Playwright Bashar Murkus wonders how people can attack the Al-Midan Theater’s production without having seen it.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision, announced on Tuesday, to remove Al-Midan Theater’s “A Parallel Time” from schools’ “culture basket,” contrary to an earlier decision by the ministry’s Repertoire Committee, doesn’t come as a big surprise to the play’s author and director Bashar Murkus.
“Honestly, something like this doesn’t shock me anymore in this country,” he tells Haaretz after having declined for a long time to speak to the Israeli media. “What’s unusual this time is that it’s so blatant, so clear, we can see it as something that isn’t hidden. It’s frustrating and it reminds us where we’re living and how we really have to work and create art amid all this.
“The only surprising thing is that all this fuss took place without anyone actually having seen the play. It has nothing to do with the play but rather with people who are afflicted with blindness, who don’t want to see and won’t give me the right to ask. If you ask me, it’s fascism.”
Murkus, 22, was took the inspiration for “A Parallel Time” from the story of Walid Daka, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was convicted of involvement in the abduction and murder of Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison.
The play had its premiere about a year ago and in recent months has attracted controversy on a number of occasions, such as when it was presented as the final event of Palestinian Prisoner Day in Haifa.
In early May, the Haifa city council approved a motion by councilman Shai Blumenthal (Habayit Hayehudi) to put a one-month freeze on the municipality’s support for Al-Midan (which amounts to NIS 1,275,000 annually) until a committee headed by the mayor’s deputy could examine the matter. The committee has yet to submit its recommendations, but in the interim, petitions from theater artists have been sent in support, as have some protest petitions calling on government bodies to permanently cease its support for the institution.
During this time, various entities have also called on the Culture Ministry to halt support for the theater. Last week, Bennett asked the repertoire committee that determines what goes in the “culture basket” to consider removing the play from the arrangement, but the committee adhered to its approval of the play. On Wednesday, Bennett announced that he was invoking his authority as minister and removing the play immediately.
Some of those who object to the play call it “a murderer’s play” or complain that it expresses sympathy for him, but Murkus thoroughly denies such criticisms. “The play is not about Walid Daka, but rather was inspired by his life story. It raises a lot of questions that he asks, that other characters ask, and that I as a director and the play’s writer ask,” he says.
“It’s not about murder but about the war against time in prison. I don’t think the day will ever come when, because of what’s happened, we’ll stop putting on ‘A Parallel Time’ or stop asking what we want to ask.”
How did you get to Daka’s story?
“Al-Midan had asked me for a suggestion for a project, and I said I was interested in exploring the issue of political prisoners. My initial research was very general, on Israeli prisoners and foreign prisoners as well as tales from history. As I was working on it, I came upon some of Daka’s stories that were published online and I saw there was something interesting here. One of the things that really captured my interest was a letter he writes to his unborn son.
“I met with his lawyer, as well as his mother and wife and brothers. I saw that his was a really big story, one that also contained within it a lot of stories of other prisoners. For us, as theater people who research a subject and start to work a play, it was very interesting raw material. In addition to the stories that were published, we got hold of some personal letters that he wrote to his family and friends. The thing we want to explore is the person within the prisoner.”
Did you meet with him in prison?
“No, but we wrote to each other. I asked him a ton of questions about his life, I asked him to write me what he is seeing now inside the prison. Things that are helpful to us in our theatrical research. He was very excited by our interest in him. In Palestinian theater, it’s been a long time since anyone dealt with the subject of political prisoners. I think that if we’re going to relate to them like Israel does – as numbers, or as heroes – then we’re essentially putting them in the same place. There’s no difference between a hero and a number.”
The fact that you selected a person who was convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a soldier makes some people equate it with being “his play.” How does this reconcile with the claim that the play also represents the stories of other prisoners?
“We thought about that a lot. In some way you see Daka, you hear him, you read that he wants a child, that he is marrying and that he’s writing and studying, that he’s earned degrees. You know he has a past and he’s done things I have a lot of questions about. It’s not an easy subject but for me, it’s very important because he’s a part of my people. I can understand why he chose this path, without agreeing or disagreeing with it. He question isn’t what I think. He did something, and now he’s in jail, but I still want to question him, to ask him questions about himself. That is something I will fight for, so I will always have this right to ask. Plays and movies have been made about much worse characters than him.”
Have you ever talked to Tamam’s relatives?
“No, but when I was researching I was very interested in what they had written. I collected things that were published online and that the soldier’s family posted. We don’t talk about the murder at all in the play. What I’m asking in the play is how a person fights time while in prison. That’s what interests me. As someone who makes theater I have a right to talk about my pain, because I can say something about that. But I don’t have the right to talk about others’ pain. I can’t allow myself to do that. Maybe another director needs to take this on.”
Contacted for a response, the Tamam family says: “We are not interested in commenting on the statements of someone who has called Moshe’s despicable murderer a ‘hero.’”
Murkus, a graduate of the University of Haifa theater department, is currently teaching there as well as at the Drama Academy in Ramallah. He recently directed “1945,” the new play being presented by Al-Midan about relations between the Arabs and British here before the founding of the state, and he also directs at other Arab theaters in Israel. He believes that theater is the place where big questions are asked, though he feels that Israeli theater usually avoids them.
“This is why we have theater that not always that interesting,” he explains. “It chooses very easy questions in order to be sure to have an audience, to make sure the subscribers will come and everything will be fine. To me that’s not theater. I do theater because I have a reason to do theater. I want to ask myself questions, to pose questions to the team I work with and to the audience. I don’t give answers.”
Isn’t one aim of the theater to have the audience identify to some degree with the characters and the action on stage?
“No, no, no,” Murkus furiously objects. “The aim of theater is to make the audience witness to something. That’s how I work and that’s what I believe. I have a right to talk about things that make other people angry, about people who someone else sees as enemies. Israeli theater has done a lot of plays about people whom I consider my enemies. When you do plays about the founding of the State of Israel, for example, that’s something I don’t agree with. But can I say, ‘Hey guys, don’t do it?’ No. So they also don’t have the right to tell me, ‘Don’t do it.’ Because it’s theater and it’s art. I have a right to say what I want and anyone else has a right to see it and get angry. But they absolutely do not have the right to tell me ‘Don’t do it.’”
Did you ever worry that ‘“A Parallel Time” could cause financial losses?
“I don’t have any financial fears about it. That doesn’t concern me. I’m only concerned with the theater as an institution, but like I said, I’m not surprised. I expected reactions. That’s why you do theater. To make something move. The annoying thing is that these reactions came out without the people having seen the play, which means it wasn’t the play itself that upset the right this time, but the fact that it depicts a prisoner as a human being, that we made a play about this and that the state’s money is going into it. The closing off of the financial pipeline to Al-Midan is scary and makes it hard for us to continue operating, but what really scares me is that if it happens this time it will be this way all the time. This is what needs to be talked about. Because it’s not happening only with ‘A Parallel Time’ but also to Arkadi Zaides [the Culture and Sport Ministry recently revoked its sponsorship of the choreographer’s show ‘Archive’]. I should realize that I’m not living in a democratic country, because this country is telling me, ‘Bashar, you can’t say what you want to say.’ I understand this now and now I’m starting to work with this thing.”