In Palestine, the Stage is Set for Nonviolent Resistance

OneVoice Palestine partnered with Bethlehem’s Inad Theater to launch an evocative storyteller series last month in the West Bank. The series envisions a future free from occupation, contributing to the growing trend of nonviolent resistance across Palestinian civil society.

An original play, entitled The Dreams of Said, the Storyteller, was followed by an interactive workshop that invited audience members on stage to share their visions of the future. The title character, Said Zarzar, a 23-year-old professional actor, performed in Beit Jala for 14-17 year old students from The Educational Centre of Talitha Kumi, and in Hebron for community members.  OneVoice Palestine’s storyteller series fights disillusionment in a positive way, harnessing the power of the arts in ending the conflict and moving people toward nonviolent action.

“If you don’t see a better future then you will not be able to have one,” said Khalid Massou, 40, owner of the Inad Theater and director of The Dreams of Said, the Storyteller. “Theater is a powerful tool for visualization. A word, or a thought, or a scene is more powerful than a gun.”

Massou, who has worked in theater since 1993, is one of the ordinary citizens whose actions have the ability to spark movements for change. As President Barack Obama’s policy speech on the Middle East last week mentioned, these citizens are most effective because they speak to a built up longing for freedom.

“During the intifada [uprising], the Israeli army tried to mute culture, take away free speech, and halt the spread of ideas,” said Samer Makhlouf, OneVoice Palestine’s executive director. “But they failed to deny us our voice.”

The Inad Theater started in 2000 as a small studio with 70 chairs, built by members of the Bethlehem community. The Inad, which translates to "stubborn" in Arabic, was meant to act as a place to challenge the oppressive measures of the occupation.

“When the theater was destroyed by the Israeli army, we were shocked,” said Massou. “But we decided to continue our important work. We rehearsed and performed outside in parks and village squares. We took our acts on the road and performed wherever we could.”

But not every community in the West Bank is as resilient and hopeful as members of the Inad. Hebron in particular is hard hit by settler violence, making it an important location for theater events like OneVoice’s storyteller series.

“Sometimes when you perform in villages, people make fun of your play, especially one that is geared toward a younger crowd,” Zarzar said. “I was nervous and unsure if the conservative Hebron audience would understand the message I was trying to convey. But the minute I began the performance, there was not one silly comment or disruption. Everyone gave their full attention.”

In Hebron, an elderly woman named Salah took the stage during the workshop session, holding her 6-month-old grandson. It was her first time ever using a microphone. Her dreams were for her newborn grandson to have a better future full of freedom and health, without continued violence and occupation. She said that the play showed the kind of future that she hoped for him.

Manal al-Laham, 14, was brought on stage during the Beit Jala workshop. When asked what she wanted her future to look like she proclaimed, "houra, houra," meaning freed, freed, and then burst into tears.

“Theater is a language that everyone speaks and understands,” said Zarzar. “I can reach out to people with theater. I am not a fighter, but this is my way to resist.”

Juliano Mer-Khamis, the former artistic director of Jenin’s Freedom Theater, said that the coming Intifada must be cultural. Mer-Khamis was murdered two days after the launch of OneVoice Palestine’s storyteller series.

“We believe in [Mer-Khamis’] message and are saddened by his death,” Makhlouf said.  “OneVoice Palestine hopes to honor him by carrying on, in a small way, what he helped to grow.  His ideas will never be silenced.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of OneVoice Palestine Media Department