Monday, February 16, 2009

caryl churchill's gaza play 'seven jewish children'

War of words rages over new play on Gaza
Susannah Tarbush

The war of words that has erupted during the past week over the new 10-minute play “Seven Jewish Children”, written by one of Britain’s most renowned playwrights, has revealed the deep rifts that the war on Gaza has caused in British society.

Many of Israel’s supporters are enraged by the play, which was written by Caryl Churchill in response to the Gaza war. Churchill, now 70, is one of Britain’s leading politically-engaged dramatists and is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

Mark Frazier, spokesman of the Board of Deputies of British Jews , told the Jewish Chronicle: “We knew the play was going to be horrifically anti-Israel because Caryl Churchill is a patron of the PSC; the title ‘Seven Jewish Children’ is the least of what pushes it beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse.”

The co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation, Jonathan Hoffman, alleged that the play was “a libelous and despicable demonization of Israeli parents and grandparents which will only stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.” He said it drew on “several anti-Semitic stereotypes, from the blood libel to the ‘chosen people’ trope.”

But Churchill’s defenders strongly deny all charges of anti-Semitism and insist that a distinction must be drawn between legitimate criticism of Israel, and anti-Semitism. A Royal Court spokeswoman urged people to see the play before judging it. “It is possible to criticize the actions of Israel without being anti-Semitic,” she said.

The set of the play takes the form of a blue-painted room containing a table and chairs. Between scenes the actors rearrange themselves and the chairs in a new configuration. It seems that most, if not all, the actors are Jewish.

Each of the play’s seven scenes represents a different phase of Jewish and Israeli history, from the Nazi era, through the Holocaust, establishment of the state of Israel and 1967 war, up to the Gaza war. No children actually appear in the play. The script notes that the speakers are the parents “and if you like other relations of the children.” The actors refer to a girl who is never named or seen, as they debate what she should and should not be told.

The momentum of the play builds to a devastating final scene set during the Gaza onslaught. The adults shout out sentences such as: “Don’t tell her about the family of the dead girls.” “Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television”. “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake.” Towards the end an actor delivers a monologue which includes the passage: “tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. 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...”

The play succinctly dramatizes the tragedies and ironies of history for both sides. It packs an extraordinary amount into 10 minutes and is directed with tautness by Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court. Entry is free, and the script can be downloaded from the Royal Court’s website. Churchill has stipulated that any number of people anywhere can read or perform the play without needing to acquire the rights, as long as they take a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) after each performance.

“Seven Jewish Children” is one of three loosely related plays currently being staged at the Royal Court. In refuting the charges of anti-Semitism with relation to Churchill’s play, the Royal Court spokeswoman said: “In keeping with its philosophy, the Royal Court Theatre presents a multiplicity of viewpoints.”

She pointed to the viewpoints presented by the two other plays running at the theatre. “The Stone” by Marius von Mayenburg – which is performed each evening before “Seven Jewish Children” – takes place in Germany in scenes set at various times between 1935 and 1993.”It asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors’ complicity in Nazi atrocities.”

The play “Shades”, written by young Muslim woman Alia Bano and staged in the Royal Court’s small studio theatre, explores issues of tolerance in London’s Muslim community.

By the end of the first week’s run of “Seven Jewish Children”, only one newspaper critic – John Nathan of the Jewish Chronicle – had described it as anti-Semitic. Nathan wrote: “In dramatic terms, there is no doubting the power of Churchill’s message. But this is one of those occasions when the merits of a play are eclipsed by its politics.” He concluded with a damning verdict: “For the first time in my career as a critic, I am moved to say about a work at a major production house that this is an anti-Semitic play.”

But the Guardian’s long-serving theatre critic (since 1971) Michael Billington awarded the play four stars out of five, as did Dominic Maxwell of The Times. The reviewers of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard were less impressed, each awarding it two stars.

Billington said of Churchill: “What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.” While the play solves nothing, it “shows theatre’s power to heighten consciousness and articulate moral outrage.” He praised the Royal Court for “connecting through the big issues” through “Seven Jewish Children” and the other two plays it is staging.

He added that “Churchill’s play reminds us that, in any conflict, children are always prime victims. Literally so in the case of Gaza, where 410 died during the 23-day bombing. But Churchill also shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians and how, for generations to come, they stand to reap the bitter harvest of the military assault on Hamas.”

