Bashar Murkus and the Making of Independent Palestinian Theater in Haifa

Palestinian playwright and director Bashar Murkus talks about the challenges of staging Palestinian plays in Haifa, of establishing the Khashabi Theater, and working with his community:

By Daniel Teehan

Photo by Daniel Teehan.

Photo by Daniel Teehan.

In 2011, a group of undergraduate theater students at the University of Haifa entered a play they had been working on for school, “the Bilibilibel,” into the 32nd Acre Fringe Theatre Festival. The group’s first-time entry would go on to win awards at the festival, and even the attention of Haaretz. Writing about the production, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper singled out the show’s young writer and director, naming him “a talented yet unknown artist, Bashar Murkus.”

Years later, Murkus’s talents have not waned, but he is no longer unknown – thanks, in part, to a major national controversy surrounding one of his plays. In the intervening time, he and his collaborators from school have founded their own theater ensemble, toured their productions internationally, and ultimately become major players in the Palestinian theater scene in Israel. And now, they have their own theater.

Theatre in the Wadi

On the lower slopes of Mount Carmel, near the increasingly bustling downtown area of the Israeli port-city of Haifa, lie the abandoned houses of Wadi Salib. As a once central neighborhood whose Palestinian residents fled in 1948, Wadi Salib has become synonymous in Haifa with the Nakba. Indeed, if the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas is known as “the Museum without Walls,” for its preponderance of Jewish and Palestinian street-art, then Wadi Salib is a museum of a different kind. Rather than art, its uninhabited walls bear silent testimony to a history of displacement that lingers in the memory of Haifa’s Palestinian residents today.

It is against the backdrop of this history that Bashar and his ensemble established Khashabi Theatre on the border of Wadi Salib and downtown Haifa. The theater, which ran a successful inaugural season last year, is the first independently funded stage for Palestinian theater in Haifa. Its logo – a white tree starkly outlined on a black background – symbolizes its founders’ aspirations: to plant roots in the city and foster a space for an independent Palestinian theater to grow in Israel.

Like the physical space, the Khashabi Ensemble straddles two worlds, joining the rich Palestinian literary and cultural heritage with modernist storytelling styles and production methods. Its plays are varied in style – from Chekhov-style family dramas to shows borrowing techniques from documentary theater – but all emerge from the ensemble’s rigorous, research based production process.

Bashar, a playwright and director, has half a dozen shows under his belt, and likely half a dozen more in his head. Now graduated, he splits his time working with Khashabi, teaching theater at the University, and even writing poetry – of which he’s published a collection.

I meet Bashar at Fattoush, a Palestinian café, bar, and frequent sponsor of local artists. Everyone there seems to know Bashar. At one point, a waiter interrupts our conversation, furtively asking him to roll a cigarette for a fellow customer, a request he happily obliges.

Murkus, from his website.

Murkus, from his website.

Bashar is focused and organized, with dark, cropped hair and a bushy beard, all the intensity but none of the pretense one might associate with an up-and-coming playwright. Though still in his early twenties, his short but distinguished career already encapsulates the peril and the promise at the heart of contemporary Palestinian theater.

Bashar is probably best known for the controversy surrounding one of his more political works, the 2015 “A Parallel Time.” That play, which details the daily struggles of Palestinian political prisoners, was staged several times without issue before a production at Al-Midan Theater with Hebrew subtitles drew the ire of those who saw it as glorifying “terrorists.”

The play was based in part on the life and writings of Walid Dakka, a Palestinian prisoner convicted of killing an Israeli soldier. Dakka, who has been a prolific writer from behind bars, maintains his innocence, but Bashar, for his part, insists that the play is less about his crime than about the war against time in prison.

“I didn’t talk about Israel and the prisoners,” he says, when I ask him about it, “I made it about how prisoners deal with time.”

The play is more concerned with the relationships between prisoners and how to create meaning in prison than it is with the Palestinian national cause. However, backlash against the production was so strong that Al-Midan’s state funding was temporarily revoked, and policies concerning the sponsorship of the arts were even reportedly modified as a result of the affair.

Though the money for Al-Midan was eventually reinstated, the incident highlighted for Palestinian artists working inside of Israel how precarious their work can be when it relies on funding and approval from Israel’s Cultural Ministry. This is part of the impetus behind the independent funding of Khashabi Theater.

