How Skype helped me tell Palestine’s story on stage

Hannah Khalil, the playwright behind Scenes from 68* Years, on writing about the Middle East for an English-speaking audience

A man works on a construction site in Bethlehem, Palestine, as illegal settlements tower in the distance (AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)
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‘You don’t live in Palestine so do you think you should be writing about 68 years of occupation?” I fiddled with my earpiece – had I heard the translator right? Yes, this interviewer on an Arabic-language TV station was questioning my right to write Scenes from 68* Years, my theatre play about Palestine.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. My “Palestinianness” has always been questioned. The daughter of an Irish mother and Palestinian father, I grew up in Dubai but never mastered my dad’s language. If I’d known the frowns my lack of Arabic would earn me over the years I might have been a keener student in this area.

And then there’s my colouring. I’m often met with: “You’re very white for an Arab.” But none of these things troubled my young self. In fact they helped me assimilate when I was sent to an English boarding school at the age of 10. And later they helped me to present the everyday Palestinian experience in an accessible way for a Western audience in Scenes from 68* Years.

I always enjoyed writing but didn’t start penning drama until I was at university. Once I did, the stories that interested me were human ones; I have a keen sense of injustice and like to explore this unfair world through my writing.

I also hated the disparity of experience for Arab actors I knew, forced time after time to play the part of “terrorist” or “terrorist’s relative”. These two elements came together in my early plays, all of which feature real three-dimensional Arab characters. But there was a topic that I was avoiding, a topic that should have been at the top of my list of injustices to address, a topic I was afraid of: Palestine.

Although I had visited my family in the West Bank and knew a little (very little) about my father’s homeland, I had never studied it. And by the time I was 20, I’d been so busy assimilating that I was terrified by the responsibility of researching and understanding what had occurred on that piece of coveted ground east of the Mediterranean.

But then I attended a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Oral Histories of Palestine. An Israeli filmmaker and academic, Eyal Sivan, presented “Towards a Common Archive”, a project to gather video testimonies from people who lived through 1948, and these stories inspired my first play about Palestine: Plan D.

In it, I used those testimonies as inspiration for a play about what happens to the little people when the tectonic plates of war move under them.

I didn’t want an English audience member watching it to be intimidated by a lack of historical knowledge, but rather to engage with it on a human level. And as a way of encouraging this, I never alluded to time or place. I hoped people would be surprised to learn that this was Palestine and perhaps be spurred to find out more for themselves.

Some people responded as I’d hoped. Others were frustrated with the lack of specific detail. A few made the link with the stories of their own country – drawing apt comparisons between human suffering (one girl from Afghanistan stands out in my memory). But the thing that surprised and delighted me most was the number of people who approached me afterwards – Palestinians in the diaspora – to tell me their stories of life under oppression.

And what stories they were, full of pathos and drama and dark, wry humour. What a resource. But how to share them all? If I were to write each into a play that would be my life’s work.

For Scenes from 68* Years, which has just finished a four-week run in London, I decided to try a patchwork approach (the structuring of which was the work of five years), this time including many references, and the dates of each scene.

I did, however, make a script note for any would-be director of the piece that in staging it the dates are not vital. They are more for the reference of the company, because the overall feeling should be that whatever the date – 1948 or 2008 – the situation for Palestinians remains the same.

In one scene, a mixed-race Palestinian woman in London Skypes her cousin in Palestine, and the crew thought it would be fantastic if we could do this for real every night. It would alert the audience to the fact that this wasn’t all artifice but real stories of real people who are living this horrendous situation right now on the other side of the world. But such an idea was impossible, we thought.

The next thing I knew the director and I were auditioning actresses via Skype, including the incredible Maisa Abd Elhadi, who to our joy (and thanks to a grant from the Qattan Foundation) made up the seventh member of our cast – the other six being in London. We were ready to start rehearsals, and then our run started on April 6.

Opening a play is always a tense and stressful experience and for my part I was less concerned with critical reaction and more with what audiences would think. And I was surprised time and again. Our attendees were a truly diverse bunch, reacting almost always very vocally – it sounds like a cliché but people really did laugh and cry.

I got mixed responses from Palestinians. The people who had given me their stories all approved of what I had done with the play, fellow diaspora friends found it engaging and sometimes affecting.

And when I was occasionally met with the criticism that the play doesn’t reflect the full violence of life – instead taking snapshots of everyday resilience amid an atmosphere designed to ground the Palestinian spirit to dust (and failing) – my response was considered: this play is for an audience whose experience of Palestine is largely what they see on the news rolled in a myth of “balanced” reporting.

It’s trying to present relatable human stories that will engage and provoke further investigation. One night after the show I was approached by a middle-aged English woman who told me that she was going home to “educate herself about Palestine”. A most gratifying response.

So my answer to the reporter’s question – “You don’t live in Palestine so do you think you should be writing about 68 years of occupation?”– was easy: Yes, and not because I have the right because I’m half Palestinian, but because I am also British and hope I can speak to an English audience in a language they can understand.

Hannah Khalil is an award-winning writer living and working in London. Her stage plays include Plan D, Bitterenders, The Worst Cook in the West Bank and Scenes from 68* Years

On Twitter: @hannykha