Peter Marks
The Washington Post
February 25, 2009 - 1:00am

George Ibrahim tugs down at the top of his turtleneck and points to the bare skin of his throat. "This," he says in accented English, "is what kasaba means in Arabic. Center of breathing. Center of life."

It's Ibrahim's way of illustrating the role that he wants his theater company to claim, as an artistic lifeline for his people. Located in Ramallah, on the West Bank, the Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque already inhabits a central place in the hardscrabble landscape of Palestinian culture. Not that there's that much competition: His organization runs the only multipurpose arts complex in the Palestinian territories.

And despite its meager resources -- "Up to now, we have no annual budget; we cannot program more than one month ahead," he says -- Al-Kasaba has become an example to the world that Palestinian art is indeed alive, and breathing. Washington gets firsthand confirmation of this tomorrow night, when a performance piece that has become Al-Kasaba's signature, "Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation," opens for a three-performance run in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

The work -- which evolved in 2000 and 2001 out of the personal stories that actors brought to the Al-Kasaba stage after the second Palestinian intifada -- is certainly one of the more emotionally charged entries in "Arabesque," the center's 21-day celebration of performing and fine arts from 22 Arab nations. As an evening of monologues that seeks to convey the tension and heartbreak of daily life in the territories, "Alive From Palestine" is an anomaly: a Palestinian play that allows Palestinians to speak directly to an American audience.

"We come here with the message: We don't want to be 'news,' " says Ibrahim, a Palestinian Christian, as he sits in a Kennedy Center lounge. (The play begins with actors emerging from under piles of discarded newspapers.) "We're human beings," he adds. "We feel like you, and we come with our own stories. That's what we want, that people see on the other side of the coin."

Ibrahim, an erstwhile star of an Arab-language children's show on Israeli TV who founded the company in 1970, arrived in Washington on Sunday with his grown daughter a few days ahead of the six-person cast, several technical crew members and theater trustees. Although he talks with calcified bitterness about the hardships that living under Israeli military control have imposed on his people -- and that of course are reflected in "Alive From Palestine" -- he asserts that the play itself is "not political."

"We come here," he says, "to speak to the people."

A Western audience weaned on decades of front-page coverage of Israeli-Palestinian strife might find it difficult to conceive of how such a play could not have a political thrust. In stops over the years in such places as London and Brussels and New Haven, Conn., "Alive From Palestine" has drawn protests from pro-Israeli groups, Ibrahim says. Drama critics, however, have been divided on the piece's intentions. In a 2002 notice, Rhoda Koenig, a reviewer for London's the Independent, called the work "exemplary," but observed that the play did not recognize the difference "between news and propaganda."

Ibrahim, though, begs to differ: "This is not propaganda. This is what you can see in our country."

Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president -- who met Ibrahim while he was a student in Kaiser's management seminar for Arab arts administrators in Cairo -- says that with "Arabesque," "We were not aiming to make a political festival. . . . What the attempt was, was to show a very, very broad spectrum of culture. There isn't one Arab culture; some of the art of the Arab world is overtly political and some of it is not."

In the case of "Alive From Palestine," he adds: "We try to be sensitive to the various things we show. We're going to do talk-back sessions after the play so the audience can share their ideas."

Presenting the work here, just weeks after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, doubtless provides additional fodder for those discussions. Even in less turbulent times, plays that provide a sympathetic outlook on the Palestinian struggle -- as in "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a one-person play based on a the diaries of a young American woman crushed to death in Gaza under an Israeli bulldozer -- can inflame passions. Controversy, meanwhile, has erupted in Britain over a new eight-minute play, "Seven Jewish Children," that British dramatist Caryl Churchill has written in response to the Gaza incursion; in slightly abstract fashion, she depicts a series of adults teaching Jewish children how, in essence, to rationalize Israel's violent history.
What distinguishes "Alive From Palestine" is its pedigree. Performed in Arabic with English surtitles, the piece spotlights everyday Palestinians and their efforts to survive under circumstances humiliating and horrifying, from enduring endless security checkpoints to military attacks. The seeds for the piece, Ibrahim says, were planted in the ruins of a Ramallah police station that had been bombed by Israeli warplanes. A makeshift stage was constructed on the spot, and Palestinian musicians, dancers and poets gathered there "just to sing and dance and speak monologues."

After a few weeks, Ibrahim moved the event into his theater, and Al-Kasaba's actors began creating monologues. The best were rotated in. "We were sold out every week," he says. (Its evening performances in the Terrace are sold out, too.) The show ran for nine months in Ramallah and then, after the troupe was invited to a festival in Egypt, "we chose the best monologues and we made out of it a play." A young director, Amir Nizar Zuabi, created the staging.

Cairo is where Basma El-Husseiny, managing director of Al Mawred Al Thaqafy, an organization that arranges support for Arab artists, first saw "Alive From Palestine." She was impressed by the intimacy of the storytelling -- the effort to give heart and meaning to extremely personal dramas.

"The staging is very simple and very beautiful, visually," says Husseiny, who advised Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president for international programming, in the selection of artists for "Arabesque." "The strength of the play is that it is based on real stories, not on celebrities. It isn't political analysis and doesn't give historical perspective. It's about real people."

The often-rapt reception from the outside world for "Alive From Palestine" took Ibrahim by surprise. "We didn't know what we had," he says. From the company's original base in Jerusalem and through its move in 2000 to Ramallah, he has long been in the business of bringing theater to Palestinians. His early experience on children's television -- which he left after he no longer felt comfortable working on an Israeli broadcast -- led to his developing theater for Palestinian children that he took on the road. "I used to go all over . . . to [half-]deserted villages with no electricity. It was very tiring, very hard. But I was happy doing this."
In Ramallah, where Ibrahim serves as Al-Kasaba's general director, he has put on plays by Lorca and Ibsen, and for children ("Cinderella"). Lately, too, he's been concentrating on normalizing the training of Palestinian actors. (At that seminar in Cairo, Kaiser says, "he was the most challenging of my students. He asked many hard questions.") He recently signed an agreement for the first school of drama in the Palestinian territories, in partnership with a German university.

Ibrahim is eager for "Alive From Palestine" to be seen here; he added a special performance of the play for local high school students Friday morning.

One natural venue for the play, however, is not on the agenda. Asked whether he'd like to see the piece done in Israel, Ibrahim says yes. "I used to tell my people that this kind of play should be performed for Israeli audiences," he says. "I have tried once, but my people tell me, no, it is not time."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017