Gabriel Varghese, Palestinian Theatre in the West Bank: Our Human Faces (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
J: What made you write this book?
Gabriel Varghese (GV): This book is really the outcome of my PhD research. Until a year or so before I started that, I had never heard of Palestinian theater. At the time, I was completing a master’s in drama at Goldsmiths, and I came across the work of the Brazilian theater practitioner and theorist Augusto Boal. It was a chance conversation with a stranger in a café in Deptford that got me thinking about what eventually became a four-year project (PhD and postdoc). I had just ordered a coffee and sat down at a table, taking two books out of my bag and placing them in front of me: Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. The woman sitting at the next table looked at the books, and said: “I suppose you have heard of Ashtar Theater?” I confessed that I had not. By the end of the conversation, however, all this new knowledge had sent my heart racing.
Yet, when it came to actual reading material, I found very little: Hala Nassar’s unpublished PhD dissertation (Palestinian Theatre: Between Origins and Visions, 2001, a work of immense breadth and scholarship), Reuvin Snir’s book (Palestinian Theatre, 2005, which relies heavily on Nassar’s archival work), and a few of journal articles. Despite its importance to any discussion on political and radical theater, there was almost nothing to read. And what I could find was at least a decade out of date. When I started my PhD in 2012, Palestinian theater and performance had received little academic attention. For decades, both Arab and Western scholarship had placed Palestinian theatrical production at the very margins of both Arabic and Middle East Studies. Meanwhile, outside the academy, the assumption of many is that Palestinian theater simply does not exist. I still get asked: “Oh, do they make theater in the West Bank? How interesting!” The question always takes me back to that little café in Deptford.
Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it has not been written yet, then you must write it.” So that is what I tried to do. In the process, I have attempted to continue Nassar’s groundbreaking excavation of the history of Palestinian theater from its earliest days in the second half of the nineteenth century to the period of the first intifada, by bringing it up to the present day. That is over a century of theatrical production, original works, translations, and adaptations in both classical Arabic and the Palestinian dialect.
It is almost a decade since I started this journey, and there is a lot more to read now. As the field of Palestine studies expands, more and more scholars and researchers have started writing about Palestinian theater. The last few years have seen the publication of a number of books on the subject: The Good Pain?: Applied Theatre and Social Circus in Palestine Today, by Kristin Flade; Rehearsing Freedom: The Story of a Theatre in Palestine, by Johanna Wallin (who has worked at The Freedom Theatre since 2008); Stories under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine, an anthology of contemporary Palestinian plays in English, collected and edited by Samer al-Saber and Gary English; and The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine, a collection of essays brought together by Ola Johansson and Johanna Wallin. All of these books are vital reading for anyone interested in the subject.
J: What is the book’s central argument?
GV: The book discusses the role of Palestinian theater-makers in the formation of what I have called “abject counterpublics,” a discursive and performative space in which theater-makers contest Zionist discourse and Israeli state practices. By placing theories of abjection and counterpublic formation in conversation with each other, I have tried to argue that theater in the West Bank has been regulated by processes of colonial abjection and, yet, it is an important site for counterpublic formation. The book looks at Palestinian theater in the West Bank as not simply that which comments on the political but rather as something that plays an actual part in the broader project of Palestinian national liberation. My research engages with Palestinian theater as a critique of Habermas’s conception of the public sphere in order to question how counterpublics are formed post-Habermas—specifically in sites where the occupying or dominant power has excluded populations from the “public sphere.” In order to do this, I develop a critique of Kristeva’s theory of abjection by placing it in conversation with, for example, Frantz Fanon’s work on the racialized colonial subject and Imogen Tyler’s discussion of social abjection (Revolting Subjects, 2013).
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
GV: The book brings together many years of interest in political and radical theater (as a writer, director, producer, and researcher)—what Erika Fischer-Lichte has referred to as “the transformative power of performance”—and pro-Palestine and social justice activism. Throughout the book, I have tried to foreground the voices of Palestinian theater-makers themselves, and how they navigate through or around the complexities of their political, social, and professional lives. I want to participate in research that pursues a more just world, and is presented to readers without making the claim that I know better than the participants about what they thought and meant.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GV: Here is another small confession: I do not like academic writing. It paralyzes me and addles my brain. I end up staring at a blank page for hours until I give up and switch to flicking through Instagram stories. So, I was lucky that my PhD supervisor encouraged me to write the dissertation like a book in a way that enabled me to write. When it came to revising the text for publication, I felt a sense of relief that I was no longer writing for examiners. I wrote it in a way that I hope will appeal to academics but, more importantly, to non-academic readers, theater practitioners, the curious, and my friends in Palestine who took part in so many interviews and introduced me to people I would not have otherwise met. For their sake, I tried to keep the language academically rigorous but accessible.
I hope that anyone who is interested in the theater and performance cultures of the Middle East, in transgressive and radical theater practices around the world, and in anti-, post-, and decolonial theaters will read this book and find something in it that resonates with their ideas and experiences. The context of Palestine has many interesting parallels with theater and performance across the Global South.
Finally, I am also eager to have students and scholars in other disciplines read the book: other fields within Palestine Studies and Middle East studies, cultural studies, and settler-colonial studies, to name a few.
