Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

War and peace: from Gaza to London

Pam Bailey | 11-09-2015

poster for War and Peace production

On Sunday, Tolstoy’s classic “War and Peace” will come to life on stage once again in two cities separated by thousands of miles and dramatically different circumstances—London, and Gaza City. The two performances will be linked by video and a partnership that already spans 10 years—between Jonathan Chadwick, founder of the UK’s Az Theatre, and Hossam Madhoun, who runs Gaza’s Theatre for Everybody. At the center: an ageless story that speaks to everyone.

“The epic framework of Tolstoy’s great, romantic, philosophical novel offers insight into the nature of conflict, individual destiny and what peace can be,” explains Chadwick.  “Of course, things have changed since Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. But really, what exactly is different?”

The story of this seemingly unlikely collaboration started in 1992, when a 22-year-old Madhoun was caught writing anti-occupation slogans on the massive cement wall that separates Gaza from Israel. He was detained and accused of being a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel considered illegal at the time. He was jailed in Israel’s Anssar Prison in the Negev Desert for nine months, and the following year, the PLO was recognized by the UN as the official representative of the Palestinians.

Madhoun says his months in prison changed him in two ways: “First, I learned how counterproductive politics can be,” he recalls. “In the prison, Hamas and Fatah fought each other constantly. I decided never to belong to a political party. “

The second consequence was more positive. “I met theater in prison. The other prisoners put on a play, and I participated. I discovered that it is another form of resistance that can also educate and raise awareness of my people’s daily life under occupation: the wall, the checkpoints, the blockade, the humiliation at the crossing points. I decided I would study theater.”

And he did. When Madhoun was released, he joined an amateur theater group in Gaza called Theatre for Everybody. The troupe was founded in 1987 during the First Intifada, performing both internationally and at home. When the Second Intifada broke out, they expanded their use of drama beyond entertainment to therapy for traumatized children and youth. The first partnership with Az Theater came in 1999, when a mutual friend introduced Madhoun and Chadwick and a collaboration began on sharing “war stories” through drama workshops.

Unfortunately, after Hamas took over the Gaza government in 2006 and Israel imposed its ongoing blockade, theater as a form of entertainment and education ground to a halt in Gaza.

“Theatre in Gaza is not as it used to be, both because of the conservative government and the effect of the blockade on our economy. Culture can no longer be such a priority,” says Madhoun, who currently works as a project manager for a local nonprofit specializing in child protection. “Historically, theater could never be a primary income source in Gaza. But now, we can’t make anything from it. I used to participate in two to three productions per year, performing hundreds of shows in Gaza and in Europe. But since 2006, I have participated in only three productions and have not been able to perform out of Gaza due to the blockade.”

 A scene from War and Peace with Hossam Madhoun (left) as Pierre Besukhov,
Baha' Elyazji as Andrei Bolkonsky and Naem Nasser as the narrator.

At Sunday’s event was originally scheduled to be held in 2014, but had to be delayed due to the 51-day Israeli assault. The cast will perform selected scenes from War and Peace for a local audience. At the same time, attendees in London will view a video of the 40-minute production shot in advance (with English subtitles). A live Skype Q&A between the two locations will follow.

In his planned introduction to the production, Madhoun explains why War and Peace, and why now:

Theater for us is not a place for anemic, cautious, art for art’s sake. Rather, it is a platform for prophecy, a place in which to proclaim, to judge, to confess, to shock.

And tonight, through Tolstoy’s ageless work, we say we no longer will allow ourselves to be led, blind and stupid, by the unreason of chance. Ladies and gentlemen, people continue to fight, although most have known for generations that war is a terrible, senseless thing. Still, while it is certainly upset and frustrated by the politics of war, life—natural life—goes on.

Posted September 11, 2015

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