Scenes from 68* Years, an insight into everyday Palestinian life under occupation
London - Irish-Palestinian playwright Hannah Khalil resorted to dark humour to paint the life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Using a non-linear narrative with six actors, Scenes from 68* Years gives a glimpse into the everyday Palestinian struggle that most people can relate to.
“The problem is people always think about Palestine in a serious way. The situation is serious but it is also about humans living there and how they should laugh at difficult situations. This is what I learned from family and friends from both my Irish and Palestinian side,” Khalil said.
“Humour is human. I want to write about humans who are truthful and if it appears as humour, then no problem.”
Actor Peter Polycarpou stressed the “humanity” of the characters. “These are people you instantly recognise as being universal,” he said. “Humour transcends borders, boundaries and certain restrictions like nationality. Everyone finds humour in lots of varying degrees of suffering.”
Away from clichés of stone-throwing youths and explosive belts, producer Alia al-Zougbi said the play aims to paint a vivid picture of the Palestinians’ everyday life with nothing censored or cut out. “It shows the real journey of Palestinians. Life is not just sad or happy or funny or tragic. It is all of it together,” she said.
Zougbi explained that Sandpit Arts produced the play because “they are keen on showing the real image of the Arab world in all its messiness”.
“The problem in the news is that it is very one dimensional, flat and agenda driven,” she said. “Here we have the human stories with all their colour and messiness.”
Khalil observed that there is a kind of “renaissance” of Arab work in the West but finding Arab talent for the theatre proved to be a challenge.
“There are a number of plays about the Arab world in London at the moment, so there are more opportunities for Arab actors,” Khalil said. “But Arab actors (and producers) do not need to be scared to share their stories in theatre. Audiences want to see it. There is always a fear that maybe their plays will not sell tickets or would appear too political.”
Arab actress Taghrid Choucair Vizoso bemoaned the stereotyping of Arab actors and the limitation of roles attributed to their looks.
“The description of what (role) they expect from you is appalling,” she said. “It is (either) terrorists or the terrorist’s sister.”
Khalil agreed: “People sometimes question what an Arab actor is. I used to be an actress and when I auditioned as an Arab, they would say I am too white.”
Although Scenes from 68* Years is about the Palestinian territories, it does not only relate to Palestinians.
“I know people who come to this show to understand what is happening in the Arab world. Even though I have not experienced exactly the same problems as the characters, I do relate to them because they have the frustration of barriers in life,” said British actor Yasen Atour.
“I can also relate to the characters as I am from a Cypriot background,” Polycarpou said. “These characters could be my family as my ancestors’ land was occupied by another country. I share a lot of cultural identity with the Arab world.”
Khalil constructed the play over six years, linking scenes thematically to create a big picture through many different stories. “I would love it if people found out something new and want to research more about the issue but my main aim is for people to be engaged in the play,” she said.
For Vizoso, the play offers an informative narrative into the life of Palestinians under occupation. She said: “There are the huge problems people think about and there are the tiny annoyances of everyday life. That is what is so special about the play. It is the small moments that accumulate into something big.”
“The play shows how people adapt to anything in life. No matter what circumstances we are in, we learn to live with it somehow. People stick together as a family no matter what happens outside,” observed Turkish actress Pinar Ogun.
An unusual feature of the play, staged at London’s Arcola Theatre in April, is the part played by a Palestinian actress, connecting through Skype.
“If we had applied for her to get a visa to come here to perform, they probably would have rejected her so we used digital platforms as a way of resistance,” Zougbi said.
“The audience watching probably think the play is artifice. To see someone who actually lives that life is a wake-up call that it is not just a play but it is actually happening in real life,” said Khalil.