Interview with Gary English, June 17, 2020
Kathryn Moore (KM): Over the past decade, your creative and scholarly work has focused upon Palestinian theater. Your directorial work has engaged with actors and writers who are Palestinian, and the subject matter of these plays has specifically been the Palestinian experience. You have presented a series of such plays in your most recent book, Stories under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine, co-edited with Samer al-Saber and published in 2020. In your particular contribution, you present a context for understanding the importance of Palestinian plays to contemporary theater, and culture more generally.
I am curious about how you first became interested in this subject matter? In other words, what is the nature of your own personal relationship with Palestine and the question of Palestinian identity?
Gary English (GE): This is a complicated question, and I can try to be brief, but my relationship to the region goes back to my very early days as a boy fascinated by the history, literature and culture of Palestine and the Arab world in general. Nevertheless, I was raised more or less by default as a sort of Christian Zionist. My own journey came to a point of major transformation during the 2008 war in Gaza that intersected with my interest in the form and structure of political drama being produced in Palestine that grew out of a particular intersection between the "personal and political" realities Palestinians face. In 2008, The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Camp produced an adaptation by Nabil AlRaee and Micaela Miranda of George Orwell's "The Animal Farm" which gained a great deal of international attention. I resolved to go in 2010 and met the artists of the theatre including one of its founders and artistic director Juliano Mer Khamis. Juliano was a very large personality, a well-known Palestinian/Jewish actor and a kind of iconic figure. When he was murdered outside the theatre in 2011, I returned and was asked to help the theatre reconstitute its artistic infrastructure and spent 2012-13 as artistic director of the theatre in Jenin Camp. I lived and worked with the artists and staff for over a year producing several new plays and directed an adaptation of the "The Island" by Athol Fugard that toured the West Bank and internationally for the next few years. I became engaged with several other theatres in the West Bank, Israel and Gaza during that year and saw an enormous amount of varied and fascinating work. Samer Al-Saber and I could see that this work was original, highly theatrical and really should be published and distributed outside the region. But living in a place, a conflict zone, is very different than visiting one – even when conducting research or professional practice - and I could feel a significant internal shift in my own views, my internal life taking place. To the extent possible I assimilated into the theatre culture of Palestine and became committed to finding ways for these stories and the experience behind the stories become available to an English speaking audience.
KM: How did you select the particular plays that are presented in the anthology?
GE: Samer Al-Saber and I met in Palestine in 2012 and became close associates within the theatre community. We both directed plays there and worked with several different theatres, so when we outlined how to produce this anthology we wanted a broad but particular group of theatres and artists to be represented and we could see that those same theatres also served to represent historic Palestine geographically. Of the seven plays, "The Siege" is from The Freedom Theatre in Jenin in the north of the West Bank, "Taha" was produced at Al-Midan theatre in Haifa on the north coast, "3 in 1" came from YES Theatre (Masra Nam) in Hebron in the south, two came from Ramallah, including "Gaza Monologues" produced by Ashtar Theatre and originally performed in Gaza; and "Stories Under Occupation" which was produced in 2002 at Al-Kasaba Theatre, located at the time in Ramallah and Jerusalem. The play, "Shakespeare's Sisters" was produced by Al-Harah Theatre in Beit Jala, outside Jerusalem and one play "We are the Children of the Camp" was produced by Al-Rowad Arts Center in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The micro-political geography is very different in each of these places and the plays to some extent exhibit these differences. But collectively they reflect the range of Palestinian experiences including those in urban or rural environments, from within Israel or the West Bank and Gaza, or from the refugee camps. Most of the plays actually date from 2010 after the Second Intifada subsided when there was to some extent a rebuilding of theatre and cultural infrastructure that had been destroyed during the early 2000's due to the Intifada. Artistic, or cultural resistance is not a new idea in Palestine and dates back at least to the 1950's and Jerusalem was a center for Palestinian theatre for decades before theatres developed in the other cities of the West Bank. But while not all theatre in Palestine focuses on the so-called conflict much of it is developed and viewed as resistance to the reality of a brutal military occupation
KM: That’s interesting, since these plays are often characterized – especially in press coverage – as responses to a conflict spanning decades, rather than acts of resistance responding to localized concerns and unique experiences of the occupation. It seems that even the phrase “Palestinian experience” can be misleadingly reductive. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the selected plays address the question of Palestinian experiences, emphatically plural?
GE: Yes, I think that works that works very well.
