Azza and Taha: ‘I’m creating theatre in one of the harshest environments — we don’t even have a state’

POSTED: February 9, 2018
SOURCE: The Advertiser

Azza by ShiberHur Theatre Company. Picture: Adeeb Safadi

CONSIDER all the challenges involved with creating a new work of theatre. Then try to do all of that within the conflict zone that is modern-day Palestine.

“I’m creating theatre in one of the harshest environments there is to create theatre in,” says internationally acclaimed director Amir Nizar Zuabi, who will present two works at this year’s Adelaide Festival.

“The hurdles are that we don’t even have a state, and theatre heavily involves funding, because it involves collaboration between lots of people.

“We don’t have a big urban centre – and the urban centre that we do have is cut off from the rest of its environment. Palestinians are living in what is today Israel and in the West Bank and in Gaza, so we are very separated from each other by different political restrictions, barriers and walls.

“At the same time, we don’t have a big theatre tradition to begin with. We have a longer tradition of poetry than of theatre. There is no infrastructure – there are hardly any theatres here which would be considered a theatre anywhere else in the world.

“But, along with the fact that we have all these challenges, we also have a lot of advantages because of that. People who become involved in theatre here are involved for all the right reasons: They have something deep to say about the world they live in – not only politically.”

ShiberHur Theatre Company, which Zuabi founded in 2008, will perform his work Azza, which explores the mourning ritual of the same name, while he will also direct a solo work by actor Amer Hlehel called Taha, based on one of Palestine’s greatest poets.

“The first thing that got me involved (in theatre) was my grandfather handing me a book of the complete works of Shakespeare, and saying ‘Read this, kiddo’. I was 14 or 15,” Zuabi, now 41, says. “That was like falling in love, really. From that moment on it was clear for me that that’s what I want to be in life, a theatre practitioner – which is something I regret very often,” he laughs.

After graduating with honours from Israel’s Nissan Native Acting Studio, Zuabi cut his teeth directing Stories Under Occupation for Al-Kasaba Theatre, which was named best production at the Cairo Theatre Festival and Cartage Festival and went on to tour from London to Tokyo.

He was subsequently invited to direct Sam Sheppard’s When the World Was Green for the Young Vic in London, before returning with I am Yusel and this is My Brother, which was performed to great critical acclaim in 2010. After the success of that and his adaptation of Kafka’s The Penal Colony,Zuabi became an international associate director of the Old Vic.

 

Zuabi says that the works he creates at home have to be more intimate and able to work in makeshift environments, compared to his more elaborate international productions.

“I also started developing a taste for simpler, more honed-down shows – not necessarily intimate but very story-driven, very precise and less spectacle/set/prop driven. Azza is basically story-driven and it’s very intimate and there’s a lot happening on stage with not a lot of set – but that is very purposeful.”

It is also very personal, drawn from the death of Zuabi’s father a year ago.

“I was already planning to create a piece around this mourning ceremony, but then my father passed away and the piece become something completely different. In a way, it’s my grief process on stage. He was ill for a long period – unfortunately he had cancer. We saw it coming, but, like always, it hits you like a train when it does happen.

“It became kind of hollow – I know this is a weird word to choose – and, in a way, because of that more funny and more vivid and alive.

“What I understood going through the ceremony very intimately … Azza offers compassion and it offers also a kind of celebration of somebody’s life. That aspect I didn’t think of before my father’s death.

“I think it’s our need to cling on to life, to affirm life. What’s more life-affirming than a good laugh?”

It also explores how the structures of such ceremonies can help people through the grieving process.

 

“The show started out as me being really fascinated by the structure, by the ceremony. Our ceremony is very rigid and a bit gruelling. It’s three days where the community comes together and you sit on plastic chairs, drink endless amounts of coffee, smoke a really suicidal amount of cigarettes, and shake hands. Everybody that comes, you shake his hand and they offer their condolences. I think it’s therapy by exhaustion.

“The second day, the fatigue sets … there is something about the ceremony that is very exhausting, emotionally and physically. Then the third day, you start taking care of others, which is very unique, because you’ve been there – it’s your territory now.

“The repetitiveness of the motions make it a healing process in a weird way.”

In the show, these repetitive acts become like a subtle form of choreography.

“We have blessings, and I turned them into a cappella songs … they become kind of musical moments. They become trancelike, which is also part of the ceremony.”

Because male and female mourners gather in separate rooms for the Azza ceremony, only male actors from the company feature in the production.

“I could only write about my experience there … there is something very masculine about this for me, not only in a good way, but also in a very silly, dumb masculine way. I wanted to talk about that.”

