Palestinian Voices in Theatre: Where Are They?

From Two Birds, One Stone, co-written by Rimah Jabr and Natasha Greenblatt (seen here) - Photograph © Dragana Paramentic

Introductory note: The term “conflict” play is occasionally used as a form of shorthand to describe the nature of the plays depicting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Palestinian community at large rejects the description of their reality as a “conflict.” This is because the term suggests that the Israeli occupation is merely a matter of “dispute,” as opposed to an active system of oppression against Palestinians. The term “conflict” also negates the fact that Palestinians have no state nor military to formally engage in war, either with Israel or with another country. “Conflict” is put in quotation marks to reflect the power imbalance that has led to Palestinian dispossession and statelessness.

Palestine/Israel “conflict” plays

While the Palestinian/Israeli “conflict” has not historically been a popular dramatic focus in the West, today’s North American theatre audiences have access to an increasingly wide array of plays on the subject. From My Name is Rachel Corrie, which has had productions mounted around the world since 2005, to the Tony award-winning Oslo by J. T. Rogers that premiered in 2016, and Montréal’s own Birthmark by Stephen Orlov that hit the stage in 2018, a number of Western artists have been drawn to create theatrical productions centred on this Middle Eastern hotspot.

And what’s not to love? For theatrical and artistic purposes, everything is there to entertain and engage a Western audience. This is a longstanding issue with two distinct sides, high passions and seeming mutual disdain, resulting often in tragedy and death. For the purposes of storytelling, the drama might as well be the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets in Verona. And all too often, the ongoing situation between Palestinians and Israelis is given almost the same casual treatment as those feuding families made famous by Shakespeare.

As a Palestinian-Canadian, I exist in a broader North American cultural context in which film and television often portray Palestinian people as “terrorists” and “backward.”[1]  At best, the Palestine/Israel “conflict” is tapped as a source for punchlines, particularly in American adult-oriented television comedies. Consider the nonchalant jokes and references to “Jews and Arabs” fighting, in shows like American Dad (Season 2, Episode 6) and Big Mouth (Season 3, Episode 4), or the stereotyped feuding in Netflix’s Sausage Party, where a bagel and a piece of pita bread fight over space on the same store shelf.

Of course, film and television are extremely different from theatre as artistic mediums, but they play an important role in shaping public interest and worldviews, as does theatre. Put succinctly, most people in North America have been inculcated with views depicting Palestine/Israel in reductionist and monolithic terms. In relation to theatre, this means that many audience members already arrive with a preconceived mindset about the situation in Palestine/Israel: Arabs are Arabs, Jews are Jews. The two hate each other.

These reductive assumptions permeate audiences, even if people might readily acknowledge that there is much more complexity and history behind the matter, and far more diversity within each group. The power of a simplistic and dualistic understanding of Palestinians and Jewish folk is all too familiar. If the two peoples are seen as opposite sides of the same coin, or interconnected like the sun and the moon, it becomes easy to claim that their troubles are of their own making. (In the Shakespearean version, the Montagues and Capulets kept their mutual hatred going for its own sake.) For Palestinians in particular, who collectively lack a state and cultural capital, and whose history is not well known in the West, this situation also exacerbates a reality in which their voices and stories are invisible.

Understanding this Montague-Capulet trend makes the number of recent critically acclaimed theatrical productions about Palestine/Israel so fascinating to examine. I believe that critical acclaim for a number of productions is partially due to the fact that, like Romeo and Juliet, many of these plays never break through the dichotomy of two warring homogeneous groups. For example, Oslo, a play about the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s, establishes the assumption of unresolvable division between the two groups right at the outset, in the show’s introduction. They are cast as being completely irrational opposites, thanks to the casual remarks made by Norwegian diplomats claiming that they alone can bring the “conflict” to an end:

HOLST: What, make peace in the Middle East?

LARSEN: Why not?

MARIANNE: Because it’s the Middle East, Terje. They don’t do peace.

LARSEN: Ah, but my friends, look at what is happening in the world. The grip of history is loosening. The Berlin Wall has just fallen; the Soviet Empire, disbanded. My God, if Leningrad can revert to St. Petersburg, anything is possible.

MARIANNE: Terje, if the Americans can’t force the Israelis and Palestinians to make a deal, what chance has Johan Jorgen?

LARSEN: But we have what the US can never have: the appearance of neutrality.

