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Jerusalem's Roses and Jasmine: A Resistant Ventriloquism against a Racialized Orientalism

  • SAMER AL-SABER
Abstract

The Palestinian National Theatre's production of Roses and Jasmine presents an uncommon occurrence: Palestinians performing a Jewish-majority story on Palestinian and world stages. The play opened to divergent audience reactions in East Jerusalem, igniting controversy, and leading to the expression of opinions that ranged from absolute support to clear opposition. This article discusses the play's intervention into an orientalist rhetorical context, showing how reversing traditional orientalist ventriloquisms can be employed as a key strategy of cultural resistance. An analysis of the production's choices and the critical responses it generated suggests that by consciously representing Jewish characters who struggle with their own religious and national identities through Palestinian performers, the play opens up the possibility of breaking the perception of balance between the occupier and the occupied. Extended to a larger context, a resistant ventriloquism can reveal systemic oppression, rendering injustices visible in cases where systemic racism prevents the colonizer from seeing the condition of the colonized.

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NOTES

2 I use the term ‘Jewish-Israeli’ in reference to Jewish citizens of Israel (a citizenship-granting political state/organization established in 1948). I use the word ‘Jewish’ to indicate a complex identity and heritage that is larger than any particular state or political organization.

3 I attended the Arabic-language performance on opening night at the PNT and spoke with audiences, artists and critics about the performance in the lobby and in the days thereafter. I also conducted formal interviews with the director, the artistic director of the PNT, and some cast members. These interviews are cited in the footnotes. My methodology includes ethnographic observation, semi-structured interviews, analysis of Arabic and French performance reviews and my own synthesis and interpretation as a member of the Palestinian theatre community and as a researcher of Palestinian and Arab theatre.

4 Personal interview with Ramsey Sheikh Qassem, June 2015, in Jerusalem.

5 For discussion of the basic history of Palestinian theatre in the 1980s see Al-Saber, Samer and Taylor, Yana, ‘Reflecting on Palestinian Theatre: A Resilient Theatre of Resistance’, Performance Paradigm, 10 (2014), pp. 94103.

6 Said, Edward W., The Question of Palestine (New York: Times Books, 1979), p. 9.

7 For a review of the coverage of Arabs and Palestinians in US media outlets see Ibrahim, Dina, ‘The Middle East in American Media: A 20th-Century Overview’, International Communication Gazette, 71, 6 (2009), pp. 511–24.

8 As Luke Mathew Peterson writes, ‘Official Israeli sources are employed with greater frequency and are sustained with more vehemence than Palestinian ones. Palestinian voices are more likely to appear as radical or marginal, if at all. Palestinians are most often presented as agents of violence in the region and are most often seen as guilty of violence in the first instance. Palestine's cultural and political world is often impugned as backward or strange, its customs and practices held up to a microscope of judgment and branded, in Said's terms, as foreign, eastern, oriental, and ultimately, other’. Peterson, Luke Mathew, Palestine-Israel in the Print News Media: Contending Discourses (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 182. Note Said's linkage between the Palestinian subject position and the context of orientalism in The Question of Palestine, p. 15: ‘the Arab Palestinian is pitted against an undeniably superior antagonist whose consciousness of himself and of the Palestinian is exactly, positionally, superior’.

9 While there many examples of such Palestinian productions, they constitute a negligible percentage of theatrical production in the Euro–American context. Nonetheless, examples include but are not limited to El-Hakawati's European tour of Mahjoob Mahjoob in 1981, Sanabel Theatre's US tour of Natrin Faraj (1987–8), Al-Kasaba's European and US tours of Stories under Occupation (2004), Al-Rowwad's European and US tours of We Are the Children of the Camp (2004), and The Freedom Theatre's US tour of The Island (2015). Scholar Hala Khamis Nassar writes about three travelling Palestinian productions. See Nassar, Hala Khamis, ‘Stories from under Occupation: Performing the Palestinian Experience’, Theatre Journal, 58, 1 (2006), pp. 1537.

10 Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), p. 312. Said's mention of puppets in passing does not address the question of ventriloquism as I address it here.

