'There was no tradition of theater in Palestinian culture. I never saw a play until I was in my teens'
By KSENIA SVETLOVATheater is not only an expression of civil society, but also a necessary condition for its establishment and growth" - Saadallah Wanoos, Syrian playwright
Just south of the American Colony Hotel, an inconspicuous building on Nuzha Street bears a small sign that reads, "Palestinian National Theater."
Jerusalemites still call it the "Hakawati," referring nostalgically to the theater's early days, long before there was a Palestinian Authority. Francois Abu-Salem, the director of "Al-Hakawati" company and one of the founders of the theater in east Jerusalem, says that he and his associates first started working in theater in the early 1970s. Al-Hakawati, founded in 1977, settled in a former cinema building that was burned down by activists of the Muslim brotherhood for screening pornographic films.
The name "hakawati" comes from an ancient and now almost forgotten tradition of story-telling in the Arab East. Al-Hakawati is a Syrian term for a poet, actor, comedian, historian and storyteller in the tradition. Its root is hekaya, a fable or story, or haka, to tell a story; wati implies expertise in a popular street art. The hakawati is neither a troubadour, who travels from place to place, nor a rawi, whose recitations are more formalized and less freely interpreted.
"There was no tradition of theater in Palestinian culture. I never saw a play until I was in my teens, so we chose a name that would bring us closer to our audience. At first the theater was perceived as something unreal, something fake, so in our first plays we basically played ourselves, making our viewers believe that the emotions and the feelings were true," says Abu-Salem.
He still speaks very warmly and nostalgically about "old times," when everything had just begun.
The new players, initially a team of 15 people who were later joined by dozens more, had little theater experience. Since almost none had studied drama professionally, the "new kids on the block" had to gamble on boldness, sincerity and resourcefulness. They used original scripts they wrote themselves and were guided mostly by intuition.
Why did Abu-Salem feel the need to create a theater tradition in Palestinian society?
Abu-Salem, sitting in a cozy Jerusalem hotel caf , smiles, gladly reflecting on times past.
"Well, I can say that the theater was born from the sheer need to express ourselves when the only valued thing among the youth here was fighting, becoming a fida'i. We knew very little about theater, but we had a lot to say and a lot of frustration to let out, as at that time there were no newspapers, no social or political forums, so theater was the only way for us to express ourselves."
Does this mean that Al-Hakawati was and is political theater? The answer can perhaps be found in the plays that have been produced in Al-Hakawati over the years.
The Story of Kufur Shamma, also performed in London, tells the story of Walid, a brother of the head of a village, who has been studying in Cairo.
When he returns to his home in the fictional Palestinian village of Kufur Shamma, he finds a ghost town. The village has been destroyed and the inhabitants swept away by a war. Only the village fool remains in the ruins. Walid sets out with the fool on a picaresque journey to find the scattered people of Kufur Shamma - a journey that takes them to other Arab countries, to the United States and, finally, back to the village.
Ali the Galilean: The 1001 Nights of a Stone-thrower has mixed an ancient Arabic epic of 1001 nights with the everyday reality of a young Palestinian in Israel. Jericho, Year Zero tells the story of Betty, a French tourist who falls in love with Issam, a Palestinian refugee, who is trying to get to the core of East and West relations.
"We always felt the need to search within ourselves, to understand our condition, our failure, our weaknesses and inability to find a way out of our gloomy situation," explains Abu-Salem.
But the search for identity has not always been understood by the authorities, who have occasionally called the group in for questioning and banned their performances in West Bank cities. Nevertheless, Al-Hakawati has traveled - from Gaza refugee camps to London and New York theaters.
Their reviews abroad have been very positive.
"This is poverty theater," The New York Times's review said, "practiced with a degree of technical sophistication to appeal to the world's art theater audiences."
"But it is in Gaza, Nablus and Hebron where I'm most amazed by the audience. The thirst for theater in those places is enormous," says Amer Khalil, an actor and a co-director of JJ Theater Days.
One of the most discussed plays is Jidariyya, the story of a poet approaching old age who is confronting the reality of death and realizing the importance of life. The play is based on a poem by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The character of the poet is played by Makram Khoury.
Another unusual play that was running through 2005 and will continue until May 2006 is Gilgamesh, performed by Abu-Salem and Amer Khalil. The play tells the story of the powerful Sumerian king/god Gilgamesh and his friend, a commoner with a zest for life.
"Our public is tired of politicized theater and cinema," Abu-Salem says. "It is time to search one's self, one's soul instead of continually talking politics."
As for the future, Abu-Salem plans to create a drama school in Jerusalem, where those with a passion for drama can find suitable guidance. He is also talking about cooperation with an Arab-Jewish theater in Jaffa and Jerusalem's Hama'abada Theater, in a play performed in both Hebrew and Arabic.
"I would like very much for Israeli audiences to come and see us and I'm working to achieve this goal" he says.
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