Making a drama out of a crisis
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Making a drama out of a crisis

Stephen Oryszczuk visits Western Galilee College to see how a unique student drama course is helping to transform attitudes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Arab and Jewish students on the Western Gailillee College course get together to act out on stage what what they have learned about living and working together
Arab and Jewish students on the Western Gailillee College course get together to act out on stage what what they have learned about living and working together

A young Muslim Arab woman and a Jewish mother from a religious right-wing settler background take the stage together, in front of a mixed Israeli audience. They’ve chosen to. Two years ago, neither would have been the other’s first-choice partner, and both could face recriminations. But they’ve been sharing each other’s space, perspectives, culture and grievances for two years now, and both feel they understand “the other” better, so decide to spread their learning through drama.

Theirs is one of several final-year projects, the culmination of a three-year study in Community and Educational Drama and Theatre at Western Galilee College in northern Israel. British-born Peter Harris, who made aliyah in the 70s, heads the department and describes the programmes as “bubbles” and “safe spaces” in which the mixed students aged 18 to 50 not only act together but come to know one another and learn from each other.

With no stage, no lighting and no space to call their own, these small groups of 15 improvise in more ways than one. “They interact closely from the start, acting together, touching, learning each other’s narratives,” he says. “In other academic classes, students don’t mix, they group together, Jews and Arabs, speaking Hebrew or Arabic. Ours don’t do that.”img_1031

At first, they’re suspicious of one another. “A typical 19-year-old Arab girl has never really been outside her village. They’re fearful of Jews. They think Jews will harm them. Both see the other as a threat, but for our students, that’s only initially.”

About half of Harris’ annual cohort are Jewish – Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and non-religious – and half are Arab, be that Bedouin, Christian Arab, Muslim or Druze. “It reflects the local population,” he says. “It’s a real melting pot. Some come from outside the region, including Israelis fresh from the IDF. The only ones we don’t get are the strictly- Orthodox, because it’s a mixed-gender course.”

Among the difficulties are language, with Arab students’ Hebrew often basic, but beyond that, Harris says, many are “very naive, very limited culturally. They’ve only grown up in their own culture, so there’s a whole world of information they have to take in. There’s mutual trepidation, anxiety and fear arising from the conflict”.

It deals with itself, he says. “They’re working together, improvising, rubbing against each other, laughing together, bringing their own home narratives into the space.” They explore through stereotyping exercises and “sometimes choose conflict situations in a scene. They can bring their baggage on-stage because it’s a safe space, and they’ve become friends.”img_0977

He cites a 30-year-old mother-of-three Bedouin student “covered head-to-toe” who gets up early to feed her kids then brings home-made food to the class. “They share everything: music, stories, language, expressions. They’re their own community.” His students mix “very naturally,” says Harris. “They take lunch together, spend evenings together, go out, have bonfires, cook grilled meat, they share all that. You can create that in a class of 15 students working closely, but if you have a big hall of 200 people listening to a lecture, there’s no connection being made.”

Soon they get down to nuances, discovering similarities, he says. “They feel secure enough to put the conflict on the table. They realise there are certain things they won’t agree on, but that they can still live together. When we had the last war in Gaza, a Jewish student had her husband and daughter fighting, and Arab students were calling her up to check they were safe.” He thinks it may even be a new model for “mutual accepting and understanding of what each side brings and feels,” adding: “They become part of each other’s creation, partners, regardless of political differences.

“It’s a new way of looking at things, and very satisfying. We consider ourselves a bubble of normalness, of humanity. Outside, people don’t come into one another’s proximities, don’t reach each other on a human level, because of inculcated fears we walk around with.”

It translates into the wider world, too, as Harris offers one of many examples. “Last year we did a play in a mixed neighbourhood in Akko (Acre). An Arab girl had a monologue about how she’s afraid to ride the bus, in part because her head’s covered, so people think she’s a terrorist, in part because she could be blown up with everyone else, so she has double fears. Everyone learns from it. On-stage we had Russian immigrants, old-timers, Arab women, Jews, Druze, all sharing stories and predicaments. There’s an absurdity going on.”

He recalls the personal progress of a young Arab woman. “She didn’t utter a word for the first year but yesterday we were in a prison doing a project with violent male offenders. They said ‘let’s do a scene where the woman shouts at the man.’ She jumps up and says ‘if there’s shouting to be done, I’m doing it!’ So, yes, theatre opens people up, allows them freedom to express themselves and take risks.”

Crucially, they take this back to their own communities. “They want to create change and do their final-year project in their home towns, put on a show for their village.”

Take Fatima, a student who works in Kafr Manda, an Arab town. “When she came here she was so nervous, she was sure the Jews were going to beat her up.” Fatima works with endangered youth in her town, and held an event there last year. “She got the kids to invite their parents, which isn’t automatic, because parents of at-risk youth don’t tend to pay much attention to their kids, but they came, and she brought all the local leaders too, because she’s preparing a future not only for herself. She wanted them to see how using theatre with different groups can change lives. “For Kfar Manda, it was revolutionary.”

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