Dec 02 2015

The future of the Palestinian National Theatre

Published by at 12:55 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

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By Daoud Kuttab

I still remember the early days in 1984 in East Jerusalem. I was a member of a Palestinian theatre company when we were fortunate enough to be able to give a physical home to Al Hakawati troupe.

We thought the building could be both a home for our company and a theatre for Palestinians.

A grant from the mayor of Nablus at the time, Zafer Al Masri, helped us buy the lighting equipment; most of the rest of the work was physical.

We had taken over the burnt-out Nuzha theatre, which had been destroyed from the inside, reportedly for screening lewd movies. To honour the tradition, we called it the Nuzha/Hakawati theatre.

Later we called it the Palestinian National Theatre, but the only name that stuck was the name of the original troupe that established it, Al Hakawati.

This week, the manager of this Palestinian theatre received a hefty Israeli municipal tax bill which is threatening to close this important cultural centre.

In a normal situation, the ruling civil authorities support rather than tax a theatre that provides cultural activities. The city wants approximately $150,000 in back municipal taxes. No waiver was provided for the Palestinian theatre.

To be fair, the tax bill is not the only problem facing the management of the theatre. It has been on a downhill spiral since the signing of the Oslo Accords, which separated East Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian theatre scene.

As part of that agreement Israel legislated a separation that barred any role of the Palestinian National Authority in East Jerusalem and its institutions.

And although US officials had promised in a side letter to the PLO that Palestinian organisations that worked before 1993 would be allowed to continue working, this commitment did not include, in Israeli eyes, any financial support for these organisations.

The Israelis fought tooth and nail to institutionalise this separation.

Any activity taking place at the theatre was scrutinised by Israelis and if there was any connection to the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli army would prevent that event from taking place.

The situation was so absurd that even a children’s puppet festival was banned by Israel because it was partially funded by the Norwegian government through the Palestinian Authority.

When Jerusalem was declared the Arab cultural capital, in 2009, Israel prevented the theatre from hosting any activities on the occasion because of the connection with the Palestinian ministry of culture.

At one time, Israel barred a local football team that had won a Palestinian championship from using the theatre to hold a celebration because the championship is somehow connected to the Palestinian Authority.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing the theatre is not financial.

Al Hakawati theatre was never just a theatre for Jerusalemites. Palestinians from everywhere came to Jerusalem and attended plays and cultural events at their national theatre.

However, the Israeli wall, and the restriction of movement of Palestinians from the rest of the occupied territories to Jerusalem hurt the theatre in one area a theatre lives on, its audience.

Without the Palestinian audience from nearby Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as other locations, the theatre started to retract.

Theatre companies, artists and other creative talent also migrated from audience-less Jerusalem to sold-out theatre halls in Ramallah, the new temporary Palestinian capital.

It is unclear whether a solution will be found to save the theatre’s premise, but the theatre’s legacy for hosting creative productions, written and directed by the company’s founding director Francois Abu Salem, is at stake.

The improvised plays created in this theatre toured the world starting from Jerusalem. Plays like “In the Name of the Father, the Mother and the Son”, “Mahjoob Mahjoob”, “One Thousand Nights of a Stone Thrower”, “Ali the Galilean” and “Kufr Shamma” have become part of Palestinian cultural history, irrespective of whether the theatre that originally hosted them continues to be open or not.

The original home theatre troupe, Al Hakawati, which established this important cultural centre had also long left the theatre it built and whose name it has taken.

Some of the theatre company members created their own cultural centres and theatre companies in Ramallah, Gaza and the Galilee.

Al Hakawati’s founder, Abu Salem, left for France and suddenly returned to Palestine in 2011 only to end his life at the young age of 60 in a dramatic fashion, jumping to his death from a high Ramallah building.

One of the youngest actors who literally grew up with the theatre company, Amer Khalil, is the current manager of the Palestinian National Theatre that is now searching for ways to pay the enormous debt that the city has levied on the theatre.

The government’s collection agency has frozen the theatre’s bank account and placed a seizure order on its premises.

Israel might succeed in closing the physical location where some of the current Palestinian culture was created, but it will never be able to turn off the national flame and desire of Palestinians to be free.


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