11 Here I refer to one of the most common critiques of Said's findings. It is to claim that ‘occidentalism’ is the oriental's superior or uninformed gaze of the West. For leading critiques of Said's Orientalism see Irwin, Robert’s Orientalism and Its Discontents (New York: Overlook Press, 2006); and Warraq, Ibn’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).

12 For portraits and categorizations of the words ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’ consider Memmi, Albert’s classic work The Colonizer and the Colonized (New York: Orion Press, 1965). See also his ideologically incongruent later work, Decolonization and the Decolonized (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

13 Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 125. I choose the word ‘earnest’ throughout this essay due to its direct opposition to ‘mockery’, its indication of mimetic sympathy, and its multiple useful meanings which connote seriousness and struggle/battle. But key to my use of the word is the semitic root via Latin, arra, from the Arabic/Hebrew (), which indicates the word ‘guarantee’, ‘deposit’ or ‘commitment’ (all of these expand upon my thinking and definition here). In addition, in the Arabic, one of the root words for arabon is arabah, which suggests serveral meanings, including ‘vehicle’. Therefore, ‘in earnest sympathy’ may be read as a serious/committed vehicle for the purpose of sympathy. Emphasis in the original.

14 See the Roses and Jasmine playbill, or dossier, as it is referred to on the website www.theatre-quartiers-ivry.com/fichier/p_spectacle/200/spectacle_dossier_fr_dossier.r.j.tournee.16.17.hd.ok.pdf, accessed 13 February 2018. The original cast of Antigone are Hussam Abu Esheh, Shaden Salim, Alaa Abu Garbieh, Kamel Al Basha, Mahmoud Awad, Yasmin Hamaar and Daoud Toutah. Other recent collabortations between the PNT and theatres in France include Al-Jiddariyya (Mural) by Mahmoud Darwish with Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in 2007, the Antigone cast's sketch comedy performance of Zone Six and Helen's Necklace by Carole Fréchette with Théâtre des Quartiers d'Ivry in 2013 and 2009 respectively.

15 Hakim discussed his biography and the lead-up to the production with me in an interview in June 2015 in Jerusalem. For the full journey of the production throughout rehearsals see Mohammed Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem, ou comment j'ai monté une pièce avec le Théâtre national palestinien’, Libération, 19 January 2017, at http://enlargeyourparis.blogs.liberation.fr/2017/01/19/ivry-jerusalem-theatre, accessed 22 February 2018.

16 Personal interview with actor Kamel El-Basha, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

17 Adel Hakim, personal interview in Jerusalem, June 2015.

18 On the question of false balance, ideologically driven equivalencies and inoculations against Palestinian narratives see Said, Edward’s famous essay ‘A Permission to Narrate’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 13, 3 (1984), pp. 2748. Considering the difference between the Other and the Adversary, actor Kamel El-Basha stated, ‘To me, the Israelis are not Other, they are my antithesis. They attempt to erase me’. Personal interview, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

19 In his final programme note, Hakim retained his intellectual position that ‘undoubtedly, there is a part of free choice in our decisions and in our life projects. But we are constituted, genetically and culturally, by what the preceding generations have built and left us as a legacy. It is quite difficult to rid oneself, even partially, of this weight of the past. Unless one is conscious that it exists. And is willing to speak about it. Even if only in part’. See playbill at www.theatre-quartiers-ivry.com/fichier/p_spectacle/200/spectacle_doc2_file_fr_dossier.r.j.anglais.6.10.15.bd.pdf, accessed 14 February 2018.

20 In the production blog, this discussion occurred on 10 May 2015. This ending was proposed by Adel Hakim: ‘C'est bon on coupe tout. On termine sur une image, Mohsen, le père palestinien, apprend la mort de ses deux filles, Yasmine et Rose, il avance et crache au visage d'Aaron. Noir’. Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem’.

21 El-Basha said, ‘After you think deeply about the play, and analyse it, the whole body of the play, you start looking at it from a more nuanced perspective’. Personal interview, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017. One other change worthy of note, Rose commits suicide instead of being killed on duty. See blog entry of 25 March 2015 in Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem’.

