“Take your boots off my son now!” roars Taslima. A pin-drop silence instantly falls over the auditorium. “Don’t point your guns in their faces. They’ve done nothing wrong!” she pleads with the Israeli soldier. “Don’t shout, Taslima. It won’t help,” Ahmed begs.
“My old mother is in a wheelchair, sick with arthritis, so I’ll shout! We were here well before ‘67, yet why all these legal cases to throw us out?”
The silent wait that follows was agony for the audience as the traumatic scenario is felt before it is understood.
Blurring the lines between theatre and documentary, Key to Return, which was staged at London’s P21 Gallery, guides the audience through a series of painful accounts that occur in the everyday lives of Palestinians under Israel’s occupation.
The sweat, the tears, the angst are laid bare in this ferocious new play, as British-Egyptian multi-disciplinary performer, Laura Hannah, who plays Taslima, a young mother from Bethlehem refugee camp, describes Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians.
She narrates how her husband was imprisoned for months despite being injured while attempting to stop their son from running in front of a soldier.
Much like the horrors he witnessed during his time in Gaza, following Israel’s offensive on Gaza in 2014, Director Steve Tiller emphasised the importance of having the audience feel part of the play.
“We didn’t want to have the audience sitting in the dark. It was purposeful to keep the lights on bright, it gives the actors the chance to speak to the audience and grab their full attention because this play is a piece that demands interaction,” he explains.
Invited by Jackie Lubeck and Jan Willems, co-founders of Ayyam Al-Masrah (Theatre Day Productions), Steve began helping Palestinian actors and animators conduct story-telling and performance workshops for children in Gaza who were traumatised by the Israeli attack on the Strip, which lasted from 7 July to 26 August 2014.
During the assault, Israel murdered 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, 70 per cent of them under 12 years old. Israel was also responsible for more than 11,000 injuries, 3,358 of which were children. According to the annual report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), 100,000 were displaced during the attacks that year. On the side of the Israeli aggressor, 73 people died, including 67 soldiers.
For decades, Palestinians have been suffering through this repetitive brutality. Following a trip to Palestine with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), playwright Norma Cohen saw its theatrical potential, devised a storyline and a script was in order.
“After I witnessed everything through my own eyes, particularly people like Haj Suleiman, the Bedouin activist elder killed by an Israeli truck and who this performance is dedicated to, I wanted to rear up characters like him in the play because people receive ideas and are changed emotionally through meeting people like him and plays are an effective medium to do that if you can faithfully draw up those characters.”
Last month, 75-year-old anti-occupation activist Haj Suleiman succumbed to wounds sustained after being deliberately run-over by Israeli police at the entrance to Umm Al-Kheir village in Masafer Yatta, south of Hebron.
Art and performance are key to keeping Palestinian identity and history alive. Certainly, for Palestinians all over the world and within Palestine this shared history and culture is a method of communication, explains Norma.
Through her magical traditional dress, stained with traumatic memories, Taslima transports the Palestinian tour guide Ahmed and his passengers to different locations, uninterrupted by barriers and checkpoints. They visit Aida refugee camp, located north of Bethlehem, where tourists see first-hand the damage caused by Israel’s use of tear gas.
“The idea of the magical dress is heavily inspired by Imad Abu Shtayyah’s illustration which shows a Palestinian woman in a traditional dress rising out of the wreckage of Gaza. It’s so powerful,” says Norma.
Born in Liverpool, the actress qualified as a Laban-based dance teacher, teaching movement and drama, creating dance routines in comprehensives and for the Woodcraft Folk. As a result, these factors have greatly influenced the expandable dress.
“In my eyes, the dress is a flexible extension of the limbs in Taslima’s character and opens up to be an amazing map of Palestine, which can shrink and expand and direct people to places,” explains Norma.
She notes the detail in Palestinian embroidery, with intricate tatreez stitching, representing different Palestinian cities through the designs and colours, which she hopes to include in the play soon to expand the scenarios and storyline.
However, it was the witty references to Israel’s destructive ongoing policies and systems such as the Jewish National Fund carrying out a forestation project as a tool to evict Palestinians from their villages, which gave this ferocious new play significance.
The emotional distress resulting from the destruction are effectively exhibited by the cast, so much so, it was clear that it is personal.
“Our actors are Syrian, Sudanese, Palestinian, Moroccan, Egyptian etc. so they all have a fierce connection with the material and brought some of their own perspectives to it, which made it unique in a way. Because they wanted to do it out of their own interest they went ahead with this for not much money and were ready in just three days!”
Norma adds how some cast members also improvised dialogue drawn from discussions beforehand, which she admired as they got to inject their own sentiments about their characters in the play.
According to Steve, the cast’s Arab identity is impactful as the play is a means for them to express their passion and connection to the people of Palestine, despite the politics.
“The leaders and politicians of some of those countries they’re from are not politically helpful to Palestine. When I was in Gaza in 2014, just after the big bombing where they killed more than 2,000 people, the Palestinians were crying out – Where are the leaders from the Arab world? Why has the Arab world rejected and neglected us?” he explains.
“The script is made up of verbatim material so the play is all the more authentic. The actors are speaking what the Palestinians have said in their own words, unedited by writers. It’s the power of their most powerful words,” adds Steve.
Dark and bitterly funny, Key to Return also consists of light humour as Ahmed struggles to start his bus after every stop, a common issue, observes Norma.
The audience fails to stifle a sarcastic chuckle when a settler takes the stage to describe the lands they’ve stolen. “Israel is developing fantastic new techniques. Hydroponics. Waterless growing vegetables. All funded by the Europeans – and Abramovich, of course,” in reference to the Chelsea Football Club owner and Russian oligarch.
Both Norma and Steve believe that upsetting content in their play should not stop them from speaking the truth. “I can think of a few lines in the play that could be quite provocative like ‘even a dead Jewish dog has more power than a Palestinian’ or stuff about Abramovich and the JNF but I didn’t want to pull any punches because it’s all true,” Norma says.
“There’s no point in writing a turgid drama that keeps people down and defeated. I want to move the audience, have them speak out and do something to help make a change for Palestine, and this is my way.”