In the war of 1948, thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes never to return, and playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi is determined to tell their stories.
It was six decades ago, but the fallout from the war continues. A few months ago, one fast-rising, rightwing Israeli party tried to introduce a bill that would ban Palestinians from commemorating the Nakba of 1948, their catastrophe (but which Israelis hail as the creation of their state, the apogee of their independence struggle). In the end, the law will probably be watered down, but the principle seems to have wide support. As far as most Israelis are concerned, they won in 1948, the Palestinians lost, and history has moved on. Except, of course, it hasn’t.
Next week, a compelling new play opens at London’s Young Vic, promising to thrust the discomforting story of that war back into public scrutiny. At the age of 33, Amir Nizar Zuabi, the play’s writer and director, is from a generation of Palestinians raised on stories of the Nakba, haunted by tales of how hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes, never to return. “We have it as a covert partner in everything,” says Zuabi. “Two of us can sit having coffee and the third person will be Mr Nakba.”
Zuabi was brought up in Nazareth, in the Galilee, where there is a large population of Palestinians living within Israel, and where all around there is evidence of the 1948 war, including ruined villages. One of the razed villages was Baissamoon, a tiny Palestinian community. It is here that Zuabi set his play, I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother, which tells of two brothers, an ill-fated love, and the dislocation and tragedy brought about by the war.
The play, says Zuabi, began as a personal investigation to scrape away layers of myth. “Why did people make the decision to leave? Or did they make the decision to leave? What would you have done?” Zuabi, living in Israel, found the story had been “hushed up”: “It’s the big taboo, because it’s the primal sin. It is the mother of all problems here. They don’t like talking about it.”
Zuabi’s writing is, however, far from polemical. The Jews who fought to create their state are almost absent; never named, they appear only in the background. “We saw them first in January, then all the time,” says one brother. “They invaded our dreams, our conversation.” Zuabi simply wanted to tell a Palestinian story about Palestinians. “Our narrative is the less known one – history is written by the victors,” he says, but adds: “There is no spite. I find the blame game futile. It’s not like I do theatre to crush Israeli propaganda. I don’t hear Israeli propaganda. I don’t care about it.”
The villagers are divided: should they run or fight? Some see the battle in stark terms. “The war was over before it began,” says one character. “We lost. They won. It was that simple.” But with Britain’s Mandate ending, the same character tells a British officer: “We are not a rubbish heap for your guilt, my friend. We’re in your Middle East and what you sow here you’ll reap in 50 years or 100 years in your lovely London.”
Dropped into the middle of this is the original, sombre recording of the results of the UN vote on the 1947 Partition Plan. Rejected by Palestinians, it was passed by the UN and, but for the war, would have carved Palestine into two states around an internationally protected Jerusalem. “Soviet Union: Yes. United Kingdom: Abstained. United States: Yes . . .”
The play explores the what ifs, says Zuabi. “My grandmother, this Palestinian matriarch, used to say, ‘If you plant what ifs, you’ll sow I wish.’ When I walk around Haifa, in some of the neighbourhoods that are empty, I really have to ask myself, ‘What if that hadn’t happened? What are they doing, these people that once lived here?'”
Zuabi studied acting in Jerusalem, then worked with the al-Kasaba theatre in Ramallah as the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising, took hold. He and his actors produced short sketches that drew unexpectedly large audiences, hungry for relief. The sketches turned into Alive from Palestine, which toured abroad, with runs at the Royal Court and the Young Vic. Zuabi then spent a year working at the Young Vic, studied in Moscow, and returned home to work with the Palestinian National theatre.
I Am Yusuf is the first play from ShiberHur, a new touring theatre company based in Haifa, whose name means Within a Few Inches of Freedom. It has already toured Palestinian villages and refugee camps – communities with little access to the theatre. “We have everything going against us as a theatre movement,” says Zuabi. “Lack of funds, infrastructure, the fact that theatre is not really part of our cultural tradition – we come from a poetic tradition.”
When Zuabi was at drama school, he was the sole Palestinian among Israeli students (one of whom, now a successful actor, later became his wife). Only recently has a drama school opened in Ramallah. Until then, Palestinians went to Israel, if they could obtain the permit, or abroad, if they could afford it. “It’s a new art form for us. We have an audience that’s completely uncatered for and is very thirsty. Once they know theatre exists, they keep coming back.”
He has been surprised by the reaction to the play across the generations. In Jerusalem, an elderly man came up to him after one performance and said: “Thank you very much for telling my story.” In Haifa, a woman in her 20s told him: “I understand my parents better now.” Still, he doubts how much difference one play can make towards unravelling this bitter conflict. “I have to believe it does affect people,” he says. “On the other level, I’m not daft. I know I can’t change the reality. I can’t make a show and tomorrow everyone will walk hand-in-hand.”
I am Yusuf and This Is My Brother Young Vic, London SE1 Starts 19 Jan Until 6 Feb Box office: 020-7922 2922 Venue website
Original article was posted here.