Theatre: A Cultural Instrument to Resist the Occupation

“I chose the art to survive, I chose the clarinet. For me, I chose it because it’s like my weapon.” 

Safar Café is bubbling with life. People, mostly young women and men, are chatting with each other, enjoying a drink, some of them smoking argilehi, accompanied by the slow beat of music in the background. The owner of the café, Fadi Alghoul, takes a seat and instantly starts sharing his story. 

Fadi Alghoul during one of his theatre performances.
The Travelling Palestinian Theatre Group

As a son of Palestinian refugees, Fadi was born in Lebanon in the early 1970s and grew up in a refugee camp. He would later study music and start working in a theatre in Jordan. At the age of 20, Fadi decided to move to Palestine to pursue a career as an artist – and that is precisely what he did. At the time of his arrival, the theatre and arts industry in Palestine was not highly developed. Yet, despite obstacles imposed by the occupation, Fadi created the Safar Theatre Group in 2000, which remains in existence to this day. The group started off producing many cultural activities for children, such as festivals, summer camps or musical shows, with the aim of entertaining and educating. “We use the theatre, the arts, to teach our children, our people through this way.” Later, the group would extend its target audience to teenagers and adults. 

Safar was by no means the first theatre group in Palestine, but it had a distinctive feature, which can be interpreted from its name. Translated into English, Safar means Traveling. As there was no proper theatre in Palestine and a lack of cultural infrastructure for performances, Fadi needed an alternative method to reach his audience. And so, he decided to deliver his theatre pieces to the audience, making them accessible to children who would otherwise never have been able to see Safar’s performances and participate in its cultural activities. Safar started going to villages, schools, refugee camps, and many more places all over Palestine, mostly by car. Up to now, the theatre group makes all the necessary preparations by itself. It takes care of advertising and media requests, carries the required equipment, sets up the sound system, prepares the outfits, does the makeup for the actors. And finally, Safar performs. 

“We are like soldiers. Anyone who works in a theatre in Palestine is a soldier. I have problems with my back. We have problems, all of us. […] We do everything. Anyone who works at the theatre in Palestine should do everything because we don’t have a government who takes care of us. Our government is very weak. They don’t have the money and they don’t care about us.” 

His frustration with the system and the obstacles that the occupation poses did not impinge on his perseverance to create his own Palestinian theatre. It is impressive what he has managed to build and achieve without any external support. As a result of this hard work, Fadi has carried out roughly one thousand performances, across the West Bank, including one in Gaza. For him, theatre is a tool to resist the occupation. 

Fadi made a name for himself as his group became increasingly famous. From 2009 onwards, Safar started to gain international attention. The group began traveling to other countries, especially in Europe and the Arab world, invited to share their work at festivals and theatres. Furthermore, Safar cooperated with foreign theatre groups such as Obgang2 Turnéteater from Aarhus, Denmark, performing together and implementing workshops in Europe as well as in Palestine. In some cases, their travels were funded by bigger foundations, other times they had to cover the costs themselves, obliging them to organize fundraising activities. 

Fadi Alghoul in front of the Obgang2 Turnéteater in Denmark, one of the numerous foreign theatre groups Safar cooperated with.
Safar Culture Café

In 2019, Fadi opened the Safar Culture Café, where he is sitting now, talking about his achievements and hardships. It is located near Ramallah Ta7ta, the downtown of Palestine’s administrative and political center. The building was previously used by the Safar Theatre Group as a place where members would come together to read, write, audition, and rehearse their plays. The main idea behind the café was to earn some money. This money is primarily used for Fadi’s family and to make ends meet amid a difficult economic situation, rooted in the ongoing occupation and exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. “Our problems with Israel – there is no stability here. That’s why I started thinking how I can do something different that gives me some money to feel good, to have a good life, a normal life.” Fortunately, he has also been able to put some earnings aside to invest in his Safar projects.

The concept of the café, however, is quite unique. Not only is it a place for young people to meet, but it is an open space for them to exchange and implement all sorts of cultural ideas. This has resulted in many different activities, such as stand-up comedies, live music, meetings with artists, book openings or exhibitions, to name a few. It must be mentioned that all of the events are offered to the public for free. The only profit they make is by selling drinks and snacks. “That’s why all the [young] people like this place. They feel comfortable here, they feel at home. […] Everything is simple here, and original.”

Fadi Alghoul standing in front of his Safar Café.
A Man of Many Talents

Besides his theatrical and acting abilities – Fadi is also a professional Palestinian actor – Fadi has yet another talent: puppeteering. He started working as a professional puppeteer 25 years ago, with Shara’a Simsin as one of his first gigs and later Hikayat Simsi. These are two international co-productions with the Children’s Television Workshop in New York City, which is responsible for the production of the popular children’s television show Sesame Street. In both co-productions, Fadi portrays Haneen, a lively five-year old female monster who is learning how to count, read and write. In contrast to the stereotypes of passive Arab females, Haneen believes that she can do anything, her motto being “I can, I can!”. “And then”, he explains, “I became a famous puppeteer outside Palestine, they call me all the time to go to Qatar” where he does different characters for Jeem TV – Aljazeera’s children television channel. Ironically, at this exact moment his phone starts ringing. “I have to answer”. Fortunately, it is not another work call. Fadi has settled down in Ramallah, but he still travels a lot for work, making it difficult at times to be united with his family and four children. 

