Acts of unity in a war zone

By John Nathan, May 2, 2008

Theatre director Ofira Henig tells John Nathan why her work with Palestinians could restore a lost sense of perspective to her country

In Spitting Distance, by Palestinian Taher Najib, is described as a funny and disturbing play about international travel in a post-9/11 world. Directed by Israeli Ofira Henig, it stars Khalifa Natour, who plays a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, and arrives next week at the Barbican on London, where it will be performed in Arabic with English surtitles. Although, as Henig explains, it was originally written by Najib in Hebrew.

Khalifa Natour in In Spitting Distance, directed by Israeli Ofire Henig

“He wanted to write for Hebrew-speaking members of the [Israeli] audience. I co-founded the Rukab Project [a theatre collective, with Najib and Natour] as both a friend and a director to help Taher and Khalifa tell their stories.”

You oppose the Rukab Project being seen as an example of Israeli/Palestinian coexistence. Why?
“I don’t believe that there is coexistence in Israel, and I don’t like our project to be presented as such. It would be a way of covering up the truth, of making the reality softer and more acceptable — and I don’t accept that. I have worked with Khalifa and Taher for many years, also with other Palestinian artists. It [Rukab] is not a political demonstration. Maybe it started that way — but today it is a way of life. It’s my life. There are lots of activities organised by Palestinians and Israelis that seek dialogue. But as long as there is occupation, the dialogue will not be equal.”

Does this mean you have no hope that coexistence is possible?
“I hope that peace is possible in our region. Otherwise, how could I live there? It’s so difficult, you need a reason.”

Have you found that Israeli and Palestinian audiences react differently to the play?
“We performed a few times in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Hebrew. But it was a case of preaching to the converted — to the Israelis who already wanted to listen. The same is true of the Palestinians — we performed only inside Israel — when we performed in the north and in Jaffa in Arabic. I found that there were very similar reactions with both [Israeli and Palestinian] audiences. Both shared the sense of humour and a deep sadness. When we performed in Europe and America, we didn’t feel that the audience always understood the play’s irony and humour. They didn’t allow themselves to laugh because they thought they were watching something too important. The best audience is the mixed audiences — Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners. We had this in Paris, and I was so touched. I hope it’s the same in London.”

You once said that you are an artist before you are an Israeli. How does this inform your life and work?
“I am a Jew who was born in Israel. I am the second generation descended from Holocaust survivors and I was educated to understand the universal condition, not only to remember Jewish history. The way I observe what is around me is based on this perspective. I believe this is the moral role of an artist — to give perspective. I am a very political person and I believe that Israeli society has lost its perspective. This [maybe why] I loose audiences in Israel. But now, I have found my ‘small island’ — a company that I run, and through which I can create art with the people I love and trust.”

In Spitting Distance is at the Barbican Pit, London EC2, from May 7. Tel: 020 7638 8891

Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011