Stage Corner: The Siege

Mustafa-e1505909303905-660x330The Siege is a theatrical retelling of  2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, during the height of the second intifada.  The Siege was developed by  The Freedom Theatre, and here is a description from their website:

April 2002. Spring in Bethlehem. A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the center of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew. Inside the Church of Nativity the besieged are hungry and weakening. The smell of unwashed bodies and broken lavatories is mixed with the stench from the suppurating wounds of the injured. Two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.

Palestine is rather personal to me.  I am not Palestinian, but I am Egyptian, which means that, like many Arab children, I grew up immersed in the struggle through friends, family, and the media.  So, walking in, I was prepared for it to be gutting.  It did not disappoint.

The staging is simple but eerily effective: in the center of the stage is a single free-standing set wall, with a doorway attached to it.  Fawanees (lanterns) dangle from the ceiling, a ratty carpet coats the floor, and heavenly light is cast upon the church, ensconcing it in otherworldly smoke.  It’s not an immersive show, but you do feel immersed.  The show begins with a man playing a tour guide, breaking the fourth wall as he takes the audience on a tour through the church.  (This is in English, though the rest of the show is in Arabic with supertitles, which makes everything more hyper-focused.)  Then, lightning fast, the scene switches to the siege, and cacophonous gunshots and explosions can be heard all around as six young men, one bleeding profusely, rush into the church for safety.

The cast is made up entirely of six men, soldiers who have gotten trapped in the church as the Israeli army surrounds them.  Though the show is quite short and fast-paced, each of these characters manages to establish some facet of their personality through incisive dialogue.  Some of these men are wholly committed to the cause, some are willing to die for it, some are more hesitant, some are willing to eat cats to survive, some would rather die than eat cats to survive.  Though they are shown grappling with tanks and gunfire, they also sing, make jokes, talk about their favorite foods and their family members and fiances.

They are also not afraid to get political (or I should say, the show is not afraid to get political), and I can see why pro-Israel factions were angered by this (The Public Theater cancelled this show twice).  The cast discusses the Israeli/Western propaganda machine that turns reality upside down, turning the oppressed Palestinians into the oppressors, while ignoring Israel’s occupation and continuing war crimes.  They talk about the pointlessness of negotiations with an international community that has already deemed them nothing more than terrorists while all they want is simply to survive and live in their land, which stolen from them by a violent invading regime.

In the after-show panel, the director said that her goal was to humanize men who had been explicitly demonized in the media for doing nothing more than defending their own land.  She also stressed the importance of critical thinking and independent research.  Her panel members impressed upon us the need to look beyond American media sources.  Honestly, for me, it was just incredible to finally be in a space where I didn’t feel like I was being gaslighted about Israel’s crimes.  Once, in a graduate classroom, I had to listen to a classmate deem harsh criticism of Israel as “hate speech” and have an entire class of graduate students nod in agreement.  It was…cathartic to finally see the reality of Israel and Palestine reflected in an American space.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the show, one of the most beautiful and most humanizing, was when two of the characters are praying.  The Palestinian Freedom Fighters are made up of both Muslims and Christians, and in one scene the audience is witness to one of the Muslim men kneeling on his prayer rug while the Christian man is praying with his priest.  They are right beside one another: it is a heart-warming juxtaposition.  Often, in the media’s haste to demonize Muslims, the occupation of Palestine is characterized as a “Muslims vs Jews” struggle, while Palestinian Christians are sidelined.  It is helpful to remember that there are many Palestinian Christians engaged in this struggle, and that the fighting has little do with religion.

The after-show panel ended by discussing the intersection of politics and performance.  Art like this isn’t just there to give people hope, but also to change hearts and minds, to give people (in this case, Americans) a different reality outside their propaganda bubble.  I certainly hope this show manages to change some minds, and that it continues to tour even in the face of opposition.