Palestinian-Lebanese playwright Kassem Istanbouli — founder of Istanbouli Theatre — recently wrapped up a multi-city European tour at Holland’s Dancing on the Edge Intercultural Festival, discussions of contemporary Arab theatre, and a masterclass at the Amsterdam University. One of the most fascinating aspects of Istanbouli’s touring with “Koum Yaba” is that the work — which has shown in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Spain, Algeria, Chile, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Portugal and Holland — is not translated:
Indeed, Istanbouli said over email, “My play was the only one at the [Dancing on the Edge] Festival that was not translated.” Istanbouli said he included a few English words, at some points, “but I love to perform in Arabic for non Arabic speaking audiences. I love my language and its music.” Istanbouli answered a few questions for ArabLit:
Kassem Istanbouli: Each audience is different. A Palestinian audience knows and feels the story of Palestine that I tell in my play; I feel they understand every detail. In other Arab countries, it depends of the country, since there are big differences. In general they have a notion of Palestine’s story and politically support the story, but it is very different to do “Koum Yaba” at Kuwait or to do it at Morocco, even from the language point of view. European audiences are also very different from country to country; they don’t understand the language but they understand the emotions I bring through my acting.
AL: Did the differing audiences lead you to change the staging at all?
KI: Each play I do is different. It depends on the stage place and on the energy I receive from the space, the people I meet there, many things. It is clear that the less the audience understand the language, the more important symbolism and emotions become in the communication process.
AL: Did it change how you yourself understood the play?
When I bring my “Koum Yaba” to non-Arabic speaking audiences, I love to speak in my language, to make people sing in my language, to make them cry and laugh listening to my language, to let them feel our culture as a human culture.
KI: I always understand my plays as a way to communicate with the audience. When I bring my “Koum Yaba” to non-Arabic speaking audiences, I love to speak in my language, to make people sing in my language, to make them cry and laugh listening to my language, to let them feel our culture as a human culture.
AL: What did you highlight in your talks about “Arab theatre today”?
KI: I highlighted the importance of giving a voice to what is happening in the streets of our cities and countries, and how theater brings the opportunity to put a focus on reality and to speak about what is happening beside us.
AL: What do you think are the most compelling highlights among Arab theatre projects across the region?What were some of the most exciting Arab theatre projects you saw in Amsterdam?
There is a lot of creativity trying to build stories that speak about our lives and a lot of effort devoted to bringing these plays to stage, but few investments on our theater. It is still considered by many people in Arab countries as a “low level” art, and still we see great old theater artists disregarded by our administrations.
KI: There is a lot of creativity trying to build stories that speak about our lives and a lot of effort devoted to bringing these plays to stage, but few investments on our theater. It is still considered by many people in Arab countries as a “low level” art, and still we see great old theater artists disregarded by our administrations. This is what I see when I travel to countries where theater is considered a “high level” art, and theater artists are given social and economic respect.
At the Dancing on the Edge Festival I liked very much the work coming from Iran, wonderful, and I really appreciated very much the ideas and work of Tunisia director Ezzeddine Gannoun.
AL: What did you focus on when teaching the masterclass?
KI: I focused on timings. I worked with Dutch director Leon Van der Sanden and with the students on how to build a play timing.
AL: What sort of questions did you get from the students?
KI: Students wanted to know many things about Arabic traditional theater, about the way I work, about the way we live in Lebanon, about life in the refugee camps. Students were very curious, as they must be.
AL: Does teaching help you create theatre, understand theatre? Or what is your relationship to teaching?
KI: As an artist I am always learning, it is a continuous process that, hopefully, does never end. I am learning and teaching at the same time, always, that is the way I understand arts.