4. Konferenz in Lingen 2014

Theatre as the Art of Breathing

Dear sisters and brothers, dear colleagues in Lingen,
Unfortunately I was not able to be with you at this important and timely conference, but I’m grateful to have this chance to address you via skype. The relationship between Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture and the University for Applied Sciences Osnabrueck-Lingen is of strategic important to us.
I’m addressing you at a time when our region is going through another war. I’m 52 years old and this is the tenth war I experience during my life time. The question: is it appropriate to talk about theatre while we are going through this war and while the conflict is still going on without and end in sight?

There was a time when people thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was like a 100-meter race. The participants behaved accordingly; they gathered their strength for one concentrated effort in a very short time. When they reached the finishing line, they were out of breath, but they could afford to be so for such a short race. However, increasingly people are realizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the longest ongoing conflicts in modern history, is more like a marathon. If the participants in a marathon behave as if they were running a 100-meter race, they will perish. They will give up quickly, lose hope and heart and leave the field, either physically or psychologically. In a marathon, people need to breathe differently, to train in another way and to run at a more leisurely pace. They need to have plenty of stamina. Theatre for Palestinians living in this ongoing and seemingly endless conflict is the art of keeping breathing.

Often I meet people and donors who think that theatre in this context is a luxury we Palestinians cannot and should not afford. For such donors, aid is what the Palestinians need under occupation. They need bread to eat, to fill their stomachs so that they can think. This is the usual argument. Our tragedy as Palestinians has been that our struggle, ever   since the Balfour Declaration, has often been portrayed as a humanitarian crisis rather than one that has to do with identity and self-determination. But people “shall not live by bread alone”. Theatre is one of the most important elements for people’s survival. When people are under immense constraints and in the most immoral situations, theatre is the art of learning how to breathe normally. In conflicts, people concentrate mainly on those who “kill the body” but often they forget about those who “kill the soul”, that is, the dignity, creativity and vision of a people. Without a vision, nations “cast off restraints”. Theatre allows the soul not only to survive but to thrive. Theatre is the art of refusing to be only on the receiving end, of resisting being perceived  as a mere victim. Theatre is the art of becoming an actor rather than a spectator. It is the art of celebrating life in a context still dominated by forces of death and domination, the art of resisting creatively and non-violently.

However, theatre is a necessity not only in times of conflict. Theatre is crucial not mainly for resisting occupation but also in a positive way, for expressing oneself as the way one is and for communicating one’s story the way one wants. Thus theatre has to do with self-determination. Theatre is the way we determine who we are as defined by ourselves and not as defined by others. Theatre is the medium through which we communicate what we really want in a language that is different from that of political semantics and religious formulas. Within the Palestinian context, people have reached a stage where they feel that political rhetoric no longer represents what they think and want. Also, people often feel suffocated by certain forms of religious expressions that contain too much religion and too little spirituality. Theatre is a sacred space where people learn how to breathe freely in a context where the fresh air almost already seems to have been used up. That is why I believe that theatre is one of the most important pillars in a future Palestinian state. The role theatre will play in our future state is what will determine for many people whether Palestine is their homeland not only by birth but also by choice.  What happens in the cultural zone will indicate the direction in which Palestine is heading: towards a democratic state where there is not only freedom from occupation but also guaranteed freedom of expression; towards a state that allocates resources to ensure that the cradle of the three monotheistic religions will become a major cultural hub for humanity.
Last but not least, theatre is an important bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world. Although theatre has to do with expressing oneself as one is, this is always done in relation to others. Encountering the other is always important in understanding oneself. It is in the light of meeting a different context that one realizes one’s own unique context. Thus theatre becomes the space where people can meet others and themselves, where they can discover a language that is local and yet universal and where they can realize that in order to breathe, one has to keep windows wide open for new winds and fresh air brought across the oceans and seas. At the same time, what Palestine needs are ambassadors of its theatre who can express the unique spirit of the land and its people.  Theatre is the means that empower us to give a face to our people, to write melodies for our narrative and to develop an identity that is deeply rooted in the Palestinian soil like an olive tree, yet whose branches reach high into the open skies.

It is for these reasons that we at Dar al kalmia University College of Arts and Culture for more than a decade have focused on and invested in theatre. Through plays, workshops, and higher education, we seek to strengthen the civil society, cultivate talent and communicate hope so that a fresh spirit will continue to blow within, throughout and across Palestine and we will all be able to breathe, “have life and have it abundantly”. This is our contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation.
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture