In the week of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Theatre503 brought together a team of artists to present Top Trumps, a festival of plays, proposals and premonitions exploring all that has led to this moment and where things might go from here. Along with playwrights including Caryl Churchill, Neil LaBute and Roy Williams, Hassan Abdulrazzak was commissioned to write a play and chose to approach the election of Trump from the vantage point of the Middle East. Here is why he chose to write Trump in Palestine, following a visit to Israel / Palestine to research And Here I am, a new piece of work which will premiere in July.
I’m sweating. And the more I think about not sweating, the more I sweat. I could be deported, put on a plane and sent back to London. But could it get worse? Could I be humiliated? Pushed to the point of tears? That’s what I’m afraid of, gushing in front of the officers. I’m not a tough guy. It wouldn’t take much to break me.
I’m in Ben Gurion airport on my first visit to Israel / Palestine. I have been pulled aside for a special interrogation. The fact that I have a British passport means nothing. My name, particularly my very Arabic / Muslim sounding surname, is enough for me to be detained.
I quickly lose track of time as I sit in a special waiting room with a few other passengers who have also been detained. All I can think about is an actor friend who made the same journey and was denied entry. She was kept overnight in a jail cell before being deported. The officers were so harsh with her, she broke into tears. That’s what terrifies me as I wait: the prospect of humiliation.
The female officer who eventually interrogates me is young, polite and stern. She takes me to a room at the back of the airport, away from the eyes of the oblivious Western holidaymakers. A photograph of Netanyahu hangs on the wall. I glance at his eyes. He has a tough guy squint, like Clint Eastwood’s. Suddenly it occurs to me that being in Israel is no different to being in an Arab dictatorship: you get hassled at the airport and a portrait of the country’s leader stares down at you. When both sides have so much in common, why can’t peace be found? Perhaps precisely because they have so much in common.
The young officer wants to know the name of every Palestinian I know in the West Bank. I give her one name. She asks for the contact’s phone number. As I look up the number, the officer asks me to type in the Israeli dialling code on my phone. I am baffled. She politely requests to perform the task on my behalf. I hand over the phone. She then finds out all the other Palestinian numbers I have. Very sneaky. I admire the way she did it. Not taking the phone immediately but doing so in small concrete steps. Here is a metaphor for the occupation surely.
She asks about the additional names I did not divulge. I tell her that in London I meet all sorts of people and over time I have accumulated a lot of contacts, some of whom I’ve only met once. What she really wants to know, it turns out, is whether any of my contacts are active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. None are to the best of my knowledge. She types all this in her computer. I am told to go back to the waiting room. Hours go by. I become convinced that I will be deported. But then a male officer arrives and hands back my passport. Free to go at last. I’m thrilled. I will finally get to see the country that I have spent a lifetime dreaming of visiting.
You can read books, watch documentaries and follow the news about this place but nothing compares to actually going there. Of course if all you do is visit the uber cool bars of Tel Aviv and the touristic parts of Jerusalem and Bethlehem then you could leave the country thinking: occupation, what occupation? To really see the occupation, you need to travel with Palestinians through the West Bank. They will point out the illegal settlements on the hilltops. Some are the size of cities, others are more embryonic. As one Palestinian man said to me: “it starts with a synagogue and a few bungalows and then boom, it becomes a whole town before you know it”. And the workforce building these illegal settlements are more often than not Palestinian. Desperate for jobs and tired of the corruption of their own leaders, they help build the very settlements that are turning the dream of a sovereign Palestinian state into a mirage.
I am in Palestine to research And Here I Am, a play that I will write about the life of Ahmed Tobasi, who fought in the second intifada but then gave up armed resistance in favour of resistance through theatre and performance. The play will be directed by Zoe Lafferty (Queens of Syria, Young Vic) and performed by Ahmed himself.
Through Zoe and Ahmed, I meet and befriend a number of Palestinian artists and am surprised when some of them tell me that they welcome the election of Trump. How can that be after Trump vowed to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby accepting Israel’s claim to the occupied city as its undivided capital? Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education, declared after Trump’s victory that “the era of a Palestinian state is over”. Of course my Palestinian friends are half joking, their point being that with Trump, America’s support for Israel will be naked for the rest of the world to see. Obama talked a great deal about peace and famously had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu yet he signed off on a $38 billion military aid budget for Israel. In my short play, Trump in Palestine (part of Theatre 503’s Top Trumps), I explored not only this come-what-may attitude to Trump but also the dynamic between the USA and the Palestinians in general.
Noam Chomsky has said that “the only predictable thing about Trump is his unpredictability” so perhaps on the issue of Palestine, Trump will – against all odds – pleasantly surprise us; that’s if he doesn’t start World War Three first.