Singing Their Life With Her Words

Actress, TV personality and entertainer Amal Murkus has a goal - giving a voice to the culture of Palestinian society

On the stage is Al-Hakawati, the venerable Palestinian storyteller who has returned after a long exile to the fishing village where he was born. All the children are grown now and have forgotten him, and the younger ones have never heard of him. Then he begins his tale: of a storm that took his father, of a whale that swallowed him. The stage, like some magic box from the past, is suddenly full of puppets and dancing shadow figures, with a sea painted on the backdrop. The musicians dance atop that - a play within a play, a mix of Commedia dell'Arte and Palestinian folksongs.

In this play, "Sumsum Comes Back," which this month won three prizes at the Haifa Children's Theater Festival, the lead is depicted by Amal Murkus and it is directed by Adnan Trabshe. The cast is made up of members of the Deaf Theater from the village of Al-Mghar, all of whom are deaf. She won best actress for the role. A week later, on a Saturday in late June in Tel Aviv (at the Culture of Peace Festival at Tzavta), she was on stage in another kind of role entirely: singing in her new production, with an instrumental ensemble accompanying her. And on Friday mornings at 10 she can be seen hosting her children's show on Educational TV.

These polarities in the work of Amal Murkus are only superficial. She's been singing since the age of five, acting since she graduated from the Beit Zvi acting school in Tel Aviv, and has always involved herself in social action.

"How to define me? Actor, singer, woman, mother, or Palestinian? I'm all of those," she says.

And her new performance, with musical direction by violinist and oud player Nassem Dakwar, is a natural addition to her creative repertoire. This is Murkus' second such performance; the first was recorded in 1998 on a CD called "Amal."

Neighborhood hope

Of Amal Murkus' show on Educational TV, "Amal Hartana," 120 episodes have already been shown, and watching it introduces the viewer to a different kind of children's program. Without flattery, without celebrities, Murkus tries, as she puts it, to honor her viewers' culture. "At first we called the show `Ya'awlad Hartana,' after a song that every Palestinian child knows, a song about a neighborhood. But we realized that was too childish, and we were aiming for an older audience so we changed the name to `In the Neighborhood with Amal' - but it also translates as `the hope of our neighborhood' - because `Amal' in Arabic means `hope.' This enabled us to attract an older audience, which for me meant less foolishness, being more serious, and also adding new segments, like satire."

Poets and writers like Mahmoud Darwish and Emile Habibi have found their way onto the program, along with psychologists, literary figures like writer and poet Mohammed Ali Taha, a Jewish-Arab youth orchestra, physicians, scientists - and kids from a Jewish-Arab circus who appeared on a recent show. "Two of them come from East Jerusalem," says Murkus, "and after the taping [in Herzliya], they wanted the taxi to make a small detour on the way back and go past the sea, which they hadn't seen for two and a half years. The TV station wouldn't pay for that, so they paid for it themselves."

This anecdote reflects something of the hardships Murkus faces in the mission she's taken upon herself to give a voice to the culture of Palestinian society. She and her crew, headed by producer Aliza Dayan-Hamama, try not to make compromises.

"On a program we did on medicine, I decided to host someone from Physicians for Human Rights," Murkus relates. "This wasn't easy, because it was impossible to avoid words like `occupation' and `closure,' which are not acceptable on television. In any case, what the doctor was talking about, even without words like that, would have been hard for the station to broadcast: about how he went on foot for several kilometers to reach an improvised clinic, with 500 patients waiting who had not seen a doctor for six months; about how infants don't get milk because of the closures. We are not a current affairs show and we have no mandate to deal with politics, but how can we not talk about the reality, about what's going on, and just pretend everything is fine? My way is through conversations with anyone who has a message of peace, and to support anyone who is working for humanistic values and human rights."

Murkus was born in Kfar Yasif in the Galilee, where she lives now with her husband Nizar Zreik, an architect, poet and musician, and their two children.

Do you have professional problems working with Jews, especially during periods of such severe political and social upheaval?

Murkus: "Not at all. I'm part of the [Palestinian] people, I experience racism personally, but I identify in the same way with any people fighting for its rights and its liberty. I'm not interested in the nationalist dream of pan-Arabism, a unity that would bind me more to an Arab from Syria than a Jew from Haifa. That dream is a mistake, and so is the tendency to separate and to hate and to be embittered forever."

When you talk about experiencing racism, what are you referring to?

"Hey, just come to Kfar Yasif and see: Where are the budgets, where's the land being rezoned for young couples' housing? And of course I can't come to a mitzpeh [Jewish hilltop settlement] in the Galilee and say, `Here's where I want to build my dream house.' And my television show - you know they only check ratings for the Jewish audience? Nobody knows about the letters we get from Ramallah and Jordan and Lebanon. And on Jewish holidays, the program's not broadcast at all - isn't that racism?"

A friend from a Galilee Arab village once told me, out of his pain about the situation of Arabs in Israel, "It's too bad they didn't expel us all." Would you agree with that?

"No, I'm proud that I've remained here and retained my cultural identity - the language, the poetry and the history; and I've been exposed to the culture of my Jewish neighbor, who's really my partner. There are grievances, and we have to fight so that this partner will acknowledge my people's pain, but I believe that this process is happening, and I'm sure that my children won't see Jews as the powerful conqueror, but as equals."

No false optimism

At the recent "Culture of Peace" festival, produced by Eli Greenfeld, many of the performances dealt with multicultural aspects of music, theater and cinema, poetry and song. The Orchestra for Arab Music appeared with soloists performing Fairuz songs and popular numbers from the films of Farid al-Atrash, researchers spoke about the musical traditions of Aleppo, Marrakesh and Baghdad, and an ensemble demonstrated them on authentic instruments. There was also classical Egyptian music and a panel discussion with some of the poets and authors.

What do you think of the Jewish-Arab activity that seems to be increasing lately?

Murkus: "I really didn't want to perform under that banner, `A Culture of Peace,' or any other sort of `coexistence' slogan. I'm not interested in events that sometimes get a free ride on the conflict and try to appear as if everything is optimistic. At the same time, I'm cautious about the Palestinian side that will have nothing to do with cooperation with Jews. I stay away from all of them, and try to be independent."

You could have refused to perform.

"Would that have done more to serve the interests of my people? Boycotts are just destructive. This way, I can expose audiences to Palestinian culture - the poems of Tawfiq Zayad or Mahmoud Darwish, or my song about my grandmother."

In Murkus' new production, violinist and oud player Nassem Dakwar is joined by Alfred Hajar, playing the nai (a kind of flute), Rimon Haddad on bass, Ramzi Bisharat on percussion, Amin Atrash on drums and Elmar Pal on keyboard. Together, they perform a wide range of songs - with traditional Palestinian texts and with lyrics from modern Palestinian poetry, including Nizar Zriek and Murkus herself, and the music of Dakwar and others, with Dakwar's Eastern musical scales lending a folkloric feel.

Politics and society are central to these poems, and are reflected in works about modern love: "Scheherazade," for example, by the Rahbani brothers, about a woman who rebels against the prison of thought and feeling where her husband has confined her; a love song by Fairuz about a woman who is struggling to be independent; and a poem by Marzook Halabi about the birth of a baby girl.

"In Arab society, they really celebrate only when it's a boy," says Murkus, who is the fifth of six daughters, "so I wanted to express joy at the birth of a girl."