‘Inside/Outside’: Doubling the Corpus of Palestinian Plays in English

Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora. Edited by Naomi Wallace & Ismail Khalidi. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2015. 307 pages. $19.95:

By Kate Wilson

inoutThis collection is remarkable for more than doubling the corpus of Palestinian plays in English, for encompassing both homeland and diaspora Palestinian writers, and for coming to print within a US theatre culture that’s seen more censorship than promotion of Palestinian concerns.  The editors judiciously balance the selection both by gender and by the difference of national belonging that the book’s title gracefully straddles: half the writers grew up “inside” Occupied Palestine, half “outside,” as hyphenated American- or British-Palestinians.  Its varieties in content and style offer readers a provocative sampling of strategies of representing Palestine’s fraught past and present.

Tennis in Nablus, by the book’s Palestinian-American editor Ismail Khalidi, dramatizes complex geo-political intersections as they play out locally, focusing on 1930s Mandate Palestine, when the British Empire was warily negotiating Jewish immigration policies and energetically suppressing Palestinian resistance.  In Khalidi’s scenario, a buffoonish officer wields unwarranted (and fatal) power; Irish and Indian soldiers commiserate as peons of imperialism;  a Zionist pioneer seeks peaceful co-existence with Palestinians; and Palestinians, far from homogenous, actively debate the strategies and goals of the country, guided by a woman writer. Lightened by humor, the play pays homage to the courage and intelligence of ancestral activists, as it models a politics of international solidarity against oppression (Mexico’s Zapata makes a phantom appearance).

From England, Hannah Khalil’s Plan D dramatizes history another way, representing the Nakba through folklorish simplicity: a rustic family’s contented life is disrupted, first by a relative’s horrific news and the signs of mysterious attack nearby, which drive the family to seek refuge in the woods; and then by a revelation about family members that strains the parents’ bond as they cope with the larger upheaval.

Unlike some Arab playwrights’ adaptations of folktales, which highlight modern political conditions (such as Wannous or Farag’s theatrical 1001 Nights stories), Plan D uses folk stylization to render one historical event as an ostensibly universal story of tribulations rocking a “family unit” (as her preface puts it).  Khalil’s play reflects the challenge of writing about Palestine for outsiders: rather than the “alienation” technique that makes the familiar strange, as advocated by Brecht, writers often hope to make the unfamiliar more familiar, to elicit sympathy from less-knowing audiences. Plan D is an especially de-politicized version of that strategy.

A Palestinian “insider” who has lived in the “outside,” Dalia Tala strings together ten distinct scenes in Keffiyeh/Made in China, all expressed in comprehensible yet quirky speech. Half the scenes center on couples, whose bond isn’t solidified by struggle (as in Khalidi or Abusrour), but strained by ordinary relational tensions — an affair, house chores, sex, or worrying about a son.  Sometimes the quotidian seems more recognizably entwined with political conflict, as when a couple crosses a checkpoint (“Crowdedness”); a son was maybe arrested for maybe throwing stones (“Craving Mangoes”); or a retired militant monologues to a young man guarding a Picasso painting (“A Man with a Gun”).

The titular Kaffiyeh/Made in China, a crucible of gender, politics, and global market themes, more specifically foregrounds Palestine, as a European women tries to buy a kaffiyeh from a local clerk as sociable as he is unobliging.  Many scenes will intrigue readers interested in meta-communication and representation. Interrogations unfold unexpectedly in “The Prisoner,” when a man bewildered by his arrest reveals humdrum workplace stress. In “The Camera Doesn’t Love Anyone,” women recall that a nurse learned to report “dying…dead…paralyzed…blinded…deaf… chopped up…burnt” bodies to relatives — that is, to verbally represent violence. In “The Unhappy Writer”– the only diasporic scene in the book and a rare depiction of sisters in Arabic drama — the girls’ bedroom argument vocalizes the professional writer’s dilemma of literary versus populist ambitions. In Tala’s medley, macro social-political processes are manifest in micro day-to-day experiences, which strain conventional forms of speech as people struggle to communicate.

