A Permission To Perform: Artists Crack the Codes of the State's Censor

By Samer Al-Saber
Submitted to Session P4382 (Practicing Nationalism between State and Society in Israel, Turkey, and Iran, 2016 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Israel; Palestine;
19th-21st Centuries;
Following Edward Said’s notion of a “permission to narrate” and adding a bodily dimension to the idea of censorship in performance, I define a “permission to perform” as the guaranteed ability to legally, physically, literally, and publicly perform the experience of the oppressed under a systematically oppressive structure. In this paper, I show the merit of adopting a performative dimension to Said’s politically charged idea as we consider performances of resistance in strong states, particularly when a national group struggles for representation in a heavily controlled environment. In my paper, I rely on documents from the Israel State Archive and ethnographic fieldwork from 2010 to 2012.

The extensive record of controversial encounters between the Israeli authorities and Palestinian artists since 1948 suggests that the Palestinian theatre artists have contended with a constant stream of closures, bans, and arrests. The struggle for the “permission to perform” – which serves as a reminder of the disparity in power between the occupier and the occupied – characterizes the relationship between the occupied artists and the state of Israel. To perform, the Palestinian artists had to survive the cutting board of the Israeli office of censorship, but they also had to overcome restrictions imposed by various branches of the government. By reconstructing the performance conditions of El-Hakawati’s 1982 production of Mahjoob Mahjoob, I examine the antagonistic relationship between the theatre artists and the Israeli authorities, then I suggest that this relationship played a significant role in the development and in some cases, the de-development of Palestinian theatrical production.

The journey of El-Hakawati’s production of Mahjoob Mahjoob from Jerusalem to Palestinian cities and villages to an international tour in Europe provides an example of the influential power of censorship on the history of Arab cultural production in general and Palestinian theatre in particular. But, upon deeper exploration, it also suggests that the Israeli censorship’s official performance permit did not necessarily offer Palestinians the ability to perform freely. Official approval of the play became but one step in El-Hakawati’s struggle for a more encompassing “permission to perform.” Beyond the experience of El-Hakawati at home, their performances in Europe demonstrate that even on the international stage, in free and democratic societies, the Palestinians have seldom had the privilege of such permission.