Guest Blog: Iman Aoun On Theatre in Palestine and PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR
In 1991 I founded ASHTAR Theatre, the first theatre school for young people in Palestine. It was created at a time when Palestinian youth had lost their dreams, hopes and sight of their horizon. Theatre for us was one way to re-establish their self-confidence and to give them a clearer path in their lives.
It was an essential platform for their dreams to be tested in a safe environment. We started small and we grew alongside our students to become one of the foremost theatre companies in Palestine. After 25 years of hard work, we are proud of our graduates and our team that is now internationally renowned.
Of course, there have been problems along the way. Maintaining a theatre company in a troubling political climate was never going to be easy, and being involved in theatre in Palestine is a luxury rather than something that is taken for granted.
It is hard work and a difficult duty, especially when daily life is a continuous struggle under occupation. Our daily commute from Jerusalem to Ramallah is tripled in time every day with the presence of checkpoints and the separation wall. Our youth are not able to travel to Jerusalem, and many of them have never even seen the city because they can't get permission to do so from the occupation. We have not been allowed to travel to Gaza since 2005, and our students in Gaza cannot leave the Gaza Strip to come to the West Bank, so we can only see them over Skype. We're able to work with them that way on daily basis thanks to technology.
The Israeli occupation makes it almost impossible for us to reach our audiences in Galilee as we used to prior to the Oslo Agreement. Travelling abroad is another challenge that we face every time we are invited anywhere, because we have no access to an airport and we need to travel via Jordan, which is not just time-consuming but expensive.
The economic situation of the people in Palestine is dire especially in the rural areas, where most of our audience is situated, which makes it hard for them to invest in seeing any theatre. We have to present our performances to them for free, which creates another problem for us as we are continually facing financial difficulties and we rely on donations.
These obstacles and the general situation restrict us greatly, but they cannot defeat us. We continue to resist by staying hopeful and creating a space for inner freedom for our students and audiences with quality plays and training programmes that allow Palestinian people to stay aware, continue dialogue amongst themselves and express freely.
There are certain things that happen which make it worthwhile for us. In 2012, we were lucky and honoured to be invited by Shakespeare's Globe to participate in the prestigious Globe to Globe Festival. To perform on Shakespeare's stage was an amazing experience and a turning point in our professional journey, especially because we were able to prove that we have a lot to share with the world of theatre on a professional level. The performances were very well received by the public as well as the critics. It couldn't have gone better.
For me, it also highlighted the differences between performing in Palestine and London. For example, to perform in Palestine is an act of resistance through existence, but to perform in London is an act of existence on the artistic level. It is vitally important to show our culture and convey our message of love, beauty and war, to present our reality and political point of view, and to communicate with Londoners that we are a lively nation that strives for justice and peace.
This year, we're back in London to perform Plays of Love and War with London-based theatre company Border Crossings. It's actually two plays: This Flesh is Mine (which we first performed in 2014 in Ramallah and London) and the world premiere of its companion piece, When Nobody Returns. It's so important that these plays are being performed in London because we are retelling history from the point of view of the defeated and not presenting the rhetoric of the winner.
Brian Woolland's plays are based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but resonate deeply with the story of Palestine. We're presenting them in a truly unique found space in Acklam Market just off Portobello Road, and the more time we spend there the more sense it makes to be performing there, in the vast space with echoes of the reality of our daily life. We're creating an experience that will be like stepping into the Middle East, but in West London.