But beyond this, the topic of Palestine/Israel itself seems to be treated as something edgy and artistic. Over and above the Capulet/Montague rudimentary assumption, Western audiences are primed to immediately see controversy in anything related to Israel/Palestine. In some situations, this creates a sense of intrigue. Oslo was highly acclaimed in New York City. However, in other instances the spectre of censorship hangs heavy, particularly when pro-Israel interests are threatened.

A 2006 production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie was put on hold indefinitely and then ultimately denounced by the New York Theatre Workshop. The writings of the American university student who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza in 2003 were purportedly deemed too political and insensitive for the public. Sadly, the plays that seem to spark some of the most intelligent and thoughtful conversation on the Palestine/Israel situation are met with avoidance.

Ultimately, when it comes to staging Palestine/Israel, the Capulet/Montague reductionist model of two unmovable sides is harmful because it serves to foster stereotypes about Jewish folk and Palestinians, negatively impacting both communities. Moreover, labeling the entire topic “controversial” is also damaging, as it discourages substantial discussion about Palestine/Israel and undermines the legitimacy of such debate. The impact is particularly detrimental to Palestinians. It has to be acknowledged that failure to transcend reductionism or controversy in staging Palestine/Israel in the West leaves the history of Palestinians and their stories largely untold, and facilitates anti-Palestinian violence and racism.

Orientalism and the invisibility of the Palestinian people in the arts

Palestinians, as a stateless people with a dispersed refugee population, are a significantly marginalized group in the global context today. Their unique experience, complex identities, reality, and culture are either denied in the public narrative or are conflated into a larger Arab/Muslim one in reductionist accounts. The Palestinian-American literary critic, Edward Said, called the tendency of Westerners to present Palestinian and Arab culture as backward and barbaric “Orientalism.”[2] But there is more than just racist Orientalism at play when Palestinians are unseen. It is a remarkable dismissal of Palestinians as a people that have stories to tell about their oppression and dispersal, and a history before this occupation and violence became normalized. When plays rely on reductionist accounts or are deemed too controversial, Palestinians as real people disappear, because their narratives are invisible.

This invisibility is often quite literal, as Palestinian characters are lacking in many popular productions of Palestine/Israel. It is ironic that in plays widely considered to be sensitive to the Palestinian experience, such as Reading Hebron,[3] My Name is Rachel Corrie, Wall,[4] and Seven Jewish Children,[5] Palestinians are treated in abstract terms. Never is there a physical representation of a Palestinian on stage in any of these shows. Instead, Palestinians are discussed as a theoretical people, or worse, a theoretical “other.” The only acknowledgement of Palestinian existence is through the eyes of Jewish or white characters and their reflections on how the “conflict” affects them personally.

In this context, Canadian playwright Stephen Orlov goes a notable distance in his play Birthmark, which premiered in Montréal in Fall 2018. Birthmark tells the story of a university-age Jewish Montréaler named Nelson and his Palestinian female counterpart, Karima. As Nelson determines to move to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, his father reveals that this may not be possible as his real birth mother may in fact be Karima’s mother, a Palestinian. When the play was produced by Teesri Duniya Theatre, it sent a powerful artistic message by Palestinian actors, and sparked a wider conversation. Palestinians in this show are physically present to engage in the dialogue it seeks to foster.

While plays like Birthmark lead the way to important dialogue and conversations, they also reflect a pattern: when Palestinian narratives are told, they are often situated next to non-Palestinian, Jewish narratives. The presence of Jewish narratives is not problematic in and of itself. After all, Jewish voices are as diverse and complex as Palestinian voices. An issue arises, however, when Western audiences typically engage with Palestinian narratives only on the condition that such narratives be juxtaposed with Jewish ones. Why would Shakespeare ever write a monologue about the Capulet family history, when all you need to know is how they relate to the Montagues?

Birthmark is an important marker to begin centring another question: how are Palestinian voices positioned in the arts, and specifically in theatre?

Absence of Palestinian voices in theatre

As a McGill intern at Teesri Duniya Theatre in the summer of 2018, I extensively researched plays dealing with Palestine/Israel, and searched for Palestinian narratives and playwrights in North American and other English-language theatre. Taking advantage of the McGill University Library, Bibliothèques Montréal, the scripts and articles available to me at the Teesri Duniya Theatre Office, and Google, I searched for any theatrical scripts in English involving Palestine and Palestinians since 1948, the date Israel was established. The difficulties in doing such research and claiming a reasonable degree of accuracy need to be acknowledged here. Many stagings and renditions of plays and theatre remain unaccounted for because the scripts are unpublished or the stagings are too small to attract ample media exposure.

