During the last week of Ramadan in early May, I was sitting with Acre Theatre Director Moni Yosef at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Old City. As we enjoyed a drink, the call to prayer of the muezzin reverberated through the northern city’s streets and the owners cut the music to show their respect.
Along with a few other actors, Yosef – who is also my father-in-law – came to Acre 36 years ago to establish a fringe theater in a city that was on the fringes of Israeli society: A poor, neglected place made up of Arab residents and Jewish immigrants, mostly from northern Africa, who found work in factories around Haifa Bay.
Yet Acre has tucked within it a rare gem: an old city with a rich history, spanning from the time of the Crusaders through to the Ottoman Empire, the Napoleonic era and the British mandate. Its architecture resembles Istanbul; its market is bustling with merchants, fishmongers, restaurants and food stalls, and in 2006 it was designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site.
The Old City was rediscovered in recent years, first by the Israeli public and then by outside investors. Boutique hotels began to pop up in the alleys, fine-dining restaurants opened up; locals and other Israelis opened up Airbnb units. And in 2019, it was announced that the historic Khan al-Umdan – the caravansary constructed in 1784 during the rule of Ahmed Jezzar Pasha – would be converted into a large hotel.
The theater itself is a stone’s throw from the restaurant at the edge of the Old City and seems to encapsulate the region’s complex history: It is located in an 18th-century Ottoman structure next to the Al-Jazzar mosque, across from Crusader-era ruins, a block away from the British Mandate district and below the hill where Napoleon and his men were halted on their way to conquer Jerusalem. Before the actors took over, the structure was a mental asylum.
As the call to prayer ended that May night and the music came back on, it seemed that the goal of Yosef and so many others in Acre had finally been realized. A week later, however, it looked like all the progress that had been made was lost.
Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, was supposed to mark the beginning of Acre’s peak period. The cobbled streets were supposed to be brimming with tourists. But when I returned to the city after the days of anarchy that had swept through Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities during the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, the Old City was abandoned save for the bored Border Police patrol unit sitting at the entrance to the city.
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The air, which in regular times is scented with the fragrance of boiled lupin beans and the ocean breeze, smelled of ash and smoke. The Arab locals, who a week before were hurrying to buy goods for the holiday, were shut in their homes.
During the riots, hotels and restaurants were torched and Airbnb locations smashed. Arab youths clashed with yeshiva members. One Israeli died from the injuries he suffered while trying to flee a smoke-filled hotel. And at the height of the violence, rioters threw molotov cocktails through the theater’s windows, burning down the offices and causing smoke damage to the halls.
Entering this centuries-old structure, the acrid stench of burnt plastic and musty water made my lungs tighten. Yosef was there with artistic directors Khaled Abu-Ali and Smadar Ya’aron, surveying the damage.
Yosef’s office was in ruins: pitch black metal chairs; computers and a printer warped from the heat; 36 years’ worth of documentation degraded to dust; and wall posters of past shows faded to black.
“When we were finally able to enter, we found two molotov cocktails that hadn’t exploded. The damage could’ve been that much worse,” Yosef reflected.
“What I’m most sad about is our actors,” Abu-Ali said. “We were just getting back after a year in which they were sitting at home during the coronavirus. Now this.”
Yosef added, “It’s such a pity because Acre was enjoying a resurgence with new business opening and tourists flooding the streets. We all built this theater, scraping and cleaning the old stone, building stages. We were finally seeing the fruit of what we’ve been working toward for the past 36 years. It’ll take months or even years for the public to come back to Acre.”
The show must go on
Despite their initial shock, Yosef, Abu-Ali and Ya’aron quickly went back to work. They launched a fundraising campaign, started extensive renovations, staged new shows and, together with the municipality, began preparations for Acre’s upcoming fringe theatre festival in September. (It was held online last year due to the pandemic, but the theater is hoping the recent delta variant surge won’t affect plans to return to live performances this year.)
“This is what we’re committed to,” Yosef explained in a recent phone interview. “No matter how tensions flare, no matter how much we fight – as long as we foster this dialogue between ourselves and the community, continue creating a shared space of creativity and unity, this city and this theater can move on and grow.”
