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.

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