Timely play grapples with abuse of a Palestinian prisoner

16 October 2011

111013-ana-hurra.jpg

A new play spotlights the oppressed/oppressor dynamic between Palestinians and Israelis.

(Valentina Abu Oqsa / The Electronic Intifada)

The relationship between a prisoner and interrogator is as an old theme in Western art and literature. The prisoner/interrogator dialogue is a flexible one, which can allow the society of the interrogator to examine itself, or for the society of the oppressed to find strength and virtue in the image of resistance.

The dynamic between Palestinian and Israeli societies has rarely been honestly explored in the West, outside of absurd and bigoted scenes in American action films. The Western dialectic of pro-Palestinian/anti-Semitic creates a wave of antagonism towards Palestinian perspectives in art and literature that has real world implications. We can see a recent iteration of this in the blocking of Gazan children’s art from an Oakland museum last month.

The legacy of this blackout creates an environment where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can bemoan inhumanity to the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, while presiding over a population of more than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israel. Western media follows suit, as it did after the recent announcement of an exchange of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit. The absurdly lopsided deal and the way it has been discussed in mainstream circles in the US speak volumes about how Palestinian and Israeli life and freedom difference in value.

The Western view lacks a philosophical narrative of the Palestinian prisoner/Israeli interrogator dynamic. Moreover, the crucial context of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship is invisible. Interrogation and imprisonment are constant facts of life for most Palestinians, not an occasional aberration — some 650,000 Palestinians have been arrested and interrogated since the beginning of the occupation in 1967. To a certain extent, it can be said that to understand the Palestinian Israeli relationship, one can first look to the relationship of interrogator and prisoner. Sadly, it is a perspective that is seldom seen in the West.

An innovative approach to the Palestinian prisoner narrative

Certainly, Palestinian playwright Valentina Abu Oqsa’s Ana Hurra (“I am Free”) won’t change that dynamic on its own, but it does appropriate the prisoner/interrogator dialogue in an innovative way to explore the story of Palestinian prisoners, as well as the dynamic of oppressor and oppressed within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Abu Oqsa’s one act play is sparsely set, with a simple table and chairs that effectively represent the focus of the relationship between the interrogator and the prisoner, where territory disappears to be replaced by a terrain of philosophy and ideology. There are only two characters: the physically imposing male Israeli interrogator and his prisoner, a Palestinian woman. Neither is given a name. 

The play pointedly explores some sensitive issues of Palestinian culture. As a female prisoner, the protagonist is subjected to a series of challenges to her cultural and gender identity which are explored in detail. At several points within the dialogue the interrogator attempts to use her gender and cultural identity against her — at the most physical end of this spectrum is sexual violence, threat and psychological torture. But the interrogator also uses some of the shortcomings of a patriarchal Palestinian culture in an attempt to manipulate her. It’s a subtle critique, but it has a larger implication for those aware of the ease with which Israeli intelligence agencies debilitate Palestinian solidarity by using the society’s mores and taboos against it.

Nuanced portrayal of characters

The characters are portrayed in a nuanced fashion. It is left to the audience to decide whether the central character is innocent or guilty of the “crimes” she’s accused of, or what those “crimes” even are. Her age, her background and marital status, even her own political beliefs and opinions of the conflict are left unspoken. The play thus leaves political ideology and worldview for other venues.

Abu Oqsa’s protagonist remains a simple woman facing her imprisonment and the oppression of her people in a universal way. She holds on to meaning and identity by revisiting literature and culture, which play a central role throughout the play, indicating that what animates the idea of sumoud (steadfastness) is its cultural connection, not political slogans or hero-worship. Resistance to torture and imprisonment becomes a human response without discernible ideology — dignity in the face of tyranny is innately human, and accomplished through the strength of one’s people.

On the surface, the interrogator is a manipulator who uses his knowledge of Arabic culture to cajole his victim into compliance, before resorting to threats, bullying and physical violence. But there is also another way of reading the interrogator that speaks to the underlying nature of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. The interrogator is a lover of Arabic culture, food and an autodidact on Arabic literature; he subsequently demonstrates this with an intimate knowledge of literature that seems unlikely if it were merely an interrogating tool. He claims to be a product of the kibbutzim, and thus ideologically opposed to violence. Interestingly, the interrogator reveals almost everything about himself in a few short minutes, almost as if he is looking for approval.

What follows is a complex scene, where the interrogating antagonist faces an equal, if less physically dangerous struggle to maintain his own identity. The interrogator must maintain his particular sense of humanity while defending the fragile construct of the ideology that sanctions the descent into the madness that is torture and oppression.

For Abu Oqsa’s torturer, it is even more urgent that he turn his prisoner, that they become friends in a sense, to maintain his connection to Arabic culture and to his ideas about his own state. The dynamic recapitulates the relationship between Israeli culture and the Arabic Palestinian one. Israel, stripped of its authentic ethnic diversity by nationalist dictates, looks longingly to that of its subjects — like a lonely bully reaching out violently to a victim.

If he cannot break his victim, it means that everything that he has been taught is a sham, and that there is no moral justification for his acts. At a certain point, “I am free” becomes the refrain of the interrogator, as he tries to convince himself that the deprivations he helps visit on Palestinians are appropriate and excusable.

Confronting the comfortable

In this way, the narrative also confronts the comfortable nature of the occupation for most Israelis. A feature of its normalization is represented by the interrogator’s disinterest in the prisoner’s guilt or innocence. For his own sanity’s sake, she must remain a file to him, nothing more — a part of his job, which he struggles to dehumanize and fit into a briefcase which can be opened and shut at his convenience. His goal is to close the file and put away nagging questions about justice and morality. His prisoner prevents this by reminding him that his so-called freedom is little more than a pause in his relationship to her as a monstrous abuser.

Abu Oqsa, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, spent a year meeting and interviewing Palestinian political prisoners in preparation for the script. The story is a gestalt, and declines to date the interaction, leaving it as a testament to the violence and dehumanization that have been part of the Israeli occupation through all of its iterations, including the present one. The tour has coincidentally overlapped with a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and so, unfortunately, is as timely as it has been every month of every year for decades.

Editor’s note: the US tour of Ana Hurra closed earlier than the original closing date of 25 October. For more information, see the US Palestinian Community Network website.

Jaime Omar Yassin has been involved in alternative media for nearly 20 years. He has written for Extra!, Meatpaper, and other publications. He writes a blog for The Electronic Intifada and maintains his own blog at Hyphenated Republic.