Theater as a Matter of Life and Death

By Kabir Altaf

In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death.

As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil war. As Derek Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, commented, “In the US, ‘home’ is seen as a safe space, a haven. In contexts in which home is fraught and chaotic, theater becomes a kind of home.”  Theater provides a platform in which “the unspeakable becomes spoken”.

Nabil Al-Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, described the role of theater as a means for Palestinians to resist the Israeli Occupation.   The theater is located in Jenin refugee camp, which dates from 1948, soon after the creation of Israel. 17,000 people live in one square kilometer.  The theater draws its inspiration from the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a woman of Jewish origin who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Palestine.  During the First Intifada, Arna developed a project called “Care and Learning”, which used theater and art to address the fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in the refugee camp. In 1993, Arna won the Right Livelihood Award for her work and used the award money to build The Stone Theatre, which was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp.   The Freedom Theater was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, who had returned to Jenin during the Second Intifada to continue his mother’s work.  Juliano was the General Director of the theatre until 2011, when he was assassinated.  The theatre continues to carry forward Juliano’s legacy and aims to promote freedom—not only for Palestinians but for all human beings.

Nabil commented that theater and other performing arts serve as a very important tool to help people understand themselves and to resist their situation in a non-violent manner, through art.  He recounted a remark made by an audience member in Gaza at a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian academic Edward Said as a collaboration between Israeli and Arab musicians.  The audience member noted that “People provide us food and shelter but you would do that for animals. By bringing us music, you have treated us like human beings.”

Just as theater plays a role in helping Palestinians cope with the Israeli Occupation, it is important in helping Syrian refugees confront the violent conflict in their country.  Liwaa Yazji, a Syrian playwright and filmmaker, described the situation facing her countrymen, both in the areas controlled by the Assad government and in those that are “free”.  She noted that in areas controlled by the regime, artists cannot depict war or revolution on stage.  In areas in the north of the country, which are outside of regime control, artists often come under threat from Islamists.  Liwaa described how activists and professionals are conducting workshops with Syrian youth to help them cope with their experiences during the war.  She described how during a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a child asked her “Who is the wolf? Is it Bashar Assad or the Islamists?” Clearly, the arts have a role to play in helping refugee children confront what is happening to them.

Though the situation in Pakistan cannot be compared to that in Palestine or Syria, artists are still playing an important role in a society confronted with rising levels of extremism. Shahid Nadeem, one of the country’s leading playwrights and the founder of Ajoka Theatre, described how Pakistanis have become “cultural refugees”, forced to disassociate themselves from much of their traditional culture, because it is “tainted” by association with India and Hinduism.  He recalled that when he was growing up, he was told that the arts are un-Islamic and have no place in Pakistan.  Through its plays, Ajoka has been striving to reclaim Pakistan’s traditional heritage.  By using humor and music to keep audiences engaged, the plays address serious issues such as women’s rights and the rise of fundamentalism.  Because they often deal with controversial issues, the group’s performances have at times been banned by the Pakistani government as well as received threats from religious extremists. Theater thus serves as an important platform in the fight for greater social justice and for progressive values.

Overall, the discussion highlighted the relevance of theater in extremely difficult contexts, not usually associated with the arts.   Far from being merely entertainment for the well-to-do, theatre is vital for helping individuals across the world cope with violence, war, and conflict.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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One Response to “Theater as a Matter of Life and Death”

  1. SouthAsian Says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/world/middleeast/behind-barbed-wire-shakespeare-inspires-a-cast-of-young-syrians.html

    “So began a recent adaptation here of “King Lear.” For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy.

    “All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. Some had seen their homes destroyed. Others had lost relatives to violence. Many still had trouble sleeping or jumped at loud noises. And now home was here, in this isolated, treeless camp, a place of poverty, uncertainty and boredom.”

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