Fadi Alghoul and some of his co-performers acting in a theatre piece. 
Childhood in Sabra and Shatila

Fadi’s passion for acting and theatre has its origins in a difficult childhood. It was one traumatic experience in particular that continues to psychologically haunt him today. Fadi grew up in West Beirut, Lebanon – in the Shatila refugee camp. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, on September 16th, 17th and 18th, 1982, as he precisely recalls, right-wing Christian Phalange militia stormed the camp and the adjacent neighborhood Sabra, and massacred the Palestinians living there. The exact numbers are vague, but according to the Arafat Museum in Ramallah, over 800 people were slaughtered, most of them civilians, including women and children. Other sources estimate the number of people killed to be in the thousands. It is vital to understand that Sabra and Shatila was surrounded by Israeli troops, who had previously invaded and occupied West Beirut, allowing the Lebanese militia to enter and preventing the Palestinian refugees from leaving. Responsible for the killing of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians, the international community has thus far failed to hold Israel accountable for yet another violation of international law. 

“Would you like to share a little bit about your childhood in Lebanon and what happened?” “Yeah”, Fadi answers instinctively, but then struggles to find the right words, and pauses. Once again, he is reliving unforgettable memories, the dreadful images swirling in front of his eyes, rendering him speechless. He was just nine years old, when he witnessed the massacre of his brother among many others, and asserts that he himself should have been dead. He remembers all the details – the emotions of sadness, fear and uncertainty; the smell of death; the sounds of bombing, shooting, screaming; and, sometimes, unusual and horrible silence.

“I talk about it all in my play”, in his “master scene”, as he calls it. 

Clarinet: A Weapon of Hope

The piece of art he is referring to is named Clarinet. In the play, directed by Akram Al Malki, and written and performed by Fadi himself, he takes over a variety of roles, acting as his former self, his father, his grandmother, and many more. He adapts his voice and movement to the different characters he embodies, and plays various instruments, including the clarinet. The play covers his childhood and his experiences during the massacre, reliving many sensitive memories, such as constantly moving, hiding in his grandmother’s house, running from the attacks, or suffering from food and water shortage. “Sometimes, we drank sea water, I still feel the salt on my tongue”, he says in the play. But it also includes joyful stories, for example listening to Nora’s beautiful singing, who made him love music, discovering and learning how to play the clarinet, or playing with clay. Fadi’s mother, who died during the war before the massacre, used to shout at him when he would return home covered in mud. At the end of the play, when it is “lighting all Shatila’s entrances” and Fadi miraculously manages to escape, he flees to the cemetery where his mother is buried, talks to her and gives her a truly heart-breaking message. “Miss you mom. Why did you leave me alone? They want to kill us. They follow us from place to place. They want to get rid of us. (…) Mom, I stopped playing with mud as I promised you. Remember when you used to punish me when I did. I am not mad. Come back and punish me. Just come back.”

The main message of the play is to show the world what Palestinians lived through, but also to demonstrate that they are still hopeful and from where they get this hope. 

“I chose the art to survive, I chose the clarinet. For me, I chose it because it’s like my weapon.” 

The clarinet symbolizes hope, and it can also be seen as a symbol for resistance against the daily hardships Palestinians suffer from the Israeli occupation.

Clarinet is an emotional theatre piece that was well received by audiences. Translated into five languages, Fadi performed it more than two hundred times, repeatedly reliving the horrific memories with every performance. But Fadi has demonstrated incredible strength and resilience. His brilliance is reflected in his ability to turn a haunting experience into an inspiring career. Clarinet is a sad, yet optimistic play, sending a strong message of hope. “I always believe in arts, in culture to change many things.” Furthermore, the play was, unquestionably, a way for Fadi to process his difficult childhood. 

Flyer of the theatre piece “Clarinet”.
An Inspirational Use of Arts to Resist the Occupation

Fadi started acting in theatre when he was 13 years old, just four years after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Today, he is an experienced Palestinian artist, famous inside and outside Palestine for his work as an actor and puppeteer, but also for his impact on Palestinian theatre. “My name became famous because of the theatres, because I believe in my job, I believe in my work, I work hard with my heart.” However, he doesn’t view himself as just an artist. “I’m like a fighter, I’m a soldier.” He is convinced that in Palestine, creative individuals can achieve something big and trigger change. Undoubtedly, his inspirational use of theatre will remain a source of hope to future generations and encourage them to choose arts and theatre as a peaceful way to resist the occupation. 

*This interview was conducted in May 2022. 

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