This article compares the role played by theatre in popular resistance and nation-building for the stateless Kurds and Palestinians in the Middle East.
In his introduction to Literature and Nation in the Middle East: An Overview, Yasir Suleiman emphasizes the role of novel and poetry in constructing, articulating or challenging notions of national identities in the Middle East. He mentions that drama is not dealt with in his edition because of its ‘marginal’ position in the national cultures of the region.1 But is this really the case? Not necessarily. It is always easier for the literary historian and critic to access, document and study written and published literature rather than the fleeting world of theatrical performance which so often lacks archived scripts. Therefore, it is no surprise that Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities highlights the influence of print journalism and literature in establishing the concept of nation but hardly mentions the stage. This is despite the fact that drama, as a public art that speaks directly with the audience, seems to be the most appropriate form to investigate the relationship between literature and politics. One has to remember that at the dawn of nationalist movements, the best way to educate the populace in new nationalistic ideas was through theatre because the majority of the masses were illiterate and therefore could only respond to ideas presented to them through spectacle and sound.
Theatre has often acted as a site for staging national history and folklore, and for formulating national ideology in many parts of the world. As such, it has played an important role in contributing to and influencing the process of representing and challenging the notions of national identity. In England, Shakespeare’s history plays contributed powerfully not only to England’s national awareness at the end of the sixteenth century, but also to developing the sense of national awareness in other countries including Germany where Schiller said in 1783, “had we but a national theatre, we would become a nation.”2In the case of the stateless Kurds and Palestinians who lack national institutions to safeguard and promote the vernacular language and the cultural heritage, theatre assumes a greater importance as a means for both cultural survival and political mobilization.
Palestinian theatre is, however, much older than the occupation, as is affirmed in the documentary Naim and Wadeea (1999). This film counters the Israeli narratives that deny the existence of Palestinians cultural life prior to the 1970s, by constructing through oral histories the Palestinian social and cultural life, mainly theatre, before 1948. In this film the children of a Christian Palestinian couple narrate how their father translated French plays for the local Palestinian theatre troupes in Yaffa – which is now the Israeli city of Jaffa – and how Palestinians in Yaffa were aware of the theatre life in Egypt and in fact attended theatre performances and musical concerts in Cairo.Through these narratives, the film captures the collective Palestinian experience of the loss of their cultural life after the exodus of 1948.
The plight of the Palestinians did not stop in 1948 and neither did the Palestinian theatre stop at reproducing French classics. After the war of 1967, the Hakawati Theatre was one of the first professional theatres to revive in Palestine. The name hakawati refers to the traditional storytellers who told folktales, myths and legends in cafés and public places using gestures and a different voice for each character. As its name suggests, one of the main reasons behind establishing the Hakawati theatre was to create a distinctly Palestinian theatre that would uphold and promote the national identity against the assaults made against it under occupation.
The use of a traditional hakawati in Palestinian theatre exemplified the emergence of storytelling as the dominant theatrical form for articulating national identity and political aspirations. Because it was only through their stories and their collective cultural memory that Palestinians could express their claims to Palestine against the Israeli state’s attempts to obliterate their history. The Hakawati’s plays of the 1980s are still performed today by different Palestinian theatre groups.
It is interesting that while in the rest of the Arab world storytellers are usually men, on the contemporary Palestinian stage, the best plays based on collective memory are usually performed by female hakawatis. One such play is az-Zarub (the Alley), presented in Jerusalem in 1992 and in Berlin in 2001. In this play, the hakawati reminds her listeners of important events, places and people in her hometown Acre and how everything she formerly knew suffered change and destruction. The Alley is entirely based on interviews with Palestinian women villagers whose collective experience of the war of 1948 constitutes the whole play. Using the exact words of those women villagers, the hakawati reminisces about her visits to the Pasha Palace and its baths which in 1954 were turned into an Israeli museum known as Hanozion Ha-Airani Museum; or Jacob’s Wednesday Celebrations, the Ramadan feast, Han al-Umdan lane at the centre of Acre where Palestinian children gathered in front of the “Magic Box”. This lane is now closed for “urban development”. She reminisces about her visits to the fishermen on the seashore which is now Israeli private property and the people of Acre cannot bathe there anymore without paying an entrance fee. The hakawati tells of al-Ahli Cinema where notable Egyptian artists and their theatre troupe were hosted. She reminds her audience that al-Ahli Cinema was torn down and replaced with a branch of the Israeli National bank. Listening to these stories, the audience becomes aware of the Israeli attempts to obliterate the Palestinian heritage and history. They are reminded of what Palestinians had and what they lost. Even the fact that these events are narrated by a female hakawati is, according to Hala Khamis Nassar’s study,3 symbolic of Palestine, the lost motherland.
