For the first time in many years, the Acre Fringe Theater Festival will not have any performances in Arabic either in its competition or as guest performances – a surprising development given that Acre is a mixed Jewish-Arab city and the festival has been one of its cultural highlights for 35 years.
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The festival’s only reference to Arabic-language theater will be during a seminar at the Western Galilee Academic College on “Arabs and Jews in Israeli Theater and Dance,” with actors Salim Dau and Rawda Suleiman among the participants.
“This is a regression to the 1980s,” said Dr. Naftali Shem Tov of the Open University, who has researched the Acre Festival and will be moderating a panel of playwrights at the seminar. “Since 2001 there has been a standard of at least one Arabic play in the competition and two in other frameworks. If they don’t want the festival to be ‘Tel Avivian’ they have to be proactive and contact artists. It’s a matter of policy and awareness.”
Moreover, the website for the festival, which takes place during the intermediate days of Sukkot, is only in Hebrew and English, with no Arabic translation.
Ever since the festival was launched in 1980, it has hosted performances by Arabic theaters, including Beit Gefen in Haifa and the Al-Hakawati Theater in East Jerusalem. The first Arabic play to participate in the festival competition was “Jabbar’s Head” by Beit Gefen in 1989. Last year the play “Salim, Salim,” written and directed by Stav Palti-Negev, part of which was performed in Arabic, was chosen Best Play.
Gil Alon, the festival’s artistic director, defended the program.
“For the festival to reject a performance because its participants are Arabs or to accept a performance to the festival because its participants are Arabs is the same thing,” he said. “Reverse discrimination is bad, like any discrimination. The origin of the artists, whether they be Jewish, Arab or Chinese, is irrelevant to the artistic considerations. The sole considerations for choosing a performance for the Acre Festival are artistic ones.”
Alon added that the festival had received three interesting submissions from Arab groups from Nazareth, Sakhnin and Acre; each script had passed the reading stage and all three were invited to the presentation stage. “Each group separately, after experiencing various difficulties in organization and casting, decided not to appear before the artistic committee for the presentation stage,” he said.
Shem Tov had difficulty accepting Alon’s arguments, saying “artistic considerations” camouflaged a larger problem. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three different submissions couldn’t be organized to make a presentation. This is a systemic [problem] related to the broader context of the difficulties and obstacles face by Arab artists in Israel.”
As to the lack of Arabic on the festival website, the festival spokesman said, “As every year, at the request of the city’s Arab population, the festival cooperates with the city’s leading Arabic website Akkanet. The festival program will be posted there in a few days, once the translation is finished.”