believed that the arts provide one of the main roads to liberation, spiritually and sometimes politically, so my mind was not so much on the literal roads I traveled each day. I came to be traveling those roads to undertake a project I hoped would speak to the situation in Israel-Palestine, an experiment that might be conducive to further discussion in my own country.
After corresponding with philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, at the time President of Al Quds University in Palestine, and a series conversations with my actor colleague, Maren Rosenberg — who had stayed several times in the Palestinian territories and collaborated with a theatre company near Bethlehem — I put together the first of two theatre projects in the West Bank. The early discussions had led to an idea that seemed to have the great potential for Palestinian audiences. The seemingly endless cycle of enforced separation, the resulting resistance, and ensuing repression and conflict in Israel-Palestine is unique, but it does have a few parallels in modern history. South Africa of the twentieth century is one: though it should be stated at the outset that the admittedly imperfect comparison raises hackles among defenders of Israel’s occupation the Palestinian territories. The occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza and the human rights issues of Israeli Palestinians is in fact probably too messy to try to nail it all down with the word “Apartheid,” a political system of segregating ethnic groups so that one group could rule over the others.
In the observations of life in occupied Palestine that follow, I will not use that word to describe it. But twentieth century Apartheid in South Africa, and the manner in which its dissolution was brought about, does seem to provide the closest parallel in recent history from which Israelis and Palestinian’s can learn. A long string of Athol Fugard plays now considered to be modern classics, starting with The Island, the first Fugard play we would undertake in Palestine, and including Boesman and Lena — which would become the second Fugard project produced with Diyar Dance Theatre in Bethlehem in 2014 — as well as Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Statements under The Immorality Act, Master Harold and the Boys, The Blood Knot and others from the last decades of the Apartheid regime, comprised extraordinary cultural products of the struggle to resolve the entrenched racial and ethnic system that once held sway in South Africa.
As already mentioned, the occasion of my first visit to do theatre work in Jerusalem, and the first Fugard project, came in the form of an invitation from Nusseibeh, a widely known Palestinian intellectual and activist in both Israel and Palestine, who had built Al Quds University into a thriving academic institution (A task that, among other things, required dislodging Hamas followers who had influence in the university’s early years.) It is located in Abu Dis, a town that had once been attached to Jerusalem, but is now cut apart from it by the massive Israeli “security wall.” The very name of that Kafka-esque structure is different according to the side one takes on the question of Palestine: It is “security fence” for the Israeli authorities and the dominant media in Israel, and “separation wall” or even “Apartheid wall” for those advocating for Palestinian rights.
Nusseibeh had written to me that he had long ago hoped to start a theatre program there, so while I was there directing, the plan was to initiate discussions on a performing arts program in Abu Dis at Al Quds University among the faculty. (That project, due to issues of ongoing bureaucratic dysfunction in the fragmented and ill-funded Administration of the territories, would not pan out the first time round.) The production was to be done with a touring company close to Bethlehem in Beit Jala, called INAD (or “stubborn”) Theatre, which gave up its permanent venue after it had been bombed three times during operation defensive shield by the Israeli Defense Forces.
Despite my admiration for Nusseibeh’s work over the years — and the grand memoir of his life as the product of a family line in Jerusalem stemming back to Umar’s first visit to the city with the female chieftain of an Arab tribe (Nuseybeh) in the 8th century, as well as his immersion in the recent history of Jerusalem — I met with him only once during my first stay in Palestine. He no longer lived near campus but had a long community. His family house, formerly a five minute ride or ten minute walk from downtown Jerusalem, was now a very long commute. He had been “walled out,” and wanting to maintain his residency in his family city, he bought a new house in the old city. When I arrived at his previous house, I was greeted by a student-caretaker. The twelve meter high wall had been built right into the right and left sides of his house. That put the front door exit outside of Jerusalem proper and in the West Bank. Of course, it is by the front door one determines residency. It was a strange spectacle to me, as an outsider. Had Nusseibeh arranged for me to be greeted at his home absorbed into the wall on purpose?
The placement of the wall all up and down the Palestinian-Israeli border is something no authority in Israel has ever even tried to justify either to the Palestinian population or the world. Sometimes it is built a hundred yards and sometimes a few kilometers inside Palestinian territory. No Israeli authority needs to say why it takes some of the best orchards; why it cuts some villages off from the West Bank they are actually part of; or why it is built in the middle of formerly lively market streets in cities, rendering them impassable. To stop the wall builders from cutting his university off from two of its museums and its stadium, an administrator told me, Nusseibeh quickly ordered his university administration with desks and lap-tops out into the path of the wall, with the help of a generator and canopy tents. This sort of non-violent resistance has to be conducted by Palestinians regularly, while the press in Israel and the United States has frequently asked why they do not use non-violent resistance “instead of terrorism,” as if they never do. In any case, the Nusseibeh house, home to an activist against the partition of Israel-Palestine, ironically now comprised part of the wall. A statement by the occupation authorities?
The first Fugard play: The Island or “Al Jazeera”
This undertaking to introduce the works of Athol Fugard began with first Palestinian production of The Island (“Al Jazeera,” performed in Arabic). Other productions would ensue by other companies: in Haifa Israel, and by Freedom Theatre at the Jenin refugee camp. Approaching this first project would present many challenges. Happily, the script plays in under one hour, and it is certainly much more widely performed than Boesman and Lena — the Fugard production done by Diyar Theatre in Bethlehem two years later. INAD Theatre’s production, supported by Al Quds University, was rehearsed in Beit Jala’s Orthodox club, a converted Monastery, now supported by Christian organizations and open to the public.
We began with source-work and table-work in the small theatre office. With ample time for translation work we had a very strong translation by Tamer Salman which needed very few revisions. Much of the discussion naturally turned to sorting out the similarities and differences between present-day occupied Palestine and those of Apartheid in the recent past. These discussions with the actors Osama Aljabri and Said Zarzar Issa, INAD Artistic Director Khalid Massou, and Maren Rosenberg, who served as dramaturg, were full of cultural and political discoveries for the team. Grasping the extraordinary political reality took us well beyond the normal challenge of understanding the conditions of another time and a different country. As those who have worked with the play know, there is also a Beckett-like element of trying to create meaning out of an existence of indeterminate duration in a confined and isolated space (Beckett’s Endgame comes to mind.) The circumstances in which the two characters found themselves in the play, in fact, were swiftly understood in intuitive fashion by the Palestinians involved with the production.
The characters John and Winston are in the notorious Robben Island prison under arbitrary terms of arrest, and this set of powerful given circumstances was swiftly grasped in land where “administrative detention” is used at the complete discretion of military and security authorities, without having to pass through the hands of a Judge and without the accused being given a hearing or confronting their accusers. The terms doled out to prisoners are generally one six month term at a time, renewable without legal limits. The majority of these prisoners are not charged with a crime, nor do they need to be. At any given time anywhere from 200 to 2000 people sit in prisons run by the occupation authorities. As of this writing, this system lives on.
In the South African prison in the play the prisoners are permitted periodically to put on peculiar arts shows for each other — for which Winston and John are rehearsing their version of Antigone when we meet them at the start of the play. This, in fact, would not be a strange notion for those Palestinians living under unlimited detention, for Israeli prison authorities also allow arts projects for some political prisoners or detainees. At Al Quds University, where I worked on shaping a proposed theatre curriculum, I asked to see its unique “Prison Museum,” which showcases presents stories about the sort of people who are arrested and also displays arts projects completed by prisoners afforded that latitude during stays of many years. Some of them were mosaics or models revealing the prisoners’ aspirations. A recurrent image was the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, or models of ships escaping to open sea with sails filled with wind.