In terms of impact, I stress in the book that the nature of conducting research on Palestinian theater means that findings will always be bounded by space and time, especially when one takes into account the ever-changing dynamics of the Palestine-Israel conflict. I insist that this book is not a conclusive study nor is it “the book” on contemporary Palestinian theater. There are a number of strands and locations that I have had to leave out, and readers will notice them straightaway. The field is still growing. This book, I think, shows how much additional work still needs to be done. Perhaps, in five or ten years, others will have much more to say on the subject. My modest hope is that this book serves as a starting point.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GV: Job precarity in academia being what it is, I do not currently have the position or resources to be “working on” anything. But if I did, I would love to do some more research on the politics and ethics of international collaboration between theater practitioners based in different parts of the world. I touch upon this in the book but, given its primary focus, there was not much scope to delve deeply into it. I would really like to take the International Department of London’s Royal Court Theatre as a case study to historicize collaborative practices between the United Kingdom and the global south. In the twenty-four years since its founding, the department has developed links with writers in over thirty countries; however, no other country has received as much attention as Palestine. I am interested in investigating how these relationships have developed over time and across continents, how writers and directors have negotiated these practices, and what these collaborations have meant for theater-makers themselves. In addition, I think it would be very fruitful to develop a theoretical way of looking at the impact of the International Department in different national contexts and on British theater itself.
Outside academia, I am currently contributing to a project creating teaching resources for secondary-school teachers and pupils to encourage them to engage with international plays from different continents. Most of the plays in the collection have been written in languages other than English or in “postcolonial” versions of English. Drama and theater studies are still incredibly Eurocentric subjects, littered with dead (and living) white men. Given the current worldwide attention to structural racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, I hope this project will contribute to finally decolonizing our discipline.
I am also working as a dramaturg on a new audio play called cloud 2029 incite. Created by Incite Theatre Company as a meditation on the coronavirus pandemic, it is a radical adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Clouds. It is a really beautiful and urgent script, dealing with issues of austerity, precarity, and cultures of systemic able/ism and racism. Ultimately, the play asks pressing questions about the role of the university during times of crisis.
Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)
From 4 to 9 April 2016, over thirteen hundred people converged on the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. They arrived from across the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, and as far afield as Europe and the United States. Most, if not all, had travelled for hours, taking long and tortuous routes across Palestine in order to cross Israeli-imposed checkpoints and avoid road closures. Despite these conditions, however, they had arrived to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Freedom Theatre, a five-day festival of theatre, dance and circus performances, acting workshops, a visual arts exhibition, film screenings, music and poetry performances, and stand-up comedy. As well as reprising one of its own productions, the theatre invited other Palestinian companies and individual performers to present their own works. Parallel to these events, the theatre also organized a ‘forum on cultural resistance,’ the first of its kind to be held anywhere in Palestine. Whereas performances took place either in the theatre or the public square, forum sessions were spread out between the community centre, the women’s centre and the popular committee building (all in the refugee camp). Forum lectures ranged from ‘women, theatre and resistance’ and ‘art under occupation’ to ‘culture confronting occupation’ and the cultural boycott model. These lectures were followed by small group discussions during which participants could chew over the issues and ideas raised by the speakers and then feed their responses back to the forum. The participants came from a broad range of backgrounds. As well as the general public, some of them were local politicians and community workers; others were academics, political activists, and performers and actors. Yet, despite their diverse backgrounds and political positions, all of the participants agreed on one thing: the centrality of Palestinian cultural works, and theatre specifically, in resisting Israeli settler-colonialism.
For Western readers, it might seem bizarre that a theatre company would spearhead public discussions on resistance of any kind let alone resistance to the Israeli state. After all, much theatre programming in London, Berlin or New York, for example, has precious little to do with mobilizing audiences along political lines. In fact, argues Christopher Balme, as Western theatres have transitioned over the last few centuries from places of unruly gatherings to sites of art, entertainment and quiet contemplation, they have lost their ‘publicness’: the theatres Western audiences usually attend are essentially private spaces. In contrast, though, it is not uncommon to hear Palestinian theatre-makers argue that their theatres are not just ‘public’ spaces but, more importantly, they play a crucial role in the ‘public sphere’ itself. In other words, Palestinian theatre is not, simply, that which comments on the political affairs of the day. Rather, they insist, Palestinian theatre plays an active part in the broader project of Palestinian national liberation by contesting Zionist discourse, spotlighting Israeli state practices and reclaiming the very narrative on Palestine itself.
Palestinian Theatre in the West Bank attempts to unpack that claim. On the one hand, it narrates a history of Palestinian theatre in the West Bank since the first intifada (1987–93) to the present day in order to discuss the ways in which theatre-makers resist ongoing processes of colonial abjection. On the other hand, it argues for the important role Palestinian theatre and theatre-makers play in the formation of what I call an abject counterpublic. I shall explain what I mean by these terms in the relevant sections of this chapter, but the point here is that, throughout this book, I have been interested in the range of tactics theatre-makers use to ‘talk back’ to and bypass dominant power relations which direct or obstruct what is produced on the ground. What tactics, I ask, do theatre-makers use to disrupt, subvert and bypass the Zionist public sphere? What counter-discourse emerges from this site? How is such a counter-discourse articulated in performance spaces? And how does theatre, in the logistical sense, work against a dominant discourse of erasure as well as continue to operate under conditions of colonialism and occupation? The historical development of Palestinian theatre presents us with an account of abjection both as a lived social process and as a political praxis by which theatre-makers, like other Palestinians, are subject to Israeli control but through which they contest, resist and reconfigure their abject subjectification. In such ways, this book argues, Palestinian theatre has played an integral role in the formation of an abject counterpublic, a physical and performative space in which Zionism and its effects come face to face with their discontents.