“Now they cannot cut the money, because they are not giving money,” Bashar explains. The only route left for the government to silence his work, he says, is to imprison him or his collaborators.

But beyond protecting creative control or establishing an autonomous space for Palestinian theater, seeking funds outside of the state culture infrastructure has helped Khashabi engage with the Palestinian community here in Haifa.

“All the money we raised for renovations [of Khashabi]” Bashar points out, “we made it in a crowdfund.”

According to Bashar, some locals went as far as joining the ensemble in painting and renovating the space. A local group that organizes parties at nightclubs even dedicated one of their shows to the Khashabi cause, raising awareness for the theater among a different demographic of Haifa-dwellers, as well as contributing some festive dollars to the renovations.

All of this, he notes, “is a way of working to give the audience a feel that they are a part of this place, that this place needs them and that they also need [it].”

That notion – of creating theater in a way that draws from, and in turn amplifies, the strength of Palestinians – suffuses Khashabi’s work. The theater hosts workshops for local aspiring actors, and offers up its space for other groups and artists during the off-season. This coming fall, Khashabi will host a festival of “shorts” in various media, from theater to dance to visual arts. That the local community be engaged, across educational and class distinctions, is an explicit goal of Khashabi’s work.

In an effort to draw a socio-economically diverse crowd, members of the ensemble went around different neighborhoods in Haifa before the theater’s opening, putting the season’s catalogue in residents’ mailboxes. In a gesture towards a different kind of accessibility, they created English subtitles to go along with each of their productions, so that non-Arabic speaking Israelis and tourists could attend as well. At one point, they even filmed a series of short productions and posted them on YouTube, so that they could be shared on social media, where they might reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily spend their Friday nights in the theater.

Their efforts towards inclusion seem to be paying off.

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Photo by Daniel Teehan.

“We had a dream,” Bashar tells me. “We wanted within three years to have the neighborhood coming to the theater.” After a pause, he says, “it happened in the first season.”

They even had one audience member, “an old woman” who came to see their productions four times.

“One night,” Bashar recalls, “she came and she didn’t have a seat, so she just told us, ‘I’m your neighbor, can’t I sit in the corner?’” In the end, they found a spot for her.

Bashar smiles as he tells this anecdote, and seems to take pride in bringing theater to people who had never seen it before, or whose only exposure to theater came through high school productions.

Luckily for Haifa, Khashabi’s shows are anything but amateur.

Dinner and Theater

Though there are other venues for Arabic-language theatre in the area – from the Nazareth Fringe Ensemble to Al-Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem to the famous Jenin Freedom Theater and even Haifa’s own al-Midan – Bashar insists that there’s something unique about the idea driving Khashabi.

“The difference with Khashabi,” he says, is that the ensemble “started with a way of thinking,” rather than deriving from a physical space. Whereas other theaters’ identities and styles may shift as artistic directors come and go, Bashar is confident that he could leave the ensemble for years without the essence of their work changing, because, as he says, “[Khashabi]’s an idea, a way of working.”

This underlying idea has to do with the way that Khashabi collaboratively creates its pieces, a method the founders began at school and have been developing ever since. Starting with an overarching theme like “Haifa” or “identity,” the ensemble engages in an extensive, often community-based research period in which the production begins to take shape.

This, according to Bashar, can deepen the theater’s interdependence with the local community. “When you research your community,” he says, “you take things from them, and you give them back,” in the form of a production.

“With time, they start to be a part of this process,” he notes, until eventually, “we start to see them [in the audience].”

With “A Parallel Time,” they researched prisoners around the world before Bashar started corresponding with Dakka. The ensemble then decided to narrow in on political prisoners in Israel. And even though the play’s protagonist highlights Dakka’s struggle to get married and have a child while imprisoned, the show includes influences and stories from other prisoners the ensemble researched. This gives the production an air of universality, allowing it to resonate with, for instance, the struggles of American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This collaboration-based, workshop-driven production method results in a curious quality of Khashabi’s plays – their plots and storytelling styles tend to comment upon the process that created them, sometimes inadvertently.

