Five years ago, 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza, as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home. She was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a non-violent group that supports the Palestinians through direct action in Gaza and the West Bank. Corrie’s horrific death on March 16 2003 sent shock waves around the world, and drew attention to the desperate situation faced daily by the Palestinians in Gaza, and to the highly questionable actions of the IDF.
Since Rachel’s death her memory has been kept alive through the Rachel Corrie Foundation, set up by her parents. In addition, Rachel’s own words and views have been brought to the public through the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” based on her e-mails and journal. The play was first staged to acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre in London in April 2005, and has since then been performed in various venues around the world.
Now, to mark the fifth anniversary of Rachel’s death, the book “Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie” is being published simultaneously in the US by W W Norton and in the UK by Granta. To publicize the book, Rachel’s parents Craig and Cindy are to embark on an eight-city book tour of the USA in April, attending book readings, signings, and question and answer sessions. The tour will take in San Francisco, Seattle, Olympia (the Corries’ home town in Washington State), Portland, Washington DC, New York, Iowa City and Minneapolis.
“Let Me Stand Alone” presents Rachel’s essays, poetry and drawings from the age of 10 to the last days of her life. Endlessly self-questioning, Rachel had decided while at school to become an artist and a writer. Her writings express her preoccupation from an early age with major questions of existence, as well as reflecting the more personal concerns experienced by a young girl growing up.
The book builds up a portrait of a remarkable young woman who combined a zest for living and a mischievous sense of humor with an unusual degree of awareness. In autumn 2002, reflecting on feelings of being alone, she wrote: “What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? Tragic passing of love affairs and causes and communities and peer groups. What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid? What if our aloneness is what allows us to adventure – to experience the world as a dynamic presence – as a changeable, interactive thing?”
From Rafah, she sent an e-mail to her mother a few days before her death describing how she had spent ten hours with a Palestinian family living on the front line. “When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter or direct action-resister,” Rachel wrote.
“They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them (and may ultimately get them) on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death.”
The Corrie family’s home town of Olympia lies not far from Seattle. Rachel’s father Craig worked for many years as an insurance executive and her mother Cindy is a musician and teacher. But since Rachel’s death her parents and her sister Sarah have not returned to their previous jobs. Craig and Cindy set up the Rachel Corrie Foundation in their daughter’s memory to promote peace and justice in the Middle East and are constantly on the move, addressing schools and giving media interviews. They highlight human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and lobby to have Rachel’s death properly investigated. They are also trying to realize Rachel’s wish for Rafah to be twinned with Olympia, and have visited Rafah twice.
The fifth anniversary of Rachel’s death is being marked not only by publication of “Let Me Stand Alone”, but also by new productions of “My Name is Rachel Corrie”. The play is currently being produced in Israel for the first time, in Arabic translation. After its Haifa premier the play will tour a number of places in Israel and the West Bank.
The New England premier of the play was held a few days ago at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Massachusetts. It is a sign of the sensitivities surrounding this dramatization of the words of a young woman who was an ardent supporter of the Palestinians that the theatre felt it necessary to “balance” it with a play on Israel.
The theatre originally intended to pair the play with the one-act play “To Pay the Price”, about the late Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of former Israeli prime minister Binyamin), regarded in Israel as a war hero, but the Netanyahu family vetoed the idea. So the Corrie play was instead paired with the solo show “Pieces” written and performed by Israeli-American Zohar Tirosh, and based on her experiences of serving in the Israeli military in the mid-1990s. The staging of the two plays was accompanied by relevant panel discussions, films and readings.
The theatre critic of the Boston Herald, Jenna Scherer, protested at this attempted balancing act. She wrote: “Art shouldn’t require even-handedness...Issues don’t get more hot-button than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject on which you’d be hard-pressed to find an objective account. But shouldn’t that be all the more reason to allow an individual voice to ring clear without apology? Isn’t theatre supposed to incite people to think and react?” She praised the Corrie play as “a superlative work, here in a superlative production by director David R Gammons and actor Stacy Fischer.”
“My Name is Rachel Corrie” had its genesis in the moving e-mails Rachel had sent from Gaza, published by the London-based Guardian newspaper some days after her death. The e-mails, and Rachel’s journal, were edited into a play by the well-known actor Alan Rickman, who also directed the play, and by journalist Katharine Viner.
The production at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005 won the Theatregoer’s Choice Awards for best director and best new play, as well as the best solo performance for actress Megan Dodds. The Guardian’s critic Michael Billington described it as “a stunning account of one woman’s passionate response to a particular situation. And the passion comes blazing through in Corrie’s eloquent reaction to their father’s enquiries about Palestinian violence. As she says, if we lived where tanks and soldiers and bulldozers could destroy our homes at any moment and where our lives were completely strangled, wouldn’t we defend ourselves as best we could?”
The play was to have been transferred to the New York Theatre Workshop in March 2006, but the theatre decided to indefinitely postpone the play out of fear of the reaction of certain Jewish and pro-Israeli groups. Rickman and Viner denounced the decision, and withdrew the play, declaring: “This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences – all of us are the losers.” There were also protests from such theatre luminaries as actress Vanessa Redgrave and playwrights Harold Pinter and Tony Kushner. The play was eventually staged off-Broadway in autumn 2006.
The continuing difficulty over the staging of the play in the USA - as shown by the recent controversy over the production in Watertown - shows how some quarters are alarmed at the continuing power of Rachel’s eloquent words five years after her death. Critics of Corrie and of the ISM allege that she was militantly pro-Palestinian, and naïve to go to Gaza, and they dispute the circumstances of her death and the claimed culpability of the IDF bulldozer operator. But as Corrie’s testimony shows, she was no hot-headed, blinkered fanatic, but a highly-intelligent, sensitive young person who felt she could not just stand by in the face of Palestinian suffering. And in these days of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza, her message still rings out loud and clear.
Saudi Gazette March 17 2008