Humanizing the "Other"
Hannah Khalil on Scenes from 69* Years
I’m sick of seeing Arabs on stage. Don’t get me wrong; I love Arabs – hell my dad’s Palestinian, but why are we always portrayed in the narrowest way? Crying mothers, stone-throwing resisters, dead martyrs.
I saw a poster for an American-Arab comedian’s show, the tag line: ‘I’m not a terrorist –but I have played one on TV’. Smart, I thought, expose the stereotypes. Those same clichés got me writing in the first place: my heart ached for the fantastic Arab actors I knew who had to don a suicide vest at every audition.
Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains further inspired me. In it an old Palestinian man, depressed by life under occupation, routinely runs into the street in his PJs and douses himself in petrol. His neighbors take turns to gently take the matches away and lead him home. It’s sad but, believe it or not, darkly funny too.
So, suitably fired (!) I started penning scripts showing very ‘normal’ Arab characters and I’m not alone, the other great writers in this Semitic Commonwealth series and Arab writers like Hassan Abdulrazzak and Hanan Al Shaykh reveal a common desire to myth bust.
Then, my first play about Palestine: Plan D was put on in London in 2010. It was based on testimonies of Palestinians who lived through the creation of Israel in 1948 and tells the story of what happens to one fictional family.
The thing that surprised and delighted me the most about that production was the fact that many people approached me afterwards – Palestinians in the diaspora – to tell me their story: what happened to them, their family, what happens to them now, every day, living under occupation.
And what stories they were, full of pathos and drama and dark, dark, wry humour. What a resource I’d been gifted. But how to tell all these tales? So many… If I were to write each into a play that would be my life’s work.
I decided to try a patchwork approach, and undertook the joyous task of writing each of these stories as a scene. That was the easy part. More complicated was the assembly job that followed; placing the scenes in a structure that would give the sense of journey to an audience despite not having one central character and objective to follow. This shaping was a long and detailed endeavor, the work of five years of development, workshops and readings. Beautiful scenes that I loved were cut, the order changed and changed.
The title however was easy: the first draft of the play was titled Scenes from 62* Years, the number denoting the time that has passed since 1948, the asterix signifying that the number will change. By the first production last year it was called Scenes from 68* Years. If you attend Silk Road Rising’s reading you’ll see Scenes from 69* Years. Of course my hope is that one day, when occupation ends that the number will become fixed.
That’s one of my hopes. Another is that, in future, I won’t be sick of seeing Arabs on stage because they’ll be portrayed as actual, real people – as opposed to terrorists - at last.