The “given circumstances” in a system of arbitrary imprisonment, that actors in Fugard’s The Island always need to grasp, were no problem in this case. That said, the cultural circumstances and geography, the nature of the townships that prisoners dreamed of going back to in South Africa, are something quite different from that of Palestinian society under occupation. To gain an understanding of the circumstances of the characters in the play, it still required research, discussion of the specifics of South Africa in the period — a lot of googling and more source-work on Maren Rosenberg’s part, in her capacity as dramaturg. We advanced from readings to workshops in physical work for what we hoped would be a very physical performance.
It soon became clear in the work on The Island would face other obstacles. Some of these were no different from the obstacles faced by everyone in the Palestinian territories. Since the Oslo Accords, the rule has been that the water from West Bank aquifer, the greatest source of water to both Israel and Palestine, would be divided 80% for Israel and its settlements in Palestine, and 20% for the Palestinian territories. After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — an motivating force behind the peace process — in 1995 by an assassin under the tutelage of ultra right-wing rabbis, among others, no proposals emanating from those agreements have moved forward. This includes adjusting the share of water for each side.
Moreover, there is a common perception now that those agreements were seriously flawed to begin with, though the notion of a “two state solution” is still trumpeted repeatedly by politicians in Israel and the US — and the Palestinian negotiators as well. Sharing of natural resources has never been dealt with, to the great detriment of Palestinian society. Every summer during the hot spells the arid and desert areas of Palestine run out of water, the taps dry up, and the Palestinian Authority (or the P.A.) has to pay cash for water from Israel — which ironically to a great degree comes from the West Bank Aquifer — and which is then transported in tankers to the places most in need in the West Bank.
The need for water, the need for justice
Midway through the rehearsal period that summer, the wells and tanks dried up. The Orthodox Club in Beit Jala where we rehearsed has an ancient oval-shaped communal well, where until the late twentieth century, women could wash and lay out the clothes, and people could fetch extra household water. Despite its large size, about eight meters in length, there was nothing in it. Happily, several days into the Palestinian water crisis, a tanker-truck showed up, and the drivers put a hose down the well, restoring water at this facility which is supposed to house public events. Elsewhere, the water for purchase for wells and tanks was not available for some time.
In fact, though the water scarcity in the Palestinian territories recurs every summer, the summer of 2011 had brought about an actual drought. Soon bathrooms in public places without wells had no tap water. After four days of the water being turned off (The Palestinian territories had used their 20% quota of its own water apparently) the toilets in the Orthodox club, as elsewhere in the West Bank, were filled up and the area near the bathrooms the air was rank. Flies and vermin accumulated.
Beit Jala is a small ancient city built in stone, but a few kilometers down the road in Central Bethlehem youths gathered one day and began throwing stones at the offices of the municipal authorities — who of course had nothing to do with the shutting off the water in the West Bank. The IDF wisely had pulled their troops out of urban centers in the decade after the second Intifada, so now Palestinian municipal authorities were the only target of the wrath of the young people there. They get the blame for not advancing the cause of the population in such circumstances. (The P.A. always runs the risk of being seen as accommodating the occupation, while the Israeli cabinet often choose to see the P.A. as the enemy, when they aren’t demanding their collaboration in law enforcement.) Of course, we were able to purchase bottled water for the rehearsals. The toilets were another mater. Still, everyone in Palestine accepts the idea that the “show must go on” whether it concerns the burgeoning small theatre movement or in the wider “theatre” of the occupied territories.
In the opening scenes of The Island, after completing their labor in the hot sun in the prologue, the cell-mates John and Winston are rehearsing John’s adaptation of Antigone, about the girl who refuses to heed the laws of the state of Thebes, ruled by Creon. In Sophocles’ Greek original, the state has left the corpse of Antigone’s rebel brother out to rot in the hot sun as an example, and every night she goes back to bury it. Creon tries to reason with her, arguing on behalf of the state’s need for order against the chaos produced by rebels, while Antigone argues that the bonds of family and kinship are even stronger ties that call to her. (Before “Operation Protective Edge,” the third siege and bombardment of Gaza in 2014, Prime Minister Netanyahu and government representatives would repeatedly demand a state of “calm” before they would end the bombardment of densely populated Gaza.) It is a matter of the serving the good of the polis, the previously constituted state, as opposed to a struggle based on loyalty to one’s kin and family or people.
Winston, who is to play the defiant princess Antigone in the prison show, against John’s Creon, simply does not understand the plot. It is obvious to him that Antigone is morally right and the plot makes him angry, so the two men argue about the validity of a state that enforces such laws. Winston insists that Antigone is innocent, and John, that from the state’s point of view she is guilty. The rehearsals break down into arguments and conflict born of frustration and pain. These scenes are punctuated by the games the two closely bonded cell-mates play to pretend they are in contact with the outside world — including a scene in which they role-play a phone call to the mainland from the prison. No real phone calls or visits were permitted at Robben Island — as happens to be the general case for Palestinian detainees.
Facing king Creon’s verdict at the end, which will lead to Antigone’s confinement in a sealed tomb on an “island,” in their prison performance, Winston will remove the coarse rope wig he is wearing to address his audience of prisoners. The stand-ins for that prison audience are in fact those sitting in the theatre to see the play: ourselves, the theatre audience. Before the verdict, Winston/Antigone questions the Creon’s notion of Law:
“You are only a man, Creon. Even as there are laws made by men, so too there are others that come from God. He watches my soul for a transgression even as your spies hide in the bush at night to see who is transgressing your laws.”
Removing his wig, Winston addresses the audience directly.
“Gods of out Fathers! My Land! My home! . . . Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs.”
The following year, 2012, the indomitable Freedom Theatre, based in the Jenin refugee camp in the far north of the West Bank, would undertake The Island. The theatre was founded by the charismatic actor and producer, Juliano Mer Khamis — an Israeli who had an Arab father — who was assassinated by someone, still undetermined years later, after his production of Animal Farm in 2011. Freedom Theatre’s own production of The Island toured in North America and later in Latin America. Their version of the play, got the rapt attention of American audiences who had the opportunity to see Palestinians performing South African Apartheid prisoners. At the performance at Georgetown University, which I had the opportunity to attend, the talk-back session with the actors afterwards seemed to create a deepened understanding among the American audience members. The play, when performed abroad by Palestinian actors, had a special immediacy. The audience saw not only the play, but could also see the way material was perceived by the actors and conveyed to them in the live event. When I say the American audience had a “deepened understanding” I mean they gained an understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian in our time — just as the original productions revealed what it was to be non-white in South Africa for much of the last century.
The INAD touring production Al Jazeera was well received due to unusually dynamic acting by Aljabri and Zarzar, who were cited by Palestinian director George Ibrahim for their alacrity in the roles after the opening in 2011. As late as 2015 it was revived for the Darqa Summer Festival in Jordan and received Best Actor, Best Production and Set Design awards. This compact play has clearly spoken to anyone concerned with Palestine — now in several different productions since 2011.
Digging deeper with Fugard: Boesman and Lena
Fugard’s somewhat later play Boesman and Lena bears a few similarities to The Island inasmuch as it is about two inseparable people, victims of South Africa’s Apartheid system. It is also vastly different. In this play, the political system does not appear on stage. It dominates the minds and the emotional life, the dreams and memories, of the two characters on stage.
