PalFest Previews: Omar al-Khairy on a Chance to Connect and Collaborate ‘Outernationally’

This will be playwright Omar El-Khairy’s first trip with the Palestine Festival of Literature. His most recent theater production, Sour Lips, was reviewed on ArabLit earlier this year; he’s also a filmmaker, at work on Tunnels, a “somewhat Beckettian film about a young boy from Gaza who meets an old man at a bus stop in this suspended world – somewhere between Gaza and London.” ArabLit & Omar El-Khairy had a brief email interview:

omarelkArabLit: This is your first time at PalFest, yes? Why did you decide to go?

Omar El-Khairy: It is, yes. Well, I’ve watched PalFest grow over the years and have long admired the vision, determination and energy of all those involved. At a time when the idea of cultural exchange has either been totally consumed by today’s international culture industries or co-opted by states and institutions as a tool of cultural diplomacy, PalFest is a rare opportunity to connect and collaborate outernationally with fellow artists.

Moreover, the decision this year to reject stubbornly the border crossings, checkpoints, barriers and walls that cut up the land, and instead to imagine and help create an environment in which culture can roam all over historical Palestine is a really exciting prospect.

AL: What are you hoping comes of it, both for you & for audiences?

OK: The last time I was in Palestine was over three years ago for my PhD fieldwork. So, to return on different and somewhat freer terms wherein Palestine isn’t simply a research site is exciting for me.

I don’t really have any predetermined ideas of what I hope to bring or take from my time there. I simply hope to connect, share with, learn from and hopefully build collaborations with fellow artists.

AL: Are you making connections with theater/film people while you’re there? Are there things happening in the Palestinian theater/film world that are particularly exciting?

OK: I hope to, yes. On the last occasion that I was there, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with both the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and Idioms Film in Ramallah. There’s a real burgeoning collective of confident Palestinian artists who, while both recognising and accepting the historical burdens placed upon them, are also trying to find ways of responding to the particularities of both the present-day and quotidian.

AL: Your film, Tunnels, is currently in post-production. Can you say a little about that film, when/where it will be released? What was its inspiration/how did you go about creating it?

OK: Yes – I recently saw a first (very) rough cut of it. The idea for the film developed over a long period of time – more like two fairly rapid bursts over the course of a few years. The first was when I was fortunate enough to meet the film’s eventual director Mohanad Yaqubi. We just hung out, got to know each other and talked about a number of things – our loves and frustrations, our hopes and aborted dreams. The following year Mohanad spent some time in London for his MA and we got to talking about collaborating on a short together. Mohanad had a rough idea of what he wanted to explore – how Palestinians are always waiting – at checkpoints, for visas, for utilities, for family members, for their homeland. So, that was the starting point for our somewhat Beckettian film about a young boy from Gaza who meets an old man at a bus stop in this suspended world – somewhere between Gaza and London.

I plan to spend some time with Mohanad while I’m out in Palestine and get closer to completing the film.