- I am Jerusalem
The Ashtar Theatre Company is based in Ramallah, Palestine, where I interviewed artistic director Iman Aoun a few days after seeing I Am Jerusalem in the Arab section of Haifa. I found it a beautiful work, equal to any international performance that might be seen in New York. It is a play founded on an expressly Palestinian politics and experience. Theatre producers have struggled to bring such plays to the United States, just as scholars have produced little scholarship on theatre that is made in Palestine. I hope that will change and that Palestinian [End Page 116] theatre will be more welcomed here because this work is worthy and important, even critical, to see and think about.
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I say that the play carried a specifically Palestinian politics. Aoun and others with whom I spoke stress the importance of Palestinians' engagement with international theatre, literature, and art. At the same time, exceptional circumstances locally mean that almost all theatre artists, in solidarity, work politically; nor do artists there necessarily concede to creating the balanced picture that is often asked of them. The fact that artists like Aoun use theatre for peaceful (though not passive) resistance does not mean that the work is not also frequently a form of militancy.
The politics of this piece were located partly in its critique of the successive and often violent "identitarianisms" that have made and remade Jerusalem for thousands of years. But also, and even more importantly, the politics were in the making of a new space filled with a kind of luminous idea resurrected from the past into the present. This new space was made possible by evacuating from the stage any signs of Jerusalem-as-is, and instead returning the Cannanite trinity, in visual forms of the triangle, as a kind of unconquerable idea. The city of Jerusalem has been made and remade over and over, and now it is a city that Israel has remade, and is still remaking, into a birthright of the Jewish people alone. I am Jerusalem made something entirely different, and this was the key to its refutation of identitarian claims.
As the play began, the stage was enveloped in red light and smoke through which three humans began to move, walking in slow undulations, linked almost as a single body—the emergence of humans awakening. These were the dancers Rasha Jahshan and Mohammad Eid with Aoun (costumed in black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh across one shoulder). The sound was stunning: it was a long, magnified exhalation, underscored by drums, and a nearly single-toned chant in a deep base tone. This sound reverberated throughout the piece, as each successive phase in Canaan was presented.
Onstage there were three triangles and Aoun explained that the triangle is the symbol for Canaan and its trinity: father, mother, and son. These triangles were formed and reformed into the signature shapes of each successive invasion, including pyramids, refugee tents, churches, and the Star of David. The triangles worked so that as they formed these shapes, Canaan was both occluded and always there as a trace in each successive present. One more thing was onstage: a large steel structure, a metal carapace with a red apple at its top. This structure [End Page 117] served as a mount, a mosque, a cross, and a cage. It bore a striking resemblance to the towers of the early Zionist "wall and tower" architectures of settlement. The carapace was a beautifully made thing; it had presence; it insisted upon itself. For Aoun, it was a symbol of oppression, a symbol of pain, a cross. Through the words of the text the apple became the reminder of expulsion, and, specifically, expulsion from Paradise (Jerusalem).
Aoun then began the play as the feminine core of Or Shalem, the earliest Jerusalem, a Canaanite city. Aoun / Jerusalem was the Palestinian who was simultaneously the Canaanite in the undivided land, indifferent...