In discussions with Producing Director Rami Khader of Diyar Dance Theatre in Bethlehem, when we chose the next play I was to do in Palestine, I had to underscore that I thought this play would be much harder, because the characters were on an even more complex and harrowing journey. This Fugard work portrays the way the mind itself is shackled when it is forced to absorb repression and an enforced deprivation of rights. To hold a mirror up to the Palestinian situation for Palestinian audiences, we needed to dig even deeper than we had at INAD Theatre two years before. At the end of my stay, a book by one of my hosts in Palestine, Rev. Mitri Raheb — who has overseen the establishment of a new arts infrastructure for Palestinians in Bethlehem, Faith in the Face of Empire — provided me with a key idea which offers a perspective on this play. He writes that from the perspective of the early Christians in Palestine, “The Messiah has come, and there is no need to wait for another (. . .) The ball was now in the court of humankind, either we could choose to play the game or walk away. Further waiting was a waste of time. The transformed faithful were to engage the world, to challenge the monopoly of power, and to live the life of an already liberated people.”
I would paraphrase this as follows: We must not wait for political and social liberation; we must first liberate ourselves, or remind ourselves that we are free agents to begin with. The Island had directly shown the system of Apartheid playing divide and rule with two prisoners serving arbitrary sentences. The challenge of Boesman and Lena has to do with a special dynamic revealed in the play: Boesman, who oppresses Lena, must liberate himself, despite his own lifetime of degradation, before the two of them can go on together to any kind of future. For this to happen, Lena must first show him what he has turned into: another potential oppressor.
I wanted to work with Osama Aljabri again, this time in the role of the temperamental and manipulative Boesman, and Hanin Tarabay, a Palestinian actress born in Israel and living in Jerusalem, as the disoriented and physically dynamic Lena. We cast Emil Mitri, a unusually fair-haired Palestinian as the Xhosa tribesman Lena calls “Outa” — an interesting challenge. The problem was largely solved by the fact that all of Outa’s lines are written in Xhosa tribal language: a fact which, of course, raised other challenges.
Rami Khader had felt that Boesman and Lena “spoke to him” precisely because he thought Palestinians needed to do some self-examination. Under occupation and deprived of original family lands sometimes Palestinians have turned against each other — with one marked major setback being the battles between the PLO and Hamas in the years after the election in 2006 resulting in Hamas fleeing to Gaza where they obtained exclusive rule, forcing out the PLO. Such jealousies and betrayals had been discussed back during the work on The Island, where they were played out on a more intimate level between the inmates serving arbitrary prison terms. The conflict that the prison authorities could arouse between the two prisoners in that play was highlighted in the opening night discussion, featuring a female leader of the Prisoner’s Association, the Holy Land Trust and the Foreign Secretary of South Africa’s diplomatic corps in Israel and Palestine.
In Boesman and Lena, in Producer Khader’s estimation, the oppression manifested in the occupation and the separation of the two peoples of Israel-Palestine had often invaded personal and family relationships. For example, he felt there are too many women being mistreated by men who couldn’t cope well with their loss of agency and self-esteem in trying to provide for their families. The play provides a perfect parallel to this particular phenomenon.
Boesman and Lena are a homeless couple, wandering the terrain of a strangely Kafka-esque South Africa, in circles, disorientated, with no direction. Perhaps a better comparison would be the Children of Israel of the Old Testament wandering and circling in the desert to get to a Promised Land that they cannot locate. That paradigm, after all, arose from this land, the Holy Land itself. Despite the relative realism of the play, which is reminiscent of some Strindberg plays focusing on the “battle-of-the-sexes,” this play also carries echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — which are hard to miss in The Island as well for that matter. (John Kani and Winston Ntshone, Fugard’s early collaborators, had launched their international careers had doing in a tour of Godot under Fugard’s direction.)
Explaining the play to its audience
“Only when something has been decided can the work really begin. The decisiveness, the cruelty which has extinguished the spontaneity of the moment, demands that an actor begin an extraordinary work: to resurrect the dead.” — Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares.
In 2014, as we moved into dress rehearsals for Boesman and Lena which was coming in at two hours running time even after cuts, the company was confronted with a problem. This would be only the second production to run two hours in modern Palestine. A decade prior a swashbuckling Moroccan epic of almost three hours had played in Ramallah. Our two hour performance was not just so-called “serious theatre,” but a highly intricate one: it contained scenes of darkness and some fairly savage conflict. Therefore, though the script is not really divided into scenes, since we were working in a culture where neither “psychological realism” nor Absurdist theatre have made great inroads, we decided it would be helpful to remind everyone that a story was being told. I wrote a synopsis-of-scenes to be translated to Arabic for the audiences, not unlike the summary of acts and scenes one finds in an opera program. Each scene was described in a sentence or two, like the episodes in a Victorian novel or even a Netflix series.
In the playbill we described Boesman and Lena as a “harrowing dramatic journey in one night, a personal journey taken by a couple forced to wander life’s roads when the bulldozers of an irrational political regime continue to tear down any home they build . . . In this play Fugard challenges us to look at the injustice that the oppressed visit upon one another.” And further:
“Boesman and Lena provides tremendous insights into the way people deprived of dignity as a result of injustice may be tempted to deprive others of dignity to give themselves the illusion that they are empowered. When we are convinced we are less worthy than other people, we are often too tempted to find others who we think are less worthy than we are. This might be people of other ethnic groups and religions. For men, all too often this means women. And so the oppressed can become victims of other oppressed people.”
Again, Boesman and Lena wander in circles around their country, where they have been deprived of the land, of rights and dignity. Lena no longer seems to know where she came from, where she is going, and without a compass to find her way in life seems to lack all purpose. She and Boesman no longer even know why they are together. They are dependent on each other for survival, but this sort of relationship has no depth or love in it. The arguments and the games they play (most often cruel) create the illusion that they are struggling for something, but they are not. They are passing the time in conflict with each other in what they experience as void, especially in the case of Lena. It is a way of making something happen. Anything is better than nothing.
Their visitor in the mud flats where they have camped — the tribal man whom Lena calls “Outa,” from the Xhosa term meaning “Old Man” — offers Lena what she explains is another “pair of eyes.” That is, he is someone new who can see her, to reassure her that she exists. (She says at one point that her dog, recently lost in the bulldozing of their shack, once did this for her.) Outa speaks a language that is not understandable to her, adding yet one more layer to her struggle to determine what things mean.
Boesman and Lena play games in a manner reminiscent of Albert Camus’ notion that people often summon their most vital energies in order to “create in the desert.” For example, in one scene Lena places the coffee cups and pans on the ground to represent different towns and villages and moves them around to help her determine which places she had been in and when. In response, Boesman shifts them around again, pretending to correct her, with the result that he removes any sense of orientation Lena might have gained. She cannot grasp any sense of meaning their travels might have had. As Lena struggles to create meaning, by creating picture or map of their lives, Boesman plays the role of a nihilist and cruelly removes that meaning.
Lost in translation: The disorientation of language
To translate a play is often to translate a culture. Language that carries the interior landscape of one culture, is transformed to a new language that must resonate in the interior landscape of another culture.
There had been a practical problem regarding translation of this script. Funding approval waited until just before the project began. Funding for international work often comes from agencies which are accustomed to instant translation that has only to do with informational documents, not art nor literature. As approval of our project was not forthcoming until three weeks prior to the start of work, the theatre company had little fundraising time and only three weeks to find a translator who would be expected to churn out a translation of a substantial and text-heavy play.
A spirited young graduate in English literature was located by Diyar Theatre (Daisy Giacaman, who doubled as a sports coach). She attacked the project with verve, and ultimately with a strong result — but not until late in the rehearsal period. Of course, table work with the script comes early in the process, and as we sat down to read in our first meetings together, it was clear that no one, not even perfectly bilingual Arabic-English translators could have nailed down this text in three weeks, which would normally take months of work. We extended the dramaturgical work around the table with the translator and the entire team trying to deal with the almost terrifying translation problems the play posed. In the ensuing weeks it would constantly prove necessary to stop rehearsal to attempt to fathom the meaning of passages in Arabic that were skewed and peculiar in English in the first place.
Lena’s many extended monologues in the script are full of the poetics of dialect. Lena’s speech is that of one who is disoriented, afloat in the world, while Boesman, too, is given to convoluted speech, in which the English syntax is strained and mixed with words from Afrikaans and Bantu languages. One of dozens of examples might demonstrate the problem: here is Boesman’s description of how one must talk to the whites under Apartheid.
BOESMAN: You must make the words crawl to him with your tongue between their back legs. Then when the baas looks at you, wag it just a little . . .
The first round of table work came to a screeching halt at this line. The actors were lost in the Arabic. Even in English anglophone actors might find unraveling this short speech a headache. The the translator, Giacaman, had tried to simplify and or clarify the sentences after getting initial feedback on her version of the script. In her first rendering in Arabic, she had tried to be true to Fugard’s intentions, with the result that the line sounded almost grotesquely obscene. Confusion reigned around the table for almost fifteen minutes, before it dissolved in laughter when it finally became clear to everyone (or I thought it had become clear to everyone) that in Fugard’s English phrasing it is one’s words that must “crawl” to the oppressor. Somehow ones words crawl like a dog and the tongue is also compared to a humiliated dog’s tail. The tongue is between the metaphorical “back legs” of the words — and not that of a person! This wildly outrageous metaphor, framed in Boesman’s unique language, is a challenge even in English, with the result that we had to penetrate a dozen layers of linguistic and cultural confusion.
Three weeks into rehearsal this same speech brought us trouble again. Hanin stopped the rehearsal in frustration, saying that she still did not truly know what Osama, as Boesman, was saying to her. I had been wrong. The light bulb had not “gone on” in the earlier discussion for the actors. They thought they had understood it after the readings at the table, but they had not. The problem was that the basic idiom of putting one’s “tail between one’s legs” does not exist in Arabic at all. Now we had complications upon complications. In the text it’s as if Fugard were trying to demonstrate how speech is humiliated in a system designed to oppress a people. Boesman’s crazy mixed metaphor, so complex in English, was totally detached from meaning in the Arabic. So, one more time, weeks after the first discussion of the passage, and after creating the physical score to for the production, we still had to come to a full stop in rehearsal to spend yet again half hour of precious rehearsal time nailing down an Arabic version of these brief lines. And this is only one example out of dozens “knots” in translation that needed to be untied.
Most all of Lena’s thought processes in Fugard’s script are carried out orally, as with Shakespeare’s characters. She is a compulsive talker, but her speech is imaginative, full of over-abundant life. In fact, she has quite a bit more text than Hamlet. Thus, the greatest problems arose with Lena’s text.
In the first part of the play, Lena recounts working on a farm picking prickly pears while living in the fields. In one of her many lengthy monologues of recollection, as she tries to discover how her life with Boesman caused her to end up in this deserted place, she keeps repeating the same litany of towns and townships, in scattered sequence.
“It was after Redhouse, collecting prickly pears. Then they found our place there in the bush. Walk Hotnot! So Hotnot walks . . . to Swartkops. Here. The last time was here. I was right! (Pause.) No, we ran! The farmer had a gun. When he showed us the bullets Boesman dropped his tin and went down that road like a rabbit (. . . ) Redhouse — Swartkops! I was right. He must laugh at himself. (Back to her chores.) And then? Somewhere else! Ja, of course. One of those other towns. Veeplas. Or Missionvale. Maybe Bethelsdorp. Lena knows them all. (Pause.) But which one … that time. (She straightens up and looks around.) Which way …?”
Later, when she lays out the mugs, in the scene previously described, to try to map her recent past — she puts down one mug for each location in the ground before her. She makes it all the way to the most recent events where the bulldozers of the Apartheid government had razed their last shantytown:
“I got it in here. (Her head.) Redhouse — Swartkops — Veeplaas! (She is very pleased with herself.) Get a move on now. I’m nearly here. (She carries on working laying out mugs…) It’s coming! Korsten! Empties and the dog. Hond! How was it now? Redhouse — Swartkops — Veeplaas — Korsten. Then this morning the bulldozers . . . and then . . . (Pause.) Here! I’ve got here!”
Dislocation will always create disorientation. Lena has no inner map of her life.
No home built to last
The culture of the recent past portrayed in Fugard’s plays, South Africa, and the present of Palestine, upon which our production was reflecting, do bear many features in common. In both, the house that is home — can be “bulldozed” at any time.
BOESMAN: (The bulldozer.) Slowly it comes . . . slowly . . . big yellow donner with its jawbone on the ground. One bite and there’s a hole in the earth! Whiteman on top. I watched him. He had to work old brother. Wasn’t easy to tell that things where to go. He had to work with those knobs! In reverse . . . take aim! . . . open jaws up! . . . then horsepower in top gear and smashed to hell. One push and it was flat. All of them. Slum clearance! And what did we do? Stand and look.
Aljabri acted Boesman playing the bulldozer himself in the dirt of the stage floor, using his booze bottle as a gear shift.
The idea of bulldozers arriving to bring new dislocation, rings harshly true for a Palestinian audience: homes have been bulldozed for decades on a regular basis, with 11,000 units of housing demolished during and after the second Intifada alone, a few thousand or so on the border between Gaza and Sinai a decade later. It continues apace to this day, as land is confiscated from families for new settlements or construction by Israeli companies, in both Israel proper, Jerusalem and the occupied lands.
During source-work around the table, Hanin and Daisy discussed the “brick people” in the Jordan valley of the West Bank, which is a no-go zone for all Palestinians in the West bank. It took a bit of online-searching to discover she was referring to the Jordan Valley Solidarity Movement’s program to rebuild with adobe as an act of resistance where building by locals is forbidden: 92% of all permits are turned down by Israeli Authorities. When the structures and villages are demolished, the brick-makers build again, in a different spot. Many of structures remain for a while, until or unless, once again, the authorities decide to demolish them. So, they move on and begin baking bricks again. “To exist is to resist,” members of this movement of persistent home re-builders say.
But there are no Palestinians in their own “territory” who are immune from sudden arbitrary decisions by occupation authorities, or even in the government, that their homes must come down. It is not a matter of “not having a permit” which, in Israel, is the widely touted explanation for why so many thousands of homes in Palestine have been bulldozed during the past couple decades, without recourse or reimbursement (This happens in Jerusalem as well). The vast majority either have permits to have built their homes, or stand on family lands with titles dating back up to hundreds of years, but could not get a permit as Israeli settlements are being contemplated on their land.
During this second project I worked, with the assistance of a Fulbright grant, to help create the curriculum at Dar al-Kalima Arts College-University. This was done in collaboration with the acting head of Theatre, Sameh Hijazi, trained in the rigorous and progressive theatre environment of Germany. (This time the curriculum work would be much more successful.) Our work hit a hit snag when the director of Performing Arts, the professor of music Mutasem Adileh, had to leave us for a period to be in attendance at his case before Israel’s Supreme Court. It had been confirmed that his four story house newly completed for his extended family in Area B would be demolished. Palestinians can often build in Area B where permits are less of an issue, they just can’t police it — resulting in anarchic zoning, lack of street names, and no sidewalks — while in Area C of the West Bank most all construction is banned by Israeli authorities, too often in favor of new settlements.
In my colleague Mutasem’s case, the security forces had determined that the completed house had to be demolished, based on their finding that his house was “too tall” and someone could use it to look into army Security facilities some distance away. He had made an offer to the Security forces to demolish the entire the top floor. However, no further discussion was to be permitted. Mutasem was informed that the decision to destroy the house was final. Unlike most Palestinians, he had the resources to take it to the Supreme court in Jerusalem. However, like most of those few people who have gotten their home demolition cases to the court, it denied his request to stop the razing of the house or for compromise. It came down. He told the Dean Nouha Khoury that he would not allow his children to see the razing of their house, as “they might grow up to hate.”