Acre Theatre has always stood as a symbol of Jewish-Arab partnership since opening in 1985. It was established by David Maya’an, an up-and-coming theater director who, along with Yosef, Abu-Ali and Ya’aron, wanted to create beyond the mainstream of repertory theater and Israel’s hegemonic cultural centers, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“The theater was founded with two goals in mind: First, to create a unique theatrical language; and second, to work and engage with the community,” Ya’aron recounts. Following the teachings of theorists like Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theater director who revolutionized theatrical practices, members of Acre Theatre aimed to create experimental work that challenges societal, political and artistic norms and conventions in the conservative cultural landscape of Israel.
“In mainstream theater, the creator is a tool in service of the play, the director, the playwright or the institution of the theater. Here, the creator is at the center of their creation,” Ya’aron explains. “We create from our personal stories, our social circles, our national identities. We examine and bend them, we undermine them. These are the working materials.”
The theater’s oeuvre is provocative and, at times, outright shocking. One of its most famous pieces is “Arbeit macht frei Mi Toitland Europa” (“Work Liberates from the Deathland of Europe”), a five-hour performance challenging the hegemonic Holocaust remembrance industry. It was so controversial when it came out in 1991 that the culture minister threatened to strip the theater of its funds.
“We refused to budge. ‘Take away our budget,’ [we said]; it was a pittance anyway,” Yosef recalls. The show was performed in festivals globally, from Germany to Japan, and became canonical in the fringe theater world.
“No one leaves our shows unscathed. You can’t come to our show and fall asleep in row 8,” Yosef continues. “We pull our audience into the performance, into the event. We aren’t here to educate anyone, to send a message; we’re all in the same sinking boat.”
Often, the shows process everyday experiences directly concerning the complex local reality, such as those of Palestinian citizens of Israel. “It’s hard to bring audiences to our plays. Who wants to think about war, racism? People want simple stories, get dressed up, go to the theater to laugh for an hour, and go have dinner. People don’t come out of our shows with an appetite,” says Abu-Ali, who comes from the Arab city of Sakhnin.
All three insist that their passion for controversial material isn’t gratuitous. It comes from a deep interest in confronting people’s violent urges and hidden bigotries. “We all have a little fascist inside of us,” Yosef says.
No surprise or shock
Being part of the community in Acre has always been a pillar of the theater. After the riots in May, many questioned the possibility of working and living together in a mixed environment. “We never thought riots like these would happen here,” Yosef admits. “In other cities, yes, but here there was a sense of unity. I don’t know if the young people who threw the molotov cocktails knew it was a theater. It was about burning down everything.”
He points out that though the rioters were allegedly residents of the Old City, “More people from the Old City came to put out the fire than those who set it alight.”
Ya’aron, meanwhile, says that “as someone who’s been living here for decades, I was not surprised or shocked by the events. What did people think would happen when you belittle and degrade a people for so long? As members of the community, we believe that this doesn’t change our relations with the city, with the people of Acre. The only ruins we need to rebuild are the physical ones; no fire can destroy the community we built.”
During the riots, phone calls from locals in the Arab-majority Old City calling for assistance were ignored because officers were afraid to enter the area’s narrow streets. And the fire department refused to come without a police escort, so businesses burned to the ground.
Yet when the riots subsided, residents gathered to clean the streets and clear the trash while singing a song popular with locals: “I will not sell you Acre, not for the entire world / I will not leave my neighborhood if they would offer me all the castles in the world.”
“Living and working within the local community is the greatest gift I got, not only professionally,” says Ya’aron, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who has her father’s concentration camp number tattooed on one arm and an image of a Palestinian boy who became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle on the other.
“There were so many things I didn’t know about the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict when I got to Acre because there was social denial about Israel’s history,” she says. “It’s not like today when you can find facts about the conflict, what we did to the Palestinian people, with one click. It was in meeting people and hearing their stories that I got to realize the disparity between what I was told and the historical realities.”
It seems the theater’s commitment to the city and its mixed population springs from an urge to tell stories seldom told in Israeli culture. “We opened our doors to populations from all walks of life: Jewish, Muslims, Druze, Christians,” Abu-Ali says. “We have a program from children’s theater in Arabic, Masraheed – the premier Arab-speaking theater festival in Israel; a program for the elderly; a hub for young actors. We held sessions of Jewish and Arab youths. Now some of them work in the theater.”