Arts Briefing

27 04 2009


Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Because art always captures my attention, and because I know in my heart that when politics fail, arts become the alternative, here’s a list of some arts news:

1. The Palestinian Festival of Literature is going to take place in May, from the 23rd to the 28th. This is going to be in the form of a roadshow in the West Bank, highlighting the many problems that Palestinians face today. There will be 20 participants, not only Arab but from across the world. I would go to each and every event if I were there.

2. Third Generation is a work-in-progress form of play that is now featuring in Germany, combining young German, Israeli and Palestinian (Palestinian-Israeli) actors. It explores one of my favorite issues: identity, especially in the context of history. You can read Gal Beckerman’s review on the Forward, that was also on the Haaretz.

3. Palestinians filmmakers get a stage in London, and as CNN says, beating all the odds and difficulties of filming in a place that lacks cinematic infrastructure. There has been several Palestine Film Festivals, in Chicago, Toronto, even Texas. So much can be gained from art exposure. I will see “Salt of This Sea” this Friday through the New York Tribeca Film Festival and will let you know what I think.

4. Stanford University professor, Ronald Levy, becomes the first Jew to win a King Faisal International Prize (regarded as the Arab Nobel Prize), in Medicine. The prize consists of $200,000, a medal, a certificate in Arabic and English and dinner with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. I realize that this is not an arts update but it’s worth the mention. I wonder if Levy was super thrilled.

5. This is an old article that I kept in my records. Jerusalem art comes out to combine homosexuality and religiosity, called Out of the Sacred Closet – Beauty, Belief and Identity.” This is interesting and juicy. Reactions vary but artistic expression is always commendable.

6. Muslim graffiti in the UK by artist Mohammed Ali gets the attention of the BBC


Who Are the Seven Jewish Children?

1 04 2009


Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Are you fed-up with artsy posts yet? Well, here’s one more… A long one this time.

Famous British playwright, Caryl Churchil, recently wrote a controversial play regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has received both praise and anti-Semitism accusations. Over the past few weeks, newspapers covered the play, magazines wrote about it, and bloggers typed and typed and typed.

In this post, I will give you a summary of the controversial piece, a personal opinion and finally online resources to read, for those of you who are interested. Bored already? Give it a try.



“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” is a short, 10-minute play, first appeared in the Royal Court Theatre, London, in early February. It reached New York several days ago, with three readings at the New York Workshop Theatre, from March 25th to 27th.  Theater J in Washington, D.C., also featured two readings with the blessing and encouragement of Artistic director Ari Roth. I’ve also read that it will be going to other international cities soon.

The play is built on seven scenes. Each depicts Jewish parents discussing what to teach their children –mainly a little girl in the form of “her” – about Jewish suffering and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the New York Times Script.

“Tell her they did it to themselves,” the lines say in scene seven, “Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them…. Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.” These particular lines are what provoke the anti-Semitism charge.

The play peaks at the end, scene seven, where Jews transform from oppressed under the Nazis to oppressors through the State of Israel. The play ends with:

“Don’t tell her that

“Tell her we love her

Don’t frighten her.”


A Personal Take

Churchill has always been clear about her views when it comes to this conflict, and it isn’t pro-Israel. In fact, she can be more outspoken than Palestinians themselves. I have noticed that the play reads a little differently than when heard and seen. Check out the YouTube video at the end of this post to get a sense.

I agree that some of the parents are portrayed as inhumane in this play, choosing security over ethics. Sometimes they look like they’re in denial; nonchalant about the Palestinians; almost racist. 

At other times, however, they feel and look like every other parent in this world: worried about the safety of their child, filled with love, wanting to protect at all costs. That is the core of humanity.

From an art point of view, this play is beautifully-written. The repetition of the words “Tell her” in each line is deliberately crafted to engrave that message of “telling.”

“Tell her” becomes a soothing sound; calming in its consistency. You begin to look forward to it.

The simplicity of the play is exactly what makes the images it evokes most horrific. The juxtaposition of this simplicity with the harsh reality makes it artistically brilliant. “Seven Jewish Children” focuses on words and emotions rather than elaborate scenes. 


Now to the super serious stuff…

I don’t believe that criticizing Israel necessarily constitutes anti-Semitism. People criticize for many different reasons, and some of us do so because we believe there’s a better way; that there’s a brighter future and all sides of the conflict are responsible for it. The recent war in Gaza, followed by Human Rights reports and soldier testimonies did nothing to modify Israel’s image. Hence, this play.

A blogger wrote that yelling anti-Semitism with regards to this play trivializes the idea of anti-Semitism. I tend to agree.  In fact another blogger wrote that censoring this play would have worked against Jews and Israelis rather than for their benefit.

One blogger wrote a long piece justifying the existence of the State of Israel and its actions as a response to this play. Most of the anti-Israel accusations are laid out and countered with a line of thinking that follows “Well, the Arabs have done worse.” I encourage and love debate. But this line of thinking has gotten us nowhere and it is used by both Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, all across the world. It’s beginning to get a little old.

