Sunday, June 01, 2014

The matter of Visas

Edward Muallem and Razan Alazzeh recording a scene for This Flesh is Mine
Now that a week has passed since the last performance of This Flesh is Mine (last for now, I should probably say), I feel I can finally talk a bit in public about the fact that two of our Palestinian colleagues, Razan Alazzeh and Emile AndrĂ©, didn't make it to London.  If you came to the show and got a programme, you will have seen that their roles were taken, at the last minute, by two very proficient Arabic actors based in London, Jumaan Short and Tariq Jordan.  Somehow we managed to find them within 24 hours of our return to London from Ramallah - so they had a week to work on the play before it went in front of a London audience.  That happened also to be the week when we were doing technical and dress rehearsals - but it is actually possible for an actor to step in to a production at that stage, because the production itself is already very formed, so they can work everything out much more quickly from all that is going on around them.  I was lucky that the two actors hardly every coincided on stage - so they could respond to other performers who had already worked for a month. All of which meant that Razan and Emile continued, in a way, to be very present in the piece.  Jumaan and Tariq did not give the same performances - far from it - but the ghosts of those performances, and the experience that those Palestinian actors brought to the roles, informed every moment of the play.

What had happened was that their visa applications had been rejected - we found out the morning after our wonderful preview performances in Ramallah, the day before we were due to fly home.  It wasn't a case of direct political interference to prevent Palestinian performers coming to London - though that wouldn't have surprised me in a climate where the ENO was unable to bring Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, and the Lebanese authorities have recently confiscated the passport of Lucien Bourjeily to stop him participating in LIFT.  Nevertheless, it was political, in way that is more subtle and so all the more insidious.

Put simply, the forms weren't filled in correctly.  The Ashtar administrators sent a supporting letter from us, inviting the performers to appear in the play, and ticked the box saying "tourist visa".  They should, of course, have ticked "business".  Why didn't they?  Well - Ashtar previously came to London in 2012, to present Richard II as part of the Globe to Globe Festival; and the events of the Cultural Olympiad were given a special dispensation - a tourist visa and a letter of invitation were considered enough, even for Palestinians.  It's not surprising that, having done this once, the company thought it would be a simple matter to do the same again.

My question is this: why was 2012 a special case?  During the Olympics, we wanted to show that London was an international cultural capital, that it welcomed artists, that it welcomed the world.  But that is clearly not the default position.  In fact, it's just a lie.  For a few weeks, when it suited the PR campaign, the doors were open.  The default position, to which we immediately returned, is one of suspicion and xenophobia.  If there is any excuse not to grant a visa, it will not be granted.

Something similar happened to us in 2007, when a group of Ghanian performers were denied visas because one of them, having been born in a rural area, did not know her date of birth.  On that occasion, the British Council in Accra made the case to the Consulate, and the decision was at once overturned.  This time, even though the British Council was actively (and financially) involved in the project, they could do nothing.  Because the visa service now has very little to do with the Consular Service.  It has been "out-sourced".  Privatised.

The spin around privatisation is always that it saves red tape and cuts costs.  Our experience indicates quite the opposite.  The privatised visa system is clearly much MORE bureaucratic and impersonal than the public one.  It is also much more of a drain on the public purse: the British Council's investment in flights for these Palestinian actors was largely wasted as a result of the visa decision.  So one arm of government undermines another.  Hardly the way to cut the deficit.

Two more facts - just to underline the absurdity of the whole thing.  Razan lives in Paris, though she retains her Palestinian citizenship.  So, when she didn't get the visa, we thought we could simply buy her a connecting flight from Heathrow to get her home.  No.  Palestinians need a visa even to transit through a UK airport.  So that was a whole new flight that had to be bought.  However, one of our Palestinian actors, Iman, was able to travel to the UK with us.  Why?  Because, by accident of residency in the disputed territory of Jerusalem, she is able to travel under an Israeli passport.  And, of course, Israelis can travel to and do business in the UK without a visa.  They are above suspicion.

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