Within the anthology I have an essay where I suggest how we might understand the context for these plays. Several of the plays deal directly with aspects of conflict and post-conflict trauma within certain groups such as "Gaza Monologues", "We are the Children of the Camp" and "Stories Under Occupation", but some, like "3 in 1", and "Shakespeare's Sisters" deal with themes regarding life within Palestinian Society. "3 in 1" focuses on what it means to be an artist in Palestine in the relatively more conservative city of Hebron, and "Shakespeare's Sisters" is a wonderful play about issues related to gender norms and the repression of women in society. The title is taken from the story, "A Room of One's Own", by Virginia Woolf. "Taha", is somewhat unique as it recalls the destruction of Sufferiya, in 1948, a village in the Galilee but is seen through the eyes of one of Palestine's greatest poets, Taha Muhammed Ali. The play follows his life from a boy in a farming village through the imposed expulsion of his family to Lebanon in 1948, his eventual return and rise as a major national poet. But the play, like nearly all of these plays focuses on the human elements of these people as they navigate the difficulties of conquest and occupation. We follow the tribulations and trials of loss, grief, forgiveness and rebirth. Collectively, we felt this collection exhibits a wide array of personal experiences and dramatic and political influences.
KM: As you know, I have also worked on Palestine, from the perspective of art history. My research has focused upon the idea of the Holy Land within the geographic imagination of Europe in the medieval and Renaissance periods. In a number of ways, art and architecture have played a special role in representing relationships between various European locations and the Holy Land. What the Holy Land is or means of course has varied over history, and I have particularly been struck by how an imagined idea of the Holy Land, inspired by some aspects of the real Palestine, can take on a life of its own, and confound perceived boundaries between reality and imagination. I wanted to ask you specifically about how you understand the role of theater in this particular dialectic of the real and imagined space of Palestine?
GE: One way to answer this question is to show how theatre relates to how the Palestinian National movement evolved over the last century. Much of what informs this movement centers on the historical factual reality of Palestine, even as a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918. Jaffa for example, was the center of orange production in the Middle East long before 1948, and Jenin was the Watermelon capital of the region. Hebron was always the largest city in Palestine and a major trading center. Jerusalem Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth, Haifa, Acre, Safed, were all urban centers of Palestinian life. Photos of Jaffa in the 1930's and early 1940's show movie theatres, radio stations, men and women together at work in contemporary dress etc. And farm families lived in hundreds of villages throughout the entirety of historic Palestine. But the fracture of 1948 and 1967 destroyed Palestine as a contiguous political space but not as the historic place both for Palestinians living there and for those in diaspora. Memory, as in the play "Taha" serves as the main tool to maintain historic Palestine as a both a real and imagined space. One of the main themes of this book is to show how the arts and theatre in particular collectively expresses a national and cultural identity when a unified geographic and political identity is no longer possible. Palestine is so fragmented, there is no universal agreement of what it actually means. As suggested in my essay in the book:
"The fragmented and conflicted situations Palestinians face helped create political theater that expresses multiple points of view about the conflict, the occupation, the nature of resistance, and the desired outcomes. Palestinian drama asks many questions that defy singular or definite answers. What exactly is the objective of resistance and how should it be implemented? With continued expansion of settlements, the confiscation of land in the West Bank, splintered Palestinian geography and national identity, and different factions of Palestinians can there even be a Palestinian national movement? What is Palestine? Is it the historic Palestine from Lebanon to Sinai and the Mediterranean to Jordan? Is it the West Bank and Gaza? Is it based on the pre-1967 borders? Does it include East Jerusalem? Is Palestine—as some in Israel claim—an unconnected set of eight municipalities that are urban islands under the Palestinian Authority? Or is Palestine primarily an idea, a memory of place and soil, a people with a distinct culture in a permanent state of both internal and external diaspora?"
But the problem at the heart of your question about the "real and imagined space" of Palestine that Palestinians continually attempt to find expression for, and also the problem most typically difficult for outsiders to fully grasp, is that while the memory of Palestine remains crucial to the maintenance, growth and development of Palestinian identity and culture, the current material circumstances have to be clearly marked, defined and resisted.
