Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Gaza Monologues - guest post by Ali Abu Yassin

Last night, we gave an online reading of THE GAZA MONOLOGUES as part of the International Day of Solidarity with Gaza. The monologues were written by young people in Gaza in 2010, in the aftermath of the first assault, guided by Ashtar Theatre. We were lucky enough to partner with Ashtar in 2014 and 2016, so their cause is particularly significant for us. Today we are publishing a letter from Ali Abu Yassin, who is one of Ashtar's directors, working in Gaza.  

Ali Abu Yassin, in the wreckage of Gaza
My friend

When I read your letters asking me to write a word about Gaza, I usually answer you immediately. This time, I was silent for days; the words escaped me. Why? Maybe because of the horror of what we are living, because early this morning, my family and I miraculously survived a crazy missile that destroyed our neighbour’s house, and threw all the rubble onto our house? Or because I feel that the pictures I see are more eloquent than all the words? or because I am no longer very convinced of the usefulness of talking, especially since we have been talking about the justice of our cause, in the midst of the daily killing, siege, starvation, and state terrorism which we have been subjected to over 75 years; with no answer?

My friend, yesterday, the Israeli occupation forces, bombed the Baptist Hospital in Gaza, and so far more than 500 people have been martyred. They were cut into pieces and became a pile of meat.

As playwrights, we know that one of the cruelest theatrical tragedies is the play Antigone, in which King Creon refuses to bury Antigone’s brother, and from here the dialogue between them revolves around what it means to be human, what is dignity, what is value, what are rights, even after death. Antigone sees the body of her brother in front of her and cannot bear leaving him unburied. While the bodies that we saw after the Baptist Hospital massacre, without heads, hands, or feet, are the new tragedy of our era.

An old woman at the rubble of the hospital addressed a nurse asking him: “Son, give me that hand lying there. I recognize it from the ring. It is my daughter’s hand that I leaned on in the morning when she helped me sit on the chair to watch the news. That hand that turned on the TV for me. She greeted me and kissed my hand before leaving. That hand that always embraced me and patted my shoulder. That hand that combed my hair and always cut my nails. That hand, my son, was the source of all my strength in my last days. Let me give her my last kiss, so that it will spare me the need to have more of my daughter’s body.”

My friend, I do not know what more to write. If you consider this a word, then read it to your friends and give them my thanks and appreciation, because I know that free people with big hearts, human attitudes, and principles have become very few these days.

We will meet one day, when I am free like the rest of the inhabitants of this earth.

Ali Abu Yassin
October 18, 2023

You can donate to Ashtar Theatre's work with traumatised young people in Palestine here:

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Remembering Dev Virahsawmy

Shaun Chawdhary as Prospero &
Catherine Mobley as Kordelia in TOUFANN

The Mauritian playwright Dev Virahsawmy, who has died at the age of 81, was one of Border Crossings' 21 Faces, when we marked our 21st anniversary with a retrospective in 2016. He wrote then that our 1999 translation and production of Toufann, his fantasy piece loosely based on The Tempest, had helped him become known outside Mauritius, and had convinced his sceptical countrymen that writing in Morisien (his preferred term for the Kreol language) could lead to international recognition. But truly it was we who owed a debt to him. Dev was a true pathfinder in the thorny thickets of intercultural work, showing how language, theatre and culture can and must combine in the process of forging new, more just socio-political spaces for a decolonising world. He was my constant guide to the shifting fortunes of his island home, with his penetrating intelligence constantly placing the Mauritian experience in its global context. When we made our play on Mauritian history, The Great Experiment, it just had to be Dev whom we invited to be our interlocutor for the online discussion conducted during lockdown. 

That was three years ago. Looking back to that time, I realise that in May 2020 Dev also wrote us a "Guest Blog of Farewell", marking his retirement from public life. He knew then, of course, that he was ill, but he didn't really retire. Only in August, Nisha and I were able to visit him at his Rose-Hill home, where he told us about his excitement that Morisien was finally to be used as a key language for schooling, enabling Mauritian children to be taught in their mother tongue. It was a triumph that he had accomplished, with the help of some far-sighted Catholic bishops, after a lifetime of campaigning, and it was wonderful that he lived to see it. On the other hand, he also talked about the way in which Narendra Modi's populist India was becoming ever more dominant in the Mauritian economic and culture spheres, countering the entire de-colonial process with which he had been engaged throughout his life.

