(Text: Tessa Pariyar) In the last days of the Allgenders Seminar 2018, the group which had engaged in the dialogue about the conflict and the occupation through theater methods came up with the idea of continuing to work with this methodology during the follow-up meetings. They wanted to further develop the stories of the participants and show them to an audience at the end in small performances. By the summer of 2019, participants had met for four two-day bi-national meetings each, 15 uni-national meetings held separately or partly before or after the overall group meetings, and one Skype meeting. The latter was an emergency solution; so the participants could at least „see each other again“ via the screen, after the first joint meeting had to be postponed several times. This had different reasons: The initial enormous difficulties in obtaining travel permits for the Palestinian group from Nablus for joint meetings in Tel Aviv, but also the war in Gaza, the temporary siege of Nablus by the Israeli army and the arrest of the father of a Palestinian participant.
The first uni-national meetings were not easy. Back home, the participants were caught up with the reality on the ground and their busy daily lives of work and university lectures: many of the Jewish Israelis faced the question of whether to join the army, and for the Palestinians, the political reality of the occupation increased the pressure from friends and family not to continue being part of the project. It is all the more admirable that the majority of the group remained motivated until the end. Expressing the conflict on stage using the methodology of theater of the Oppressed was also challenging beyond the routine of the seminar, especially for the Palestinians. „As always, it was not easy for the participants to openly show intimate feelings and share them with others, especially on stage as actors*: To come out of rigidity to life and start speaking.“ (All quotes in italics are taken from the reports of the coordinators and facilitators of the partner organization).
In mid-January 2019, the time had finally come for the Palestinians to receive travel permits for a two-day meeting in Israel: „It was the first face-to-face meeting of the entire group since the seminar in Germany. Politically, a lot had happened, which increased the pressure on the Palestinians not to participate. We started with an exchange about our activities in the last months and our motivation to continue the program. (…) After that, the participants read their monologues, which they had prepared and discussed in advance. Yael* and Moran* spoke about their activism against the occupation and the price they pay. This helped rebuild trust between the two groups.“
While two of the Israeli participants completely refused their army service and others started their alternative service in social institutions, one participant decided to join the army after much deliberation: „Rotem* came by to say goodbye to the group because she had decided to join the army. It was brave of her to face this controversial discussion. Gradually, the others understood that she had decided this way not because she supports the army, but because she is willing to pay this price so that later her voice calling for an end to the occupation will be heard in Israeli society.“ During the following meetings, the participants continued to work on their stories to be shown on stage, both in terms of content and method. „Yara* decided to continue working on her story using the method of story-telling. Together they tinkered with the scene. Alya* helped, Mohammad played with Yara, and then Hasan joined in. Yara wanted to portray a very personal issue: How can a „mevukash,“ someone who is persecuted and arrested by the Israeli army, continue his life?“
In the Israeli group, many of the stories rehearsed to show to others revolve around the army and the challenges Israelis face when they refuse military service: „Moshe* and Aaron* rehearsed their dialogue between a grandfather and his granddaughter who doesn’t want to join the army. The rest of the group played along as a family in the scene, which was meant to reflect Israeli society and the pressure to join the army. Yael*, Moran* and Yaron* had prepared a scene at the checkpoint: A Palestinian woman is humiliated when she is required to remove her hijab before being allowed to get food for her children. We tried to further expand the point of view of the young female soldiers* who are also oppressed by their commanders and Israeli society, and talked about gender issues at checkpoints from different angles.“
Already at the first joint meeting, the idea of trying out the method of Theater of the Oppressed, developed by Brazilian director and playwright Augusto Boal, came up. This method involves the audience in a participatory way and gives them the opportunity to slip into a role during the play and change the course of action. This was met with great enthusiasm by the group and they decided to use this tool in the final performance. The weekend of the performances was approaching and the participants discussed the challenges of a semi-public performance especially with regard to the safety of the actors during the play, but also the risk of hostility and slander afterwards. Together they decided to play mainly with masks or hooded and to ask the audience not to bring cell phones into the theater space during the performance and also not to take pictures. It was also agreed that initially only people known personally to the partner organization or the participants would be invited, but that this should also explicitly include people with conservative or even religious-national political views.
The first performance took place in Thalita Kumi in Beit Jala, which is located in Zone C in the West Bank and is therefore also accessible to Israelis. Both groups met there the day before the performance for the dress rehearsal and to discuss the final details. The Palestinian group in particular was eagerly awaiting the event. At the same time, the actors were also nervous because some of their family members and friends would be coming the next day. „For them it was a kind of test, not only for their theater skills, but also for their national loyalty. They had to prove that this project was worthwhile.“
Upon their arrival and first meeting with the Israeli group, the family members of the Palestinian participants seemed reserved, the atmosphere tense. There was a short opening, explanations about the project and the method of the Theatre of the Oppressed, then the performance began. The group showed their scenes and soon the first spectators rose from their chairs and became part of the play. „The participation of the audience exceeded all expectations. Both when they took on roles to give new directions to the scene, and during the discussion that followed each scene. During lunch, the atmosphere was different. Those who had been reserved before were much more open. Particularly notable was the reaction of a brother of one participant who had previously pressured her to leave the group. After the performance, his perception changed. In the final discussion after lunch, he expressed his respect for the program. The discussion with the participants afterwards was lively and euphoric. (…) Hasan* recalled the doubts he had expressed about the power of theater in the first seminar before his trip to Germany. Now, he said, he can really see the effects it has on the audience.“
The performance in Tel Aviv the following day was also surprisingly well received by the audience: „Among other things, we showed the scene written by Yara*, which tells the true story of her father, who, after fighting in the 2nd Intifada, was imprisoned for many years. In prison he realized the importance and value of nonviolent activism. Nevertheless, in recent months he was arrested again and beaten twice.” These and the other stories touched the hearts and challenged the minds of the audience. In a group discussion after the performance, Leah*, a school principal from Haifa, said, „I was pulled out of my comfort zone. I’m determined to find a way to bring these issues to my students* without being portrayed as a traitor.“ And Yara responded, „That’s the change I wanted to make.“
It was a weekend full of encouraging experiences, positive feedback and reactions from the audience that encouraged the group in their activism. This gave them back hope for possible change. However, the participants were quickly caught up in political reality: At their closing dinner on the beach in Tel-Aviv, a Palestinian participant was arrested by the police because his entry permit was supposedly not valid. Handcuffed and shackled, he was taken to the police station. Only after a long back and forth was he released.