The early days of Palestinian theater are not unlike those of Arab theater in the rest of the Levant. Even so, the history of theater in Palestine since the early 1900s has differed from other countries in the region, because the political and demographic shifts that Palestine and the Palestinian people endured differed radically from those elsewhere in the Levant. Palestinian theater emerged under difficult circumstances, inwardly focused, and then underwent phases of tumult and isolation. A distinctly Palestinian theater has come into being, shaped by both its history and globalization, including global openness and the evolution of communications.
Here, the term “Palestinian theater” does not refer to plays written by Palestinians and non-Palestinians about the issue of Palestine. Instead, it refers to theater as an expression of acting and directing by troupes with a Palestinian identity. The evolution of Palestinian theater can be divided into three stages, each marked by a distinct beginning. The first stage begins with the birth of Palestinian theater in the late nineteenth century and lasts until 1948; the second begins with the rebirth of the Palestinian theater after 1967 (with a focus on the first intifada, which erupted in 1987); and the third begins with Palestinian theater’s second rebirth in 1993.
First Stage: The Emergence of Palestinian Theater
The emergence and early development of theater in Palestinian cities prior to 1948 occurred in the context of theater’s emergence more broadly across the Levant in the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century and a climate of enlightenment in the region. Theater emerged in the context of a cultural renaissance occurring in certain areas and cities (such as cultural clubs in Haifa—the Orthodox Club, Catholic Club, and Islamic Club) and Jerusalem (Teachers’ College) and through missionary schools, which were common in several major cities. Particularly noteworthy are the artistic activities of the al-Jawzi family and the emergence of several playwrights in the 1920s, including the Saliba brothers, Jameel Habib Bahry, the Nasri brothers, and Jameel al-Jawzi. Sources and artists’ memoirs confirm that cabarets or coffee houses provided spaces for performances, including student productions. Plays were drawn from Arab authors such as Majnun Leila (Crazy about Leila) by Ahmad Shawqi, al-Samaw’al aw wafa’ al-‘Arab (al-Samaw’al or Arabs’ Loyalty) by Antun Gemayyil, or translated from European authors, such as l’Avare or le Médecin malgré lui by Molière, or Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet by Shakespeare.
Second Stage: 1967 – 93
After 1948, it was only in the late 1960s that the rebirth of Palestinian theater occurred. In light of the 1967 defeat and the launch of the Palestinian resistance movement, a clear, but uncoordinated, desire was expressed, both within Palestine and abroad, to develop theater with a Palestinian identity.
In the diaspora, the first attempt to resurrect Palestinian theater was made by Fatah Theater Troupe, first in Amman, and then in Damascus in 1966, over the course of two years. Among their performances was the play An Undying People, written by Saeed al-Mizayyin and directed by Sabry Sondos. However, it is Khalil Tafesh, that can be considered the founder of Palestinian theater in the diaspora. After studying theater in Cairo in 1969, Tafesh founded the Palestinian National Theater Troupe in Damascus, which staged a production of The Trial of the Man Who Did Not Fight, written by Syrian playwright Mamdouh Adwan and directed by Palestinian director Hassan ‘Uwayty. ‘Uwayty then directed a production of The Visit, an adaptation of Yusuf al-Qaid’s novel about US President Richard Nixon’s visit to Egypt. Following this, Hussein al-Asmar directed a production of Palestinian Dream by Rashad Abu Shawir, and the late Syrian director Fawaz Sager staged an adaptation of Institute of Insanity by Samih al-Qasim. Iraqi director Jawad al-Assadi later directed plays at the Palestinian National Theater; the last one he directed was The Rape by Saadallah Wannous in the early 1990s.
Despite these activities, Palestinian theater in the diaspora had limited influence and resembled what might be called diplomatic representation theater.
In the West Bank, theater began to take shape in the 1970s, particularly in Ramallah, al-Bireh, and Jerusalem. Prior to 1970, Tarek Masarweh had been the first person to form a theater troupe there: he staged a presentation of Alejandro Casona’s play The Boat Without a Fisherman.
Theater in the West Bank constituted an important phenomenon because it aimed at a specific audience and took on a significant social role. Yet it also suffered from numerous problems, including lack of a repertoire, specialists, resources, and patronage. Israel placed constraints, too; performances required permits (which were difficult to obtain) and were often banned outright, and scripts were subject to censorship.
Theater Family troupe was formed in Ramallah in 1970; it later became Balalin troupe. Two years later, Dababis troupe was founded, also in Ramallah. El-Hakawati troupe grew out of Dababis in 1983 and still exists today as the Palestinian National Theater. In Jerusalem, Sunduq al-Ajab troupe and al-Qasaba troupe were founded; other troupes include al-Sanabil Theater, ‘Inad in al-Bireh, and other troupes in the camps. Most embraced a collective work style.
The Palestinian Theater (El-Hakawati Theater) was founded by François Abou Salem, along with Jackie Lubeck, Radi Shehadeh, and Edward Muallem. (Muallem and his wife Iman Aoun would go on to found Ashtar Collective.) It held the first festival for Palestinian theater and folklore in Ramallah in 1973, a festival that continued until 1975. It also encouraged the formation of numerous theater troupes, which were generated in quick succession.
These theater troupes suffered from lack of patronage and full-time staff. This was especially true for El-Hakawati Theater, which staged a large number of plays (including 120 performances of Mahjoub Mahjoub). After a grueling search for a space, El-Hakawati found a burned out theater in Jerusalem, which it turned into a theater center in 1984. Al-Qasaba theater and cinematheque was founded by George Ibrahim in Jerusalem in 1970 and then moved to Ramallah in 2000, where it turned into a cultural center and offered a range of high-tech facilities.
Third Stage: 1993 and Beyond
After the Oslo Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the structure of theater institutions changed significantly. The PA created official institutions like the Ministry of Culture, but the ministry’s budget remained quite limited. Civil society organizations were also established, though when they failed to obtain necessary funding from official institutions they began to rely on foreign funding to produce plays.
Of note is Ashtar Theatre, a nongovernmental institution run by Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun that has development and training aims. Ashtar Theatre was founded as a student troupe in Jerusalem in 1991 and opened a second location in Ramallah in 1995. The group worked to renovate the Ramallah location and turn it into a theater space: there is one room for rehearsals and another that can seat seventy people for performances. Ashtar evolved into a theatre lab using interactive theater techniques and recently opened an academy to teach theater. Also noteworthy are al-Harah Theater in the town of Beit Jala, which was founded by Marina Barham in 2005, and the Freedom Theatre which was established in Jenin refugee camp in 2006 and aimed at developing “a vibrant and creative artistic community” through art as a catalyst for social change and “resistance against all forms of oppression.”
In the Gaza Strip, theater faced more difficulties. Numerous attempts to create a conscientious and artistically mature theater movement have not yet been very successful. Many young people formed theater troupes, staged different types of theatre in recent years, and invested their own financial and artistic efforts, but theater is still more of a hobby or nonprofessional activity.
Beginning in 1989 or so, several theater groups emerged, including the Theatrical Candles troupe; Hope in Arts and Theater troupe, which was founded by artist Saib al-Saqqa and Nabil Saqalllah; Hanadil troupe; Dignity Assembly troupe; Day of Theater; Southern troupe; Basma troupe; Theater for All troupe; and Dignity Assembly Organization troupe in Rafah. Some of these are still active, while others have disbanded.
Among Palestinians in Israel, a theater movement has not really existed, in spite of various efforts, until the early 1990s, at a time when theater was revitalized in the West Bank. Actors who studied at Israeli universities and institutes – including Mohammad Bakri, Hanan al-Helou, Salwa Naqqara, and Radi Shehadeh (author of Palestinian Theater in Palestine of ‘48: Between Struggle for Survival and Split Identity) – have worked to create Arab theater in Israel. Several Arab theater troupes are active in various cities, including Nazareth, Haifa, and particularly in Acre; plays are dominated by political and political satire overtones. Most troupes are independent, although some operate under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Ministry of Education, and they experience various challenges: patronage, identity, and communication issues.
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