The only fully professional Palestinian theater company within present-day Israel is under threat of closure because of a campaign by a right-wing politician.
Haifa’s al-Midan Theatre has been given a short-term reprieve after the local municipality froze its core funding. An initial city move to place a lien on its bank account, which had made it impossible to pay staff, has apparently been rescinded, according to a spokesperson from the theater.
However, the municipality’s freeze on further funding means that the theater cannot pay suppliers and planned activities will quickly come under threat.
The withdrawal of funding is said to have come after a local council member, Shai Blumenthal of the right-wing Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), claimed that a play staged at al-Midan was based on a story written by a militant imprisoned for killing an Israeli soldier in 1984.
Blumenthal’s version of events has been reported in the Israeli press under headlines such as “Haifa rethinks funding for Arab theater glorifying terrorist.”
Theater manager Adnan Tarabshe, however, has pointed out that the play in question — A Parallel Time by Bashar Murkus, a 22-year-old graduate of Haifa University’s theater department — was first staged at al-Midan in early 2014 and has been performed 26 times since then.
Tarabshe was quoted in Al-Monitor as saying that: “The play is a far cry from the clichés about acts of heroism, or lack thereof, by security prisoners in Israeli prisons. We didn’t even go into those things. We only explored the question of how people go about their daily life in prison. We’ve already been asked to stage the play in France and England.”
Tarabshe also pointed out that Shai Blumenthal admitted to Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he has never actually having seen the play which, according to Al-Monitor, revolves “around the life of six prisoners and a jailer in an Israeli prison.”
“One of the inmates, a musician, is granted permission by the authorities to marry. At that point, the musician prisoner’s cellmates secretly plan a wedding party for him. They even plan to build an instrument, an oud, as a gift. For the most part, the play deals with building the oud, the problems that ensue and the maneuvering required to smuggle the strings and other raw materials into the prison.”
Rubber stamp exercise?
Bizarrely, Blumenthal is also the councillor who has been appointed to head the committee investigating al-Midan for its alleged support for a convicted prisoner. Eppie Bat-Ilan, an Israeli arts writer and supporter of the theater, told The Electronic Intifada that members of the theater fear the committee — which is scheduled to meet tomorrow and is expected to reach a decision by the end of the month — is a rubber-stamp exercise and that the decision has already been taken to withdraw municipality funds.
They are also worried that reputable arts professionals from within Haifa will not accept invitations to stand on the committee in case they are made complicit with the closure of al-Midan.
Adnan Tarabshe, meanwhile, insists that Walid Daka, the figure on whom Shai Blumenthal’s allegations rest, was just one of a number of prisoners interviewed for the play about their life in Israeli jail and represented in the final version.
Playwright Bashar Murkus suggested to Al-Monitor that Haifa municipality’s fear of the play stemmed from how ”Daka, despite his actions, is an interesting person. The very fact that he is a writer that did very well in prison and is thinking of the future frightens those who don’t want to hear about it.”
Tarabshe has raised the possibility that the effort to damage al-Midan has deeper roots than this single play.
He told Al-Monitor that he suspects that the “anti-democratic atmosphere in Israel in which we’re living” is to blame.
Al-Midan has been attacked by conservative voices within Israel before, when it staged the British play My Name is Rachel Corrie, based on the diaries of the slain US peace activist. And in 2009 the organizers of a commemoration of George Habash, the late leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were forced to cancel their event at al-Midan.
And, although the municipality funding is essential to the theater’s future, its financial situation has always been precarious, with director Adnan Tarabshe often having to work unpaid.
Alarmed by success?
But Eppie Bat-Ilan has suggested to The Electronic Intifada that yet another motive might be in play.
Shai Blumenthal, she points out, has tried to close down al-Midan before. In February, he objected to a Palestinian film festival hosted by the theater. When that didn’t garner enough publicity, Bat-Ilan suggests, he went for a more emotive target.
But why? According to Bat-Ilan, she and others close to the theater, including the well-known Palestinian actress Salwa Nakkara, who is also al-Midan’s artistic director, suspect a reaction by Israeli racists alarmed at al-Midan’s success.
Famous actors such as Saleh Bakri and Clara Khoury, who have become international names, spent their early careers acting at al-Midan. And as well as being an arts venue, al-Midan has been an important resource for the Palestinian community of the Galilee region.
In addition, al-Midan produced its first play in Hebrew in September 2014. “Our voice won’t be heard without Hebrew,” Salwa Nakkara said at the time. “Much to our chagrin, Israel today has yet to realize the importance of understanding the Arabic language.”
Both al-Midan and Jerusalem’s el-Hakawati theater have been attacked at the moment they started staging plays in Hebrew, thus offering the wider Israeli public the opportunity to hear Palestinian voices and narratives.
The real reason for the campaign against the theatre, according to Bat-Ilan, might be “the fear that Arabs will be portrayed as human beings.”