As Samer points out in his essay in the Anthology:
"The distinct markers of theater-under-occupation and state building pervade the plays of this period. Suspended between continuing resistance against the occupation and immediate social concerns, topics and themes express a definitive defiance of normalization: children should not live under bombardment, women must not accept patriarchal customs, Palestinian cities are always under threat of invasion, the artistic expressions of Palestine must be honored, the sacred and holy sites must be defended, and the Nakba must not be forgotten. The cry against the normalization of the status quo in a so-called era of peace is juxtaposed to an internal struggle for self-development on the individual and societal level, yet the situation does not permit the freedom to create, analyze, and interpret. Thus, the theatrical representations often have a schizophrenic quality, dealing with an overwhelming number of issues at the same time. To reduce each play to a single purpose and meaning would reduce conditions in Palestine to a false essence making direct occupation the only continuing thread throughout. This is not the case."
In between these two ideas or influences, memory one on hand and contemporary realities on the other whether internal to Palestinian society, or in relation to Israel, Palestinians find themselves living more or less permanently in a sort of liminal space, and their theatre is constantly wrestling with and attempting to resolve these influences, or at least find between them and within them, new artistic expression and meaning.
KM: The plays that you introduce in this book all seem to be deeply informed by historical events that have shaped the relationship between Israel and Palestine. As a historian, I was struck by the potential for these plays to engage with the question of perception, and in this case the often neglected, which is to say – under-represented – viewpoint of Palestinians. As you have argued, Palestinian viewpoints are often neglected because of an assumed association with terrorism and religious fanaticism. With this in mind, I wanted to ask, how do you understand the relationship between theater and history, particularly in connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
GE: Part of my answer to this will be to comment on the way the term "conflict" is applied. To many the use of the term "conflict" skews the understanding of the situation away from the roots of the problem. If for example, we view Israel's occupation of the West Bank (and Zionism in general) as colonialism then the idea of conflict is seen differently. Even the term "Occupation" is at times troubling as occupation is typically a temporary condition while colonization is permanent. The "Conflict" is not the thing. Conflict results from colonialist practices. As suggested in Samer's quote, the telling of history and in fact the claiming of a personal and collective history of Palestinians is an essential element of theatre in all culture and certainly in Palestine.
KM: Okay, but beyond the term “conflict,” it seems like you are arguing for the essential role of theater as a form of history-writing. Yet, the plays inevitably focus upon subjective experiences of individual characters. The representation of these unique experiences seems essential to countering stereotypical perceptions of the Arab or Muslim terrorist. I think my question was really aimed at this larger issue of subjectivity versus objectivity in the representation of historical events, and how an audience might react to the perceived dissonance between standard understandings of historical events and the experience revealed on stage. Underlying this dissonance seems to lurk questions of legitimacy and authenticity, isn’t that true?
GE: Yes, for sure. To some extent the nature of conflict in Palestine today is exactly found in competing historical narratives. Theatre can be a form of history-writing but is always done as an inductive experiment, that is, it moves from the particular to the general. When we speak of standard understandings of historical events, particularly in regard to Palestine, we are already in trouble. I am reminded by Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet's comment: "My memory is again, in the way of your history."
Theatre relates history not as an objective narrative but as storytelling and the dissonance you refer to is the result of the authentic personal stories that actually may contradict or collide with so-called standardized understandings of history, or the ways in which ethnic groups are characterized or demonized in part to justify that standard, sometimes corrupted historical narrative. (And by the way, there is plenty of historical material generated by Israeli and Palestinian historians through traditional methods, that validates the subjective experience imbedded in Palestinian theatre.)
One of the plays we included: "We are the Children of the Camp" is almost a kind of litany of history going back to the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate and chronicles the losses of Palestine since then. "The Siege" of course claims an historical validity regarding the Israeli Army siege of the Nativity Church in 2002, and "Taha" remembers village life before and immediately after The Nakba, or the war of 1948. Their form and artistic modalities are different and they express their themes in varied ways, but making a legitimate claim to historical "remembering" permeates the work as a way for Palestinians to define themselves, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by others, including Israel and the West in general.
KM: From my own experience working in this field, I have always been aware of potentially being accused of “taking sides,” either for Palestine or for Israel. In your own writing, you have referred to the problematic insistence on having a balanced perspective. It seems that, as scholars or artists, our reluctance to be labelled as either pro-Palestine or pro-Israel can have a chilling or silencing effect. How has your work in this book, or more generally, engaged with this potential problem?