One day I drove with Khader, the Diyar Producing Director, to part of the wall which, as in all the other Palestinian cities and towns in the more habitable eastern side of the West Bank, snakes through and around the city. In Bethlehem one of the main objectives of the Wall is to cut off the population from access to the old Jerusalem-Bethlehem-Hebron highway where only vehicles with the Israel-registered yellow plates are allowed. Such is the case with most major highways passing from Israel through the West Bank. The highway itself has another sort of security wall or razor-wire fence on both sides of it complete with razor wire, so that no one can access it. At one point during our drive I asked Khader to stop his car so I could get out. We had come to a spot where the authorities had decided to leave one decrepit structure inside the Bethlehem zone, but had walled off all the streets and grounds around it. The lonely building, cut off from all views, seemed to be useless now, and the wall hovered around it in a great “U”- shape, so tall it was impossible to get a glimpse of the horizon or trees, or whatever structures might lie on the other side. But on one of many twelve- meter-tall concrete panels in this sequestered zone, a cultural foundation had pasted up huge posters with testimony from people who had lost their homes to the wall, or to housing demolitions for settlements.
One such poster, with the testimony of a woman named Jala’ in Beit Sohour had a simple Rubric at the top:
“One day I went to the village of Al-Walajah west of Bethlehem accompanied by the students from France. We went there to visit families whose houses had been demolished by Israeli soldiers. As we approached the small house, I saw a large heap of stones nearby that had once been a family home. The mother and the father welcomed us and the students started asking questions. The house looked so familiar…. And then I discovered that the mother was one of my students whom I taught at Bethlehem Secondary School for Girls. Oh poor Siham! She told us that her house had been demolished twice in one year . . .”
I walked around the great semi-circular segment of the monolithic wall surrounding the abandoned building, and found several dozen other tall posters with such transcribed personal testimonies, there, in that little dead pocket of the city, where the dust was blowing around a dead and useless building.
Disorientation and uprooted people
Three weeks into rehearsal of Boesman and Lena, the actors had to be off- book, and now in rehearsals, as Hanin Tarabay was speaking and working on her physical score, she was investing scenes with emotions, and moving well, but one day seemed to be experiencing a peculiar actor’s version of “split personality.” Hanin was taking Lena, quite professionally, through all of her physical score and text, but Hanin the actor was weeping through everything she was doing. It’s hard to remember when I have seen a vivid actor/character split like that, both living on parallel tracks. After so much time, she never felt sure that she could not yet trust the Arabic text of the play, so she also continued her own efforts to get the team to fix obstacles in the translation that she felt were getting in her way. Normally, actors need to trust their lines to make them work, so the constant revisions were also sending Hanin into a downward spiral, even if the changes in the text made more sense to her.
But the matter was even more complex for Hanin. She was not only struggling with disorientation confronted with the oblique language that Fugard uses so well in the play, and the endless changes in the translation. There was something more concrete at play. Hanin traveled to Bethlehem from Jerusalem for rehearsal. In the “old days” (prior to the construction of the wall) that would have been a half hour ride and a simple journey. Now it could be up to a couple of hours. There was never a time when life on the West Bank side of the wall was “normal” for very long, so that people might be able to get on with their lives and build something for themselves. In Palestine life is always being put on hold. A new deadly crisis with the accompanying hours of delays at army check-points and blockades, might arise at any time.
Ultimately, Hanin and I spoke about her own issues of disorientation. The clearest problem had to do with the Palestinian problem of crossing checkpoints and “flying check points.” One day, not a good day for her to start with, she was confronted a series of such checkpoints. She gave up and went home instead of coming in to rehearsal, after calling in to inform the team, which I took to be a crisis on the ground of some kind. However, to be honest, there was no crisis. She could have made it, even if late. We had a talk that revealed a more profound problem. Hanin felt strongly as a Jerusalemite (Hanin is originally from mostly Palestinian Galilee in Israel) about working on the West Bank side and supporting Palestinian arts where they were needed most. But, she explained, much of her life at the time was on “the other side” of the wall, where her colleagues, friends, potential projects, even her acting school were located. “It’s one life over there, and another over here,” as she put it.
Hanin felt the rigid partition of her culture caused her to invest her energies on the where she lived, while always feeling she was “far” from what she wanted to do on the other side. Her projects here on the other side of the wall did not always feel as real or as pressing for her. Meanwhile Osama Aljabri, playing Boesman, whose family fled six decades earlier from Balfour-administered Palestine, lived in the Dhaishe refugee camp established in 1948 by refugees from Hebron in Bethlehem. After so many decades, though his familys’ roots were on the side of the wall now in Israel, he felt all his personal commitments were in the West Bank. Like most West Bank residents, he would not have been allowed to travel to Jerusalem or Israel. Two actors, from two sides of the wall were thus performing a play about a world full of barriers. In Hanin’s case, what I felt I heard Hanin telling me was this: That in her own mind, Hanin herself was “partitioned.”
In one instance in Fugard’s play, in the scene of disorientation mentioned previously, when Lena is trying to get her bearings out loud by reviewing the towns they had been through, Boesman settles down next to her as if he is going to “help” her sort things out. He ends up playing a brutal game. When Lena asserts that the town of Veeplaas is where the sun went down and points in one direction, Boesman, in with his usual irony says, “That way?” She quickly changes her mind and points in a different direction.
BOESMAN: … Wrong! Jesus, Lena. You’re lost.
LENA: Do you really know, Boesman? Where and how . . .
LENA: Tell me. (He laughs.) Help me Boesman!
BOESMAN: What? Find yourself?”
Boesman then undertakes a “grotesque pantomime of Lena’s search,” as Fugard puts it, all around their encampment. Lena responds:
LENA: … You low bastard. Pig! Yes, you. You’re a pig. It’s a sin Boesman. (He enjoys her tirade tremendously) Wait a bit! One day . . .!
BOESMAN: One day what?
LENA: Something’s going to happen.
BOESMAN: That’s right.
BOESMAN: Something’s going to happen.
LENA: Ja! (Pause.) What’s going to happen?
BOESMAN: I thought you knew. One day you’ll ask me who you are. (He laughs.)
LENA: (Trying her name.) Lena . . . Lena . . .
In fact, the very thing Lena is thinking of, does “happen” in this play. Of course most all plays are about something specific that “happens.” Unlike the plays of Beckett, one of Fugard’s notable influences, whose plays refuse to reach the “crisis point” that audiences expect, the unbearable plot tensions in the relationship between Fugard’s pair reach a crisis and crack open. In a terrible scene of realization, the very order of their relationship changes. It is a revolution on the most intimate level. One night, when Lena’s “witness” Outa dies, she convinces a panicked Boesman, absurdly, to more or less beat some life back into Outa in his rage. At that moment of clarity, she seizes control for herself in the situation: she decolonizes her life. Now there is a dead man at their camp, and Boesman’s marks are all over him. His rage has gotten the better of him. But now Lena has changed the power relations for good.
The obstacles to producing theatre or producing anything
Transformations on the micro level of human relationships, it must be said, cannot go forward normally when the sociopolitical context is in a constant state of threat and crisis. Palestinian writer and novelist Ahmed Rafeek Awad shared with me his perception of the course of life in Palestine: “This is the plan. We go on living here as long as we can stand it. Then the army will come in and destroy what we have built. Then they will go away, and they will give us peace — until they come up with another excuse to come in and destroy. We are allowed to live here, but not to build anything or accomplish anything.”