Nonetheless, a striking pattern emerged from this research. The majority of popular productions on Palestine/Israel (such as the ones I have discussed in this article) are not written by Palestinians but by artists of Jewish and/or white European origin. To boot, most have plots that focus primarily (and sometimes almost entirely) on characters of Jewish and/or white European origin. This holds true regardless of whether the show takes a view that is sensitive to Israel or Palestine. Indeed, My Name is Rachel Corrie, Via Dolorosa,[6] and Reading Hebron are all examples of plays that heavily filter Palestinian struggles through non-Palestinian characters.

In my view, My Name is Rachel Corrie is the most notable of such productions because of its effort to depict the violence happening on the ground. Staged in theatres across Canada (in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montréal), this play is one of the most widely performed Canadian productions on Palestine/Israel. It recounts the real-life diary entries of a white American activist (Rachel Corrie) who was run over by an Israel Defense Force bulldozer while protesting against the destruction of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Although the play has sparked necessary criticism of Israel’s occupation and shed light on the tragic death of Rachel Corrie, Palestinians are excluded from the stage and their voices are left unheard.

What is most concerning is that, as a result of a lack of Palestinian representation in both Israeli-sympathetic and Palestinian-sympathetic performances, it is tacitly implied that the average theatre-goer can comprehend “both sides” without actually engaging with Palestinian-told stories.

This is not to say that there are not a handful of examples of Palestinian-written and performed dramas. Palestinian artists do exist and have shared their craft. In the Canadian context, notable examples include Dima Alansari, who co-wrote Return Home, and Rimah Jabr, who co-wrote Two Birds, One Stone, both productions having been first staged in Toronto, starring their respective playwrights. Other momentous Palestinian theatre productions in the English-language include I am Yusuf and This is my Brother, written by Amir Nazir Zuabi, first performed in London, UK, which received positive reviews from The Guardian, and the remarkable Tales of a City by the Sea by Samah Sabawi, which has won a number of awards and has been performed globally, in the West Bank, Malaysia, Australia and Canada.

However, Palestinian-created works, even those with relative success, continue to be relegated to the periphery of Western theatre. Many Palestinian-written plays have short-lived productions and tend to be housed in smaller theatre companies with established mandates that welcome Palestinian narratives. And, within the popular culture of theatre, large-scale productions that maintain Western popular conceptions of Palestine/Israel, like Oslo, dominate as the hegemonic voice of Israeli-Palestinian reality and a future “peace.”[7]

Constraints placed on Palestinian artists

There are a number of major constraints that must be taken into consideration when looking at Palestinian artists generally, and more specifically in the West.

The first is the significance of the Nakba (“the disaster”) of 1948, an Arabic term used to refer to the mass forced removal of nearly a million Palestinians from their ancestral lands and homes. This has defined Palestinian reality in relation to dispossession, and has brought with it a widespread Palestinian diaspora. Storytelling is integral to Arab culture, and Western-style theatre dates as far back as the 1850s in Palestine. It was clearly thriving up until 1948 with the theatre movement supported by the Union of Palestinian Artists and the Union of Theatre Troops.[8]  Renewed growth of theatrical movements within Palestinian culture has been disrupted by the Nakba and dispossession.

Part of this relates to the constraints placed on Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.[9] The thing about the Western theatre model is that it requires, well, a theatre (or at least some sort of venue or stage), and an audience that is physically able to congregate in one spot. An art form like theatre depends on people being able to gather together for both practices and performances, and comes with spatial requirements. The Israeli occupation imposes restrictions on mobility, access to space, and free expression, which limit Palestinian cultural and artistic freedom. With a heavy Israel Defence Force presence pervading the West Bank and surrounding Gaza, it becomes difficult for Palestinians to congregate in any capacity… and these restrictions pose challenges to artists who may find that the nearest artistic venue involves crossing numerous checkpoint barriers.

Post-Nakba (post-1948), the Palestinian community has been fragmented and dispersed, with at least 5.5 million Palestinians becoming refugees. All this has had profound consequences for the arts. As a diaspora of refugees, the global Palestinian community lacks the financial foundations needed to generate extensive artistic projects in its respective local communities. This is a problem across the board. Palestinians also face unique challenges that can deter artistic endeavours, depending on the context and the country in which they reside, especially since most Palestinian refugees are without citizenship. In Lebanon, for example, where there are roughly half a million registered Palestinian refugees, restrictions have been placed on Palestinians, limiting them from owning property and working.[10]

Despite these challenges, there are still some Palestinian theatre groups that have emerged, like the El-Hakr Theatre and the Freedom Theatre. These groups focus on Palestinian cultural and protest productions. There are also smaller Palestinian theatre troupes that tend to partner with Israeli artists and companies. A number of these productions have found a degree of success. For example, the Freedom Theatre has performed globally across the Mediterranean and Europe.

