Amir Nizar Zuabi has been credited for his role in bringing Palestinian theatre to international attention with his hard-hitting and thought-provoking productions. However, his primary aim is simply to tell the stories of the Palestinian people, he explains to Belinda Otas.
Amir Nizar Zuabi’s current play, I am Yusuf And This Is My Brother, is playing to packed audiences at the Young Vic, one of London’s most prestigious theatre venues. A compelling drama about dislocation and dispossession, it tells the story of Yusuf and his younger brother Ali. Yusuf is the eldest of the two, but is eccentric and has a rather child-like point of view on life. Ali, meanwhile, is in love with Nada, whose father refuses to allow them to get married, because his brother Yusuf is ‘odd.’ While at the heart of this play is the love between two individuals, the bigger picture tells the more painful story of the people of Palestine and the devastating effects the loss of their land had on them in 1948, and how this loss still reverberates today.
Zuabi was raised in Nazareth, in the Galilee, where there is a huge population of Palestinians living within Israel. He says the aftermath of the 1948 partition is still visible when you take a look around, and is one of the factors which provoked the thoughts that led to his new play. “What triggered it, really was me becoming a father, but this period of our history, Palestine, is all around us. The 1948 war was the beginning of the current situation… I felt I needed to… gain a better understanding, and started reading about it, and wanted to do something with it,” he says.
Zuabi, who was named one of the most influential Palestinians by Arabian Business in 2009, runs his own theatre company, Shiberhur, which translates as ‘An Inch of Freedom,’ and is based in Haifa. The aim of the company is to produce theatre work that crosses the boundaries of cultures, language, geography and politics.
Zuabi trained as an actor in an Isreali arts school before he changed direction and became a theatre director. He has directed major productions at El Kakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre and Al-Kasabah in Ramallah, with an international fellowship at the Young Vic theatre where he directed the critically acclaimed Alive From Palestine. His dramatisation of Jidarriya, an epic poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, took him on an international tour of Edinburgh International festival, Bouffes du Nord in Paris and other countries.
Despite the international success of his work, Zuabi’s passion is to tell the stories of ordinary Palestinians, because he believes their narrative is the least told of the two sides of the conflict. He said, “Our narrative is less talked about, because we lost, and history is best written about by the victors, but our narrative is: we were in the land, that land was not empty. We lived there and people came from all over the world, saying, ‘2,000 years ago, we were thrown out of the land.’ That is the way we read the situation. There could be a discussion of — is that true or not? But for us, that is the reality of what happened to us in 1948.”
Zuabi comes from a cultural background rich in poetry, not theatre. However, he says he is influenced and admires a lot of people in the theatre world, dating as far back as Shakespeare. “That is part of the beauty of theatre; it is a communal art form and a collaborative one. So, I’m not picking them one at a time.
“Theatre for me is what I do and who I am and, of course, I bring to it all of my cultural background and traditions, and it is manifested in the kind of theatre I do. I come from a rich poetical background. So, that’s also eminent in the work that I do and try to create and the language has a huge influence. Arabic is such a poetic language and a rich one and I think Arabic is one of the biggest influences, Arabic as in the culture, in all of my theatre work,” says Zuabi.
Zuaibi has mapped and shaped the kind of theatre he believes is relevant to him and to the people he produces it for. While he agrees it is hard to define or categorise his work, he said, “My culture is not European, it’s Mediterranean and it’s Arab…That is the theatre I do. It does not mean that this is what all Palestinians look like or do. But in all of them, the temperament and energy is Palestinian, because that is the place I come from.”
I am Yusuf and This Is My Brother examines history from a point of human relationships, love, war and loss. Quizzed as to the questions he wanted to raise through his work, Zuabi said, “It’s a play about people that are caught up in a war and I think in that situation, [the] what ifs are very powerful. What if that never happened? What if life could have continued normally? And I think that sense of loss is very powerful in the play. I hope that comes across to the audience.”
Zuabi brings a new perspective to the painful story of migration: the fact that many Palestinians find it painful to talk about leaving their land, and some consider it a forbidden subject. “I come from the Palestinian minority, who live inside Israel, but the majority of my people were displaced and being a refugee is a very strong and harsh status you are captured in. It is a prison without a prison. You live your life [with] a sense of longing for the place you came from, or where your family come from.
“And talking about the fact that we were thrown out of the land is a bit of a taboo in the place where I come from… The Palestinians don’t really want to talk about this, because it is a constant reminder of our defeat and Israelis don’t want to talk about it because it is their primal sin. Among my actors, half of them are descendants of refugees. This is such a common thing in Palestine because of the war, the country has been torn apart and people started wondering from village to village, area to area or from refugee camp to refugee camp. So, the sense of constant movement is inherent to us,” he explains.
With that, you would expect his aim is to tell the world how wrong the other side is for what they have done to his people. But Zuabi maintains his job is not to point fingers or start a propaganda machine. He only wants to tell his story. “I’m not out to blame anyone… I’m out there to tell my story, my honest story, which is not against anyone. It is not pro anyone. It is pro-me and the [basis] of why I do theatre.
“I do a lot of political theatre. I’m not ashamed of doing political theatre. The fact is that people regard political theatre as a propaganda tool, and I hope I’m not doing propaganda. I’m talking about people, real people, complicated, troubled and beautiful, and it could be very political. If you ask me, Shakespeare is political, but not in the shallow sense of preaching or persuading you to think in one way. I’m asking questions, not giving answers. I hope that is the theatre I’m making.”
The play, which has toured Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps in Galilee and the West Bank, has elicited responses which Zuabi says have been very personal. “The reactions were warm and painful at the same time, because you find yourself telling people their own stories and for us as a theatre company, that was very moving. We had a whole array of reactions from people who experienced the pain of what we are talking about. We have had a good reaction, because it is very honest..
“I hope that’s the reason why these reactions are coming. And of course, it is partly because we are telling a story that a lot of them know very well, but not a lot of them necessarily are allowed or allow themselves to speak about it in a common place, and because we are talking about it, out in the open and in the community; they are talking about it among themselves in an honest and open way, it has a sense of vindication and liberation.”
Zuabi’s hope is that audiences in the UK will have a similar reaction.
I am Yusuf and This Is My Brother runs until February 6th, 2010, at the Young Vic.