On the 12th of June 2014 three Jewish yeshiva students from a settlement near Hebron were kidnapped while hitch-hiking. The next morning Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went on television to say that he “knew” who the perpetrators were (Hamas). It should be noted that there were absolutely no results from a police or army investigation yet. It had barely started, in fact. He accused Palestinian Authority President Abbas of not only of attempting to form a Unity government with Hamas, which had administered only Gaza, but extended his logic to accusing him of being responsible for the kidnappings. This was because Abbas’ police had done nothing to pre-empt the murders. Of course the PA police are only allowed to function by Israel in 17% of the West Bank: that is, the municipalities minus Hebron (which is controlled normally by two thousand soldiers of the Israel IDF, protecting several hundred settlers in the center of the city).
Seventy-two hours, after the students were found murdered, the authorities announced they had found three perpetrators of the murders— albeit without evidentiary hearings or court trials — and punished them by blowing up the homes of their extended families’ in Hebron, allowing the footage to be broadcast throughout Israel and Palestine. No court had yet declared the accused men guilty, however likely their involvement might have been. Their extended families most probably were not guilty. This however, is fairly standard procedure with Palestinian suspects in cases of violence against Jews in Israel-Palestine. Notably the reverse is not true.
In the days that followed a Palestinian boy of fifteen, Ibrahim Kheir, was found burned to death, and an investigation in this case did find Jewish settlers who confessed to burning him alive. Local reports showed a picture of a Palestinian girl in traction who in an interview reported she was run down by some settlers in their car (who put the car in reverse to run over her.) Her body was allegedly badly broken, but she did not die, and it did not make international news. This was not the only case of reprisal attacks on random Palestinians got little or no attention. The majority of such cases, historically, do not make it into the Western media.
The Prime Minister Netanyahu’s set of loose associations blaming President Abbas for the murders were not just tactical, but strategic. All possibilities of collaboration with PA on any of the crimes or further peace negotiations were tossed out the window (once again) for the foreseeable future, as events seemed to spin out of control. Some Palestinians suspected that perhaps things were now in fact supposed to spin out of control. This was summer 2014, and within the month the bombardment and assault on Gaza would begin, after a radical group in the fenced-in enclave by the sea began to launch their non-guided Qassam rockets wily-nily into nearby Israeli territory in response to the suppression and killings at the demonstrations in the West Bank, which in turn arose from the settler violence. At first, as is often the case, the Qassams shot from Gaza fell to earth without casualties. The coming war would change that, when IDF soldiers clustered at the border barriers which fence in the population of Gaza.
Before the bodies of the murdered Israeli hitchhikers had even been found, I had awakened one morning to discover from the news online that among the refugee camps raided by the IDF in the West Bank was the Dhaishe camp, where one of our actors, Osama, lived. Five people had been shot, one was in critical condition close to death. No suspects in the crime were to be found in the camp by the IDF, nor did they have good reason to think they would be, as they told the press their hunt would focus on Hebron. Nor were any suspects found in two other camps that were raided — the raids carried out after 1am, the standard procedure. Therefore, when Osama showed up at rehearsal at noon, I expressed my anxiety for his family, and asked if he was okay, and whether he felt able to rehearse. His responded, “I’m okay. Just really tired. I really can’t sleep when they do that.”
This was expressed with the sort of frustration an American or European would share if there were ongoing marital conflict in the apartment next door. Later, in a discussion with Rev. Mitri Raheb, director of the Diyar Consortium of arts organizations, I told him about this, and he nodded in recognition. “They have all learned to respond this way, so no one will have heart attacks or strokes.”
We were moving into tech week. Only a few days later, Osama asked if he could leave rehearsal an hour early. That would normally not have been a legitimate last minute request but he explained: “We have to go get my parents from Hebron tonight.” I was not just a little surprised. The Israeli authorities had put all the civilians of Hebron on “lock-down” while they looked for the murderers of the three students in that region. This is serious, as the IDF never leaves Hebron. They effectively rule it, not the Palestinian authority.
“Osama, Hebron’s on lock-down. It’s in the news,” I said.
He said he knew.
“Will you be back for rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Yes, we’ll be back late tonight.”
“But how are you going to get your parents out?”
Osama shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in the air: a gesture which may have meant “So what’s new?” and may have had the added connotation: “We have ways.”
Theatrical violence in a theatre of conflict
How might this living with institutionalized violence without resort to a justice system (or little to no chance of using the justice system) and no way to counter the 14th most powerful army on the planet affect people in their work? There is no space here to examine all the available material on the subject. Theatre may be the art form most engaged with probing conflicts and offering insight. But while engaged in theatre work, however, the impact unpredictable forms of institutional military intervention in daily life are the same.
As described previously, near the end of Boesman and Lena, Boesman, with encouragement from Lena, vents his rage on the dead body of the Xhosa man whom Lena calls “Outa.” Violent scenes, of course, need to be carefully choreographed to keep them dangerous in appearance, but safe in actuality. As I tried to break it down and get each move down, Aljabri became more furious while working on the scene. To make matters worse, a video cameraman recording the rehearsals kept closing in on Aljabri, as his character’s (Boesman’s) personal anger was supposed to grow beyond control. Osama suddenly stopped working on the scene.
“We don’t need to do this now,” he said. “It can wait till later.”
I felt we could not wait longer to begin drilling the moves of the scene. “It needs to be done now. Otherwise it will not be safe later. You need to do this for the play.”
“I will do it for you, but it’s not for the play.” He was pointing at me and yelling, staring at me with an intensity that was unnerving.
I continued to clarify that for now we simply needed to approach the violent scene utilizing pure technique, not the emotion of the moment. To be safe, it was the job of the actor to separate his feelings from the moves. And it needed to be repeated almost ad nauseum to ensure it was safe (The actor lying on the floor, after all, was not really a dead body.) I decided to take a break. Osama, with whom to this day I have a superb relationship, steamed out.
Khader chatted with me in the exit from the rehearsal hall. “I think it was the violence. Maybe it’s acting the violence he’s reacting to.” Of course, I had been thinking the same thing. Like many actors in zones of conflict, Aljabri could take violence in his world in stride: but even going through the motions of frightening violence may have broken through the mechanisms that allow an actor the minimally required distance from his/her work. These mechanisms normally allow actors of Osama’s abilities to examine violence with a certain detachment. Still, the motions of the body do not lie and do not deceive. Of course I also realized that any typical Stanislavskian attempt to have the actor “access” his feelings about violence would have been doubly disastrous. A twenty-minute breather and a talk outside of the rehearsal room helped a great deal, it turns out. When we went back to work, Osama approached each move in a cold, de-energized way.
When the scene was finally staged, the image of Boesman beating “to death” the already dead body of the Xhosa man had the expected impact on Palestinian audiences, some of whom would react out loud in shock, and disapproval of Boesman’s actions.
Our rehearsals proceeded successfully. During the lock-down in Hebron, Osama miraculously — or in the normal fashion, depending on how you look at it — got his parents out. A cousin of the boy burned to death who had come from America to the West Bank, was beaten on the ground at a demonstration by police till his face was unrecognizable, this time captured on video. American family members managed to fly him out of the country for emergency medical treatment. Other incidents did not make the news. Most settler attacks on other Palestinians on the roads, did not result in deaths, as did the army actions. Nine young people in refugee camps were killed, mostly in the suprise army raids in the wee hours. The only place I heard mention of those facts on media was in London in the days after our production opened. A statement was made about the nine dead Palestinian as a result of the raids was made by P.A. cabinet member Hanan Ashrawi on television news once, but one could find little or no follow-up. Things were clearly accelerating, and everyone on both sides of the wall knew it. But accelerating towards what?