Prison, a commonplace in Palestinian lives, appears in five of six plays in the volume. Imad Farajin, another playwright from “inside” who’s familiar with “outside,” limits his plot to one cell, the titular #603, where four men prisoners converse, argue, and care for a pet bug, three waiting hopefully for their possible release while the fourth copes variously with his life sentence. Monologues and dialogues limn a wide web of relations beyond the cell, especially bonds with women. When one inmate justifies his having shown respect (by standing) before the Israeli judge, and another’s boasts of violence are exposed as charades, Farajin subtly criticizes a model of masculine heroism that failed to achieve statehood and stunted the country’s social relations.

Palestinian-American Betty Shamieh’s Territories resembles most of the other plays in the verbal style of witty repartee, though it’s the outlier in topic: the historic Holy Land rather than modern Palestine. It condenses the Crusades in the territorial opposition between a European nobleman and Saladin. Into this dichotomy Shamieh installs a third figure, Saladin’s sister, a firebrand who — despite her epilepsy-like ailment — convinces her brother/leader that she can travel, and then, after being imprisoned by the French, wins the respect of her engaging captor, as their acerbic dialogue unfolds into ambiguous flirtation and more. While potentially read as a liberal feminist revision of kings-and-generals historiography, the play dwells in ambiguities that leave room for varying responses to the medieval fiction.

Back in the age of print, Abdelfattah Abusrour theatricalizes a cartoon, the well-known series Handala that featured a ragged refugee boy who, with his back turned, commented sardonically on political affairs (for samples see http://www.handala.org).  Since the single-strip frames offer no storyline, Abusrour stages his source in two other ways: first, a chain of episodes illustrates the cartoons’ topics, the frustrations of a few urban Palestinians or the hypocritical antics of international politicians; second, silent interludes depict the cartoonist’s biography, as he is imprisoned, cartooning, and assassinated.  While like most of the other plays in general subject, Handala is the outlier in style: its tone verges on melodrama, while the speech intermixes explicit, slogan-ish political statements with lyrical metaphors, both unlike the pedestrian, Anglo idiom of the companion plays. Its allusions to events and figures require explaining in a preface and footnotes, where Abusrour also explains his own symbolism (“broken English is a kind of resistance”).

This amalgam makes Handala both a valuable and difficult member of the collection. The five other plays — written by playwrights who have or are getting Western MFA degrees — fall within the horizon of expectations of cosmopolitan, American-British audiences. In contrast, Handala was written for a West Bank public by one of their own: a part-time, autodidact theatre artist, who mostly devises plays with refugee camp children. (He has, though, co-written with the editor, Naomi Wallace.) Understood in that socio-cultural context, Abusrour’s incongruous style enriches the volume’s variety.

Such contextualizing, however, is missing from the book. Wallace and Khalidi do offer a brief and eloquent preface that positions the publication within the larger struggles of US cultural politics, supplemented by the appendix bibliography of writings about society and politics, though none address theatre. The introduction was delegated to a Palestinian-American creative writer who seems unfamiliar (or non-complaint) with the remit of introducing readers to particular playtexts.  The limitations of that essay — an admixture of lyrical travel experience and neophyte historiography — can be seen as a symptom of the shortage of Anglo intellectuals writing about Palestinian theatre, a dearth partly explained by the struggles described in the editors’ preface, the veritable gag-rule against promoting Palestinian culture. Still, overall, the collected plays make a remarkable contribution to the cultural resistance against that very problem.

Kate (Katherine) Wilson, a former playwright and theatre artist, earned a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York following an MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College/CUNY.  She researches aspects of Arabic Theatre, including festivals and “applied” or “theatre for social change” in Palestine and Jordan, alongside her Anglo subject, a sociology of theatre documents, in between adjunct teaching gigs in Arabic Theatre, Writing, and sundry topics.