The Festival of Modern Arabic Playwrights: The Mask / He Is Not Dead

Mamdouh Adwan / Hussein Barghuti
The Arab-Hebrew Theatre, Jaffa

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A weeklong festival produced nine plays written by contemporary Arab playwrights, Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians. These plays were specifically translated into Hebrew for this inspiring event.

The theatre is located in the heart of old Jaffa. Some of the plays were fully performed and others were book-in-hand performances.

Every evening of the week, prior to the performance of two plays, a lecture on Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian theatre or the language of the Arab theatre was given by an eminent scholar of the Arab theatre. This festival provided a unique opportunity for Israelis, Jewish and Arab, to learn about issues raised by playwrights in neighbouring countries.

On the evening that I attended, there were many Israelis as well as Israeli Arabs. The proximity of the sea, the bright night and the old building turned into a theatre with the open yard providing an ideal milieu for intimacy.

A lecture (in English) by Professor Edward Zeitar of New York University on Syrian theatre seemed to misfire as most of the audience spoke either Hebrew or Arabic. Dr. Varda Fish offered to translate if the audience did not understand, but unfortunately the audience was too embarrassed to admit the need for a translation! The truth came to light at the end of the lecture in a form of a statement by an honest but grieved Israeli-Arab.

The Mask by the Syrian writer Mamdouh Adwan (1941-2004) was translated by Dr. Varda Fish, directed by Norman Issa and performed by two Israeli actresses.

A single woman dressed in a silk dressing gown uses her lonely hours in the evenings to watch events that take place in neighbouring houses with binoculars, that is, until she is interrupted by a masked intruder with a gun.

The events that follow transport the audience from the momentary tension and fear shared with the woman to inquisitiveness and gradual unmasking of the inner thoughts of the lone woman living in a closed, conservative society.

Initially she tells the intruder, 'Every woman fears a scandal'. She confesses to the masked burglar that 'to be a 35 year old spinster is itself a scandal but being alone with a man when you are dressed in your dressing gown will definitely stain her name'. She implores the intruder to take all she has apart from the most sacred thing - her honour. The intruder seems to be happy to comply, at which she takes offence. She demands to know if she is not attractive enough for him.

The dialogue, which is more the woman's monologue, shifts the balance of power from the gunman to the 'victim'. She challenges the masked person and confesses her dreams and aspirations. She unmasks her own frustrations and aggravations as a woman, and her indignation at the mendaciousness of the society she lives in. She eventually challenges the masked person to make love to her. His balaclava covered face and her attempts to identify the man behind the mask turn into an uncomfortable game for the intruder but it frees her of her inhibitions that is until she discovers the identity of the masked intruder.

This play was well performed and deserves to be available to a wider audience.

In the interval the audience was invited to traditional Arab fare.

The second play was He Is Not Dead by Hussein Barghuti, translated into Hebrew by Doron Tavori. Directed by Françoise Abu Salam.

The audience were seated on either side of an improvised stage where a young man in mourning is crouching on the floor searching for something among scattered papers. A mask of what resembles an eagle or a similar bird obscures the upper part of his face. A blind Sheikh enters and he enlightens the grieving youth about his dead father. Guests arrive to comfort the family and reminisce about the deceased.

The actors speak Arabic and Hebrew, reading their parts from hand-held scripts so that there was very little interaction between the actors themselves. It felt more like attending early rehearsals rather than seeing a final production of a play. The play made little sense to me. I asked my Arab companions who are fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew what was their opinion, they retorted that they also did not understand what the play was about. Sitting on uncomfortable planks of wood did not help.

The plays performed on other nights of the festival, which I was unable to attend, covered a wide spectrum of topics. The staging of contemporary Arab plays preceded by an appropriate background lecture is an effective path to gaining a better understanding. This type of initiative should be encouraged and welcomed in a region where communication is key to greater harmony.

Who knows, the neighbouring Arab countries may one day reciprocate and have contemporary Israeli plays translated and staged.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

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