I am sometimes frustrated by my
countrymen’s long memories stretching “the Irish problem” back to the
first Norman occupation nearly 850 years ago. However, we are as
mayflies compared to one character in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play, who
illustrates how long Palestinians have felt disfranchised in their own
land: before the Israelis there was the British Mandate, the Ottoman
Empire, and so on back past the Crusaders, Romans and Greeks to the
Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.
One of the strengths of Zuabi’s play is that, although it comes from
one side of the matter, it is not explicitly partisan. There have been
a succession of “they”s, but none is present onstage, with the sole
exception of a fairly reasonable but ultimately uncomprehending
Yorkshire squaddie in the final days of the Mandate, 1947-48. Some of
the villagers of Baissamoon and elsewhere are killed in the strife
following British withdrawal, but the “they” who perpetrate these acts
are never identified as those establishing the new State of Israel.
This play, presented by the Young Vic in co-operation with Zuabi’s
ShiberHur company of Haifa, is about an “us”.
In particular, it is about the simple-minded Yusuf, his brother Ali and
Ali’s beloved Nada, whose father objects to her marriage. This trio is
at the centre of the portrait of village life. But as withdrawal and
partition approach, everyone’s lives grow ever more contingent and
precarious. Some choose to migrate, they hope temporarily, to less
fertile but safer areas; some to stay; Ali and Nada are separated.
Resources of natural fertility form a strong and constant subtext. We
see first a drop of water poured onstage, then handfuls, a jarful, and
finally a shallow pool is revealed covering most of the playing area…
and the more water there is, the less connection to the land is
permitted to the people. An old man is seen carrying his fruit tree
into exile with him: he does not want, he says, to become “a small ring
in a big trunk”. And ultimately we find that Yusuf and Ali’s personal
history has a literal wellspring. Zuabi (who directed the Palestinian
National Theatre’s Jidariyya
which I so admired in the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival) mixes
English and Arabic dialogue nicely in his portrayal of small people
engulfed in a historical cataclysm which has never receded since.
Written for the Financial