A basic human right - but not for Habima, say Palestinians

Sami Metwasi as Richard II in the Ashtar Theatre’s Palestinian version

Sami Metwasi as Richard II in the Ashtar Theatre’s Palestinian version

Actors from the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre and their supporters have insisted that art is a basic human right - and then declared that all Israeli performers should be boycotted and stopped from performing at the Globe Theatre.

Last week, after receiving a standing ovation for their colourful and enjoyable Arabic-language version of Richard II as part of the Globe's Shakespeare festival, Ashtar members joined a discussion on "theatre under occupation," organised by Jewish anti-Israel campaigner Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi.

The panel event, held at the Globe but organised independently, featured Ashtar's artistic director Iman Aoun, actors George Ibrahim and Nicola Zreineh, as well as Bidisha, author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Wall, and playwright Sonja Linden.

Questioned by the audience on the role of theatre, Mr Zreineh, who played Bolingbroke, said that it was "about communicating stories."

"This is why we Palestinians believe that theatre can be a very powerful tool to create change first in Palestine, and then regionally and internationally," he said.

To nods of approval and applause from the other panellists, Bidisha added: "It's about artists saying, I want to create artistic practices, to exhibit, to perform, to go on tour. These are normal, absolutely basic human rights.

"Artistic creation and drama is wholly universal, and it is a human right to create and perform."

"Art really does have a role in our very conflict-ridden world," said Ms Linden. "The artist's role is to reflect and engage. I'm interested in theatre as a forum for communicating."

Yet moments later, asked to share their views on the recent calls for the Globe to withdraw its invitation to Israel's Habima Theatre company – due to perform The Merchant of Venice at the Globe later this month – the panellists argued that no Israelis should be given a place on stage.

"It's not about Habima, it's about any Israeli organisation, governmental or non governmental, because for us we call for boycotting Israel. That's it," said Mr Zreineh. "As long as there is no justice in our area, we call for boycotting Israel as a state.

"For us it's not about Habima or not Habima, it's about an Israeli existence in our land, in our area."

"We support the BDS [boycott, diverstmenty and sanctions] and the cultural boycott of Israel," said Ms Aoun. "We have also written to the Globe asking them to disinvite Habima because we were shocked to know that Habima was on board and that they have performed in the settlements. [They] are complicit with the Israeli government, and this is our stance.

"The Israelis don't care, but we don't care as well and our voice will stay loud and we will say no to the occupation, no to anyone who would support it."

Ashtar members also spoke of the parallels they identified between the story of Richard II and the Middle East, including the medieval king's invasion of Ireland.

"In the end King Henry comes to Palestine to clean his hands, so I said, they clean their hands and they dirty our lands," joked Ms Aoun. "It is our narrative, it's a Palestinian-Irish narration, because Ireland is or was ruled by Britain, and so was Palestine," she said.

Last updated: 4:42pm, May 14 2012