Acts of unity in a war zone

Theatre di­rec­tor Ofi­raHenig tells JohnNathan why­her­work­with Pales­tini­ans could re­store a lost sense of per­spec­tive to her coun­try

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -

IN SPIT­TING DIS­TANCE, by Pales­tinian Ta­her Na­jib, is de­scribed as a funny and dis­turb­ing play about in­ter­na­tional travel in a post9/11 world. Di­rected by Is­raeli Ofira Henig, it stars Khal­ifa Na­tour, who plays a Pales­tinian with Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship, and ar­rives next week at the Bar­bican on Lon­don, where it will be per­formed in Ara­bic with English sur­titles. Al­though, as Henig ex­plains, it was orig­i­nally writ­ten by Na­jib in He­brew.

“He wanted to write for He­brewspeak­ing mem­bers of the [Is­raeli] au­di­ence. I co-founded the Rukab Project [a theatre col­lec­tive, with Na­jib and Na­tour] as both a friend and a di­rec­tor to help Ta­her and Khal­ifa tell their sto­ries.” You op­pose the Rukab Project be­ing seen as an ex­am­ple of Is­raeli/Pales­tinian co­ex­is­tence. Why?

“I don’t be­lieve that there is co­ex­is­tence in Is­rael, and I don’t like our project to be pre­sented as such. It would be a way of cov­er­ing up the truth, of mak­ing the re­al­ity softer and more ac­cept­able — and I don’t ac­cept that. I have worked with Khal­ifa and Ta­her for many years, also with other Pales­tinian artists. It [Rukab] is not a po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tion. Maybe it started that way — but to­day it is a way of life. It’s my life. There are lots of ac­tiv­i­ties or­gan­ised by Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis that seek di­a­logue. But as long as there is oc­cu­pa­tion, the di­a­logue will not be equal.” Does this mean you have no hope that co­ex­is­tence is pos­si­ble?

“ I hope that peace is pos­si­ble in our re­gion. Oth­er­wise, how could I live there? It’s so dif­fi­cult, you need a rea­son.” Have you found that Is­raeli and Pales­tinian au­di­ences re­act dif­fer­ently to the play?

“We per­formed a few times in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in He­brew. But it was a case of preach­ing to the con­verted — to the Is­raelis who al­ready wanted to lis­ten. The same is true of the Pales­tini­ans — we per­formed only inside Is­rael — when we per­formed in the north and in Jaffa in Ara­bic. I found that there were very sim­i­lar re­ac­tions with both [Is­raeli and Pales­tinian] au­di­ences. Both shared the sense of hu­mour and a deep sad­ness. When we per­formed in Europe and Amer­ica, we didn’t feel that the au­di­ence al­ways un­der­stood the play’s irony and hu­mour. They didn’t al­low them­selves to laugh be­cause they thought they were watch­ing some­thing too im­por­tant. The best au­di­ence is the mixed au­di­ences — Pales­tini­ans, Is­raelis, and for­eign­ers. We had this in Paris, and I was so touched. I hope it’s the same in Lon­don.” You once said that you are an artist be­fore you are an Is­raeli. How does this in­form your life and work?

“I am a Jew who was born in Is­rael. I am the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion de­scended from Holo­caust sur­vivors and I was ed­u­cated to un­der­stand the uni­ver­sal con­di­tion, not only to re­mem­ber Jewish his­tory. The way I ob­serve what is around me is based on this per­spec­tive. I be­lieve this is the moral role of an artist — to give per­spec­tive. I am a very po­lit­i­cal per­son and I be­lieve that Is­raeli so­ci­ety has lost its per­spec­tive. This [maybe why] I loose au­di­ences in Is­rael. But now, I have found my ‘small is­land’ — a com­pany that I run, and through which I can cre­ate art with the peo­ple I love and trust.” In Spit­ting Dis­tance is at the Bar­bican Pit, Lon­don EC2, from May 7. Tel: 020 7638 8891

Henig: “I hope peace is pos­si­ble”

Khal­ifa Na­tour in In Spit­ting Dis­tance, di­rected by Is­raeli Ofira Henig

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