@70: Celebration of Contemporary Palestinian Culture is a week-long festival of theatre, dance, film screenings and talks marking 70 years since the Nakba, where 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their land. It will take place 14th – 20th May at RADA Studios, London.
I spoke to one of the festival’s organisers, writer and director, Ahmed Masoud, about the @70 project and his play, The Shroud Maker, which features in the festival.
Ahmed Masoud has worked alongside fellow Palestinian artists Ahmed Najar and Khalid Ziyada and a number of organizations including Amnesty International UK, the Hoping Foundation, Amos Trust, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, MARSM UK and Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre to bring together the @70 festival in the spirit of defiance and creativity.
Q: This morning I read an article you wrote for The Electronic Intifada. Speaking about your motivation to do the @70 festival, you said, “we wanted to be with [the people in Gaza] in our own way. We wanted to encourage their creativity and enthusiasm and to make sure that they don’t feel they are left alone.” Can you tell me a bit more about where you see this festival and other cultural events amidst the continued defiance of the occupation. What role do they play?
A: One of the things about the Palestinian struggle is that it has always been creative and focused on the cultural productivity of people. So if you look at Palestinian literature and you take it back to 1948 and the Nakba, even within that crisis people maintained that creativity through literature, and through poetry specifically. You had poets like Mahmoud Darwish, for example, who connected people to their traditions and their culture. What is happening in Gaza at the moment really is a continuation of that. The Gaza Strip is in crisis, it’s under siege, there’s no access to the outside world or connection with other Palestinians. About 2 million people are living in an open-air prison. And yet within that you see the creativity coming up because people try to think of ways to connect with the outside world. So the use of kites, the use of burning tyres to create a smokescreen to stop the occupation from shooting – all of that is a creative push to make a difference on the ground. Doing this festival here in London is an amazing bridge between them and us because what we’re saying to them is that we, too, here are resisting, culturally resisting any attempt to alienate our culture and to silence our voice. We want to mark this occasion and the fact that it’s been 70 years since the Nakba of 1948 while focusing on the cultural creativity, the dance, the music, theatre, storytelling, cinema, films, and music. It’s a bridge between us – Palestinians in the diaspora and Palestinians there on the ground who are facing an atrocious occupation, a ruthless occupation.
Q: Will @70 festival be the debut of your play, The Shroud Maker?
It was performed first at Amnesty in 2015 but that was only on one night, and then it as read by Maxine Peake at the Courtyard Theatre in 2016, and then it was read by Kathryn Hunter at home in Manchester in June 2017, but these were all only stand alone instances, so yes this will be the debut especially with the publication as well.
Q: The Shroud Maker is published by Oberon books, and actually @70 festival-goers can get a signed copy at the event. Beyond @70 do you have more performances lined up in London or elsewhere?
A: Yes we’ve got a mini-tour lined up. We’re going to Plymouth for Refugee Week on the 21st June, then we’re going to Liverpool on the 14th July as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and then we’re going to Greenbelt Festival at the end of August.
Q: The Shroud Maker is about Hajja Souad, an 80-year-old Palestinian woman living on the besieged Gaza Strip who has survived decades of wars and oppression through making shrouds for the dead. I’ve heard that you took inspiration for the character from a real person. Can you tell me more about this person and your inspiration for the play?
A: In 2014 the war was raging in Gaza. A lot of people were killed, Israel went with full force on civilians and a lot of the people killed were civilians. A lot of infrastructure was destroyed; it was a massive war. I was here in London watching the news closely, while a lot of my family was there, my parents and my siblings, so I didn’t go to bed each night before I made sure my family was OK. I tried to speak to them, and I searched and searched the news. In one little corner there was a small local Arabic news agency that was talking about this woman who sells shrouds. In the interview she said that she won’t close her shop, why should she, and that the war is good for business. So that’s all I had to go on for the story. So I started imagining her story and how someone could get to that point in their life with all this war going on they don’t really care; they continue to work and open their shop. It was quite funny really and I just remember laughing at around 2 or 3 in the morning reading this article. And I though I need to write something about the situation, so maybe she’s it. I didn’t want to get in touch and find out the real story because in a way that wasn’t important, the situation is important, the fact that she’s there is important. So I started imaging a life story and the script came from that.
Q: What do you want people to take away from the play?
A: The story of Hajja Souad is the story of all of Palestine. The thing I want people to take away is a look at the human story of Palestine: the people and how they’ve been affected by the occupation. She grows up in Jerusalem in the house of the wife of the British High Commissioner to Palestine at the time, she is taught by the wife, she becomes a little lady and then she is left alone in that big house when the empire pulled out of Palestine. She was left alone to fend for herself much like Palestine was left. All of her consequent actions and life decisions were based on her instinct of survival. So I’d like people to see that parallel.
Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
A: Just regarding the @70 project, I’d like to add that it’s been amazing to work with a lot of people who have given their time for free, volunteers who have come together and believe in the project, and who are enjoying it despite the challenges. And that’s been overwhelming for me as a Palestinian, aside from being a writer, but as a Palestinian who’s here in London and away from my family in Gaza, watching the news, and watching the situation deteriorate every day, it’s been reassuring to find people who are supportive, who are encouraging me to do this, in fact who are enabling me to do this by giving their time and going out of their way to make it happen. It has nurtured my creativity. It makes me want to write more and to do more. I probably will do the festival again next year because of that reason.
Ahmed Masoud is a writer, director and academic based in the UK. His other plays include Camouflage (London, May 2017), Walaa/Loyalty (London, June & November 2014), Unto the Breach (London, November 2012 & Vienna, November 2013) and Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea (London, 2009 & Edinburgh Fringe, August 2009). His radio piece Escape from Gaza was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2011. He is also the author of the acclaimed novel Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda.
Ahmed’s website: www.ahmedmasoud.co.uk
The Shroud Maker: https://www.oberonbooks.com/the-shroud-maker.html