GE: I begin from the position that recognizing and affirming Palestinian rights is a moral necessity that does not have, as pre-condition, any particular political solutions or outcomes. I was raised to believe that oppression must be resisted whether it is the systematic racism in this country, apartheid in South Africa or the numerous ways that Palestinians are exploited and aggressively repressed. I reject the idea that recognition of this moral necessity is fundamentally anti-Israel. Israel and some Western Allies have to some extent successfully convinced many throughout the West that any expression of Palestinian identity and experience is by definition Anti-Israel. That is like saying the recognizing of systemic racism in the United States is anti-American. Israel is a nation-state and needs to be held accountable for its actions, and its history. By labeling artists, scholars or even particular works of art as definitively pro or anti-Israel characterizes the work in a way that deliberately attempts to destroy any sense of nuance, complexity or legitimacy as an inherent truthful expression of Palestinian life. By placing artists, scholars and their work as either for or against Israel or Palestine robs various narratives of their authenticity and independence, and too often attempts to co-opt them for political purposes they may not intend. Palestinian narrative does not exist only in juxtaposition to Israel. Again, this is like saying the work of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker is in some way anti-white or anti-American. Their work might be described as anti-white supremist but it does not exist only in relation to white America.
I find that when we are on tour, that is when I have toured Freedom Theatre productions internationally to a wide array of venues, the audiences grapple, sometimes uncomfortably, with the obvious humanity of Palestinian artists and stories in juxtaposition to their own biases. In the dozens of talk-backs we have conducted audiences bear witness to the injustice Palestinians face and attempt to reconcile this with their feelings of kinship with Israel. Putting the audience in this position of discomfort and reflection is one the main functions of theatre. No other major conflict in contemporary history has suffered the mindless insistence that all works of art and scholarship dealing with that conflict be balanced in political terms. When some people talk about "balance" what they really mean is to "silence." Occasionally I have suffered some criticism for my work and even on this campus have met with resistance to it, though by and large UCONN has been extremely supportive. So, I abandoned any concerns of being labeled, as the attempts to repress or in some way censor stories or points of view says more about those engaging in the censorship and name-calling than it says about me. Israelis have suffered and indeed have a right to tell their story as well. But one has to ask, while we all have the right to tell our story, for what purpose do we tell it? Do we tell the story to liberate or to continue to repress?
KM: I was particularly struck by the text of the play The Siege, focused upon Israel’s military siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Historically, the church has historically been a site of convergence between all Muslims and Christians, including Palestinians. My own work has confronted assumptions about the exclusively Muslim or Christian nature of such sacred spaces in the Holy Land. What potential do you think a play like The Siege has to force those outside – specifically the audience – to look inside, into the experience of contested spaces and identities?
This is a great question that sits at the heart of the play, "The Siege". International audiences really struggled, in a very positive way with this play, in the United Kingdom and the U.S. The play forces the audience to deal with the humanity of the "fadayeen" or Palestinian fighter, a deeply controversial image in the West. All fighters are not terrorists and all terrorists are not fighters. The two terms are different, they mean different things. The fighters in this play, who were representative of those actually besieged in 2002, express a variety of human traits, frailties, needs, hopes and complexities in the best traditions of the war novels of Herman Wouk or James Jones. In the holy space of the Church of the Nativity, held as sacred by Christians and Muslims, we are brought into a place that, particularly in the West, lives much more as a space of our imagination rather than from personal experience. We are introduced to the play by a narrator, a Palestinian tour guide, a Christian, who also doubles as one of the fighters during the so-called flashback portions of the play. Fighters were both Christian and Muslim and the Israeli Army did not distinguish between the two. Right away we are forced up against any biases we may have that Palestinians are "other" based solely on religion. So, the space the play takes place in is paramount to the play's effectiveness. On another level, however 'siege' has multiple layers of meaning, both as an external material reality and an internal state of mind or being. The characters are deeply human, funny, complex, angry, imaginative, kind and respectful, particularly of the 'place' they are in. They struggle with their position and responsibilities. This humanity, which is obvious in the play, and also obvious when one engages with Palestinians in general, is in direct contrast to the tropes foisted onto Palestinians as inhuman uncaring or cruel. Edward Said had a lot to say about how the West demonizes and 'orientalizes' the Arab as anti-western, inferior and inhuman, in the same way Franz Fanon had a lot to say about how the West casts Africans and Black descendants of slaves as 'other' inhuman and inferior. As a result of our orientation which in the West we cannot easily escape without tremendous personal effort, most arrive at every discussion about Palestine with a series of biases we may not be able to trace to any particular influence or event. "The Siege" demands we deal with those issues and has been remarkably successful. Siege as a state of mind applies to the audience and to the fighters. We are all besieged, each one of us by one thing or another and we must all break through that siege, largely internal, to engage fully with our natural humanity.