22 Personal interview, Adel Hakim, Jerusalem, June 2015.

23 Note that the present article suggests a slow but ongoing shift in this trend. Nonetheless, even the production I directed of Arthur Milner's Facts, co-produced with Al-Rowwad Cultural Centre, follows this trend as Palestinian actors Kamel El-Basha and Amer Khalil played an Israeli interrogator and an American/Israeli West Bank settler. See my article ‘Arabic Facts in Palestine: Clashing Hybridities in Transnational Cultural Production’, Theatre Research in Canada: Recherches théâtrales au Canada, 35, 3 (2014), pp. 386–98.

24 Although we see some attempts of this strategy in Palestinian film, it has not yet emerged as strongly as it has in Roses and Jasmine.

25 For details on this event see Kushner, Harvey W., ed., Encyclopedia of Terrorism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), pp. 204–5.

26 Personal interview with Shaden Salim, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

27 Both daughters are born to their Jewish mother, Leah, daughter of Miriam. The kinship here presents a structural paradox: if Rose is a Zionist Jewish Israeli soldier and Jasmine is a Palestinian resistance fighter, nothing essential and racially specific can distinguish the two, yet the state of Israel recognizes that Rose is native to the state, but Jasmine is not, as long as she self-identifies as Palestinian.

28 Personal interview, Shaden Salim, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

29 For a critical account of opening night in Arabic see Fayid Badarneh's review entitled ‘The Play Jasmine and Roses: Palestinian–Israeli Controversy Creates Internal Palestinian Debate’, at www.qadita.net/featured/fayid, accessed 22 February 2018.

30 A review by Jamal Al-Qawasmi summarizes these issues in some detail. Arabic-language readers may see www.alhaya.ps/pdf/2015/6/15/page22.pdf, accessed 14 February 2018. Al-Qawasmi fervently objects to the historical narrative and notes that his most significant criticism is a perceived equivalency between Israeli and Palestinian victimhood. The quote is my own translation from Arabic.

31 Actress Shaden Salim succinctly described the initial reaction: ‘Our Palestinian audience was divided in two: the ones who could see what we were offering and the ones who saw the play as an act of normalizing occupation.’ Personal interview, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

32 For example, in its review of the production in Paris, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat noted that no Palestinian appears onstage for the first fifteen minutes of this Palestinian play. See the Arabic-language review at https://aawsat.com/home/article/853101/«ورد-وياسمين»-خطاب-مسرحي-عربي-مختلف-في-باريس, accessed 22 February 2018.

33 To my own analysis of the script and its criticism, actor Kamel El-Basha provides a contrary opinion. He rejects the idea that Palestinian audiences perceived balance. He believes that the majority of audiences sought a minimum of some balance and did not find any. He further clarified that Palestinian audiences searched for themselves in the play. Instead, they saw mainly two Palestinian characters that have no power to change the course of history. To audiences seeking to reaffirm their own stories and personal history, the absence of a Palestinian narrative, aside from the aforementioned transnational journey of Saleh, is significant. Based on his experience in rehearsal, performance and conversations with critics, he stated, ‘the play does not show balance at all. The audience asked, “why are there so many details about Zionists?” The play shows the opposite: a Jewish/Zionist story that by far exceeds any possibility of balance’. Kamel El-Basha, personal interview, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

34 As a production blog details, the board of directors of the PNT discussed this issue with the director in a meeting on 16 March 2015. They objected to the representation that there were only two Palestinian characters in the play, that Salah appears to leave Jerusalem of his own volition, and that it appears that Hakim's humanization of the Other creates the appearance of equality between the occupier and occupied. In this meeting, based on their objections to these issues in the play, several board members resigned. The head of the board of directors and the artistic director followed through on their commitment to produce this play. Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem’.

35 This particular review exemplifies the opposition to the play and the conversations which occurred after opening night. This quote is my translation. Nakba means ‘catastrophe’, which is the Palestinian naming of the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians and the establishment of the state of Israel. See the Arabic-language review at www.alhaya.ps/pdf/2015/6/15/page22.pdf, accessed 22 February 2018.

