All the Desert's a Stage for These Asylum Seekers

The Legislative Theater at Holot hopes putting African asylum seekers in the spotlight would force the government to reconsider its punitive approach, no less.

Ilan Assayag

At the beginning of September 2012, the Israeli media reported on how Israel was preventing the entry of 21 Eritreans into the country. The asylum seekers were trapped between the fences along the Israeli-Egyptian border: For eight days, the migrants – including a 14-year-old boy and two women – wilted under the burning Sinai sun, hoping Israel would let them in.

Israel Defense Forces troops were ordered not to give the asylum seekers food but provide them with limited amounts of water. As the migrants’ physical condition worsened, a dispute broke out among the soldiers over their orders. This real-life drama cast a spotlight on the moral and legal responsibility of Israel toward the asylum seekers, who have been arriving over the past decade or so from Eritrea and Sudan. In the end, Israel allowed the two women and boy to enter, but the men were deported back to Egypt.

Avi Mograbi, a documentary filmmaker and film lecturer, says the incident captured his attention and refused to let go. “It reminded me of the Jewish experience that many of us have in our family history – flight and escape from one land to another, and knocking on the gates of countries to seek shelter. I followed the incident from the start, and the idea of a play about the asylum seekers was born way back then. But there was one problem – I hate theater!” he laughs. “I’m a film person.”

Mograbi teamed up with Dr. Chen Alon, an actor-director and lecturer in theater studies. Their cooperation gave birth to the Legislative Theatre at Holot, a theater troupe composed of six asylum seekers who have been detained in the Holot detention center and four Israelis.

Six hours a day, every week for the past year, Alon and Mograbi made the trip south to an abandoned hangar near Holot, where they worked with the asylum seekers. Mograbi believes the remote detention center – where the asylum seekers must sign in twice daily – is “intended to make them despair. As opposed to other prisons where the prisoner’s sentence is fixed and he knows when he will be released, and the prison provides him with enrichment and educational [programs], the asylum seekers are held without trial. They are offered the wilderness, nothing to do, and given a platform of depression and emptiness that is intended to break their spirit,” he adds.

On Saturday night, their play – the first to be staged at Holot – receives its world premiere, and Mograbi’s documentary will soon be completed (his film documents the theater group’s working process). “Mograbi and his camera were another actor in the troupe,” says Alon, smiling. “Every meeting was filmed, every minute of the work process with the group documented. It’s possible to say that the theatrical process dedicated itself to the film, and the film is about the theatrical process.”

Political act

For the past 15 years, Alon has worked with groups of prisoners inside jails, addicts on detox programs, and Palestinian and Israeli activists, using the technique of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. Now, the Legislative Theatre at Holot has implemented this unique working method [which uses theater as means of promoting social and political change]. “We all can act, even actors,” Alon laughs, quoting Boal, “but during the work with the asylum seekers, I was careful to really improve their acting ability, since this is politically empowering. To learn to expand your ability for expression is a political act.”

The Theater of the Oppressed was started by Boal, a theater director and political activist, in his native Brazil in the 1960s. “Oppressed groups are, in practice, the weakest sections of society,” explains Alon. “It can be the poor, asylum seekers, prisoners, Palestinians, women. The play being performed is based on personal material that was developed during the process with the group. There was an ethnographic dimension to this work, and an attempt to decipher the language of the community.”

The play consists of images explaining the reasons the asylum seekers left their homelands, and moves between situations familiar to every asylum seeker in Israel: crossing the border; sleeping on the grass in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park; exploitative working conditions courtesy of the government’s indifference; the inability to establish a family and build a stable life here; all the way through to the last stage – imprisonment in Holot.

“During the play, there will be a reading of the UN Refugee Convention [of 1951], and an examination of the Israeli establishment’s attitude toward it,” reveals Alon. “The aim is to conduct a public debate that leads to a new approach toward the asylum seekers. The goal of the Legislative Theater at Holot is to stimulate critical thinking and address the process of democratization of legal and judicial issues directly. At the end of the play, the audience will be invited to ‘cross the border’ and come up on stage, be involved in theatrical proceedings, and to replace its image of ‘the oppressed’ – asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – and instead really share their experience and try to find solutions to their situation.

“The approach of this theater group encourages the audience to move from passivity to activity. It is not like in Brechtian theater, where the idea is to provoke the viewer to action after he leaves the theater. Here, the audience is meant to participate in searching for the solution during the show,” adds Alon.

The theater group wrote in its publicity for the play, “The Legislative Theater performance at Holot provides a democratic framework whereby legal issues can be critically examined and discussed with the audience, which is invited to actively imagine the possibility of policy and legal change toward asylum seekers in Israel.”

Staging real-life dramas

“We don’t have permission! If we provide water, all of Africa will come to the fence,” says an Israeli soldier dispassionately. He’s being played by Yonatan Yohanes Estifanos, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea. The rehearsal room is filled with shouts of people begging for their lives and asking to enter Israeli territory. When the rehearsals have ended, Estifanos takes off his soldier’s hat and his eyes fill with tenderness.

“It’s hard to play the Israeli soldier on the border, who closes his heart and refuses to help these asylum seekers fleeing for their lives,” he says. “But the hardest part is to be myself on the stage: It is even harder for me to play the part based on my own personal story and show how the relationship with my wife fell apart,” he admits.

Estifanos has been in Israel for six and a half years. “Three times the Egyptian and Israeli soldiers passed us between Egyptian and Israeli territory, until the Israeli soldiers brought us in,” he recalls. “I entered jail about 14 months ago. My wife didn’t receive a visa and left for Sudan with our daughter.” He falls silent, before continuing. “That’s the hardest thing. Missing your family. Every time, [the Israeli government] offers me ‘Rwanda or Uganda and $3,500.’ But I did not escape to Israel in order to make money. I came in order to find freedom, human rights, recognition as a refugee.”

He joined the theater group five months ago. “This is the first time I have acted, that I have experienced this world,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself, and the work filled me with happiness and gave me hope. The most moving thing for me was to discover there are Israelis that do not hate us; to understand that there are people who see us as people and treat us like human beings,” he reflects.

“I play the child that Israel ultimately decides to allow in,” says Awet Asheber, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea. “I feel it is also my story. This is the story of all of us. That is also how I entered Israel – like the small child who doesn’t know anything,” he says.

Asheber fled to Israel seven years ago. His wife fell ill and died after she was deported to Ethiopia with their young son. Since then, Asheber says, he has been emotionally devastated. “I asked to be allowed to leave for Ethiopia in order to be reunited with [my son] and raise him, but they have refused my request.” He joined the theater group eight months ago.

“In Eritrea, I acted in the school theater. The stage was my dream. Acting allows me once again to feel, to be freed a little from the sadness. The community of asylum seekers conducted demonstrations and marched, and nothing helped,” he notes. “I hope that maybe through the theater, we can reach the hearts of Israelis and pass on a message: We have no interest in settling down here. No one wants to be in exile, a person without roots, a persecuted refugee, far from home, family and their language.”

The first performance will be staged at 5:30 P.M. on Saturday, June 13 at Holot. The play is open to the public and there will be buses leaving from both Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva, departing Tel Aviv at 2:30.