Francois Abu Salem, founder and director of El-Hakawati Theater, takes a pensive puff of his Marlboro, and leans back in his chair. He is having a bad day. The logistics of staging his new play , “Jericho, Year Zero,” at an upcoming European Festival, are causing a few wrinkles to line his sharply angled yet handsome face Oriental and Occidental , his features reflect the troubled but dynamic melange of European and Palestinian elements found in his plays.
Abu-Salem-,the product of a cross-cultural marriage between a French mother and a Palestinian father – has always reflected the theme of East -West polarity in his work.
Indeed his own identity seems intrinsically – almost uncannily- linked to his El-Hakawati Theater, and beyond this, on a deeper level – to Palestine.
As director of the first internationally recognized Palestinian theatre company, Abu-Salem had a heavy cross to bear. Throughout the company’s 17 year history, the question of who and what the theater was speaking for were often raised.
“At times”, he says,” we felt oppressed by the weight of our own Palestinianness”
Abu Salem’s main sources of inspiration are European – Brecht, Genet, even Kafka – and his French Jesuit education reveals itself in the intellectual sharpness of his writing. But the content of his work is undeniably Palestinian. His characters may be refugees, restaurant workers,displaced academics, or assimilated Americans, but they are always grasping at the essence of Palestinian identity, trying to define themselves within the parameters of an often hostile cultural environment.
El-Hakawati has performed everywhere from Gazan refugee camps to Parisian theaters, and it is precisely the marriage between the Western theatrical and folkloric Palestinian traditions which dynamises their productions. When desperate political realities are added to this, all elements combine to produce a unique blend of story-theater with a social conscience.
Critics have compared this blend to Marquez’s brand of “magic realism”, to Brechtian expressionism and even to Comeddia dell Arte. Some Palestinians, however, have criticized Abu-Salem for being too “Westernized” in his approach. But he counters this by referring to Palestine’s history as a meeting point between East and West.
Indeed, “Hakawati”, which emerged out of the ashes of Jerusalem’s “Balaleen” experimental theater company, in the mid-seventies, has always walked the line between the traditional and the contemporary. Using theater students and workers as actors, it was unique in that it was the first real “crossover” Palestinian cultural export -being well received by Israeli theater critics, camp-dwelling refugees and European audiences alike. Two of its past successes have included “Ali the Galileen”, a play about the identity crisis of a young Israeli-Arab working in a Tel-Aviv restaurant, and “The Story of Kufur Shamma”, about the diaspora of a Palestinian village which “disappeared” from the map in 1948
Essentially, “Hakawati” encapsulates the Palestinian experience through a kind of post-modern dramatic travelogue.
Abu Salem’s new play, “Jericho, Year Zero”, tells the story of a romance between a tourist and a refugee – both physically and spiritually displaced – the latter by Israeli military occupation, the former by the alienation of modern Western society.
Their coming together is a celebration of what could be – a happy marriage of two cultures – and a sobering portrait of the tragic misunderstanding that plagues the relationship between the Arab and European worlds.
Like -Sartrian characters in a ’90’s “situation” – the tourist and the refugee in “Jericho, Year Zero” – both try and break free from their “fates” – indeed from their stereotyped prisons of narrowly defined selfhood.
“Betty”, the French woman on vacation, refuses her role as the “white tourist”, and “Islam”, the young Palestinian, refuses to play the role of the obedient, caged animal, acquiescing to the demands of authority. But the political reality that surrounds them is stronger than their desire for escape, and the play ends like an absurdist Greek tragedy.
Despite the lack of happy ending, it is perhaps the meeting itself ,the actual coming together of the tourist and the refugee, that is the pivotal point in Abu-Salem’s play. For it is a meeting which launches a voyage of cultural discovery. “Betty” discovers the closeness and love in Palestinian family life, has her eyes opened to the reality of Israeli military occupation and finds an inner strength of which she was previously unaware. For his part, “Islam” discovers that “Betty” is much more richly textured than his initial narrow concept of her as a one-dimensional “Western woman”.
But the most revealing part of their “cultural exchange” are the fantasies which they project onto each other. “Betty” becomes “Islam’s” “Sheherazade” – the princess from A Thousand and One Nights- while Islam becomes “Betty’s” childhood prince in shining armor. Ultimately, their fantasies fail to live up to their realities and in the end both characters feel cheated.
“But the important thing ” says Francois with a wistful smile, “is that for some brief moments a love story unfolds.”
Although the gap between East and West is an important theme in “Jericho, Year Zero”, it was really after the Gulf War in 1991 that the Occidental/Oriental polarity reached a crisis point in Abu-Salem’s life and work.
His chameleon like-face moves from delight to consternation as he recalls this trying period. “It was a difficult time,” he says, exhaling a long, tortured sigh.
His despair at the horror of the war, was compounded with an emotional and theatrical separation from his wife and creative partner of 15 years, Jackie Lubeck. Ironically, it was through his marriage to Lubeck, an American Jew originally from Brooklyn, that Abu Salem was able to stay in Jerusalem, the city of his birth.
It was during this time that Abu-Salem wrote “In Search of Omar Khayyam, While Passing through the Crusades.” It is a piece of theater full of “ancestral ghosts”, which Abu-Salem describes it as a kind of exorcism of the East/West conflict, on both a personal and universal level.
Inevitably, one wonders one wonders to what extent Abu Salem’s plays are actually autobiographical. Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine him as a Khayyam-like figure, desperately trying to reconcile two opposing cultures, which are also two sides of his psyche.
Indeed, Abu Salem sees the two “sides” as necessarily connected halves of the same whole. “On all levels, “he says,” these two worlds need each other. One is not possible without the other.”
But there is still another dimension to his plays which absorbs him. He believes that the “New World Order, is destroying culture by its insidious insistence on sameness. It is an order, he says, that tries to “uniformize” people’s needs, dreams and desires, so that everything is round, soft, without angles, without dirt; surgical, like today’s modern kind of war.”
According to Abu Salem, it is no longer just homosexuals, prostitutes, artists and poor people who are the “outsiders.” Anyone who does not fit into the increasingly narrow definition of “normal” is branded. Anyone who is too individualistic is simply removed from the picture, “like the way they shout ‘cut’ in the cinema,” he says. “The modern individual is free, but marginalised to the point where he is reduced to a non-thinking consumerist automaton.”
It is precisely this refusal to comply with the “norm” that distinguishes the characters in Abu-Salem’s plays. Their struggles are largely existential. They are fighting to maintain their identity and to save themselves from the oblivion of sameness.
It is this constant theme of cultural and psychic struggle for authenticity and the connection of this theme with the Palestinian experience, that makes El Hakawati the rare jewel that it is.