fri 14/06/2024

Extract: David Lan's As If By Chance | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: David Lan's As If By Chance

Extract: David Lan's As If By Chance

Adventures in Palestine from the memoir of the former artistic director of the Young Vic

'You are?' David Lan, director and memoiristJohan Persson

In June 2001 the London Festival of International Theatre brought Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Alive from Palestine to the Royal Court Theatre for one performance. The Guardian said, “How often do you see a piece of necessary theatre? These 'stories under occupation' fall precisely into that category. We are used to the idea of theatre as a diversion.

Here it is fulfilling a more important function of bringing us the news.”

I didn’t see it and I couldn’t get hold of a full script – perhaps there wasn’t one – but by reading a print-out of the English surtitles I felt I’d got enough of a sense of its quality. I called friends at LIFT and at the Court.

“Do you plan to bring it back?”

Amir Nizar, then 25, had written, directed and designed the show for the West Bank theatre Al-Kasaba in the heart of Ramallah near the beautiful old walled vegetable and fruit market. At the time the show was created, the occupying West Bank police forbade gatherings of more than three people. It was impossible to rehearse a conventional play in those circumstances so writer/director and actors created this one out of a series of very brief scenes, each with no more than three characters. Say what you have to say and get the hell out of the danger zone.

“This is how our life is.”

There was satire but far more anger and distress at how Palestinians had lost control of their day-to-day existence, at how the world knew nothing and seemed to care less about how they lived, at how nothing of their experience of occupation was of interest unless it could be splashed in violent headlines.

We scheduled eight performances which quickly sold out and, in the end, played 11. We could have gone on for weeks if we hadn’t had another show booked in. Protestors stood on the pavement holding placards denouncing what they saw as anti-Zionist propaganda.

“It’s so cold out here. Why not come inside and stand in the warm foyer?”

They preferred the pavement which I guess was better publicity for my business as well as theirs.

A year or two later, Amir Nizar set up his own theatre company ShiberHur which means “a small territory” or, more poetically, “a breathing space”. They had almost nothing, no money, no lighting or sound equipment. I commissioned him to write a play which was the best way I could legitimately use our resources to bolster his.

The new play was called I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother, a quotation from the Quranic version of the story of “Joseph and his Brothers” which is, of course, also found in the Old Testament. It told the tale of two brothers adrift during the crisis of the nakbah, the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine at the moment in 1948 when much of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was taken to create the state of Israel.

A year or so later we presented Amir Nizar’s ShiberHur adaptation of Kafka’s short story "In the Penal Colony", and later still a second original play that we’d commissioned, The Beloved, based on the Biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, also found in the Quran.

Each time we worked with ShiberHur, I’d spend time in Tel Aviv where Amir Nizar lived with his wife, the actress Sivan Sasson, and his young son Noor, and also in Haifa where they rented space to rehearse in Al-Midan, “the Arab theatre” on the crest of the hill above the wadi Niznaz overlooking the bay.

If you ask liberal Israelis about Haifa, they say, “It’s our most integrated city. Jews and Arabs are more relaxed with each other there than anywhere else in our country.”

Arabs say, “Yes, but the Jews live in the nice houses high on the mountain, we live at the bottom of the hill.”

In fact, Makram Khoury, for decades one of the most admired actors in the Jewish and Arab theatres (in 1987 he was awarded the Israel Prize for acting), a member of ShiberHur and a performer in their Kafka adaptation, lives with his wife Wadiya near the top of the hill.

We sit in his comfortable living room in capacious armchairs looking through his wide picture window out across the Bay of Haifa, which in the past was known as the Gulf of Acre. We can almost see Acre just up the coast. Beyond it is Lebanon and a different reality.

Wadiya has layered the table with glistening red pepper and buckwheat salads, heaped couscous, cheese pastries. And I feel . . . Why is it that I feel so at home? Because Wadiya reminds me of my Granny Golda? Golda was strongly built but cuddly with a broad, open face just like Wadiya’s and an embrace quite as enfolding. They could be sisters, no?. OK, not sisters, cousins, do you buy that? No, because my family are Ashkenazi Jews from the depths of Eastern Europe who never, in historical actuality, had anything to do with the Second Temple or the Maccabees or the Babylonian captivity or any of those catalogues of courage, violence and anguish. There’s nothing remotely “Semitic” or “Mediterranean” about them. But, but, but did I ever feel so easily at home in Golda’s living room, in her capacious armchairs? Or with her many brothers, my great uncles? Or with Aunty Hadassah, Barney’s wife, who in her youth studied pharmacy at the university in Königsberg, a cultured and sophisticated woman? I hardly ever bothered to talk to her. Or to Uncle Louis who fought in the Spanish civil war? Why was I so self-centred, so unjustifiably self-assured, so snobbish, call it by its name? Because they spoke with a funny accent and their voices were pitched in a minor key? I sit looking out at the bay puzzling.

Amir Nizar and I hang around on the pavement outside cafes in the wadis of Haifa playing our game. As a passer-by appears I guess her ethnicity.

"Definitely Arab.”

“She’s Jewish."

I’m hopeless at it.

"Well, he’s Jewish."

"Uh uh. He’s a Druze."

Amir Nizar’s mother was Jewish, a doctor, an anaesthetist, elderly when I met her but still with a long-haired hippy look though her hair was now grey. His tall bony eagle of a father had been a horse dealer and breeder from an aristocratic Arab lineage that once con- trolled one of the pilgrimage routes to Mecca. Amir Nizar is a past master at our game but then he lives it day after day. Taxi drivers assume from his handsome, more or less “European” features that he’s a Jew and, as they drive, curse those fucking useless Arabs.

"Shooting’s too good for them.”

Well, everyone’s entitled to their point of view.

Late in the golden afternoon with the low sun bejewelling the sea, Makram asks:

“So have you ever visited Acre? No? You’re not interested?”

“No, really I am.”

“So why just sit looking at it? It’s only an hour away, no more than that. I’ll drive.”


We stride along Acre’s massive stone embankments that held off waves of crusaders and, some centuries later, Napoleon’s hitherto unconquerable army, towards Abu Cristo, a favourite restaurant built into the battlements that features in all the tourist guides. As the sun finally goes down, we drink beer, eat fish hooked straight from the sea, talk – mostly about the terrible events now unfolding a hundred miles down the coast in Gaza.

“There are always terrible events unfolding in Gaza.”



“Can you hear that?”

I can hear nothing but the sea slapping the battlements but then I’m rather deaf. What am I listening for? Rifle fire? Bombing? An air raid? In 1987 I was hired to rewrite a film based on Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. The original, set at the turn of the last century on the political axis of St Petersburg and Zurich, of a revolutionary who betrays his cell and is punished by having his eardrums punctured, tells the story. The film Streets of Yesterday transposed the story to Israel/Palestine, the political axis to Jerusalem and East Berlin. To help me understand the politics of that historical moment, the director Judd Ne’eman drove me to a village in the north of Gaza. We looked for the home of a young Palestinian journalist who, the previous year, had been one of the first, if not the actual first, to describe and analyse the intifada. He had grasped that there was something more than angry Arab kids throwing stones going on, that this was something significant, that political sensibilities had hardened and set in a new pattern.

All the buildings were surrounded by shining white stone walls. We struggled to find the one where the journalist lived because at that time the Israelis were demolishing houses in the area. No street was like the map said it ought to be.

We found it. We knocked at the whitewashed door. We were let in by a young boy who led us into a white courtyard and then hurried into the dwelling to announce us.

We waited. We were served tea. We waited. It’s OK, it’s fine, people are busy, this visit is our priority, not his. We waited. Finally the journalist appeared.

“Forgive me, I must have seemed rude. I was caught up in a book, I wanted to finish it before we started our meeting. It took longer than I expected. Were you looked after properly? Accept my apologies.”

He embraced Judd and turned to me. “You are?”

I said my name.


“Would you repeat that please?”

He went back into the house and emerged holding my book Guns and Rain about grassroots resistance in the 1960s and '70s to the racist regime in Zimbabwe.

“How strange this is. Your book is the reason I kept you waiting. I had one last chapter to go. I didn’t want to stop reading until I’d finished it."

  • David Lan's As If By Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives (published by Faber, £10.99) is out now in paperback.
Protestors preferred the pavement to the warm foyer which I guess was better publicity for my business as well as theirs

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