Last week marked a momentous cultural occasion: the entrance of a Palestinian theater company onto the New York stage, performing a Palestinian work that hinges on the voices and political perspectives of Palestinian people. After two previously planned but ultimately scrapped local productions of the play, The Siege — based on the 2002 occupation of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity by Palestinian fighters — is finally celebrating its first run in the city, a ten-day engagement at New York University’s Skirball Theater. “I kind of can’t believe it that this is happening,” said writer and co-director Nabil Al-Raee, when asked during a post-show panel on Saturday what it was like to see the work premiere in the Big Apple. “It’s really a dream.”
In a city that prides itself on fostering a vibrant theatre scene, and in a country that claims to steadfastly defend the right to free expression, to see The Siege is to be reminded of how deeply the racial logic of the War on Terror has embedded itself into the American psyche — in no small part thanks to the complicity of our political, educational, and cultural institutions. What makes The Siege so remarkable — and perhaps so dangerous, in the eyes of its detractors — is that it doesn’t focus on the experiences of civilians, who are presumably the most palatable or relatable subjects for a Western audience. In centering the play on Palestinian fighters, and granting these characters not only rationality but also morality, The Siege humanizes subjects who are so often denied personhood, and in doing so forces audiences to question the widespread assumption that it’s “the terrorists,” and not the occupation, that are the problem.
The Siege grew out of actual events that occurred in April 2002, during the Second Intifada. As Israeli tanks rolled into Bethlehem and several other cities in the West Bank with the aim of capturing alleged militants, about two hundred Palestinian fighters crowded into the Church of the Nativity seeking refuge. The script for The Siege was informed by interviews with several of the real-life Palestinian fighters, who were eventually exiled to Europe or Gaza, as well as with civilians and monks who experienced the events. Running at around ninety minutes, and performed in Arabic with English subtitles (which at times seemed slightly delayed and hard to follow), the show is mostly centered on the voices of six of the combatants as they struggle to survive and debate whether to surrender or fight until the end. (The actors are Faisal Abualhayjaa, Alaa Abu Gharbieh, Rabee Hanani, Motaz Malhees, Hassan Taha, and Ghantus Wael.)
Although the combatants in The Siege seem somewhat purposefully undifferentiated — they aren’t given individual names — over the course of the play the men encounter situations that reveal their full and distinct humanity. At times some are angry, while others are very afraid; one mourns the suffering of his mother, another the fiancée he will be forced to leave behind; together, to lighten the mood and assuage their hunger, they sip pretend cups of coffee and fantasize about eating maqluba around the table with their families. Whether Christian or Muslim, the fighters demonstrate deep care and affection for each other as well as concern for the physical safety of the church and the civilians and monks holed up inside. They are despondent about the situation they’re in, but take very seriously the political and moral implications of how to move forward — most importantly, the decision over whether to fight back or accept exile.
Throughout the production, the set is composed of walls and arched hallways, and the light that falls across the stage is soft and smoky. During some scene changes, newsreel from the actual siege appears on screens, giving viewers the sense that they are at once in the church yet also aware of what is happening just outside. The costumes are realistic but minimal, with the combatants dressed in a mix of fatigues and street wear, guns slung across their chests. Although one fighter dies while they are in the church, overall there isn’t much action in the play, save for a moment when another fighter is having his wound attended to and blood gushes out of his leg.
The Freedom Theatre, which developed The Siege, was founded in 2006, and is based in the northern West Bank’s Jenin Refugee Camp. The company was established to use the arts as a catalyst for social change and to “generate cultural resistance” to the occupation, but the politics of the conflict have nevertheless exerted a profound influence on its artistic work. As Florida State University theater professor Samer Al-Saber explained at the Saturday panel, in Palestine “the theater itself is a victim of the occupation.” Over the years, Israeli security forces have arrested numerous members of the theatre’s staff and board, seemingly without reason. Freedom Theatre actors and staff must also contend with other challenges in touring their productions, including securing international visas and crossing out of the West Bank.