After his review was published, Billington was subjected to a campaign of vilification on message boards and blogs. Some hostile commentators leapt on his choice of the word “bred”, and hinted that this showed his anti-Semitism. Perhaps they should try Goolging “bred” plus “Palestinians”, and see all the thousands of postings casually alleging that Palestinians are “bred” to be suicide bombers and terrorists, and have a “culture of death”.

Saudi Gazette 16 Feb 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

mideast cultural happenings in london

'Ghost' 2007 by Kader Attia; Aluminium foil; Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London; ©Kader Attia, 2009

London serves up a lively menu of Mideast culture

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 9 Feb 2009

Among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Britain during the Israeli assault on Gaza were artists from different disciplines. Artists were also active as speakers at rallies and marches, and many signed petitions and letters to the media on Gaza.

Some writers and musicians wrote Gaza-related poems and songs, which are circulating over the internet. Caryl Churchill, a leading playwright, wrote the short play “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza”. The ten-minute play started its debut two-week run last Friday at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, central London. Admission is free, and after each performance there is a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke, the play’s director, told the Guardian newspaper that he hopes audiences “will be provoked, that they'll be made to think about the historical circumstances that have led us to the situation in the Middle East."

The play will be available for download after its initial run. Anyone will be free to perform the play without needing to acquire the rights, as long as the performance includes a collection for the Palestinians.

Churchill’s play is one of several high-profile cultural happenings in London that reflect the appetite of audiences to know more about the Mideast through art at a time when the region is constantly in the news. These happenings include the play “Plonter”, performed at the Barbican Centre’s Pit Theatre by the Cameri company of Israeli Arab and Jewish actors. “Plonter” [pictured, credit Gadi Dagon]was first presented at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre in 2005. Developed by the actors over a period of six months, it takes the form of a dozen or so episodes dramatizing the surreal absurdities in which individuals on both sides live. The play’s title is Hebrew for “tangle” or “mess”.

In one sketch, bus passengers are nervous that a Palestinian man is a suicide bomber. In another, a separation wall is built through a Palestinian home, meaning that the family has to pass through a checkpoint to reach the bathroom. At the entrance to the theatre members of the audience have to pass through a “checkpoint” manned by actors dressed as armed Israeli soldiers demanding to be shown ID.

The impact of Mideast violence on the work of visual artists is evident at the exhibition “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” running at the Saatchi Gallery until early May. The human cost of war finds vigorous expression in the paintings of Berlin-based Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani. His subjects include suicide bombings and torture, and some of his vivid paintings symbolize bodies torn asunder by explosions.

There is a huge buzz around the Saatchi show and the daring, provocative works it has brought to the British capital. The countries of origin of the 21 artists represented include Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria. More than half of the artists are Iranian, and critics have expressed amazement at their often subversive and taboo-busting work, especially given Iran’s grim political image.

The gallery’s founder Charles Saatchi is particularly known for his championing of Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. His exhibition of Mideast artists is likely to give a powerful boost to the careers of the exhibited artists and to the Mideast art market in general.

The current widespread concern over the fate of the Palestinian people has generated much interest in ‘Qalandia 2067’, an installation by Palestinian artist Wafa Hourani. ‘Qalandia 2067’ is named after a refugee camp near Ramallah, next to the notorious Qalandia Israeli checkpoint. In a series of five models Hourani envisages Qalandia in the year 2067, 100 years after the 1967 war. He has created a miniature refugee camp, together with a wall on the other side of which is an Israeli nightclub. Hourani told BBC TV’s Newsnight Review that he feels “responsible somehow to work and present the image of Palestine for the world ... I believe in art and I believe it is more strong than any weapon.”

The American novelist Lionel Shriver, a critic for Newsnight Review, found ‘Qalandia 2067’ to be “charming – I’d even call it adorable, with some embarrassment.” The idea of it was intrinsically heavy-handed, but “the execution is so playful and so light and so cute that I think it works.”
'Beirut Caoutchouc' 2004-2008; engraved rubber; courtesty Saatchi Gallery, London; ©Marwan Rechmaoui, 2009
The built environment features in several works on display. In his installation ‘Spectre’, Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui presents an exact replica of the Beirut apartment block he lived in before it was abandoned in 2006 during Israeli attacks on the city. He sees the building and its 1,500 tenants as a microcosm of Lebanese society. “In a normal situation they live as neighbors but the moment a conflict starts a lot of problems start happening in this building”. Another of his works, ‘Beirut Caoutchouc’, expresses the divisions of the city in the form of a large rubber floor mat of Beirut embossed with details of roads and neighborhoods.

