Seeking Asylum on Tel Aviv Stage

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

"In addition to a judicial system for Jews and a separate one for Palestinians, there is a third system of justice in Israel when it comes to the Africans," Omer Shatz wrote recently in a blog on the Eretz HaEmori blogging site, the title of which means the land of the Amorite, a reference to an ancient Semitic people.

Even after an incident last year in which a group of African migrants from Eritrea seeking to cross the border into Israel ended up trapped between two rows of fences along the border, no government investigative commission was held or even a decent movie made about the law as applied to Africans, the blogger wrote.

There is an exception to this state of affairs, however. Last week, three Sudanese refugees performed at the A-Genre festival at Tel Aviv's Tmuna theater.

In the same month that an Interior Ministry taskforce recommended that the government not automatically accept the United Nations' stance on the refugee issue and instead consider adopting policy that would put Israel in violation of its obligations under international law, performance artist Guy Gutman decided to mount a production with three Sudanese refugees. They are Nagmaldun Amari, 27, Waladin Suluman, 30, and Mubarak Barakeh, 25. He met them in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, a focal point in a neighborhood where many African migrants make their home.

Gutman is known mostly for the performance art that he directed with Tamar Raban for the Bamat Meitzag theater, the Alhambra theater in Jaffa and Ensemble 209. He has a Bachelor's degree in art from the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Besancon, France, and a Master's in art from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London. Since 2009 he has been the director of Jerusalem's School of Virtual Theater. In the course of his work in south Tel Aviv and Jaffa, he recounted, he passed Levinsky Park on numerous occasions but didn't stop to talk to refugees there.

In recent months the bustle of activity, including an urban library for migrants at the park and a theater class that is held there, sparked his imagination. He invited the three Sudanese migrants to perform with him at the A-Genre festival. 

A few days before the first performance, Gutman and his three new colleagues still didn't know for sure what they would be performing. Amari had already proposed that the Sudanese clean the stage, in obvious homage to their line of work, but nothing came of the suggestion. Every time he met with the Sudanese at Levinsky Park for rehearsals, he found them talking about Sudanese history, their situation as refugees and their recurring surprise at their lack of acceptance in Israel. Every time Gutman began his outline of an artistic narrative for the performance, he found that their spontaneous conversation was a real artistic act.

"True, I am male, Ashkenazi, white and privileged and thanks to that, they were performing," he said, "but I view this show as a starting point that should create more significant interaction with the refugees in the future. Levinsky Park is a ghetto. Usually you can't cross its boundaries but that is precisely what I am trying to undermine. I am seeking to begin to make our identities more fluid."

Last week marked the 11th A-Genre festival and this year's theme was the relationship between the mainstream and the marginal. Gutman was not interested, however, in reviving theatrical controversies from the 1980s, but instead in exploring the pressing problems inherent in the concept of marginality. "We as a society are judged based on how we accept the narrative of the minority," Gutman asserted. "Society cannot progress if it doesn't identify 'the other' in its midst and if it is subject to constant paranoia. The moment you dismiss someone else's narrative you run the risk that one day the narrative being dismissed will be yours."

When asked whether in the absence of an artistic narrative he is using the Sudanese and their suffering or even exploiting them, Gutman responded: "As far as I am concerned, I am doing performance art involving remaking a place for oneself and placing myself within the minority. The refugee is the most extreme case of the minority today. His identity is the most fluid and his existence the most precarious. The existing legal options make him subhuman. Beyond that, my dream is to establish a south Tel Aviv ensemble, an artistic community that will also be in contact with the surrounding neighborhoods."

Suluman and Barakeh are from Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Amari is from newly independent South Sudan. He has been in Israel for about two years and writes and speaks fluent Hebrew. Amari and Suluman both have Bachelor's degrees: Amari's in textiles and Suluman's in Islamic studies from the art department at the University of Khartoum. All three refugees are passionate about politics and don’t stop talking about freedom, identity and liberation. "We don't have the leisure of dealing with other things," Amari explained.

He recounted that in his student days in Sudan, he led a struggle with communist overtones in which he was witness to some of the Sudanese people's opposition to the Islamic government. For his part, Suluman noted that from his first days in Israel, he was interviewed by the news media here about the political situation in his country.

When asked why they agreed to take part in performance art without knowing how it would be used, the refugees said they would derive satisfaction from recounting the story of Sudanese history to the audience and from the very act of speaking. Even in their precarious circumstances, they said, they can be involved with art. Suluman added that he participates in the Levinsky Park theater class and has greatly enjoyed it.

Sudanas it was before the arrival of extremist Islam

And then they moved on to the political performance. "Sudan is in the midst of an identity crisis," Amari says. "The governments want to impose an Islamist Arab identity, but the Sudanese are not of Arab origin and the result is segregation, discrimination and genocide. The concept of an Arab-Islamic state has so far killed two million people in the south and 300,000 in Darfur."

Suluman: "Historically Sudan did not have extremist Islam. The nationalist Arabs exploited the vacuum left by British colonialism. There are many tribes in the north, south, east and west of Sudan that are currently cut off from one another due to the war and division, and the government is supporting war among them, thereby increasing the killing."

Amari: "After the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country, we felt an immediate change in school. We no longer studied the history of Sudan but rather of Saudi Arabia. My body is black, but I remember the moment well when they said this color was not good. The people say that Sudan is African, then all of a sudden someone was saying that wasn't so. As a result [of the situation], there are now ten million Sudanese outside their country."

Like the rhetoric of the protest movements in Spain, Greece, New York and Tel Aviv, the three Sudanese recounted about how people in Sudan also speak of a "new Sudan" that is inclusive of everyone—Christians, Muslims and Africans. Suluman: "It's a popular idea in Sudan, but it won't be put into practice because there's no democracy. The government is dictatorial. In recent years, women in Sudan have begun wearing head coverings like the women in Saudi Arabia. On television they bring in women especially from Qatar, and as a result African women have begun using heavy makeup to make their skin white, because that has become the model of beauty."

Amari distills his vision of a country of all of its citizens: "Every religion is derived from God, but politics is derived from people. It could be that Mohammed said something and Allah said something but I and others speak differently. Today, my generation in Sudan knows what politicians are, unlike my father. The politicians want to unify the people based on religion. They say Sudan is like Saudi Arabia, but we say Sudan is all of the Sudanese people."

Israeli performance artist Guy Gutman and the three Sudanese refugees, Nagmaldun Amari, Waladin Suluman and Mubarak Barakeh.Credit: David Bachar
Israeli performance artist Guy Gutman and the three Sudanese refugees, Nagmaldun Amari, Waladin Suluman and Mubarak Barakeh. Credit: David Bachar

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