Another blogger wrote that some of his Israeli friends agree with some parts of the play, that there exists demonization from the Israeli side. I believe that all sides of this conflict dehumanize all the others. Why would we be in this situation if it wasn’t so? 

One large debate is about the title of the play. Why “Jewish Children” not “Israeli Children”? The argument is that in choosing “Jewish,” Churchill casts a generalization on all Jews, therefore, becoming anti-Semitic. The only reason I could think of for this specific choice is that this play is not just about Israelis because Churchill portrays Jewish parents during WWII. They were not Israelis then.

I will leave the debate about the BBC’s refusal to air the play on its Radio 4.

But I will add one more note: plays are not created to be impartial. Plays are not created to agree with you, and some writers’ opinions can be junk. Plays and their likes are created to express an idea, from the playwright’s point of view, from the artist’s point of view. You can’t, and shouldn’t, put chains on that. Can you image where that line of thinking would lead us? Downhill, to the dungeons of undemocratic societies.


The List

Aside from the links embedded in my previous long paragraphs, here’s more for those intrigued:

1.     Michael Billington’s review on the Guardian 

2.     Playwright Sonja Linden on Free Speech Blog in response to the BBC

3.     Norman Geras’ witty review, imitating Churchill’s language

4.     The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing Theatre J’s Ari Roth

5.     The Jerusalem Post‘s article

6.     FrontPage Magazine’s article 

7.     The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephen’s response

8.     The Nation‘s article 

9.     Mark Damazer from the BBC Radio 4 blog

10.   Ben Cohen on the Z-word blog


If you can think of more that are constructive, taking different sides, feel free to add them through comments. Rants are also fine.

Here’s a YouTube video of one reading…

Jenin and the Theater

28 03 2009


Animal Farm plays in Jenin

Animal Farm plays in Jenin - BBC

I realize that I’ve written quite a few posts about the arts lately, focusing a little less on politics. But there has been a wave of news about art-related events and I get a little too excited when I hear about a photography project, or a music performance, or this time, a play. So get excited with me!

The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, West Bank, opened its doors this week to a new student version of Goerge Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm. The BBC reported this, the AP reviewed it. Many people seem to be hyped up about it.

Here’s why.

Animal Farm was first published in 1945 as a satire against Russia’s Stalin era. In the story, animals rebel against the farm owner, kicking him out eventually and setting up a community where everyone has equal rights. Later, their utopia collapses due to their own corruption and greed.

In this Palestinian play, the word “intifada” is used for revolution (Arabic for uprising). The play director, Nabil al-Raee, and the theater’s director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, keep the original satirical edge, hinting at the Territories’ own corrupt leadership and the society’s restrictions against freedom of thought.  

“To be free is to be able to criticise,” said Mer-Khamis to the BBC. “To be free is to be able to express yourself freely. To be free is to be free first of all of the chains of tradition, religion, nationalism – in a dark way I mean.”

It is always refreshing to see critics from within the society, not from the outside. Despite threats and a burnt theater door, this play performed safely. The fact that it is getting this much publicity is beyond satisfying.

Again I say, when politics fail, we must pave the way for the arts.

A silly thought crossed my mind, however. I wondered how the Muslim audience received the pig characters of the play, knowing that pigs are considered quite filthy, rather than cute, in Islam. What would you think?

Hamas Reborn

13 03 2009

Hamas on the WallIt seems that Hamas has become more of hero than a demon after Operation Cast Lead. A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, published on March 9th, shows that more Gazans support Hamas today than they did three months ago. That puts the faction in a much better position against its rival Fatah, especially as reconciliation talks are taking place for a unity government.

The results indicate that 47% of the 1,270 people polled face-to-face support Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniya, while 42% support his more moderate Fatah opponent, Mahmoud Abbas. Three months ago, Haniya lagged behind Abbas, 38% to 48% respectively.

So what happened? Why is Hamas becoming more popular instead of less?

Well, the most recent war was simply too devastating for Gazans to see anyone but Israel as the real wrong-doer here. If the poll is truly indicative of what the general population thinks, then Operation Cast Lead has backfired on Israel.  It turns out that you can easily kill Hamas members, but you have yet to kill the idea of Hamas… and ideas last much longer than people.

I connect this to another article published on February 27th, on the BBC, titled, “Despair and Rage among Gaza’s Youths,” portraying how young Gazan men are now more prone to joining Hamas and its rivals as militants and suicide bombers than before. The article reports that the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” one of the smaller militant factions, says the organisation has seen an in increase in the number of people volunteering to carry out suicide bombings since the conflict.”

Many of these men are poor, homeless, unemployed and have seen death one too many times. They are in despair and “disillusioned.” So are these poll results really surprising?