Bringing Palestinian Poetry to Jewish Audiences

Eyal Meluban
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Eyal Meluban

“The stage is where I’m the most comfortable,” says Norman Issa, the prolific Israeli-Arab actor. “It’s there that I feel free, like I’m flying. In theater, everything is alive – you feel the audience, you can smell it. Even if I’m upset, when I get onstage I forget about everything. It’s my therapeutic place, my psychologist.”

Issa is best known among foreign audiences for his work on the popular TV series "Arab Labor," where he plays Sayed Kashua's alter ego, but for now, we're going to put that aside to focus on his directorial efforts at the Fringe Night Festival.  “Einayim” (Eyes) is a show about the work of the Palestinian Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish, which hits the stage Nov. 7, at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa. Its cast includes Einat Weizman, Anat Hadid, Doraid Liddawi and Mira Awad, who set Darwish’s poems to music for the performance, will sing them in Hebrew and in Arabic.

Q. How did you get to this production?

“I’ve always looked for things that challenge me. Here, the challenge was to dramatize the poems of Darwish and create a theatrical production that would be more than a poetry reading. This is a new style of poetry theater that I like very much. I wanted to introduce the Jewish audience to the work of a Palestinian poet. People are afraid of a Palestinian poet, and I say there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s literature, poetry, something beautiful that you can connect to. I felt it was important that both languages be part of the production so that people who didn’t understand Arabic would be exposed to the source of the poem. So the production is performed in both languages simultaneously, each time with a translation into the other language. The audience responds wonderfully – the Arabs are proud that the Jews are being introduced to this poet.”

Q. Darwish has a clear image in Israeli society. Weren’t you afraid of dealing with his work?

“For the Palestinian people, he’s a symbol – not necessarily a fighter, like the Jews think, but a fighter in his own way. He was always in favor of coexistence and living side by side, and most of his poems are about peace. Darwish is part of my childhood. He lived in Wadi Nisnas, and as a boy I used to see him, like I used to see Emile Habibi, and I didn’t know then that he’d become such a great poet. In my opinion, our culture – literature, poetry – needs to be displayed. It will bring Jews and Arabs closer. When you know the other, you’re not afraid of him, and I think that draws people closer.”

Q. You had Mira Awad compose the music.

“This is the second time Mira [his co-star on "Arab Labor"] has composed music with me. She composed all the music for the production. She sings live, and I think it’s terrific. She’s a fantastic singer. Here, she had a big challenge because she was competing with the melodies of great Arab composers. She composed a different kind of music for the poems and did very well.”

Q. What would you like the audience to take with them from the production?

“I’d like them to go out and buy a book of poetry, to get to know the work of more poets, open their minds. I hope that we’ll become closer through culture and move forward to a better place. It’s important to get to know each other. We can’t just fight.”

Q. When you’re offered a role in a play, how do you check it out?

“I try to connect it with my inner self. I examine what parts of myself are similar to the character, what components of the character I possess. In order to connect to a character, you have to bring it to yourself and bring yourself to the character. They are the two lines you have to connect.”

Q. You seem to be directing a great deal over the past several years.

“I love children’s productions. Children are a trustworthy audience – they’re an audience that doesn’t know how to lie. They’re pure and their responses are real, and I think that if you want to direct for adults, you have to try directing children’s productions and deal with their responses. I started directing because I wanted to do something for children. It was clear that I couldn’t do a children’s show only in Hebrew or only in Arabic, so I wrote the play ‘Ach Ach Boom Trach’ with Yoav Barlev and Ali Suliman. To connect the two worlds, we chose the Aramaic language because it’s similar to both Hebrew and Arabic. I worked with the actors more on body language. I was awarded the Best Director Award at the Haifa International Children’s Theater Festival, and we took the show all over the world. I think language is of critical importance to communication between our two peoples. We’re each stuck in our own language, and that creates walls that can’t be torn down. I want to tear down those walls.”

Q. You also use multimedia and dance. What role do they play in your productions?

“Everything has a reason. In "Einayim," the photographs are an intimate confession, something that seems voyeuristic, but very intimate with the actor, and the audience sees it on a large screen. When Einat Weizman talks about Lebanon, I see a picture in my mind’s eye – during the Lebanon war, I saw soldiers taking pictures of themselves in ambushes, and that becomes something very intimate. Dance is an inseparable part of theater because we, as actors, use our bodies. Besides that, I tried to connect Mahmoud Darwish’s texts to the actors themselves. For example, Anat Hadid is a young woman from Daliat al-Carmel, where it’s not acceptable to study theater. I give her a text by Darwish about hating his brothers. Mira has a monologue about how she’s a refugee in her own country – because we are all refugees in our homeland. Darwish’s poems become something that’s similar to all the people here, and to me, that’s the beauty of it.”

Q. You once said that acting wasn’t your childhood dream.

“I didn’t act as a child, and I had no connection to the theater. I used to run away from shows they took us to see in school. To this day, I don’t like to go to the theater. I can’t sit in the audience. I like to be on the stage. That’s my place. Also, I see every mistake, and that irritates me. When I was a kid, we didn’t have what kids have today. We mostly had our imaginations. Today, children have everything, but they don’t have imagination. Sometimes I feel like bringing kids back to a place where none of these devices exist so that they’ll have imagination.”

Q. Are you an insurance agent?

“I studied to be an insurance agent for my mother, because she wanted me to learn a profession that had a diploma. So I brought her the diploma and went to Beit Zvi to study acting. I never worked as an insurance agent in my life.”

Q. What about directing for television?

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet, but I’d like to, and I believe I’d be good at it, even excellent. I have ideas about it, and I’m even considering going back to school to study film and directing.”

Q. What’s your next project?

“A dance performance with Palestinian and Jewish teenagers with a rock band onstage and a lot of olive trees. I want to deal with all the prejudices and show that we’re on the wrong path and we need to stop it. I want to do something that will make anyone who sees it think twice about whether this is the path we should be on, or perhaps there are better ways that are known as peace. Existence. Not coexistence, but existence.”

Clara Khoury and Norman Issa, in Sayed Kashua's TV series 'Arab Labor.'
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah in 2007.Credit: Nir Kafri