by Carol Rocamora
The power of The Siege, Freedom Theatre’s heartrending account of the 2002 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Bethlehem, is that it is told not with rage or rancor, not to punish or vindicate – but to remind us of the tragedy of an ongoing, seemingly endless war.
Now playing at NYU’s Skirball Center, The Siege tells a devastating story that needs to be told and remembered, but has gotten lost in the vast number of turbulent events unfolding in Palestine in recent decades. At the height the second intifada, a group of Palestinian fighters took refuge in one of the world’s holiest sites – Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Surrounded by the Israeli Army, the siege lasted for 39 days, trapping over 200 people – militants, local civilians, priests and nuns – inside the church. As the Israelis closed in with helicopters, tanks, and snipers, the militants struggled to survive with dwindling food, water, and medical supplies, facing the inevitable – surrender or death. Meanwhile, the city of Bethlehem remained paralyzed.
To tell the story, Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, co- creators and directors, interviewed a number of those trapped inside the church. The result is a riveting 90-minute drama, set inside a skeletal representation of the sacred sanctuary (Anna Gisle, designer). A narrator introduces the story, followed by scenes between six of the men trapped within. At times, the men break away and face us, Greek chorus-style, to comment on the unfolding drama. Between scenes, video footage is projected on the upstage wall depicting the actual events of the siege. The effect is spellbinding and deeply moving.
Ultimately, a group of high-ranking leaders – including Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and representatives from the US, the UN and the Vatican – are drawn into a series of complicated negotiations. The result – after 39 days, a settlement between the fighters and the Israelis is reached, wherein the surviving fighters would surrender and accept permanent exile.
But these negotiations are reported, not dramatized on stage. Wisely, the co-creators stay focused on the trapped fighters and the human drama itself. Some are Christian, some are Muslim, some are even Israeli citizens. In this Sartre-like place of “no exit,” we feel the complexity and agony of the larger, seemingly endless conflict, in which a group of tortured human beings – who passionately love their shared homeland – cannot find a way to live together.
This gripping, unforgettable story is being told by those who have earned the privilege to tell it. Founded in 2006, the Freedom Theatre, based in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, is dedicated to using art and culture to create social change. Its founder (Juliano Mer-Khamis) was the son of a Palestinian Christian who served in the Israeli army, his mother was Arna Mer Khamis, a Jewish woman. Tragically – and ironically – in 2011 he was assassinated outside the theatre he founded to promote art instead of violence.
But the founding spirit lives on, in the form of this passionate group of theatre artists (Faisal Abualhayjaa, ALaa Abu Gharbieh, Rabee Hanani, Motaz Malhees, Hassan Taha, and Ghantus Wael) who reenact the story with all their hearts.
Meanwhile, as the chorus of actors tells us, the real survivors of this siege still live in exile, and dream of returning home. “We are all humans and we are afraid,” says one. “Let’s not argue with each other.” Perhaps this simple message will resonate loud and clear one day, after all, as the martyred Freedom Theatre founder had intended.
The Siege, a Freedom Theatre production, created and directed by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, written by Nabil Al-Raee, at NYU Skirball Center, October 12-22.