“A Parallel Time,” for example, is a play concerned with how conditions of confinement stifle attempts at creation – whether it’s Dakka’s character attempting to create a child or his fellow prisoners attempting to create music. This theme foreshadows Bashar’s own travails with the production, which ultimately involved a censorious government stifling an attempt at creative expression.

In other cases, the relationship between research, form, and content is more explicit. As was perhaps fitting to their new location in Wadi Salib, the theater’s first full season revolved around the theme of Haifa, and elements of its history that are at times brushed over in the city’s constant refrain of “coexistence.” The research ended up taking a decidedly personal turn – among the interview subjects were some of the ensemble members’ grandparents.

The experience forced Bashar to reevaluate his own relationship with the city and narratives of Palestinian history. As they worked, he realized that his generation’s connection to the past was sometimes tenuous.

“We don’t know Palestine, we don’t know Haifa the way we thought,” he said. “We didn’t leave in the Nakba, we don’t know anything, but we feel that it’s our memory.” He pauses. “It’s not our memory.”

That experience prompted the ensemble to produce two plays that dealt in decisively different ways with the research questions.

The first, “Sitt bil Ouffeh: A Theatrical Dinner,” puts two of Khashabi’s actresses on stage, cooking the titular traditional dish in real time as they dramatically recount the stories they’ve culled from one of the grandmothers, interspersed with the actresses’ own memories. The play is densely layered and involves a complicated tangle of identifications as the audience is cast in the role of interviewer, listener, even grandchild.

In the absence of a written text, it is Bashar’s dramaturgical choices as director that stand out. The act of cooking on stage creates a sensory connection with the style of storytelling that the play wishes to evoke.

Bashar explains, “When you smell this onion smell, for me, I really remember my grandmother and her stories […] and it’s really interesting, because when the grandmother cooks, she brings all the family.”

But, he also points out that the family-cum-audience will not have a uniform experience of the Nakba stories being recalled on stage.

“The old audience, they focus more on the story, that they know it.”

By contrast, the younger generation in the audience were confronted with the same questions that faced the ensemble, of how, as Bashar puts it, “you have a pain that’s not yours. It’s not yours, you didn’t breathe it, but it’s here.”

Claiming Palestinian Space

In the future, Bashar is committed to staying with Khashabi and – though he’s been offered fellowships abroad – in Haifa. He insists that, ironically, this is the only place where he can create internationally oriented theater.

“I think that when you are working in your material, and researching your community, your place, your questions, and you go deep inside yourself, you will find a way to be really international, and not the opposite.”

Meanwhile, he has other ambitions for his career.

“One of my own dreams, my own projects, is to have a PhD, so I can also really be part of teaching theater, not just as a director.”

This desire underlines a central challenge impeding the development of Palestinian theater in Israel – as it is, schools offer theater training almost entirely in Hebrew. Though the University of Haifa has made strides – hiring Bashar, for instance – this remains a structural barrier to a fully thriving Arabic-language theater.

Bashar recalls that when his theater professor once told him that “in ten years there will be a university in Arabic [in Haifa],” he had to temper her optimism by pointing out that there wouldn’t be enough qualified professors to have a department.

Though a full-fledged university may still be far off, Khashabi is already contributing to its community in its own way. In the period since Khashabi was founded in Wadi Salib, other Palestinian spaces – art galleries, restaurants, bars – have followed suit nearby. Kabareet, an underground bar and music space just blocks from Khashabi, has become a staple of nightlife and parties for young Palestinians in Haifa.

Bashar sees this development as natural. “When there is a theater, there is a need for a café and for a bar.”

All of this, he insists, is part of a generation that is redefining its connection to the city.

“My grandfather, he was afraid of Israel, he lived through the Nakba, he had this history and these memories. My father took this fear from my grandfather. Now for me – it’s not inside me, I don’t find it there, I’m not afraid, I’m here. Now you can see there’s a new wave of people who are really finding a place to exist.”

“It’s not going inside Israeli society, its being here, it’s being in your place, it’s building your theater, it’s building your bar […] It’s just to be. It’s really to be.”

Daniel Teehan is an undergraduate from Brooklyn, New York studying Comparative Literature at Princeton University. His academic interests include political theater, criminal justice, and journalism. He can be reached at dteehan – at – princeton.edu. 

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