Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An actor in Ramallah

The skyline of Jerusalem
This is a Guest Blog by actor Gerrard McArthur, who will be playing Priam and Phoenix in This Flesh is Mine.  Gerrard is currently rehearsing the play with Border Crossings and Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah, Palestine.
A blazing day in Palestine, green tea with mint, goats bleating on the roof blending with the call to prayer, a sustained, graceful, wandering colour in the white heat.
Just snatching a coffee outside rehearsal in the shade - it's remarkable here, to live among the oppressed & to live in a no place; very Augusto Boal... Kindness & life exude from these people like the blooming violet flowers that sprout along the roadside rubble, articulate survivalists, with angry grace.  
Traffic more alarming than Rome, a hooting gallery, just about keeping to the roads; pedestrians walking at will as if the raging cars were pesky gnats.  
Was in Jerusalem at Easter. Black & white into COLOUR, and frenzy and fervour and focused chaos: a sense of Holy Rock (Gig) about it, packed into the small square of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as each religion processes around it and in and out again, in a rough-theatre rotation sounding to the deepest of the Sepulchre's sacred tolling bell, people reaching out to passing sacred objects and then a laughing out to passing processing friends; inside, weeping women at the site of the washing of Jesus' body, a short step away from the crack in the stone of Golgotha, a short step away from the kissing of the true remains of the Holy Cross, a short step away from Jesus' tomb - these biggest events of the Christian story so compressed together in the stone tunnels and broadening archways, it seems like an extraordinary Christian convenience store, like Christo Metro... 
In burning daylight the next day back into the narrow confining tunnel-like stone streets of Jerusalem, part bazaar, sometimes walking on shiny rubbed levels of the seven layers of destroyed Jerusalems that are like emerging ribs of the corpse of lost cities, 2000 years old.  
At the top of the narrow walled way that is the Via Dolorosa, we spy a vantage point above us atop the Austrian Hospice, enter in the coolness and climb the stairs of the hushed sanatorium to come out again into the white light on to a wide, flat terrace with a breathtaking David Lean CinemaScope vision of the entire Holy City, astonishingly cramped and crammed, a pressed piling of small rounded cupolas on ancient houses to the dominating Gold of the Dome of the Rock....

Friday, April 25, 2014

Culture in Palestine

Actor David Broughton-Davies looking out across Ramallah
In Arabic, the word for "home" and the word for "poem" are the same - bait.  I suppose "home" and "poem" are similar in English too, holding within them the sacred "om" sound that echoes through so many languages; but the discovery that in Arabic the words are identical has helped me to focus some of the thoughts that this time in Palestine has been provoking. It has helped me to understand the huge importance of culture here.

The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes in A Cloud in My Hand of the close identification between land and language, the way in which the place and tongue of both are, or should be, central to the formation of human identity:

"The place was prepared for his birth:
his grandfather's hill of sweet basil
with views to the east and west.
God's olive trees rising with the language."

But, for the Palestinian people, home is an absence.  The nakbar (catastrophe) of 1948, which drove so many of them from their homes, made land and its role in the creation of identity at best provisional.  And so the role of the poem, the other side of bait, has become absolutely central to the creation and the preservation of identity.  If Palestinian culture is undermined, then there will be no Palestine.  And so every cultural event, every educational event, every poem, play and song, is an act of resistance and resilience.  That is why, in total contradiction to the image presented in the western media, Palestine is probably the most culturally vibrant space I have ever encountered.  Everyone you meet here is deeply informed about history and culture: everyone is actively engaged in the preservation and regeneration of culture.  The young are proud of the learning they receive, and embrace their provisional status as a work in progress - their lives as a process of self-fashioning.  It is extraordinarily moving.  And very salutary to those of us whose cultures are being steadily eroded and commodified. 

The play we are rehearsing here with Ashtar Theatre, This Flesh is Mine, is also very much about creation and debasement of language, about exile and the right to remain, about home and poem.  One of the three English actors, Andrew French, said to me last night that we could not have done it justice had we not rehearsed in Palestine.  He is absolutely right. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Approach to Ramallah

The wall outside Ramallah
For a week now, I've been in Ramallah, rehearsing our new production of This Flesh is Mine with our friends at Ashtar Theatre.  The collaboration has been in the wind for some time, and it's very exciting for us all that it is finally happening.  The play is loosely based on Homer's Iliad - and has very powerful resonance here, where people know very well what it feels like to live through a prolonged siege.

I'm here with three UK actors - Andrew French, Gerrard McArthur and David Broughton-Davies - and we are working closely with three actors from the Ashtar Company - Iman Aoun, Razan Alazzeh and Emile AndrĂ© - plus an assistant director, Rana Burqan.  Iman is also the Artistic Director of Ashtar, and it was she, with her husband Edward Muallem, who met us from the plane in Tel Aviv last week.  The drive was an education in itself.  The further we moved from Tel Aviv, the more barbed wire started to appear by the sides of the road.  As we got closer to the Palestinian Territories, the famous wall, erected by Israel to segregate the West Bank, came into view.  Ramallah, which is the de facto capital of Palestine, is entered through the Qalandia checkpoint - a mass of concrete, barbed wire and heavily armed Israeli soldiers, with very narrow lanes for the vast amount of traffic that needs to pass.  They don't check your papers as you go in - they really check them as you go out.  Because, I suppose, you might want to attack Israel....

Once past the checkpoint, the first area of Ramallah you see is the Qalandia refugee camp.  It's not the usual image of a refugee camp - there are no tents.  The camp has been there since the Nakbar of 1948, and is, in its own way, established.  It is also incredibly cramped and deprived.  In a way, the people living there would not want it to become too like the rest of the city: its temporary, provisional nature is part of their identity, and that is what they need to cling onto.

By contrast, the city itself, while hardly plush, is friendly, lively and very cultured.  In fact, it is one of the most cultured spaces I have ever been to.  Everyone, including young people, is very aware of the details of their history, and the need to assert their clear, separate cultural identity in the world.  They are also very aware that the dominant narrative subverts that identity, labelling them as radical Islamists and nurturers of terrorism.  As the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said, there is no-one to speak for the Trojans in this war. 

Iman knew Darwish: he used to come to Ashtar before his death in 2008.  On the first day, she took me to his tomb, and the little museum where his study is preserved.  It is very moving.  The grave sits high above the city, looking across the work in progress that is Ramallah.  And a Palestinian flag flutters in the breeze.