The ritual is one which takes place in both Christian and Muslim communities in the region. “In most walks of life, the Christian and the Muslim communities are very similar in practices – and when we still had Jews as part of the tissue of this land, they were very similar as well in most of their ceremonies.”

Zuabi says his shows are often political, even when dealing with very personal subject matter.

“From my point of view, Azza is a very political show, because you dare to talk about this person dying of old age. In the Middle East today, people don’t just die … they need to be killed. There is a political act in telling the story of somebody who died of no apparent reason, except the obvious one.”

The lead actor in Azza, Amer Hlehel, also wrote and performs Taha, which is again directed by Zuabi and translated into English.

“This is a celebration. Amer wrote an unbelievably beautiful text which is a celebration of the life of one of our most extraordinary poets,” Zuabi says

“He survived the 1948 war, which is when most of Palestine was ethnically cleansed. It’s an unbelievable tale of hope and survival and optimism by this man who is really, in a deep sense, a true humanist.”

Hlehel is excited at the prospect of performing both productions. “It will be tiring a little bit, because most of the days I will do two shows, but it’s an amazing feeling,” he says.

While it is very different in style from Azza, Taha also explores modern Palestinian society through the lens of one person’s life, in this case the late poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who died in 2011 at the age of 80.

“If you ask every second Palestinian person, they will tell you they have a very similar story in their house to Taha’s story,” Hlehel says.

“My grandfather passed through the same journey during the 1948 war, until the day he died. Being a teenager in ’48, he was displaced to Lebanon, then snuck back to Palestine. You are trying to rebuild a life from nothing very close to your village, but you are not allowed for your entire life to go back to your home.

“I am a result of this story, also.”

Taha was born in Saffuriyya, Galilee, but fled to Lebanon at 17 with his family when their village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli War. He returned the next year to Nazareth, where he lived for the rest of his life. In the 1950s and 1960s, he sold souvenirs to Christian pilgrims by day and studied poetry at night, becoming owner of a small souvenir shop with his sons.

“All the time, he had hosted a literary salon in his shop. The most important figures in the Palestinian literature scene in the ’60s and ’70s, they were meeting in Taha’s shop weekly,” Hlehel says.

“They worked there, they corrected each other and discussed each other’s work. He was very well known as a figure but he observed the literature scene in Palestine at that time. He was very close to these people. So when he started writing … they forced him to publish. They took his poetry and things that he wrote and published it in newspapers and in magazines. They invited him to festivals and events to read … so they started his career.”

Hlehel says Taha only started writing poetry in his 40s, then stopped for a decade before resuming in earnest when he was 52.

“What makes Taha unique in the Palestinian poetry scene is that he took his very personal experience and he wrote very deep, tender poetry about it. He didn’t fall into being political or polemical in his poetry, which is very, very rare in Palestine at that time, being the first generation after The Nakba (or The Catastrophe, as it is known).

“They felt like they needed to write about the collective experience, and the political experience, and to prove that they lost their land and lost their lives during the war. Taha made it about losing your personal life.”

There is internet footage of Taha at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, reading his work Revenge which, despite its title, advocates against vengeance. The piece also closes Hlehel’s play.

“People in war zones are always afraid and scared of showing weakness or being honest. They need to be strong and they need to support their people.

“They write to make people’s morale stronger. But Taha was really open and generous, saying ‘this is how we feel about our story’. Most of the Palestinian people, they think like Taha – they don’t want revenge. Their revenge is to ignore this story – they want to forget this catastrophe that happened and rebuild a new life, to look to the future, not to the past.”

Hlehel wants audiences to see beyond the politics and the fighting. “What I want from people is that, the next time they see an item in the news about Palestine, they will think differently and they will see Taha’s face and Taha’s story in that item.”

Zuabi says ShiberHur Theatre Company aims to explore and convey to the world what it means to be Palestinian in the 21st century.

“We are always reduced to a bloody conflict,” Zuabi says. “The conflict is real, and very bloody, and very hard to negotiate life around – but it is only part of what we are. We are a rich, ancient culture.

“This country has been a junction or a funnel for every civilisation you can imagine. We, as Palestinians, are the accumulation of all this. We have been a corridor that everybody has passed through and left something. This is ingrained in us.

“There is a richness of culture, a tapestry which I think is reduced horribly in the way we are perceived – and, a lot of the times, in the way we talk about ourselves.

“We tend to focus on our harsh political conditions and forget the richness of this country. We reduce ourselves and we are reduced to polemics – they said this and we said that, and they weren’t here before us.

“It is almost tragic that we are stuck in this: There is a wider scope and a much deeper discourse that needs to happen.”

 

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The General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the U.S. is the official representative of the PLO in the United States.

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