From Palestinian Refugee Camp to New York City Stage

By Mairav Zonszein

An absurdist play about two people waiting for someone who never shows up, performed in Arabic by young Palestinian actors, directed by a Jewish Israeli filmmaker and presented on a New York City stage: this was the scene the night of 18 October at Columbia University’s Miller Theater in New York City as the Jenin Freedom Theatre made its US debut with a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, entitled While Waiting.

The troupe of actors delivered a powerful performance that utilised Beckett’s minimalist and open-ended seminal work to express the ceaseless waiting that characterises their identity as Palestinians from a refugee camp in the West Bank. It also movingly touched on how their lives have been impacted by the murder last April of the theatre’s founder and director, Juliano Mer Khamis, by a Palestinian gunman.

Mer Khamis, an Israeli actor and filmmaker born to a Jewish mother and Palestinian Christian father, embodied a space that few are able to inhabit in this region, living in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Mer Khamis encouraged Palestinian youth to engage in art as their struggle against occupation, or what he called a “cultural intifada”. His friend Udi Aloni, son of Knesset member Shulamit Aloni, an advocate of binationalism and a renowned filmmaker, assumed the position of theatre director after Mer Khamis’ death.

The play, told almost entirely in Arabic with English subtitles that ran sporadically at the top, forced readers to engage more with the actors than with their words.

It opened with a story in English, told by one of the actors in the role of joker and narrator. He told the audience about the troupe’s experience at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, comically poking fun at the “security massage” that many Palestinians are subjected to when travelling out of Israel.

This was met with nodding, sighs and laughter from the audience. And it set the tone for the rest of the performance, a tragicomedy about deep-seated identity politics, couched in top-notch slapstick humour and solid acting that, at times, could make you forget you were watching a play performed by actors with no citizenship, from a refugee camp which has seen a great deal of violence.

Just a week earlier, Aloni spoke on a panel on the very same stage about the importance of total personal fidelity to the act of putting one’s body, mind and art wholeheartedly into a cause. In his case this cause was opposition to Israeli state practices and the creation of a new binational reality for Israelis and Palestinians.

He was promoting his new book, What Does a Jew Want, a collection of essays and letters that expresses what he defines as a “secular theology”. He writes as a Jew that refuses to have his identity reduced to narrow, popular definitions. Inspired by the works of Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said and Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who both saw Jewish identity as multifarious and multilayered, Aloni spoke about how to deal with the concept of waiting and how to act for change through art.

Slovenian philosopher and author Slavoj Zizek, a contributor and editor of Aloni’s book, spoke on the panel about the need to act in the face of injustice yet at the same time treat the victim like a human being and not like an unknowable “other.” He said that people should go to Ramallah, where the Jenin Freedom Theatre is now based, and see a play, not because there are “poor Palestinians there” that you can feel sorry for and impressed by, but rather because you want to experience art.

By complete coincidence, the performance took place on the exact same day that Israel and Hamas carried out the first phase of a prisoner exchange deal. Israeli Gilad Shalit was returned after being held in captivity for five and a half years in Gaza.

As Palestinian actors dramatised their long wait for some kind of salvation through Beckett, on an entirely different stage, Israelis celebrated the end of a protracted wait for their collective “son” to be released. This was followed by the dramatic release of Palestinian prisoners who could be seen reuniting with their families.

Indeed, the message of the play was that although Palestinians, Israelis and many others are waiting for something to happen – be it peace, healing, independence or credibility – they must engage in action while waiting. In this case, that means literally acting on a stage.

The theme of “waiting” could not have been more prominent that night as the Jenin troupe inadvertently manifested the constant theatre that plays out between Israelis and Palestinians, a fact that ultimately binds the two people.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and translator based in Tel Aviv.

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