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The Voices of Palestine

A Ramallah theater troupe visits with a show that shares what its subtitle describes as 'Stories Under Occupation'


Shortly before arriving in this country last month, Palestinian actor Imad Farajin saw a newspaper photograph of a Palestinian boy sleeping as he sat on a large, sun-splashed rock near an Israeli checkpoint he was not allowed to cross.

Behind him stood an Israeli soldier, holding a gun.

Farajin says he imagined the boy to be "dreaming of a better life in which he could go where he wants, do what he wants," adding, "I wondered what Americans would think of this boy."

Palestinian dreams and Palestinian despair are what Farajin and nine of his colleagues with the Ramallah-based Al Kasaba Theatre have put into "Alive From Palestine," a series of monologues and scenes the actors have drawn from their daily experiences during recent waves of conflict. They will present the show, subtitled "Stories Under Occupation," Friday evening at the La Mirada Theatre, before heading north for another one-time showing Sunday, at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. The performers enact their dreamlike narratives--they bear overtones of Isaac Babel short stories and the political theater of Bertolt Brecht--in Arabic, but English translations appear on screens at the side of the stage.

The actors arrived in Los Angeles this week after a run of five performances at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., where the production was part of the seventh International Festival of Arts and Ideas, an 18-day, state-funded offering of dance, music and theater from around the world. The Palestinians' appearance there provoked debate and drew high praise.

Well before Al Kasaba arrived in the United States, members of New Haven's Jewish community divided over the very idea of a production that they worried depicted a purely Palestinian point of view. Others called it superb art. Festival managers combined the show with panel discussions and lectures describing Jewish perspectives. The New York Times ultimately ran a review that fervently recommended "a plaintive, almost supplicating" production showing "a terrible helplessness and sadness and an anger that is provoked by what feels like oppression."

The group's California trip is being paid for by several Arab American and Palestinian-oriented organizations: American Friends of Palestine, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Humanity on Hold. Humanity on Hold's Web site depicts events in the Middle East from a Palestinian point of view, including an image of an Israeli soldier with the words "Born to Kill" etched on his helmet. The site includes a Web memorial, a list of hundreds of names, including Jewish ones, of people who have died in the last 22 months.

Nicole Ballivian, a film producer in Hollywood who conceived of the visit, says she raised $24,000 for it because her husband, Bashar Daas, has acted with the group and because "it is important to put a human face on what everybody is seeing in the news. Americans don't know what living under occupation is."

Several of the actors gathered in the enveloping coolness of the bar area of the Holiday Inn in Hollywood this week to talk about the intimately painful connections between their lives and their art. The production, which consists of material the actors wrote themselves, is unlike anything Al Kasaba had done in its more than three decades as a leading Palestinian theater. Over a nine-month period, starting after the second intifada erupted on Sept. 28, 2000, they created hundreds of pieces about life under siege, from which they selected the 13 in the show.

In addition to Farajin, 26, other actors from the group who gathered for a collective interview about its tale of war and art included Georgina Asfour, 25; Khalifa Natour, 37; and Hasam Abu Eisheh, 43. They were joined by Amir Nizar Zuabi, 25, the director and designer of the show, and George Ibrahim, general director of the Al Kasaba Theatre. Most of them live on the West Bank or in Jerusalem.

Al Kasaba, which has a 400-seat theater in Ramallah, and another with 100 seats in Jerusalem, traditionally works as a conventional repertory theater, putting on productions of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Max Frisch and other writers. After the uprising started nearly two years ago, the theater became the site for readings of poems and stories in honor of the rapidly increasing number of dead.

At first, residents of Ramallah came to express their grief and anger, but the evenings slowly turned into encounters between an audience and performers from the theater. The actors began writing their own stories of people who filled the theater and those beyond it, stories in which human grief often mixed with bleak humor: lovers trying to meet despite checkpoints, giving each other poison-gas canisters and bullets as romantic gifts; parents separated from children, sometimes at the funerals of children.

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