Mandate-era play combusts lingering myths on Palestine

Historical events are reenacted in Land Without People.

Andrew Bailey

A Land Without People, by Brian Rotman, The Courtyard Theatre, London, through 1 August

Told by only five actors, this play in three acts charts the Zionist journey from Chaim Weitzman (who would become first president of Israel) shaking his fist at the residence of Malcolm MacDonald, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the clinking of champagne glasses of Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion in Jerusalem upon the United States granting of unofficial recognition of Israel in May 1948.

A Land Without People is not an overt celebration of Zionism, but a chronicling of its ascent, including the condoning and utilization of its most violent and fascistic components, the Irgun and the Stern militias, to attain its ends.

The audience, at the end of the play, are handed the December 1948 letter written by Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and others upon the visit of Irgun leader (and later prime minister) Menachem Begin to the US. The letter decries the emergence of the Freedom Party in Israel as “a brutal, terrorist, right-wing organization — this party is akin in its methods, political philosophy and aims to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”

In the note provided in the program, the playwright Brian Rotman (he is also a mathematician and philosopher) explains that he started “imagining a play about Israel in August last year at the height of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza.”

When he began writing, he heard shouting in his head.

“That anti-Semitic bastard Bevin,” the shouts went, the voice belonging to his father venting his views about the foreign minister to a customer in the Brick Lane shop where Rotman grew up in East London, near the former heart of London’s Jewish community. At the time, he recalls, the football teams of Commercial Street divided themselves into allying with the Irgun or the Stern.

Based on reality

The term “Verbatim” has been given to a form of British theater that developed in the 2000s. The form took the transcriptions of important political inquiries, edited them down and presented the most critical events through actors conveying the actual words of those involved. A Land Without People is a variation of this form. The words spoken, documents read, parliamentary debates reenacted are based on reality; it is not clear to the audience which aspects of the play, if any, are the product solely of imagination.

The playwright’s ability to opine, to provide a narrative and to allow emotion to be communicated to the audience is limited to editorial choices and to the direction of these actors. The program sets out biographical notes of the key players and the chronology of main events. The play, as a result, is one where the audience feels that they are there more to learn, than to enjoy, more to have their preconceptions challenged, than to follow a particular sentimental narrative course.

The absence of Palestinians (at most they are “Arabs” with rights; at the least, marauding Bedouin without much care as to which land they were on) is a historically accurate depiction of the perception of the Great Powers and the Zionist movement. They wanted the Palestinians gone, they wanted the Palestinians to be weak and they insisted on seeing them in that way.

Those who spoke out for their rights to be recognized or warned of the repercussions of unlimited Jewish immigration were branded anti-Semitic and immune to (if not also complicit in) the humanitarian tragedy of the Jewish people that had resulted from the predominantly Nazi European nationalist onslaught. Evelyn Barker, commander of the British forces in Palestine, was one who suffered such a fate, as was Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary at the time.

Palestinians absent

Palestinians are predominantly absent as characters in the play, unlike the Zionists and the British. They were the background to the Mandate government, not part of its fabric. There is really only one speaking part for a named Palestinian character, the renowned educator Khalil Sakakini, who rages, in a heavily accented way, at the loss of his books to the pillaging Zionists and lets slip a desire for the Nazis to wipe out the Jews.

It is an unjustifiable statement obviously borne of immense frustration, which may well be creditable to Sakakini. But it is a shame that his opposition to the changes threatening to overwhelm his country are depicted as anti-Semitic in motivation, as one who encouraged the teaching of Hebrew and whose schools attracted Jewish students. The other Palestinian voice, beautifully conveyed by Tracey Anne-Lewis with an eerie hand-held puppet, is that of Fatimah Ali Mustafa Zeidan, an 11-year-old survivor of the Deir Yassin massacre.

The amount this play manages to cover in 85 minutes is impressive, although a little too dense, and the cast is strong across the board. Each actor plays several roles, switching from Arab to Jew to British official, many from female to male.

The space is intimate, with the audience sometimes seated next to actors. Simple props and costumes are used to great effect — papers fly across the floor, chairs are upturned. There are also moving scenes where the actors huddle in a cluster at the center of the stage in mourning at the aftermath of the Second World War.

A Land Without People combusts old myths that inform current policies by drawing on historical accounts. The reenactment of the parliamentary debate over the 1939 White Paper (which withdrew a previous British plan to partition Palestine) is superbly done, the strains on Bevin and US-UK post-war foreign relations well depicted.

In this play Brian Rotman does what many of us are forever incapable of doing, in arguing back to a father whose views were heartfelt and based on personal suffering. One senses that Rotman also now believes that his childhood football teams should not have been allied to either gang.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, is published by Bloomsbury (2012).




Selma's review is useful for those of us who have yet to see the play. One small point if I may, related to the issue of myths around the mandate years. There is no doubt that Zionist propaganda used the concept of 'a land without people' etc.

I'm not sure however that either the Great Powers thought the land was empty, or wanted the Palestinians gone. As soon as the British set up a civil administration in Palestine in 1920, one of their first actions was to carry out a census, so they had a fairly good idea as to how many people were living there, and how many were Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

There is no doubt that Jewish immigrants were given privileged status, but it is not accurate to say that the Palestinian Arab population was ignored: great efforts were made in terms of infrastructure investment, education, and healthcare. Palestine was merely a district within Syria under the Ottomans: under the British it became a distinct territorial unit, and had its own currency and stamps. There was much more to the mandate than the creation of a Jewish homeland.