The Syrian-American artist Diana Al-Hadid explores the interaction of politics and architecture through her big, sometimes collapsed, sculptures based on towers. Her inspirations range from the Tower of Babel to the World Trade Center.

Two of the themes running through the show are gender and faith. ‘Ghost’ by Paris-based Kader Attia, who is of Algerian origin, consists of a roomful of rows of kneeling aluminum foil figures representing Muslim women at prayer. Photographer Shadi Ghadirian investigates the position of women in Iran through witty portrayals of the female relationship with domestic objects. Shirin Fakhim pushes boundaries to an extreme with her life-sized dolls representing Tehran prostitutes.

The ranks of Young British Artists include the Chapman Brothers, Jake and Dinos. The Iranian art world has the Haerizadeh brothers, both of whom are participants in the exhibition. Unlike the Chapman Brothers, however, their works are not jointly executed. Rokni Haerizadeh’s appealing large-scale satirical paintings carry titles such as ‘Typical Iranian Wedding’, ‘Typical Iranian Funeral’, and ‘Shomal, Beach at the Caspian’. The manipulated photographs by his brother Ramin explore the body while being influenced by elements of traditional Persian culture.

At Le Violon Bleu contemporary art gallery in the Mayfair district of London there is until the end of February an exhibition of work by four women photographers from Palestine and its diaspora: Sama Alshaibi, Anisa Ashkar, Rana Bishara and Rula Halawani [image: Tribute to Van Gogh by Anisa Ashkar]. The exhibition’s title, ‘Aperture 27,000’, refers to the 27,000-square-kilometre land mass of historic Palestine. The photographers raise questions of displacement, loss and identity, and their connection to occupied Palestine and Israel. [image: Olives from Gaza, the Bitter Dream, by Sama Alshaibi]

There is coincidentally a link to the work of Wafa Hourani in ‘Intimacy’, a series of 12 photographs by Jerusalem-born Halawani. The subject of the series is Palestinians passing through the notorious Israeli checkpoint at Qalandia. Halawani’s eloquent images capture intimate glimpses, for example of a ringed hand, a searched bag or identity documents [see image] urge the viewer to reflect on the experiences of the Palestinian individuals concerned.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

new writing from gaza

The ever-productive English Pen World Atlas Blog" is running a series of new writing from Gaza, translated into English, by the likes of Soumaya Susi, Atef Abu Saif, Khaled Jum'a and Nasser Jamil Shaath.

The initiative for the portfolio came from an interview on the blog with the young prizewinning Palestinian writer Adiana Shibli. As EPWAB explains: "When I interviewed Adania in early December 2008, she spoke passionately about the writers she knew in Gaza, about the intensity of their work and the way that Palestinian poetry was changing in response to the conditions of siege. That was before the invasion.

"When the news and images of Gaza (not from Gaza) began to appear, I emailed Adania and offered to host a selection of writing on the blog: her choice of writers, immediate and new voices with essential things to say and powerful styles in which to say them. Over the next month, we'll be publishing the work that she selected on the blog, as it arrives from Gaza. The first group of writers to arrive is diverse in age, background, experience, and style, but I find all of their voices compelling."

The Palestinians are some of the most written-about people in the world, but it is all too rare for their own voices - including in the form of poetry, fiction and song - to be widely heard. This initiative goes some welcome distance in helping to rectify this imbalance. [picture of Atef Abu Saif 'borrowed' from EPWAB]

Monday, February 02, 2009

hassan daoud's 'borrowed time' published in english

Living on Borrowed Time
Susannah Tarbush

Old age is territory that has been generally neglected by fiction writers. Novels are written on childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and on to the mid-life crisis, but few authors venture much further along the lifespan. British authors who have bucked the trend and written acclaimed novels with elderly main characters include Vita Sackville-West (whose 1931 novel “All Passion Spent” has an 88-year-old heroine), Kingsley Amis with “The Old Devils” (1986) and Muriel Spark with “Memento Mori” (1959). The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” tells of a love affair, rooted in their youth, between an elderly man and woman.

More recently the American author Phillip Roth, now 75, has written several novels with ageing heroes, including “The Dying Animal”, “Everyman” and “Exit Ghost”. The latest novel by British writer David Lodge (73) is entitled “Deaf Sentence” in reference to the loss of hearing of its main character, a retired professor.