The representation of the lost motherland onstage has an earlier precedent in the region dating back to 1944 when one of the most prominent examples of drama as a means of nation-building had taken place in the Kurdish town of Mahabad in Iran. This play was called “Dayki Nishtiman” or Motherland and was staged during the short-lived Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad.4 The play which depicted motherland in chains, abused by ruffians, but ultimately set free by her children, was so successful that it went on the road after several months of staging in full houses in Mahabad.5
The staging of Motherland was a direct result of the conviction of Kurdish political leaders (namely the Committee for the Revival of Kurdistan or Komala-i Jiyanaw-i Kurdistan) that theatre could play a crucial role in mobilizing the masses and bringing them closer to the party’s ideology. The play was first introduced to the actors by the Komala, the dominant Kurdish political party, at their headquarters where a group of young members of the party were asked to stage the play in Mahabad to promote the patriotic ideas of the party.
Despite the actors’ lack of familiarity with theatre, people’s general disdain for light entertainment, and fear of state authorities which had resulted in secret rehearsals, Motherland was staged in the summer of 1944. The play which was over three hours long drew heavily on the poems of the late 19th century poet Haji Ghaderi Koyi, a forerunner of Kurdish nationalism. At the first staging of Motherland, over 200 people including Qazi Muhammad, the president of the Republic were present. The play showed the representatives of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan signing the Sa’d Abad treaty6 and consequently, the Motherland in chains reciting a poem which called the nation to unite and rescue her from humiliation and oppression. Motherland’s cry for help and rescue from a thousand years of servitude, in the form of a heart-wrenching song, brought tears to the eyes of a Kurdish audience who for the first time were able to appreciate serious theatre and its message and mission. The play ended with the creation of the Republic, the raising of the Kurdish flag and the introduction of the president who gave a speech about Kurdistan’s long history of enslavement and the necessity of struggle for liberation. Each act ended with a chorus singing patriotic songs to the accompaniment of drums, trumpet and clarinet. The theatrical speech of the president of Kurdistan was followed by the speech of the real president of Kurdistan, Qazi Muhammad, who stepped onto the stage with great excitement to speak about the history of Kurdish freedom-fighting, the colonization of Kurdistan and its division and suppression by different nation-states, as was earlier described by the staged president. Motherland was an immediate and resounding success from its first performance not only in Mahabad but also in other Kurdish towns. In fact, the play was so successful in attracting people to the Komala’s policies that the party had to open new branches to respond to a fast growing membership.
The success of Motherland was never repeated after the fall of the republic and the loss of autonomy in Iranian Kurdistan following the seizure of Mahabad by the Shah’s forces. This was followed by the closing down of the Kurdish printing press, the banning of teaching Kurdish language, and the burning of Kurdish books. Despite this tragic end to the cultural achievements of the Republic, the memory of Motherland as one of the early examples of resistance theatre in the Middle-East, though absent from middle-eastern literary studies, is always present in the Kurdish literary discourse.
On the other hand, it is in Palestine that resistance theatre has grown into a full-fledged anti-colonial movement. When in December 2008-January 2009 the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip led to the death of over 1400 Palestinians, among them 431 children, the Palestinian theatre decided that it was time to make the voices of children in Gaza heard to an indifferent world. The Gaza Monologues which narrated the personal stories of a group of children from Gaza who experienced the Israeli attack was brought onstage by Ashtar Theatre, established in Jerusalem in 1991 by two prominent Palestinian actors, Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun. This play was simultaneously performed on October 17th 2010 by over 1500 youngsters in 36 countries all over the world. The Gaza Monologues won the Ashtar theatre world recognition and led to their further success in their production of Richard II in Arabic at the Globe World Shakespeare Festival in May 2012.
