Amir Nizar Zuabi - Jidariyya
Poetry in motion
This article is from 2008.
As the Palestinian National Theatre brings its adaptation of Jidariyya, by the great Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish, to the EIF, Steve Cramer talks to director Amir Nizar Zuabi about his nation’s rediscovery of its culture and language
Perhaps the greatest psychological pain humans can feel occurs when they are denied language. The sense of frustration that builds from a voice unheard, marginalised or rendered irrelevant by the listener can be overwhelming. This is as true of the great narratives of politics and nationhood as it is in personal relations. But long periods of denial of a voice can also lead to a tremendous articulacy when it is finally allowed utterance, and often expresses itself in poetry, as we fall back in love, not only with the sentiments expressed, but with the very words we give voice to.
As we sit on the terrace of a café in Tel Aviv, observing the palms and lush vegetation lining the narrow, immaculately kept street just off one of the city’s broad avenues, it occurs to me that director Amir Nizar Zaubi derives his articulacy from a love of words he knows have gone largely unheeded. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose epic poem Jidarriya has been adapted by Khalifa Natour for the Palestinian National Theatre, speaks about the dilemma of being marginalised, of being the one spoken of by others, and in this sense falls into a great tradition. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, represents a cry against the eradication of all traces of the English Revolution that was going on at the time of the epic poem’s composition, while Eliot’s The Waste Land seeks spiritual redress against the voracious and empty materialism of the modern age. Both artists wrote poetry in voices that went largely unheeded at the time.
But is poetry something British audiences want to hear in the theatre? Back in the the heyday of Christopher Fry and TS Eliot, poetry on stage was a pretty common occurence in this country. But it’s been half a century since these writers and their many acolytes fell from fashion, and, the general rule in the British profession has been: ‘Unless it’s Shakespeare, who we can’t avoid, stay away from verse.’ The idea of presenting verse adapted as drama has attracted even fewer admirers.
Thus, it might be with trepidation at the shock of the new that audiences approach Jidariyya, but, as Zaubi reassures me, the journey will be worth taking. ‘This show is about a sick man on his deathbed, in dialogue with himself with his culture, with his language,’ he says. ‘Mahmoud Darwish is very special for us, because he is our national poet. He’s on the edge of being a legend. Poets in the Arab world are what rock stars are in the West. There’s a very vivid poetical scene, and that’s pretty much the only cultural scene we really have. So this show is written in unbelievably beautiful and complex poetry. Staging it was a real challenge for the whole crew.’
Whatever the challenge, Jidariyya, Zaubi’s production of this epic, which he originally began working on in London during a spell away from his home theatre in Ramallah, has toured to date with distinction. ‘It’s weird for me because this show was in no way made for touring,’ he says ‘It happened because I read this unbelievable text that wouldn’t let go; it kept nudging me, going, “Hey, I’m here.” It had all the ingredients that were right for me at that moment, and culturally they were right for us. It wasn’t meant to be a show for European audiences. It’s a show for Palestinians by Palestinians. The things that occur in the show, the images, are very culturally linked. In a way that makes it interesting for foreigners to see: it’s like eavesdropping on something quite different.
He continues: ‘I was nervous about taking it away at first, but everywhere it has shown has given it a very positive reaction. I suppose that’s because it’s got a very human issue at the centre: everyone can relate to a man fearing his death and calculating his life.’
Beyond this universal idea, there are undoubted political themes to the work. The reflections of a dying man upon the land from which he has been exiled inescapably become political. For Zaubi, it’s a question of raising the issues confronting the Palestinian people, but also humanising the story. ‘As a director I keep trying to find the right balance. It was important to us to make a show that was very political, but not political in a flat way,’ he says. ‘A dying man, struggling for life – the equation is already there with Palestine, with our struggle for life, without us needing to amplify it. This is a window into the richness of our culture, and that’s a collateral gain that we get from showing it. It’s saying we’re not just about checkpoints and Israeli soldiers aiming weapons at us, we are people with a very long history, very thick in textures and colours, and this is an opportunity to meet us on that level, as well as the politics.’
Full as it is with images of prophets, goddesses and a paradoxical sprinkling of the everyday, Jidariyya speaks, Zaubi emphasises, in the rich language of the Qur’an. But religion isn’t a requirement of understanding the piece, for it’s about the land itself.
‘Islam and Christianity always co-existed, so did Judaism until the Zionistic movement,’ says Zaubi. ‘Judaism was always part of the culture, it only becomes an issue because of the world situation. I can’t say this poet is a Muslim or a Christian – he’s both. At the end of the show there’s that quote: “All rivers flow to the sea and the sea is never full.” It’s from the Old Testament; this poem is about all the religions and cultures of the region. They are all here, they walk between us, you meet them in the bus station any day, you can sit between them. This country is a meeting point for it all. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or a complete infidel like me, because culturally it’s all here, you can’t ignore it. This is the country where it all happened.’
Jidariyya, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000, 14–17 Aug, 8pm, £10–£25.