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'As a Palestinian on the stage I feel I'm fighting, I'm resisting'

Palestinian actor and director Momin Swaitat looks at life under occupation and the contemporary refugee experience in his latest work 'Alien Land'

Video by Jehan Alfarra

When Mo'min Swaitat was five-years-old he would build toy towns made of stones in the forest near his hometown Jenin in the north of Palestine. The next day he would return to his construction only to find that Israeli soldiers had trampled them into the ground.

"This is the symbolism of what happened to Palestinian villages," Swaitat tells me. "I grew up at the end of the First Intifada and at the beginning of the Second Intifada. I saw the army everywhere when I was five."

Seventeen years on and Swaitat is an actor and a director living in London having studied at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA). His latest work is a dark comedy, "Alien Land", a solo show produced by the Sarha Collective and inspired by the Middle East's first science fiction novel "The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist" authored by Emile Habibi.

Since it was published in the seventies "The Secret Life" has become a classic. Set during the 1948 Nakba the protagonist Saeed looks destined to become a refugee but as he and his family try to leave Palestine his father is shot. Saeed becomes an Israeli citizen where, recounts Swaitat, he experiences an alien invasion.

It was in 2002, as Israel was invading the West Bank, that Swaitat first read the story of Saeed. He had a lot of spare time – Israeli tanks would roll into Jenin in the morning, just as everyone was preparing to go to work or school, and public life would shut down. Residents would wait for the mosque to announce the tanks had left so the children could make their way to school.

Swaitat would wake in the morning and open his window to find bulldozers and armoured vehicles on the street below. "If you saw that now in the streets of London you would call it an alien invasion," he says.

"Alien Land" explores Swaitat's own experiences of living under occupation and the contemporary refugee experience. Like "The Secret Life", "Alien Land" celebrates ammiyya, the spoken Arabic language, and will be performed in Arabic with English subtitles.

Rehearsals for Alien Land at the Arcola [Nadia Jaglom]

"I want to celebrate it, I want to defend it, I want to stand behind it," Swaitat says of his language, which is today all too often associated with terrorism. "I'm proud of it. I'm calling on young people not to misunderstand the Arabic language. I want to give them the chance to explore why Arabic and English exist, why language is a big battle and how language can be misunderstood."

Take science fiction, says Swaitat, and consider what it means in English and in Arabic. In Arabic the alien metaphor can be used to explore colonialism and just how bizarre life under occupation is, but it also has a more positive association – the pursuit of the unknown.

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"When you talk about aliens in English there's a clash, an attack," explains Swaitat. "There's something wrong. Whereas when you talk about science fiction in Arabic it's something beautiful to be discovered and investigated. The alien metaphor can be something terrifying and aggressive but also represents something beautiful and magical."

"We spent a lot of time in the curfew looking at Mars and other planets," he continues. "We believe that we can see Mars from Jenin. The length between this universe and the space in the universe is the storytelling. That's what I'm trying to touch in this play. That's my understanding of science fiction really."

Both the novel and Swaitat's theatre piece celebrate how Palestinian culture is built around stories and hakawati, the revered tradition of oral storytelling. "In an Arabic story we leave a gap between the storyteller and the audience to leave it up to you, in your hands. This is the hakawati. When we tell a story we begin with the words kaan ya ma kaan, it was or it was not."

Swaitat tells me he's tried to be part of productions that aren't about Palestine but has often given up after one or two rehearsals because he cannot relate to the work. "I feel responsible. I feel Juliano Mer Khamis left me with a big responsibility," he says of his former teacher and founder of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp where he first began to train as an actor.

"This is what I take away from Juliano and his school and his way of teaching. That by being on the stage I feel I'm fighting, I'm resisting. I'm delivering a message, an important message that needs to be delivered."

Growing up during the intifada young Palestinians had two options – to stay at home or to join the resistance. But Swaitat took a third option – theatre. "All I wanted to do in my life is to study theatre and become an actor. I had no idea where it came from, I had never seen theatre in my life I just had this dream," he says.

The Freedom Theatre uses art to address the fear, depression and trauma experienced by young Palestinians:

Theatre lifted me away from all of this and made me more colourful and added a new colour to my life. It lifted me up, away, to a different stage in my life from being in a dark place where I'm only dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Freedom Theatre was a place of a treatment.

Originally established by Mer Khamis' mother Arna as the Stone Theatre it was crushed to the ground in 2002 when Israelis entered the camp and killed all of the actors during the Battle of Jenin. It was rebuilt by Mer Khamis and became the Freedom Theatre.

In 2011 Swaitat was part of the production "Alice in Wonderland"; in this adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic Alice was about to get engaged and run away: "This is provocative for the Palestinians and provocative for the Zionist agenda, who only want us to be builders in Israel and don't want us to be critics and talk about Alice in Wonderland and trying to raise social issues within our society," says Swaitat.

Mo'min Swaitat performing at the Freedom Theatre as the Caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland [Jenny Nyman]

Their next play, "The Spring Awakening", explored sexuality. Whilst the actors were reading through the script inside the theatre they heard the sound of shooting from the street below – Mer Khamis had been killed after being shot five times by masked gunmen as he tried to drive his son home. "I was the first to arrive to see him," says Swaitat. "[At that time] he was speaking to my school in London to offer me a scholarship in clown and mime."

Since his days at the Freedom Theatre and LISPA, Swaitat has taken part in international productions in Palestine, Europe and the US. Inspired by the Freedom Theatre he works with over 60 young refugees in London, teaching them acting, masked performance, painting and pottery. This, he says, comes from a combination of what Arna and French actor Jacques Lecoq believed, "that the masked world will operate a mental relief for those who get displaced from their journey, from their house and village".

At the same time Swaitat is also philosophising about what the coming intifada will look like: "I believe the coming intifada should be an individual intifada. We Palestinians always fight as groups – or Arabs in general. As a Bedouin I grew up as a group, I never grew up as an individual in the Middle East. People do not see me as an individual so I want to celebrate my individuality. I find the character Saeed is very individual and I really want to celebrate it and push it more and see how much more we can do as individuals."

"I believe that now is the beginning of change in the Middle East," he continues. "First of all I'm not talking on behalf of the Middle East I'm talking on behalf on myself and my family and as a young Palestinian artist. I never had a chance to celebrate my Arab identity and we as Palestinians never had the chance to celebrate the freedom of choice."

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"I'm a Bedouin. [Our] journey began from the middle Arab desert, Yemen. They had the freedom of movement and freedom of choice and they celebrate beautiful landscape there. Now I'm not allowed to do that because I'm a young artist."

"We've been on a journey long enough talking about refugees. Now it's time to talk about the outcome of being a refugee… we need to build a very strong generation of people who take art as a tool in order to change. And I stand behind this new intifada."

That's not just the Middle East, says Swaitat: "Why is everyone asking the Arab world for a revolution but no one is asking themselves for a revolution?"

"It's time," Swaitat adds, to stop being spoonfed by the media "and investigate yourself".

Alien Land is running from the 24-28 January at the VAULT festival in London.

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