Middle Eastern theatre reaches a new stage

By Sarah Hemming, Financial Times – 15 Jan 2010
www.ft.com/

Amir Nizar Zuabi

Amir Nizar Zuabi

If two people my age are sitting in Haifa today, there’s a ghost sitting between them, called 1948,” says theatre director Amir Nizar Zuabi. “It’s such a crucial moment in the history of my people. It’s when time stopped.”

He picks up a jug from the table and pours water for us both. We are two people sitting together, but we are in London, at the Young Vic Theatre. There’s no ghost here. It’s partly for that reason this Zuabi is bringing his latest play to London.

As a young Palestinian, Zuabi grew up with that date and its aftermath etched into his life: the end of the British Mandate; the establishment of Israel; the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; the recurrent conflict ever since. “It’s all around you. You can’t walk around Haifa and not see it: the empty, gutted houses.”

But it is precisely because the date looms so large in his experience that Zuabi wanted to peel away the layers and examine it afresh. The play, I Am Yusuf and This is My Brother, which he has written and directed, imagines what it felt like to live through history. One of Zuabi’s challenges, as a 33-year-old who has never known anything else, was to envisage life before 1948.

“I think that was the exercise of writing the play,” Zuabi says. “Because a lot of the time we imagine Paradise Lost. But of course people had problems; they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had headaches. I’m trying to understand what would it be like for somebody with my sort of problems – small, trivial, complicated – to be suddenly smacked on the face with a historical event.”

His play is therefore tightly focused on the traumatic impact on a group of Palestinian villagers, most of whom are displaced in the war. The emphasis is personal: Zuabi depicts ordinary people with whom we can empathise – including a homesick British soldier. Central to the story are two brothers, Yusuf and Ali. Yusuf is mentally impaired by a childhood accident, and Zuabi sees his character’s perspective as significant.

“For me it was really important to tell the story from a very naive point of view. From somebody who has no inherent hate as a result of prejudice. Yusuf is always a blank page. He can ask a question that makes you rethink.”

As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that Ali is responsible for Yusuf’s condition. Is their situation – two men yoked by the past – partly symbolic of the bigger picture?

“Maybe subconsciously,” replies Zuabi, tentatively. “They are locked together in this lock of love and hate, so you can say, ‘OK, it’s a parable about the situation.’ But it’s there and it’s not there. It’s not the way to read the play … A lot of the play is about ‘what if?’ What if one of the brothers hadn’t done the horrible deed he did to the other brother? What if 1948 hadn’t happened? What if? It is a question that we ask a lot.”

What was intentional, Zuabi says, was the almost mythical feel of the play: “The story itself echoes the tale of Joseph from the Bible, which is also a Qur’anic story. So of course that was always there. It’s part of our cultural baggage, I guess. And that’s Palestine. Palestine was always a junction, for fighting, but also for myths. We had everybody marching through.”

He smiles. Zuabi himself is serious, courteous and sometimes wryly funny. He speaks fluent English with a slight inflection. Born in Jerusalem, he grew up in Nazareth and currently lives in Haifa. He studied at Jerusalem’s Nissan Nativ Acting School and has worked in Europe as well as at El Hakawait (the Palestinian National Theatre) and Al-Kasabah in Ramallah. His Al-Kasabah production, Alive from Palestine, visited the Young Vic in 2002.

He recently launched ShiberHur, (meaning “an inch of freedom”), a Palestinian touring company based in Haifa. For his audiences, theatre is often a novelty. “We don’t have a theatre tradition at all,” he says. “It’s a new art form for us. But that’s an advantage, as well as a disadvantage, because there is not one set way of doing things.”

I Am Yusuf … is a co-production between ShiberHur and the Young Vic. Last year they took the play to Palestinian villages and refugee camps. This was a moving experience for Zuabi.

“We went to Hebron to this makeshift tiny theatre and we had an amazing show there,” he recalls. “One thing that touched people was the fact that we come from Galilee, telling the story, and they are the refugees that once were part of us but now they’re in a different part of the country with a different accent already. The show ended and we couldn’t leave the theatre for three hours because people grabbed us, trying to take us home to feed us.”

Did watching the show anger them?

“I hope not,” he says. “I hope not. I’d like to say that there’s no spite in the writing. I don’t believe in spite as a person. It was never about them [the Israelis] – that’s part of the reason why they’re not in the play – it was about us. It’s me, telling my story. I keep on saying this sentence: it is not against anybody; it is pro-me, pro-my culture, pro-my stories.”

The show will play to a very different audience in London. One of Zuabi’s challenges was to create a show that might speak to those who know the history intimately and also to those who don’t. But how will he feel if some reaction is hostile? The play, after all, features only Palestinians. There are no Israeli characters to tell their story or put their point of view.

“If somebody expects to see a balanced piece of theatre between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he doesn’t need to come to this show,” Zuabi says. “I know it’s very brutal what I’m saying. But I’ll be blunt … They [balanced pieces] don’t exist. There is no balance. You can’t tell a true, honest story holding the stick from both sides. This of course is very complicated because it so nuanced and it is so personal for us. But I don’t believe in balanced theatre. It’s a dynamic art form.”

For Zuabi, the situation is personally as well as politically nuanced. He is married to an Israeli actress and they have a small son, who is growing up to speak both Arabic and Hebrew. It was partly his birth that inspired Zuabi to write the play. What sort of future would he wish for his son?

“Swiss boredom,” he says, laughing. Then, more seriously: “What do I hope for my son? Ideally? Personally? I’m saying this not as, ‘That’s what we can achieve’, but … I think I’d want him to grow up in a country where it didn’t matter. And everybody lived between the sea and the River Jordan and that’s life, you know? In a lot of ways that’s what Palestine used to be for centuries. There were always Jews there, there were always Christians there, there were always Muslims there. It was multicultural before multiculturalism was born.

“I don’t draw the line between: you’re Israeli, he’s Palestinian, or Muslim or Christian. I draw the line in a different place completely. I draw the line between people who believe that all people were born equal, and hence deserve the same things, same rights, same duties, same everything, and people who say, ‘Yes, but I am more special.’”

Zuabi admits that theatre is unlikely to make any material difference to the ongoing tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, he is passionate about its importance.

“For me, culture is what we are, really. I understand people fighting over territory. I have lived a privileged life compared to some in Palestine. But on the bigger scale of things, for me, creating culture, creating normality, is the reason we have aspirations to have freedom one day. And that is a huge mission – in that I believe. Cultural life is crucial for any nation. Because that’s the thing you leave behind. That and the records of war.”

‘I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother’, Young Vic, London SE1, from January 19 to February 6. Tel: +44 (0)7922 2922 www.youngvic.org

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