Ahmed Masoud’s play “The Shroud Maker” kicked off its tour in a premiere at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art studio (RADA) as part of “@70: Celebration of Contemporary Palestinian Culture” programme marking 70 years since the Nakba which saw nearly a million Palestinians forced from their homes. It was a success and so the show went on the road and travelled across the UK.
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
The play tells the story of an 84-year-old woman who sells shrouds for the dead in order to survive. “It’s a black comedy on the current situation, trying to highlight the humanity of the people, the sense of humour and the great instinct of survival that a lot of people around the world have,” Masoud says.
The protagonist, Hajja Souad, grew up as the adopted daughter of the British High Commissioner’s wife, Lady Cunningham. But in 1948 she was left alone in the big mansion. She managed to escape and found an infant on the side of a road in Hebron who she adopts and raises as her son. Living in the West Bank, Souad is a refugee, but in 1967 she is once again forced to flee this time to Gaza with her son.
The play, which features only one actress playing Souad, is Masoud’s effort to use the “strong Arabic tradition of storytelling, it is the same as having a Hakawati (storyteller on stage) who takes the audience on a journey using mostly text but also some props and a lot of sound effects to transport them to an imaginative place”.
True to the description, actress Julia Tarnoky takes the audience away on a journey through Souad’s life, however, her obvious accent as she pronounces Arabic words including “habibi” bring everyone back to the here and now.
A Palestinian from Gaza, Masoud came to the UK in 2002 to complete his postgraduate studies in English literature. During this period he wrote his first novel “Vanished – They Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda”. In 2005, he started the Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre where he wrote and directed many dance productions including an adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s famous novel “Returning to Haifa”. But it was during the war on Gaza in July 2014, that the idea of “The Shroud Maker” was born.
Masoud remembers being very worried about his family; “I checked all the news agencies online to make sure that my family’s name wasn’t there. I didn’t know what I would wake up to.” One evening he read an interview with a woman who had her shroud shop open. “So I started to imagine her life and how she ended up in this position so I wrote this play.”
The audience connects with Souad, who is portrayed as a “real human being” with flaws as she shrewdly profits from people’s misery by overcharging people for shrouds.
“Well, what’s the alternative? Tell ‘em the truth? “That’ll be ten shekels, madam. That’s right, ten shekels, I know, ever so cheap, isn’t it? Well, that’s ‘cos it’s made of polyester, yes, five shekels a roll from Yazji’s Superstore, yes, ‘fraid so, ‘ cos there’s no muslin left. All stocks exhausted, demand being so high, you know. Well, yes, if I’d known in advance I could have ordered extra supplies from the tunnel traders, but on this occasion I’m afraid the Israelis neglected to inform me of their plans,” she tells the audience.
Souad’s story is “very different”, Masoud explains, it is “dark enough to provide both comedy and deep trauma”. This is ever more evident when Israeli occupation forces launched a new attack on Gaza and Souad refuses to escape from the Strip.
The constant drumming of bullets and drones and helicopters is getting on my nerves now. Let’s have some music instead. Ah…That’s better…If tonight’s the grand finale, at least let’s have some decent music for the Big Send-Off. I’ve even made myself a new shroud for the occasion.
This mixture of comical yet painful words bring a unique balance of heartache and laughter to the dark satire of Masoud’s script, and the audience is left with tears in their eyes even as they try to laugh at Souad’s attitude.
As her son, Elian grows, he married and has children of his own. Living under occupation they too suffer the effects of the First Intifada and their children are forced to run away for safety, a life that leads them to join the Israeli army and come back to Gaza to fight the Palestinians.
But even with the harsh truth of the attacks by Israeli soldiers on Palestinians in Gaza, it is not lost on viewers that all the misery helps Souad maintain her business, “kill everyone in this town and I will make shrouds for them all”, she tells the soldier. “I’ll give you 10 per cent.”
The play has run its course, Masoud is now working on his next project, a new novel. Keeping the details secret he says, “it’s completed now, I just need to find a new home for it”.