KM: As I formulated the last question, I was also thinking about your particular experience of directing Athol Fugard’s The Island, which was performed internationally and also locally at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in 2013. The play was originally written and staged to address the question of South African identity in the period of apartheid. By directing the play with Palestinian actors and re-imagining the setting as a prison cell that stands for Israeli-occupied Palestine, you seemed to explore the role of theater in making imaginative connections between disparate geographic locations and cultural identities. I was curious how your directorial experience with The Island has informed your larger understanding of theater’s potential to engage with the relationship of identity and geography, particularly as a space of desired belonging?
GE: The Island was originally written in English by Athol Fugard and his two actor-collaborators, Winston Ntshona and John Kani. It was prevented from being performed in South Africa during Apartheid so was first done under an alternate title, Die Hodoshie Span, (The name of the characters cellblock in a prison) and then later opened as "The Island" in London and New York. The play follows two black African political prisoners at an imaginary prison inspired by Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held during the height of Apartheid. In Jenin, we decided to do the play, adapted into Arabic, with two Palestinian Actors to reflect the similarities between the political prison system in South Africa and in particular, the Administrative Detention system Israel uses to arrest and detain Palestinian without due process. We opened in Jenin in the spring of 2013 in Arabic and toured internationally to seven countries including Sweden, Brazil and the United States with support from UCONN, The University of Goethenburg and the University of Sau Paulo.
To be sure you are spot on that the play's adaptation connects two distinct historical periods, cultural identities and geographical locations. When we performed in Palestine the main connection to the audience was through the ubiquitous experience of Palestinian families who have loved ones, including children, arrested and held sometime for years at a time without formal charge. We used Israeli and Palestinian place names, character names and local idioms to connect the action of the play as much as possible to local experience. Internationally we performed the play in the original English but other elements of the production remained the same including the Israeli prison uniforms from the 1990's and of course the Palestinian actors themselves. As we interacted with the audiences a kind of meta-textual effect became clear, emerging as it were between, on one hand the plays stated location, South Africa, the origin of the characters as black Africans, and on the other hand, the identity of the Palestinian actors within the subliminal or implied location of the play's location as Palestine. In effect the audience was watching a play that was in a temporal sense, taking place in South Africa and Palestine simultaneously. The actors portrayed African characters and themselves as Palestinians at the same time. Not unlike the effect of The Siege, the product is empathy but in this case empathy is transferred from that which is familiar to that which is unfamiliar. The natural empathy most Americans might feel for political prisoners in South Africa during apartheid, migrates to Palestinian versions of the same characters, through the compelling performance of the actors, their warmth, humor, pain and humanity. In one sense, the play, "The Island", functioned as a mediator between these 'familiar and unfamiliar' images. The identity of the characters and actors merge in way in which separate identities inhabit the stage and the dramatic moment simultaneously. This was quite evident as the audience spoke, often quite eloquently about how they imagined these dual identities in front of them, sometime commenting that it almost seemed they were watching two plays at the same time.
The same is true of the some of the content of the play, as the two characters are working on a performance of "Antigone" by Sophocles for a prison performance. So, there were really three layers of reality and two forms of mediation: the political realities of South Africa and our very familiar connection to the Greek play by Sophocles now intervene, enhancing our ability to think about Palestine as a space newly introduced – and less occupied by the various tropes or stereotypes associated with western ideas about Palestinians.
Finally, both South Africa and Palestine share a similar dynamic in that the subject of political oppression includes the indigenous population. As with all colonized subjects the colonization of the mind is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome, forcing the colonized to feel like an exile in their own land.
KM: And I’d like to finish by asking what’s next? Do you have future projects that will continue to engage with the Palestinian theater?
GE: Having spent some four years living there between 2012 -2019, I am now bringing a lot of work to fruition including two additional book chapters in separate new anthologies on Arab and Middle Eastern Theatre, and a monograph on political drama and human rights. I am working on a couple of potential projects with Palestinian partners, but with conditions locked down due to Covid, and the problems of travelling in general it is difficult to know when I will be able to return. In the meantime, I am reading and re-reading a lot of Arab and Palestinian literature and poetry, and working with a few playwrights on new projects. I hope to go back soon. It is a beautiful, and terrible place.