In a panel discussion at the Globe Theatre around the theme of Theatre under Occupation: What Does Shakespeare Have to Say to the Palestinians?, Aoun stressed the important role of theatre to reaffirm Palestinian identity in the face of the occupation and the denial of Palestinians’ historical presence. She argued that for Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation at a time when Israel tries to seize and steal all their heritage from land to embroidery and even food, theatre becomes an important form of non-violent resistance by providing a means of self-expression.
However, it has to be noted that theatre work in Palestine is not necessarily meant to encourage non-violent forms of resistance. For example, the Jenin refugee camp Freedom Theatre enjoyed the support of local militants, most importantly the leader of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Zakaria Zubeidi, who attended the theatre as a child. While, Zakaria’s life story is a reminder of the effects of growing up amidst a violent military occupation on the lives of Palestinian children, as the late director of the Freedom Theatre, Juliano Mer Khamis, stressed, his theatre was not a replacement or an alternative to Zakaria’s armed resistance but its partner in fight against the Zionist regime: “I know it’s not good for fundraising [but]… I’m not a good Jew going to help the Arabs, and I’m not a philanthropic Palestinian who comes to feed the poor…Nobody joined this project to heal. We’re not healers. We’re not good Christians. We are freedom fighters.” Indeed the brutal reality of occupation is too palpable and prevalent to be ignored by the Palestinian theatre. On the day of the opening of the Freedom Theatre in 2006, two 17-year-old boys in nearby Nablus were shot in the necks and killed during an Israeli invasion.
Apart from the more obvious effects of occupation including the loss of land and life, the Freedom Theatre along with other theatre groups have started to also address the hidden effects of occupation, such as the issue of aid dependency. A recent play called House of Yasmine (“Beit Yasmine”), produced partly by the Ashtar Theatre satirizes the aid donors’ sidelining of Palestinians by prolonging their suffering and benefiting from it. The play highlights how aid dependency has resulted in the lack of sustainable development in Palestine. As confirmed by Edward Muallem, the general manager of the Ashtar Theatre, the representatives of donor governments were invited to attend the performance to encourage discussion between them and Palestinians. Yet, oddly (or not) they declined the invitation. The donors’ refusal to hear their beneficiaries and engage in such a dialogue with them only serves to reinforce the notion that donors do not really have the best interests of Palestinians at heart.
Theatre has played and continues to play an important role in anti-colonial resistance movement and nation-building in Palestine as it did temporarily but effectively in Iranian Kurdistan in 1944. Of course, there is still a lot of research to be done to investigate the Kurdish and Palestinian theatre histories and the impacts they have made in the course of nationalist movements, especially considering the vast geography of Kurdish regions with their different histories and also the large Kurdish and Palestinian diasporas outside the middle-east.
- Literature and Nation in the Middle East,edited by YasirSuleiman and Ibrahim Muhawi. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006, p.1
- Edwards, P. (1979). Threshold of a Nation: A study in English and Irish drama. Cambridge University Press, p. 192.
- Nassar, Hala Khamis, 1964-. “Stories from under Occupation: Performing the Palestinian Experience.”Theatre Journal 58.1 (2006): 15-37. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Aug. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
- The Republic of Kurdistan was proclaimed on 22 January 1946 in Mahabad in northwestern Iran with the support of the Soviet Union. The Republic collapsed after negotiations between Iran and the Soviet Union which resulted in the Iranian military attack of Mahabad and the execution of the leader of the Kurdish Republic, Qazi Muhammad, on 31 March 1947.
- Eaglton, William Jr., (1963) The Kurdish Republic of 1946. Oxford University Press. p. 40.
- A non-aggression treaty signed by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in 1937.
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