Writing Palestine's Invisible History
Ismail Khalidi on Tennis in Nablus
Growing up, the period of the Arab Rebellion in Palestine (1936-1939) was always of great interest to me, both in terms of my own family’s involvement (several of my relatives were imprisoned and/or exiled by the British for political activities during this period) and also in terms of its importance to the history of Palestine. In my research for what would become this play, I came upon a passage in a book by an Israeli historian in which he documents an instance of Palestinian prisoners chained at the feet and used as ballboys for the tennis matches of the British authorities. This image was striking to me in that it spoke to the cruelty, absurdity and overall mindset of the British Empire in particular, and imperialism more generally. It also struck me as echoing the brutality of occupation and incarceration today, whether in Palestine, Iraq or or the U.S. Most importantly, perhaps, the image conjured a situation brimming with dramatic potential.
I knew almost immediately that this was the image and dramatic situation which I wanted to build my play around. How then, I asked myself, were the two prisoners in this scenario related? Did they like each other? Did they agree on what their predicament meant and how best to extract themselves from it? Ultimately the two prisoners/ballboys, as they came into being in Tennis in Nablus, are indeed related by blood, and yet very much at odds. This circumstance seemed especially relevant and timely considering the infighting that has long plagued the Palestinian national movement. Working outwards, a host of other characters entered into the world, from the British overlords to the Irish and Indian conscripts; the fearless Anbara, the kind but troubled Samuel Hirsch, and even the wandering ghost of Emiliano Zapata.
As I began to construct the play, the year 1939 struck me as a unique and meaningful entry point into the conflict, especially for an American audience that is totally unfamiliar with the real history of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. In fact, for most Americans, Palestinians, if they exist at all, only do so in opposition to Israel and therefore as a post-1948 phenomenon at best. At worst we are one-dimensional terrorists. To set a play before the creation of Israel and the accompanying dispossession of the Palestinians, seemed to me to be a crucial way to convey an important truth about Palestine: namely, that Palestinians did exist and were in fact struggling to achieve their freedom from a colonial power in the early part of the last century.
It was telling to me, for example, that in the U.S. the Irish and Indian struggles for independence in the 20th century are looked upon favorably and celebrated in art and mainstream culture and politics. Why then, should the Palestinian struggle against the same British colonialism during the same period not be afforded such consideration? To set a dramatic story infused with tragedy and comedy and peopled with compelling characters against this historical backdrop was hard to resist, and for me served, in part, as an act of reclamation and solidarity.
For at the heart of the question of Palestine are a plethora of issues that go far beyond Palestine. They include settler colonialism, white supremacy, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, human rights, international law, refugee rights, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia among others. It is my hope then that this play can be one part of a larger conversation in the theater, not only about Palestine and Israel, but about much more.