Creating a level playing field

In his book, the Israeli theatre director and drama teacher Uri Shani describes the ups and downs of an Arab–Hebrew community theatre project known as "Nemashim". Julie Schwannecke read the book and spoke with the author

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Julie Schwannecke

"Nemashim", initiated in 2002, is an Arab–Hebrew theatre and community project in Israel that gives three to six young Arabs and Hebrews the opportunity to live together in a community and "do theatre" for one year. In the workshops, on stage and within the community, the young people learn to deal with prejudices and stereotypes in their societies and transform them into theatrical productions.

The idea for this ambitious project came about at a time when the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was intensifying and racism was escalating on both sides. Uri Shani, the project's founder and long-time theatre director and drama teacher, wanted to highlight a different life reality with the help of theatrical productions. His goal was to bring young Arabs and Hebrews together to get to know each other and talk to each other, something that is not usually possible due to the different educational systems in Israel and Palestine.

He also wanted to examine different cultural identities in order to find out whether dialogue is even possible between Arabs and Hebrews and under which conditions cross-cultural co-operation between the two can work. The author deliberately uses the terms "Arabs" and "Hebrews" and not "Palestinians" and "Jews", to emphasise that this is not about the religion or the country with which each of the two groups identify.

At the same time, the project draws upon the Israeli tradition of young people doing something for their society after graduating from high school, either by joining the military or getting involved in other ways in the form of community or social work. The Arab section of the Israeli population does not follow this practice; for them it is especially important that young people attend university as soon as possible or earn money for the family. For this reason, it has always been difficult to find Arab participants for "Nemashim".

Buchcover "Nemashim: Ein arabisch-hebräisches Theaterprojekt" im AphorismA-Verlag Berlin
Uri Shani believes that real change cannot be achieved by Israeli and Palestinian heads of state, but that an active civil society – including the theatre – can play an important role

Changing society through theatre

Uri Shani believes that theatre can help to reveal social and political deficits and to incite discussion and co-operative change. Theatre is not only communicative, but also collaborative; it is the cultivation of communication. For this reason alone, he believes that theatre can have a positive impact on conflict situations. Above all, theatre is there to encourage the audience to think and exchange ideas; to ask questions and not to provide answers.

For more than ten years, Shani has practised the Theatre of the Oppressed with young people. This form of theatre, which was developed by the Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, seeks to solve social problems and spark changes at a political level through playful, aesthetic and theatrical encounters between people. This is achieved by involving the spectator in the action, thereby overcoming the separation of stage and audience.

The Theatre of the Oppressed seeks to turn passive spectators into active participants who bring in their own opinions and influence the progress of the play. It encourages participants to question society's repressive rules and their own behaviour in order to free themselves from predetermined roles and the constraints of everyday life. If an individual succeeds at this in the theatre, he may then be able to behave more courageously in everyday situations, says Uri Shani.

Nemashim's plays are sometimes about a Muslim father who does not want his daughter to marry her Christian boyfriend, or about a Jewish couple that would like to get married without a religious ceremony. Or a piece might tell the story of the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes, which are then inhabited by young Israeli families.

Apart from everyday conflicts, young people bring as yet unresolved and taboo questions to the stage, such as 'Why don't the Jews speak Arabic after 50 years of co-existence?' or 'should one cry more about the Nakba or the Shoah?'

Uri Shani believes that real change and solutions cannot be achieved by Israeli and Palestinian heads of state, but that an active civil society is required to make progress.

When he began the project in 2002 – the year Ariel Sharon retook the West Bank – everyone told him that he was mad. He realised that the time was probably not yet ripe for his plan. But today, he says, people are more mature, with young Arabs in particular now more interested in doing something positive for their society than they were 20 years ago. Shani notes that this has become especially clear with the events of the Arab Spring.

Requirements for intercultural work

According to Shani, functioning intercultural theatre work requires not only proper preparation by the participants but above all a willingness to work on themselves and each other. Theatre performances presuppose that we constantly re-assess how we react to certain situations.

Basically, says Shani, cultural differences are completely irrelevant, both in the theatre and in real life. Mostly it is the reactions to these differences that provoke problems, the way that we consciously or unconsciously respect or devalue others because they are different. He goes on to say that these reactions have been instilled by society, which leads young people to adopt a subliminally racist attitude.

German participant Amina Nolte expressed this in her own chapter of the book: "It was not so much the things we argued about, but the way we argued, because this is so incredibly influenced by the culture we come from." The theatre work and also the many conversations helped to get cultural and linguistic misunderstandings out of the way. Amina describes the learning process during her project year as follows: "We can learn to co-exist without having to give up our own opinion, trying to find a compromise instead."

Co-operation between the privileged and the unprivileged

Shani deals in his book not only with the positive aspects of intercultural co-operation, but also explicitly points to potential dangers. If the work is not approached correctly, it can harden positions and increase oppression. He was forced to witness this with his own eyes in his own project: "Nemashim" has been on hold since 2008. Disagreements on fundamental issues and a lack of co-operation between the partners and management were the main factors that led to conflicts and the project's premature end.

"The project was primarily about co-operation between people who are not equal; between the privileged and the underprivileged," says Shani. Underprivileged here does not means "inferior", but that some people do not enjoy the same rights as others.

In striving for co-operation between unequal parties, the theatre-makers could not simply pretend that everyone was the same. They had to favour the underprivileged, in this case the Arabs, in all areas and in every way so that equilibrium would again be established and the Arabs would have the feeling that they have the same opportunities.

Shani's partners and superiors did not see it that way, so this inevitably led to a conflict that could not be resolved. "Only when we are ready to abandon our 'fiend within' and open up to others and meet them on equal terms, is real co-operation possible, leading to mutual enrichment," says Shani.

 Julie Schwannecke

© 2014

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/