Before my departure from Israel-Palestine, the tour began at the Dar Al-Naddawa arts center in Bethlehem. As INAD Theatre had done with our production of The Island three years prior, there was a talk afterwards led by the Chief and staff of the South African Consulate, who talked about the specifics of Apartheid’s reality for the Palestinian audience. While the Consul spoke only of the constant degradation that was part of the objective of South Africa’s Apartheid system, which had as its objective the maintenance of mass demoralization, the parallels to the situation in Israel-Palestine were obvious.
At least half of the audience stayed for these discussions. As with the post- show discussions of The Island three years earlier, it must be noted that the South African diplomats tended to keep the terms “Apartheid” and “the Occupation” separate, unlike many western human rights activists. They seemed to have their own reasons for this, but it was quite consistent. However, they acknowledged powerful parallels. For the record, the South Africans found the total segregation of the old highways into Palestine from Israel, where only Israeli vehicles with yellow license plates are allowed, shocking: as no racial group or ethnicity was prohibited from sharing all roads in Apartheid South Africa.
Boesman and Lena, with powerful and nuanced performances by Aljabri, Tarabay, along with Emil Mitri as the Xhosa man, despite its running time of two hours, was well received on its tour. It was opened, however, in the period leading up to the 2014 Gaza war, and then stopped — as many other things Palestine do each time the population becomes preoccupied with a new cataclysm.
Epilogue: A Dead Sea Dialogue
Marwan, a waiter at a café where I would sit to work between rehearsals in Manger Square, spent every day running activities for young people at the Aida refugee camp where he lived, near Beit Jala. He waited tables every evening. One night a procession of cars had come up to made a circuit around Nativity Square, and people in the passenger seats were holding up signs. There were many dozens of vehicles parading past. It was Marwan who explained to me that these were relatives of Palestinian prisoners, trying to reach the world by making a show of their cause which, however, at best, only some tourists would see. I mention Marwan, because though we talked superficially about politics and his work at the camp, I was to see him elsewhere in the region, in a distinctly revealing sequence of events.
While working on the second Fugard production in Palestine, I had only two full days off during in the forty days allotted for rehearsal and working on drafting the curriculum for the new Dar al Kalima Arts University-College. Three years prior I had explored the southern West bank, Hebron and beyond. So this time I got found West bank driver with the precious yellow license plate. Yosuf had once been a contractor building homes for Israelis, but since the wall went up was, like everyone, banned from working there. He was very proud of his fluent Hebrew, but had little chance to use it anymore.
We traveled toward Jericho and the Dead Sea as three years prior during rehearsals for the earlier Fugard play with INAD Theatre, I had gone south toward Hebron and beyond. Now I wanted see a more northern part of the territory. After visiting the pilgrimage site of the Monastery of the Temptation in the rock cliffs above Jericho (allegedly in the area where Jesus went into the wilderness), which itself lies hundreds of meters below sea level, we drove onward to the Dead Sea.
The Jordan valley, which comprises a substantial eastern chunk of the Palestinian territories, is completely controlled by occupation forces. The army tries not a visible presence. The razor wire on steel fences along the highway does the job, and the almost lunar-landscape in many areas is not conducive to farming and agriculture. The Israeli and Western tourists can go unmolested on the highways to the Dead Sea controlled by Israel as they seek the beauty of the beach and the cleansing effects of the salt-saturated water and mud. They see nothing that is untoward, usually. The tensions are, however, not far from the surfacer. for all but tourists and pilgrims to the region.
The Jordan valley from the border to the mountain range inside the West bank comprises the entire eastern fifth of the West Bank, and ranges between forty to possibly a hundred kilometers wide. This is a “no go” area for Palestinians, except for acceptable “family” groups who want to go to the Dead Sea. (No groups of young people if they are without international guests; no groups of two or more men.) Razor wire replaces the separation wall in carving up the valley into military controlled zones. So as a foreign visitor, you will see the razor wire coming between you and, say, a golden-domed Orthodox monastery, or a century-old British fort stemming from the British colonial period — and other intriguing but unreachable sites.
If one wants to join the newly-baptized, or re-baptized flocks at the shrunken Jordan River, it is necessary to pass through these military zones, where the army most days is carefully removed. The tiny muddy river, actually a big creek these days, can be a happy and festive place. The visitors do give it the spirit of John the Baptist, who proclaimed the Good News — or the prologue to it — to his newly baptized followers from all over Palestine, until the day he recognized immediately the Palestinian Jew saturated with spirit whom he had been expecting. He baptized him too, for at that time Jesus of Nazereth was referring to himself as “the Son of Man.”
We later drove down the controlled roads to the Dead Sea. We passed all the rotting Jordanian sea-side compounds which were rendered irrelevant by the effects of climate change as the Dead Sea’s shores were now another kilometer away. Before reaching the sea one passes expansive olive orchards, proving the land can be used. It is a project of Israeli agribusiness. As one approaches the restful expanse of the Dead Sea waters, with the sublime bluish hills of Jordan on the far bank, if one turns to look north the salt flats and mountain-sized heaps of extracted Dead Sea salt are visible. This lucrative West Bank product, much sought after in the US, is owned and extracted solely by Israel-based corporations. Jordan runs a similar operation on the far bank of the sea. In short, this region of the West bank is treated as land for exploitation in the customary manner of those who see themselves as having rights of ownership of the land. Yet this land is internationally recognized as Palestinian.
The current touristic complex, bathing area, cafes and and shops, is run completely by Israeli business, and all the vendors, managers and staff are from Israel. It is relaxing, beautiful, thriving. Tourist buses have ample parking spaces. The shops do a huge amount of business, as does a thriving beach bar.
To Yosuf’s frustration, I was busy being ambivalent about buying a bathing suit. He had not told me he thoroughly expected me to go into the Dead Sea. Eventually, I paid for my ticket and entered through the turnstile. Behind me I heard a commotion. A young Arab man in a bathing suit was angrily yelling at the head of Security, who had a gelled Mohawk haircut, and a service revolver at his side. He pointed to three IDF soldiers with their M16s slung over their shoulders, yelling in English.
“No. I am not going. I am going to stay right here, till I know the news is coming. I want someone from the news to come. Or even the real police! But not this guy!”
Another guy in a bathing suit and tee-shirt pulled this man to one side, and held his jaw with his hand, pressing him against a wall. I thought this was plain-clothes officer, and went back through the turnstile to caution him that he was being watched — in the event anything should happen. A woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“ I think you misunderstand. That’s his friend, trying to get him to cool down. It’s dangerous for him.”
It did seem that the angry Palestinian guy was courting trouble, and Yosuf also tried to intervene with calming Arabic, then speaking to the Security man in fluent Hebrew. The man who was so agitated turned to look in my direction. It was Marwan, the waiter, from Bethlehem. As soon as he saw me he brightened with recognition.
“My God, it’s you,” I said. “What is happening here?”
“This guy went on the microphone,” he pointed to the Security guard with the Mohawk, “and read our names out loud. Then they sent these army guys to the water to take us off the beach.”
Among Marwan’s friends there were two young American women, and two other Palestinian men. I was later told by other West Bank residents, that Palestinians with foreign friends or families were permitted into the Dead Sea beach. Even family outings were uncertain however, always running the risk that a flying checkpoint might appear periodically, barring entrance to all Palestinians. At other times, for young Palestinian men, the only way to get in is to bring in tourists (many times girls) and they are often allowed in. It is a way to go to a vacation resort for a population that is unable to travel, hemmed in by the Wall to the west, and the Jordan Valley militarized zone to the east.
The American women were arguing with the Security guard too. I asked for a manager. An older woman came out, and one of the women explained to her what was going on. She tried to calm things down, and said that the manager of the beach outfit would be coming. The three IDF soldiers stood to one side in a pose that made them look relaxed, so as not to make anyone think they were going to leap to action.
