Control over Palestinian dramatic expression plays a significant part in shaping the new anthology of plays published in Inside/Outside, edited by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi. From the opening by the editors to the introduction by Nathalie Handal, we are reminded that Palestinian expression, whether over identity, state rights or cultural production has often been rendered taboo before it even sees the light of day. Thus, a type of censorship of the arts is always in motion wherein “Palestinian dramatists do not so much write against the grain, though many do, but write against the odds. And the odds are stacked against them: their work is culturally delegitimised, derailed and delimited by the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’. ”
Palestinian theatrical productions are more often than not a result of collective improvisation rather than from written plays, according to the editors. Despite a relative lack of documentation (sometimes due to archive destruction), Handal is able to chart in her introduction the lineage of Palestinian theatre – long before the advent of Israel – back to Ottoman rule when many productions were banned by British Mandate authorities. Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus, the first play in the collection, takes us to pre-1948 Palestine and the days marking the end of the Arab revolt against British occupation in the 1930s. Khalidi reveals the pathos of colonial rule as he portrays Palestinians in the throes of revolt and massive repression, including imprisonment, murder and torture, while the English leisurely play tennis.
The collection title itself (Inside/Outside) certainly provides an indication that the playwrights are a selection of those inside the occupied territories and Gaza and those in the diaspora. But, the editors are explicit about the limitations of their selection process, based on a pool of plays originally written in English or already translated from Arabic.
Ultimately, however, the text reveals that the Inside/Outside binary is complicated by various barriers within the nation, so that national borders become in no way the sole indication of inclusivity. A Mahmoud Darwish epigraph opens the text: “Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room. It’s not simply a Palestinian question.” Handal points out that the inside/outside binary does not really apply to Palestinian locals and diaspora, because a bordered microtopography within the nation determines at any moment who is excluded.
This is certainly the case in Hannah Khalil’s Plan D, set in 1948 when more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians were driven from their homes. At home one moment and driven into the woods just within reach of their homes in another, a family must decide if they should stay at home and risk their lives or leave the country to seek refuge elsewhere, when confronted with “Plan D”, the name of the Israeli military operation to expel Palestinians. While they are at home one moment, they are driven away from their home at another moment, then their village, and then their country, signalling not only a familiar sequence of exile and dispossession, but also the uncertainty of home and belonging from where they are ultimately expelled in a matter of days.
In Dalia Taha’s Keffiyeh/Made in China, in one scene the border announces itself as a checkpoint, one of the many criss-crossing Palestinian territories. A couple sustains a pithy, terse dialogue, Taha’s signature style reflecting a repressed humanity, wherein the tensions of endless negotiations of space and territory (across checkpoints, the Separation Wall, Areas A-B-C) are diffused in the mundane, amusing exchange over boxers and queue jumpers between husband and wife.
While the prospects opened up by this collection are exciting, it comes off as uneven. The jump between the sparse, tense, pithy dialogue of Taha’s Keffiyeh/Made in China and the forceful, didactic language of Handala, based on the cartoons of Naji Al-Ali and adapted by Abdelfattah Abusrour, is a bit jarring without a conceptual or formal theme to unite the plays.
In various discussions of Palestinian theatre, its censure and repression has been attributed to its potential role as a platform in the process of nation-building. We are reminded of the moment we opened the book and read the poignant dedication to director and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, murdered in 2011 outside his Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp – a profound loss to the theatre community. We are also reminded that despite challenges from Israeli censorship, closure of roads, imprisoned actors and writers, bulldozed theatres and a lack of funds, Palestinian theatre has surged in production and international recognition more than ever.