One of the most powerful moments in The Siege comes toward the end, when a woman in Bethlehem calls a militant on his cell phone and pleads with the men to come out of the church. (“It’s not just about you,” she implores them. “We are all being punished. The entire city is closed, paralyzed.”) The militants are distraught by the call — they have stayed inside amidst the invasion of the Israeli army for the sake of their families and the Palestinian people, after all — but they also ultimately realize that these motivations don’t matter. Hidden inside the sanctuary of the church, the fighters contend with the reality of being misunderstood, even by other Palestinians. “We are facing the Israeli propaganda machine that speaks all languages,” explains one combatant as he tries to convince the others that they must accept exile, even if it means surrendering and leaving their land and loved ones behind. “It changes narratives, it turns black into white and white into black. It makes the oppressor into the oppressed, and the occupier into the victims.” This is the greatest strength of The Siege — it allows viewers to enter and experience one version of one truth that has otherwise been obscured and shrouded from public view. As Al-Saber commented during the panel, “there are modes of expression….that actually can tell a story in a way that it otherwise can’t be told.”
That The Siege takes seriously the voices and political perspectives of fighters is perhaps also why right-wing activists have fought so aggressively to shut productions down. The play was twice supposed to run at the Public Theater, but was first postponed and then canceled altogether. When the show first ran in the U.K., right-wing tabloids described it as representing “pro-terrorist” views, which is no small matter, since the glorification of terrorism is considered a serious and convictable offense under British law. Unfortunately, it’s almost a routine matter for artistic productions with perceived pro-Palestinian views to be canceled. When The Death of Klinghoffer finally appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014, it did so despite regular protests and vitriolic opposition. And just last week, the American Jewish Historical Society faced a backlash after canceling two events that had been criticized as anti-Israel, including a work by the Jewish playwright Dan Fishback. (Moreover, these efforts to quell a diversity of perspectives on what’s happening in Israel and Palestine have been met by silence or overt complicity on the part of cultural, academic, and political institutions — whether in the case of the right-wing attacks on pro-Palestine student organizers at Brooklyn College and elsewhere, or with regards to the efforts of Governor Cuomo and legislatures across the country to criminalize or otherwise constrain support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.)
The Siege serves as a crucial counterpoint both to these aims to silence and to mainstream cultural representations of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine as well as in the War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the award-winning musical Come From Away, which tells the story of what happened in the days following 9/11, when 38 planes were ordered to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. The musical celebrates the wonder of human kindness in the face of seemingly inexplicable evil: With U.S. airspace closed, Gander locals rush to feed and house the roughly seven thousand stranded travelers, who find renewed hope in these connections. One of the sole Muslim characters in the production, Ali (Caesar Samayoa), is initially shunned by most of the others, even though he so wants to help. After he reveals that he’s a professional chef, they finally let him cook for the group, and he is welcomed with open arms. At times, Ali seems to serve primarily as a foil for the good-hearted non-Muslims stranded in Gander; he faces discrimination, but a few fellow travelers are willing to stand up for him. His character is also implicitly cast against the perpetrators of 9/11, the evil terrorists who are not expressly mentioned in the musical, but only because they don’t have to be. As Mahmood Mamdani famously outlined, in Western eyes there are “good” Muslims who are like us — intelligible, civilized, on our side — and then there are “bad” Muslims, barbaric and fanatical, who need not even be understood.
This false binary is also at the core of President Trump’s worldview. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he said in his 2017 Riyadh speech on extremism. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion.” It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s overt Islamophobia and racism; it’s much more difficult to engage with our own deeply ingrained ideas about what constitutes terrorism, and who commits it, and why. In humanizing those cast as terrorists and providing them with moral and political complexity, The Siege does exactly what great art should: It destabilizes and upends the fundamental assumptions that shape our moral and political world. It’s uncomfortable, and it should be.