The manager, a well-groomed and articulate man in his thirties came out. Marwan told him in Hebrew and English what had transpired, and that he would go nowhere till the media came. (I wondered which media. The Israeli media?) I put in that I was a visitor and I was watching. One of the women — both were from Chicago — got the manager’s attention when she said:
“Listen, I am not from here. But I want to say something. I am swimming with friends, and all of a sudden the army is sent down and tells us to get out of the water. I find that really scary. I was frightened. Does that make any sense to you?”
Marwan and his two male Palestinian friends began talking to — or at — the manager as well. The manager was clearly overwhelmed. “I need to hear one voice at a time. I need to be able to talk to him too,” he said, referring to the Security guard. This elicited outrage from Marwan, while his two Palestinian male friends remained silent. Perhaps they did not speak English or Hebrew. The manager walked over to the security guard and they talked, in a manner that was both animated and confidential. This gave me time to get the story from Marwan himself.
Apparently his group had entered, shown ID, and paid in a normal way. Then they clambered down the hills to the water. A half an hour later a voice came on the intercom throughout the beach naming the three young men by name and commanding them to come out of the water. When they didn’t respond they sent the soldiers.
Soon, the manager came back to Marwan’s group and told them: “I am going to give you back all the money you paid.”
“What does that mean,” said one of Marwan’s friends angrily, in rough English.
“I’m going to pay you back, and you may go back and swim. You may swim, and I wish you to have a good time.”
There was something missing in this message. The woman from the states who’d spoken earlier asked him what he meant.
“I mean, I talked to our guy, and he was wrong. He was wrong, okay? So I’ll give them their money back, and they can stay all day and enjoy themselves.” He began walking back toward his office.
“That’s it?” said Marwan. “Just like that?”
Somehow, this statement got the manager’s attention once more. Then he said: “Listen, I am sorry. I am sorry, okay? He was wrong.”
The apology, and he clearly knew this, was vital. The Palestinian men backed down. It was clearly an issue of restoring some dignity, not the money. All over the world, people tend to measure the degree various groups are oppressed by jail sentences, censorship or torture. But some of the greatest pain is caused through the crushing of dignity.
Marwan shook my hand. “Please come and find us on the beach. You can join us.” I hadn’t wanted to stay long, so I was noncommittal about getting involved in a gathering on the beach.
Soon however, I was floating on my back in the buoyant salt water, and heard a passionate voices rising further out in the water. I could see it was the same group of men, and some new people. The incident had engendered a new conversation with a couple of other witnesses. They were floating in a circle in the water, an idyllic contradiction to the animated and passionate remarks being made. The subject matter was clearly political. I floated over to them. The scene that was being played out was quite remarkable. A 19 or 20-year-old blonde European tourist, with a Dutch or Flemish accent, was part of it, as was another man who looked to be Arab, also twenty at most. Marwan’s words seemed primarily aimed at the latter, as they both tread water, occasionally falling backwards in current before being buoyed up again and thrust back into the conversation.
The young dark-skinned guy who had joined them was Israeli. He appeared to be a Mizrahi or Arab Jew. Interestingly, Marwan and this man had no difficulty making their arguments at close quarters, as long as they were floating in the water. As I observed the way the water took the violence out of their body language, the thought did cross my mind, dubious as it might be, that perhaps plunging negotiators in a body of water might contribute to peace talks. For the effects of deep water on the rigidity of a body afflicted by fight-flight reflexes does seem to open the mind somewhat. That said, it was soon clear to me that it did not cause Marwan back down from his personal sense of principle.
“I don’t have anything against you, man,” said the Israeli man.
“What about all the people who used to live where you live now?” Marwan’s question was actually more of a statement.
“I don’t know who lived there. I just live where I happen to live. I have to live somewhere.”
“That’s the problem with you, I think.”
“I don’t have any problems with you. We are the same. I am one guy. You are one guy. Where are you from?”
“I’ll tell you where my family is from,” said Marwan. He named a village near the south coast of old Palestine.
“Oh, I have been there man. What a beautiful village that is. I stayed there, I really like it.”
The young Israeli had just made a colossal faux pas. As open-minded and as egalitarian as he seemed to be, he had the usual blind spots when it came to history.
“You loved that village, right? You don’t know what you’re talking about. You call it by its old name, it still has that name. But the village you saw is built on top of my village. My family’s village is not there.”
The young Israeli man seemed to be at a loss. “What’s that mean?”
“This is why I have a problem with you. My father went back there and found a man who had stayed after they destroyed it. That man showed my father a pile of stones that had been one of the houses. And my father brought one of those stones back to our camp. And you know what? I have that stone in my room now, and I show it to my son. I say to him, one day we will take that stone back there, when we go back.”
“You know what, I agree with you,” said the Israeli. “That is a really bad thing. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk.”
The Dutch visitor offered his own thoughts. “There is no reason two people can’t talk. Neither of you have done any crimes. You should both listen to each other.”
“ We can talk. We can talk,” replied Marwan. “You know what? I spent three years in jail. I got let out only because of those negotiations. I was lucky to be one of the eight hundred.” (Marwan was most likely referring to a large release of both untried detainees and prisoners affiliated with resistance in exchange for the Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas.)
“You were in jail?” the Dutch man interjected. “Did you kill somebody?” He was telegraphing a bit too much shock. But the former Mizrahi man tried to dismiss the European’s apprehension.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Israeli reassured him. “It just means he threw a stone or something. But you can see, we are talking.”
Despite this remark in his defense, Marwan gave him no quarter.
“But I can’t really talk to you. You served in the army didn’t you.”
“Yes, I was in the army.”
“That’s the army that destroyed my family’s village.”
“That was long ago. I wasn’t there. Listen. I had to go to jail myself.”
“You? You went to jail?”
“We were given the orders to go into a place where it was all regular people. Women, children. I said no, I am not going with weapons among those people. So I went to jail.”
“Okay. Then you are human.”
“I don’t see myself as different from you. Do you have a problem with Jews?”
“Jews, no. I have a bunch of Jewish friends. But Israelis — I have a problem there. A very big problem.”
The conversation went on this way, with Marwan’s friends from Bethlehem complaining they didn’t understand English. The girls had swum away, not knowing how to partake in this impossible conversation. Finally, the former Israeli soldier tried to bring it to resolution.
“Okay. Can we shake hands?” the former soldier asked, extending his arm.
“No, I cannot do that.”
“No, I have to draw the line, you know?”
They both floated backwards, away from each other, treading water.
“I thought you understood I am not against you.”
“I said you acted like a human being. But no, I cannot shake hands with you.”
And the former Israeli soldier floated off toward the shore.
A naïve but all too typical response from some Israeli moderates to this incident would be: “Nelson Mandela would have shaken hands. Where is the Palestinian Nelson Mandela?” Even Israelis who completely reject comparisons of Israel-Palestine with South Africa will often ask why there is no Palestinian Mandela, which bears with it a certain irony. Where he is, no one can say — nor if it is yet time for such a reconciler. But in the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea, it was very clear, people who might under other circumstances be fighting one another, were very eager to make their narrative known to one another— though they made every mistake in the book. Apparently when antagonists are floating at sea, honest talk, deprived of the physicalized threat that is created when people take “stances” against each other on land, can happen. That is what I had witnessed.
The Dead Sea salt water is famously buoyant, and much like the stage, neutralizes in a curious way both the sense of threat and the compulsion to fake or soften one’s performance in an argument. So both the stage and the sea provide a good environment for listening. The question is, in this case, when everyone goes back to dry land, to the “Island” we call the Holy Land, where religion may be sacred, but virtually nothing else — is it inevitable that opponents will forever go back to their stances of mutual defiance?
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