With pantomime, folklore, song and allegory, a unique Palestinian theater group is carrying the age-traditions of the Arab storyteller into modern times and foreign places.
Adopting the Arabic word for "storyteller" as its name, the El-Hakawati Company was founded in 1977and is based in East Jerusalem, the only Palestinian theater group to be formed in the occupied territories. For the first six years of its existence, the six-person company had no permanent home, and operated from any temporary accommodation it could find - and afford.
Nevertheless, El-Hakawati performed all over the West Bank, often bringing its audiences the first live theater they had ever experienced. The group staged its productions in refugee camps, towns and villages, using any available structure that could be adapted as a theater - school buildings, chamber-of-commerce offices, clubs - and if nothing else was to be found, they performed in the open air.
"The enthusiasm of the audience was the key element," said François Abu Salem, the driving force in the foundation of El-Hakawati. "That's what allowed us to maintain our determination to establish El-Hakawati as a permanent, successful Palestinian company." Not all the enthusiasm was local, for during this early period the group also toured widely in Europe, where it soon established a solid artistic reputation with the audiences of major European drama festivals.
In 1983 El-Hakawati took over a derelict rnovie theater in East Jerusalem. Completely burned out in a previous fire, the building was a shell: little more than four walls. Brooklyn-born Jackie Lubeck, another leading member of the group and the wife of Abu Salem, remembers how all the members of the company pitched in with the rebuilding and refurbishing needed to turn the ruin into a professional theater. After six months of desperately hard work, the Nuzhat El-Hakawati Theater was finally opened, and the group had a permanent and suitable base in the heart of Jerusalem.
In the manner of its storyteller precursors, El-Hakawati mixes contemporary events with Arab folklore in its dramatic projections of Palestinian identity. The group's productions, combining elements of mime, carnival, allegory and satire, are collective works of all the members, who may improvise - often extensively - in performance.
A typical presentation by El-Hakawati is the production the group recently took to England. The play, "The Story of Kufur Shamma," was scripted by Lubeck and Abu Salem, and was performed in London in Arabic with projected English-language "subtitles." It tells the story of Walid, a brother of the village headman, who returns from studying in Cairo to his home in the fictional Palestinian village of Kufur Shamma. He finds a ghost town: The village has been destroyed and the inhabitants swept away by a war. Only the village fool, powerfully played by Amar Khalil, remains in the ruins.
Walid, played by guest performer Nabil El-Hajjar, sets out with the fool on a picaresque journey to find the scattered people of Kufur Shamma - a journey which takes them to other Arab countries, to the United States and, finally, back to the village in Palestine.
The play avoids the pitfalls of either self-pity or dogma, and concentrates on what one English reviewer described as "vigorous and vivid theatrical imagery."
"The theatrical life of Abu Salem's production," another critic wrote in The Times of London, "appears less in its line of thought than in its passing episodes and images of refugee life. It conjures up tented camps, quarries, refugee cafés, from a bare sand-strewn semi-circle, with oil drums and rocks as the only furnishings. Bombardments and farmyards alike are conjured up with swishing streamers and marionette-theatre props on fishing rods." The critic of London's Kaleidoscope called the production "theatrically innovative, as well as politically acute."
However innovative their theatrical style, though, El-Hakawati's roots go deep. The art of storytelling is a prominent part of Arab popular culture, with its beginning in the folklore and mythology of the earliest Arab times. The recital of folk tales has always been a prime source of entertainment at all levels of Arab society, and the storyteller enjoys an honored and privileged position.
Much of the world-famous collection of legends, fairy tales and fables contained in the Arabian Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah, The Thousand and One Nights) may be derived from Babylonian and pharaonic folklore; it was refined and embellished by centuries of Arab storytellers from Baghdad to Cairo into the quintessential Arab form it has today. The early Islamic period, a few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 (AH 10), saw the emergence of a class of storytellers, the street preachers. A spontaneous phenomenon, the street preachers used the old Arab folk tales as a basis for pious and instructive homilies with a religious flavor, delivered to attentive crowds in the courtyards of mosques, in the streets and squares and other public places.
In time, the street preachers faded from the scene, but their place was taken by the professional storytellers who, to this day, ply their creative and diverting trade. The Arab professional storyteller, al-hakawati, is an entertainer first and foremost, employing an actor's skills to hold the attention of his keenly knowledgeable audiences. His stock in trade is classic: familiar folk stories and celebrated chronicles known throughout the Arab world, like the romances of 'Antar, the heroic warrior-poet of nomadic tribal life in pre-Islamic times; or the myriad adventures of the Banu Hilal, the ancient North Arabian tribe whose battles, migrations and feats of chivalry provide an almost inexhaustible source for the storytellers' spellbinding eloquence.
Relying heavily on inspired improvisation, adapting and embroidering each story to individual audiences, the Arab storyteller is an accomplished stylist and polished performer. And so it is with the El-Hakawati Company. "This is poverty theatre," The Times's review said, "practised with a degree of technical sophistication to appeal to the world's art theatre audiences."
"The Story of Kufur Shamma" is the second of El-Hakawati's productions to be taken to Britain. Two years ago the group performed "The Story of the Eye and the Tooth" in London, which earned it critical acclaim. And the company's ambitions stretch further. Although the group has toured the major European countries, it has yet to perform in Arab countries: There are formidable barriers to travel from El-Hakawati's base in East Jerusalem.
Another major objective of the group is to stage a tour of the United States, says Abu Salem - but money is the problem there. "We want to perform in the bigger theaters in the larger cities in the U.S.," he says, "but we don't yet have the professional and artistic contacts we need in America." Efforts to form those links are under way, however, and Lubeck is clearly expressing the whole company's views when she says it is "of vital importance" to reach American audiences.
For a tiny and impoverished theatrical company, the obstacles to conducting a successful tour of the United States are considerable. But bootstraps are nothing new to El-Hakawati. "If we can turn a burned-out and abandoned cinema into a thriving Palestinian theater," Nabil El-Hajjar says, "then we can surely manage an American tour." François Abu Salem nods agreement. "We will do it," he says.
John Christie, OBE, is the editor of Gulf States Newsletter, which covers Arabian Gulf affairs.