In the North American context, and others, there is another daunting obstacle blocking Palestinian theatre: censorship. As suggested by the 2006 response to My Name is Rachel Corrie by the New York Theatre Workshop, the possibility of censorship – even self-censorship – is very real in Palestine/Israel productions, in large part due to the notion of controversy attached to them. Both censorship and self-censorship are damaging, adding to the countless renunciations of Palestinian art. In 2006, Brandeis University pulled an exhibit of the art of Palestinian teenagers depicting their experiences with anti-Palestinian violence. Even the sale of a children’s book, P is for Palestine,[11] at a New York bookstore was threatened with a potential ban in 2018 for featuring the Arabic word intifada (“uprising”) in its examples of words associated with English letters.

Palestinian art faces censorship for being “political” even if it attempts to be an “apolitical” celebration of Palestinian culture and heritage. The mere idea of a Palestinian person has been rendered political. Jewish and Israeli art also encounters censorship, notably when Jewish/Israeli artists take a stance that is sensitive to Palestinian concerns. However, the ways in which Palestinians are censored at the core of their existence make Palestinian artistic expression both an individual and collective struggle for Palestinian artists. As such, censorship is a form of modern cultural erasure for Palestinians.

Finally, there is also an active physical threat that Palestinian artists face globally. Palestinians are acutely aware that speaking out and becoming visible makes them a target – not only of political slander against their work, but even more crucially, of potentially violent physical attacks. In 1987, Naji al-Ali, widely considered to be one of the best Palestinian political cartoonists, was shot and killed while standing outside the London headquarters of the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Qabas. Juliano Mer-Khamis, a mixed Ashkenazi Jewish and Palestinian artist and founder of the Freedom Theatre, was assassinated in the Palestinian city of Jenin in 2011, and his killer has yet to be identified.[12] These events are extreme, but they are not unheard of. Nor are they isolated cases.  Even in the North American diaspora, Palestinian artists are aware not only of the prejudices against them, but of the forces placing their personal safety in jeopardy. Despite this, Palestinian artists, much like many other members of the Palestinian community, engage in active resistance, expression and protest through their art.

There is so much to unpack and learn about Palestinian voices in theatre and the scarcity of such voices. There are clear systemic limitations that prevent Palestinian narratives from coming to the fore on the topic of Israel/Palestine in North America. Theatre, too, has been complicit in the marginalization of Palestinian voices, despite providing needed insight and fostering debate in some cases. Right now, my hope is that more people will begin to see the same patterns I do as a Palestinian-Canadian artist, and that this article might be a first step in overturning the near invisibility of Palestinians in theatre.

[1] See Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs:  How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York:  Olive Branch Press, 2001).

[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).

[3] Written by Jesse Sherman, Reading Hebron follows a young Jewish man as he investigates the Hebron Massacre.

[4] Written by David Hare, Wall is a monologue play that deals with the topic of the Israeli Security “Wall” around the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

[5] Written by Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children is a short play written in response to the 2008-2009 Israeli military strikes on Gaza.

[6] Written by David Hare, Via Dolorosa confronts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Hare’s recollections of his 1997 journey through the two nations.

[7] Chris Jones, “With ‘Oslo,’ TimeLine Theatre Reaches for a Moment the World Changed,” Chicago Tribune (September 9, 2019).

[8] Nathalie Handal, “Introduction,” in Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khaladi (eds.), Inside/Outside:  Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (New York:  Theatre Communications Group, 2015): 10-11.

[9] Hazem Balousha and Oliver Holmes, “‘Our Memories have Vanished’: the Palestinian Theatre Destroyed in a Bomb Strike.” The Guardian (August 22, 2018).

[10] Associated Press, “Lebanon: Seize Opportunity to End Discrimination Against Palestinians,” Human Rights Watch (June 18 2010)

[11] Golbarg Bashi, P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book (New York, 2017)

[12] Mark Levine. “A Year after Juliano Mer-Khamis’ Murder, It’s Time to Board the Freedom Bus,” Al Jazeera (April 4, 2012).

Zachary (Zakaria) Jericho Couture is a playwright, director, and artist from Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). He is of Palestinian and French descent. Inspired by his work with Teesri Duniya Theatre and the Islamic Family and Social Services Association, Zachary is committed to using theatre and art for human rights and community development. He is currently an undergraduate student at McGill University in political science and Islamic/Middle East studies.