Despite Political Attacks, Israeli Arab Theater Returns, Unbowed

Most of the drama occurring at Haifa'a Al-Midan theater occurred offstage in 2016, but the Arab repertory theater has big plans now it has a full budget again.

The Al-Midan theater in Haifa.
Rami Shllush

The Al-Midan Theater in Haifa is ready to reopen its doors following a tumultuous year in which the Arabic-language center’s funding was heavily cut after a political furor surrounding the staging of a play about a Palestinian prisoner.

Bashar Murkus’ “A Parallel Time” was inspired by the story of Walid Daqqa, who received a life sentence for participating in the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli soldier in 1984. As a result of the production, the Haifa municipality and the Culture and Sports Ministry temporarily froze the theater’s funding in the fall of 2015.

Al-Midan was subsequently forced to operate on a limited basis, performing children’s shows and staging outside productions. At the same time, its staff invested great efforts in providing financial stability and extracting the theater from its financial hole.

Last week, actor-director Amer Hlehel became the theater’s new artistic director. He’s going to be kept busy, as he will also co-manage the theater.

“Palestine, Year Zero”.
David Kaplan

“A Parallel Time” will remain in the theater’s repertory, while another play that sparked controversy last year, Einat Weitzman’s “Palestine, Year Zero,” is also being added.

Al-Midan is also adding classic plays such as Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Brecht’s “Mother Courage” to its 2017 repertoire.

In November 2015, Haifa District Court accepted the petition Al-Midan had filed against the Haifa municipality, and ordered the city to renew its annual funding of 1.2 million shekels ($312,000).

The Culture Ministry had also frozen its funding of the theater that year because of improper financial management, as well as for violating regulations by renting out its auditoriums to political groups.

Al-Midan petitioned the High Court of Justice against that move, and last March the two sides signed a compromise deal in which the theater would receive the entire sum budgeted by the ministry for 2015 (1.1 million shekels) and receive an annual budget allocation, but would also be fined 300,000 shekels – to be paid back over four years, starting in 2016.

Last year, the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations conducted an in-depth audit of the theater and granted it a certificate of proper management for the year. Haifa’s municipality has already transferred the 2016 budget to the theater, and the Culture Ministry is expected to do likewise soon, meaning the theater’s annual budget is now about 2.5 million shekels.

Amer Hlehel.
Alex Levac

“The matter of the support for Al-Midan, conditional on its submitting the activities reports as required, is still under examination,” the Culture Ministry told Haaretz.

Al-Midan Chairman Joseph Atrash said a children’s festival was held at the theater last year, with productions by Arab artists and theater groups. In addition, the theater produced the play “Gaza” by director-playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi.

“Even before the ‘A Parallel Time’ crisis, it was clear to us that we wanted to bring return Al-Midan as the flagship of theatrical production in the Arab community,” said Atrash. “After that time, we reached a situation in which it was possible to rebuild everything from scratch: A new staff, new plays, and a new artistic director, who was appointed for three years. We hope to bring the theater back to the people,” he added.

Hlehel, who starred in a number of productions at Al-Midan and also directed various plays there, also emphasized the importance of restoring the public’s faith in the theater. “Al-Midan’s role is to reach people who have never seen theater in their lives, to deepen theatrical education in society,” he said, adding, “Our audience is meant to be wide, and we need to speak to everyone.”

Al-Midan’s audience, which has seen big, commercial productions in Arab countries, is not interested in mere entertainment, said Hlehel, adding, “It is looking for something with a layer of meaning.

Joseph Atrash.
Iyad Masalha

“For our audience, the theater is still a place to gather together, to express an opinion, to ask difficult questions and to not agree about things,” he continued. “Not just to come for two hours, enjoy it and go home – but also to be engaged. Subsidized repertory theater like Al-Midan has the best audience: Broad, which allows you to present them with significant things. It’s an open, dangerous audience because it’s critical, smart and understands, it’s not naive,” he said.

Atrash said both he and Hlehel feel there is a sense of expectation in the northern city – especially in the predominantly Arab Wadi Nisnas neighborhood – ahead of Al-Midan’s return with a full program.

“People say it’s fun that the theater is coming back,” said Atrash. “We hope to create an atmosphere of togetherness with the residents of Haifa, and also to bring in new audiences.”

Along with “Palestine, Year Zero,” Al-Midan will present “Zikaron” (“Memory)”, a solo show by Yussuf Abu-Warda, based on the writings of Druze author-playwright Salman Natour, who died last February.

Alongside “Twelfth Night” and “Mother Courage,” Hlehel is also planning a new production of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” as well as an original new play.

“My intention for local writing is not just for materials touching on Haifa but for pan-Palestinian writing,” said Hlehel. “Also materials of Palestinian writers in exile and in the West Bank, or historical figures.”

Atrash and Hlehel hope to turn Al-Midan into a cultural center and theatrical space for fringe groups working in the Haifa area, as well as establishing it as the largest theatrical institution for the local Arab population.

There will also other collaborations, including with the independent Palestinian Khashabi Theater, founded by Murkus in Haifa over a year ago.

As for the inclusion of “A Parallel Time” in the repertoire, Atrash explained that the play continues to draw audiences. “From that affair, it emerged that this is a ‘kosher’ play according to all the rules and understandings; it does not matter whether you like it or not,” added Hlehel.

But one thing you won’t hear on the Al-Midan stage is Hebrew. “When they establish an Arabic stage at Habima [the national theater in Tel Aviv], we will establish a Hebrew stage,” said Hlehel. “Al-Midan has a target audience and it barely meets the demands of its population – so to put on productions in Hebrew? Now is not the time.”