As he always did, Dev gave me copies of his latest books, mostly poetry, and inscribed them with very personalised and touching words. This time, however, Loga, Dev's wife of 59 years, gave me the book he had always refused to write, and which she had therefore taken on herself. Lotus Flower: A Conversation with Dev Virahsawmy is a biography, a dialogue and a love letter by the person who was closest to him, and it taught me a huge amount I didn't know about my friend. You can read it online - please do!  What Loga is able to show is what the various obits and Dev's Wikipedia page fail to understand. Dev was not a political activist who also wrote plays and poems, nor was he a language scholar who insisted on writing in the obscure dialect of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Rather, Dev's life project combined language campaigning with cultural activity and political activism as a single, unified project - you cannot understand any one part of his achievement without the others. Dev realised very early in his life that Morisien was a real, dynamic and poetic language, and was also the sole common cultural property of the Mauritian people. In the language, therefore, lay the potential for the emergence of a national culture, and in that lay the potential to escape the ongoing colonialism that continues to exploit the peoples of the global south. In his youth, Mauritius was a British colony, and retained close links to France (to this day there is a lobby that maintains, absurdly, that Morisien is actually just a bastardised French). He was 28 when Mauritius achieved independence, and he was active in the campaign to prevent the independent island going the way of other former colonies in the region. As Loga explains: "The sugar barons who had complete control over the economy of Mauritius were planning to set up apartheid in Mauritius with the help of apartheid South Africa and apartheid Northern Rhodesia under Ian Smith." After that threat was avoided, Dev's politics and writing were both focused on building an independent nation with its own language, fighting off the neo-colonial incursions of the superpowers. In his 1981 piece Zeneral Makbef, the battle is with the warring giants Yankidola and Rouspoutik. By the time he came to Toufann, he was already aware of the emerging Hindu hegemony in Mauritius, and the threat posed to the intercultural island by an alliance between that single ethnic group and an increasingly assertive Hindu nationalist movement in India. If Dev's Indian Prospero had managed to take revenge on the former coloniser Lerwa Lir (=King Lear, =Britain and France), then that did not in itself mean there would be any hope for the mixed-race Kreol Kalibann. By the 2020s, Dev's worst fears were being realised, and one of his last interviews is an extraordinary plea with the Mauritian people to resist this new colonisation. 

I said earlier that Dev knew in 2020 that he was ill. Actually, he had always been ill: he had childhood polio which left him without the use of one arm, and suffered from post-polio syndrome. What sustained him throughout his life was his total commitment to social justice, and the love of his family. I send my love and sympathy to Loga, Saskia, Anushka, and Dev's grandchildren Anastasia, Yann and Rachel. 

"Apres sa ena zist silense."

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Arrival, Adana, Antakya

Women making bread by the roadside, Antakya

Just over a week ago, Lucy and I arrived in Turkey to begin work on Suppliants of Syria. We're partnering with our old friends from Çukurova University in Adana, where the wonderful İlke Şanlıer combines her role in the Film and TV department with directing the Research Centre in Migration.  It's the perfect combination for a project that combines theatre and film with an active engagement in the ongoing refugee  "crisis". The theme is being lent additional potency by the current situation in Palestine: just after we arrived, a very large protest in support of Palestine took place at the airbase in Adana, where American planes and personnel are stationed. The police used tear gas and water cannon to prevent people entering the base; but that doesn't mean that the government isn't sympathetic to the protestors' expression of solidarity between Muslims.  

We've been able to establish a relationship with the Meryem Women's Co-operative: a fabulous organisation that enables Syrian women to work in areas like gardening and food production. A group of around 20 of them are in the process of becoming our Chorus. We've also been filming and researching in and around the city. I don't want to write too much about this as yet, because it needs time to absorb what we're seeing. Today we went to an area of Adana known as "Little Aleppo" on account of its large Syrian population.  The poverty was very apparent. Many of the people there seem to eke out a living by selling discarded or recycled clothes which they show piled in the streets. Earlier in the week I visited Antakya: the city to the south of Adana which bore the brunt of the earthquake earlier this year. Antakya also has links to Syria: the majority of the pre-earthquake population spoke Arabic, and Syrian maps still show the area as part of their country, which they regard as having been annexed by the Turkish Republic in 1939.  The city is utterly devastated. My friend Ali, who now lives near me in London, showed me round what remained of his childhood home. He often could not work out where he was, because there were no landmarks remaining. He would occasionally stop and examine the remains of a cornice or a metal door, and then say "This must be the old bank..."

And yet, in spite of everything, life endures. Ali's parents had a 100 year old house in the rural hinterland: it was destroyed.  But Ali's father Mehmet, at the age of 69, has single-handedly build a new living space beside the rubble where the old house stood, and on Wednesday night we ate the traditional meal for the end of the olive harvest and the production of the new olive oil on that land.  In the middle of the wreckage, Ali pointed out a plant. "It's a tomato plant", he said. "It used to be on the balcony just above where it is now." Somehow it survived - and is thriving.