36 Unsurprisingly, this idea of shared eternal guilt directly echoes Hakim's aforementioned statement in the playbill that ‘we are constituted, genetically and culturally, by what the preceding generations have built and left us as a legacy’. Production playbill, at www.theatre-quartiers-ivry.com/fichier/p_spectacle/200/spectacle_doc2_file_fr_dossier.r.j.anglais.6.10.15.bd.pdf, accessed 22 February 2018.

37 One member of the board of directors of the PNT objected that the piece ‘makes victims of Jews and collaborators of Palestinians’ (my translation). See blog entry of 16 March 2015 in Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem’.

38 Actress Shaden Salim stated, ‘Audiences saw our characters as normalizing’. Personal interview, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

39 In addition, the failures of co-existence projects over the past two decades have not stopped the European observer from perceiving conflict through a dialectic lens or a tragic structure.

40 It is worth noting that these objections, which were publicly discussed in reviews and in personal conversations, echoed closely the discussion of the board of directors with Hakim on 16 March 2015. Kacimi, ‘D'Ivry à Jérusalem’.

41 Véronique Hotte of the Hottelo, in a stereotypically European response, concisely suggested that it is indeed a brilliant and never-ending dialectic: ‘L’éclat circonstancié et dialectique d'un conflit obscur qui ne trouve jamais sa fin’. See her untitled French-language review at https://hottellotheatre.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/des-roses-et-du-jasmin-texte-et-mise-en-scene-adel-hakim-editions-lavant-scene-theatre-spectacle-en-langue-arabe-surtitre-en-francais-cree-en-juin-2015-au-theatre-national-pal, accessed 22 February 2018.

42 Kamel El-Basha noted that the prospect is difficult for Palestinian audiences as well. He noted, ‘If we internalize that Israelis emerged from a history of victimhood and became our oppressor, we have to admit to ourselves that we too could eventually become oppressors’. Personal interview, Kamel El-Basha, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

43 For example, Jacques Dion stated that Hakim successfully exceeds parallels with Israel/Palestine, which he formerly posed through his production of Antigone: ‘Au-delà, même, il aborde des questions universelles sur le rapport à l'Autre, l'enfermement ethnique, la place des religions, la difficulté de ne pas se laisser prendre par l'emprise tribale et la loi du sang’. See the full review ‘Les Juifs et les Arabes, acteurs (involontaires) d'une tragédie grecque’, at www.marianne.net/culture/les-juifs-et-les-arabes-acteurs-involontaires-d-une-tragedie-grecque, accessed 22 February 2018.

44 Personal interview, Shaden Salim, Jerusalem, 1 August 2017.

45 Marina Da Silva states, ‘Proposer à des Palestiniens d'interpréter l'histoire d'une famille juive que le génocide nazi décime – la mère et la sœur de Miriam et Aaron ont été déportées à Buchenwald – de se mettre dans la peau de l'autre avant de raconter sa propre histoire, n'allait pas de soi’. See the full article, ‘En Palestine: des roses et du jasmin, du sang et des larmes’, at https://blog.mondediplo.net/2017-01-28-En-Palestine-des-roses-et-du-jasmin-du-sang-et, accessed 22 February 2018.

46 My translation. Note that this quote presents the contrast between Israeli Jews as soldiers and non-combatant civilians. This distinction is often difficult to achieve or perceive by Palestinians under military occupation because the army is primarily constituted of Jews. See Mohammed Kacimi's blog on 1 June 2017 for the original quote, at http://enlargeyourparis.blogs.liberation.fr/2017/01/19/ivry-jerusalem-theatre, accessed 22 February 2018.

47 My translation. See a recording of this interview with France 24 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7Y0snRhpr4, accessed 22 February 2018. In this interview, El-Basha also suggests that resisting Israelis necessitates humanizing them in representation.

48 This quote continues from note 45. ‘Mais c'est une porte d'entrée et d'imbrication totalement efficace pour rendre compte du paradoxe colonial dont les Palestiniens payent toujours le prix’. Marina Da Silva, ‘En Palestine: Des roses et du jasmin, du sang et des larmes’.

1This article is dedicated to Adel Hakim (1953–2017), who died too young. Adel was a rare kind of human being, philosopher, artist and gentleman.

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Theatre Research International
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