Now a novel focusing on old age, by Lebanese journalist and fiction writer Hassan Daoud, has been published in English translation under the title “Borrowed Time”. Daoud’s novel first appeared in Arabic in 1990 as “Ayyam Zaa’idah” (literally, “Added Days”). The translation into English by Michael K Scott is published by Telegram of London, Beirut and San Francisco. Remarkably, while novelists writing on old age tend to be in their twilight years, Daoud was only in his 30s when he wrote this novel about a character six decades his senior.

The novel’s first-person narrator is a widower aged around 94 (the narrator explains at length the doubts and theories about his precise age) living in a village in South Lebanon at close quarters with his extended family. He is far from being a contented old man coasting serenely towards his inevitable end in the bosom of his family. Rather, he puts one in mind of lines from the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The narrator of “Borrowed Time” frequently rages – whether inwardly in his thoughts, or outwardly in shouting at his family and in other acts of rebellion. Daoud takes the reader into the consciousness of the old man convincingly and without sentimentality or pity. In a circling and dipping narrative he captures the way the mind works in old age – the ruminations, the endless replaying of remembered incidents, the vivid dreams related to death, and a memory that increasingly plays tricks.

Hassan Daoud is a prominent figure in Lebanese culture. He is the editor of Nawafez, the cultural supplement of the newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, and previously worked for As-Safir and Al-Hayat newspapers. He has published five novels and two volumes of short stories. Other novels of his to have appeared in English translation include “The House of Mathilde” (published in London by Granta Books) and “The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-making Machine” (Telegram, 1997).

“Borrowed Time” reflects the enduring importance of home, family and place of origin in Lebanese society. The narrator lives in a house he built years earlier, up against his father’s house. The family has left his dead father’s house empty after two of the tree trunks that held up its roof rotted away. One of the narrator’s sons has built a house over the abandoned house, and from its balcony the son’s wife looks down on the old man.

The old man lives alone in his house, with family members all around who deliver him cooked food, help him tidy up and ask after his health, but with whom he has little real contact. The old man shows an often wicked sense of humor in his observations on his relatives. There are endless comings and goings of family members, friends and neighbors in the homes above the narrator’s house. They sit on balconies drinking coffee and gossiping; the old man often thinks he is the subject of their talk. Daoud movingly reveals the gaps in communication between the old man and his children and grandchildren, and the terrible loneliness that can be present even within a large extended family. The old man hints at the love he has for one of his sons, but he never expresses it to him in words.

The old man had had a bakery business in Beirut, and like so many Lebanese families his family divides its time between Beirut and the home village. Gradually his children have taken over his home in Beirut, his bakery and his land around the village, and his horizons have shrunk to leave him virtually housebound. According to him his family is waiting for him to die, but “I say to my daughter-in-law to infuriate her that Azraa’eel the Angel of Death cannot touch me.”

The narrator is candid about his failings as a husband and brother-in law. He recalls how he would be kind to his long-suffering wife Hajja Khadija as long as they were out in company, but how he constantly shouted at her at home. Even before his wife died he briefly tried to court a widow not much older than 40, taking her “a bag filled with soaps and perfumes and stockings like the women in Beirut wear.” He was unkind to his wife’s handicapped sister Fatima, and was repulsed by her large tumor, with its “fine blue veins like those on a cow’s stomach”, between her neck and her chest.

The old man’s rebellions take various forms. Although he built an indoor bathroom at his wife’s prompting, he has taken to urinating outside on the concrete below the mastaba (the stone platform on which the house is centered), little caring that he is poorly concealed from any onlooker. One source of annoyance to members of the family is his habit of playing loud Qur’anic recitation on the radio at daybreak outside his house so as to wake them up. “This is all that is left of my influence on the household. I turn up the radio full blast to test my authority; every time I turn it up I wait for someone to yell at me”.

After one of his grandsons yells at him that he has lived out his own lifetime and that of others and that he has to die, the old man feigns a stroke. Later on he becomes confused and ill and his grandsons torment him. When he asks for a doctor to be brought from the town of Nabatiyah they try to fool him into believing that one of them is the doctor.

In the harrowing final chapter, streaked with desolate humor, one of his sons brings two vulgar women married to the same man to clean up the filthy bed in which the now incontinent old man is lying. They indulge in lewd discussion of the old man as they cursorily clean him up, treating him as a distasteful object.

Despite his physical incapacities and difficult temperament, the old man acquires a kind of nobility over the course of the novel. “Borrowed Time” is a subtle, beautifully written book with a quiet brilliance. Its meandering narrative requires patience, but is ultimately rewarding.
Saudi Gazette, Feb 2 2009