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Maydan Al-Quds

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Hakawati Husam Abu Eisheh: “The Heaviness of Jerusalem Makes Us Who We Are”

The world has had its eyes on Jerusalem, particularly during Ramadan 2021. At the beginning of May, many worshippers were prevented from even entering the city. During the same time, the Israeli Border Police were on the way to forcibly remove several Palestinian families from neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Sheikh Jarrah was the one grabbing the headlines, but other areas—Silwan, Wadi al-Joz, and Beit Hanina—were similarly threatened. Meanwhile, the chants calling for the “death of Arabs” by extremist Jewish settlers in preparation for “Jerusalem reunification day” grew louder by the day.

During the preceding weeks, the Israeli police had fired tens of stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters inside al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as in the streets of East Jerusalem. In May alone, they arrested 677 Palestinian residents, many of them children below the age of 15.1 Protests against forced expulsions of Sheikh Jarrah residents were getting louder; the measure was seen as yet another episode of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Jerusalem. The Israeli Border Police attempted to prohibit Palestinian residents from sitting on the steps of Bab al-Amud, which brought even Haaretz to acknowledge that “the closure of the [Bab al-‘Amud] plaza during Ramadan has turned it into the epicenter of impassioned demonstrations.”⁠2 

These went well beyond Jerusalem, as Palestinians took to the streets in various towns and cities including Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Nazareth, and Umm al-Fahm. Well-armed Jewish gangs had been roaming the streets, assaulting Arabic-speaking residents and marking Arab homes for later attack, all under the protection of the Israeli police.3 

As a result, Palestinians from almost every corner of the country were rising up in protest. On social media, too, the calls to #SaveSheikhJarrah and #StopEthnicCleansing trended. To the surprise of many, the popular struggle in Palestine was back ferociously. Young activists who grew up during the Second Intifada demanded their rights in an exclusivist state. And then war erupted.

Blog Post A Bab al-Amud Morning

An evocative video vignette that shares the experience of a typical weekday morning on the steps of Bab al-Amud (Damascus Gate) just outside the Old City. Part of our series on Jerusalemites' favorite places in the city.

The Show Must Go On

While emotions were high in the city, popular actor from Jerusalem Husam Abu Eisheh proceeded with presenting his Ramadan show, “Hang Out with Abu Eisheh,” in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

“People might say, ‘This is not the time for simple things,’ but such is resistance in Jerusalem: It is about maintaining the simple things,” Abu Eisheh explains. A natural hakawati (storyteller4), Abu Eisheh roams the streets of his beloved city, collecting stories and recounting tales for “the keepers of Jerusalem.” 

This is not to suggest that Abu Eisheh is nonchalant about the politics. In fact, quite the opposite. He finds that resistance comes in different forms and believes that cultural performance is one of the most powerful. 

In early June, Abu Eisheh had an entertainment performance for children on Salah al-Din Street in East Jerusalem. “Halfway through it, I could hear mayhem from the other end of the street.” That same day, siblings Muna and Mohammed El-Kurd were taken into custody for their activities in opposition to their forced displacement from their home in Sheikh Jarrah so that Jewish settlers could move in.

“Resistance comes in many forms.”

Husam Abu Eisheh

Storyteller Husam Abu Eisheh interviews schoolchildren for the Nas wa Hurras program in Jerusalem, April 16, 2021

Husam Abu Eisheh interviews schoolchildren for the Nas wa Hurras program in Jerusalem, April 16, 2021.

Credit: 

Kubbe Medya

“It was clear that the Israeli Border Police were going to deter our activity, but I first made sure to proceed with the show. Those kids had been looking forward to receiving their medals for the Q&A sessions.” Abu Eisheh maintained his calm and finished the show before joining the protest by the Israeli police station.

Born and Bred in the Old City; Featured around the World

Abu Eisheh was born in Jerusalem on August 22, 1959, and became an accomplished actor, playwright, director, presenter, and stand-up comedian.

Abu Eisheh’s talent turned into a very successful acting career. He has taken on some remarkable roles, including in the films Wedding in Galilee and Haifa; the plays or theater performances “Goldfish,” “The Immigrant,” “Alive from Palestine: Stories under Occupation,” “Antigone,” “Roses and Jasmines,” and “Za‘tara Café;” and the TV productions “The Box” (for Ramadan) and “Hang Out with Abu Eisheh.” He has been invited to festivals around the world, traveling to 72 countries so far, where he has garnered much praise and received prestigious international awards. 

He also went on to teach drama and psychodrama (a group psychotherapeutic technique in which students draw on and dramatize their shared personal experiences and traumas) to various audiences, such as for schools that were part of the Madrasati Palestine project.5  

Having traveled the world, however, Abu Eisheh does not have a shadow of a doubt about the place that means the most to him: He would not choose to live anywhere other than the Old City of Jerusalem.

“The Jerusalem that I know is a very safe place. I grew up in poor circumstances, yet the social culture, solid values, and high transparency are real treasures here. In this atmosphere, one learns valuable manners and ethics, such as respecting the elderly and learning from the women.” He is referring to the Haret al-Sa‘diyya neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Abu Eisheh describes how being brought up next to the Red Minaret Mosque, on one side, and several Christian monasteries, on the other, was a living testament to the diversity around him.

“I’ve always been more interested in the people than the stones of the city,” he asserts. “My childhood memories are of our neighbors, both Muslim and Christian, who did not lock the doors of their houses. As a kid, I was so comfortable in my surroundings—to the point that if I walked into the neighbors’ home and helped myself to the stuffed zucchini boiling on their stove, nobody would have a problem with it. It was a pleasant environment, full of good humor.”

“I grew up in a Jerusalem where the neighbors did not lock their doors.” 

Husam Abu Eisheh

Imbibing His Surroundings—Taking Inspiration from the Everyday

The genuine simplicity and good nature of people is what most of Abu Eisheh’s playwriting is based on. He is inspired by the effortless expressions and lighthearted narratives that he picks up from his surroundings.

Reading, too, has always been a passion, and it has proven valuable for his artistic creations. He learned to love reading from his mother who, despite skipping school in sixth grade and having 12 children, read avidly. His father was somewhat religious, which was also beneficial, because it gave young Abu Eisheh insight into the rituals and traditions of Jerusalem.

What perhaps taught him most about life, however, were the women of the neighborhood. “Like a cat, I used to sit and listen attentively to the sensational conversations my mother had with her friends and neighbors. Once they left our home, I would recount these stories to my mother. I used to replicate their every word and gesture.”

From a young age, Abu Eisheh had a talent for impersonating people. He describes what he did as a kind of “scanning.” “Since I was a kid, like a scanner, I used to imitate TV figures, political leaders, friends, teachers, even school deans. By the time I turned 16, I had gotten tired of people asking me to copy this or that person. I wanted to build my own trademark.”

Abu Eisheh soon went on to write, direct, and act in his own shows. He was a cofounder of the Theatre Arts Group (now called Masrah al-Kasaba)6 in 1970, moved on to al-Hakawati (1980s), and went on to become the head of the Palestinian Theater Artists Association (1990s).

“We did everything we could to create theater in Jerusalem. At some point, all our personal belongings were used as props for the theater. Cultural life in Jerusalem had so much popularity back then, and people always showed up to watch films. There were three cinemas: al-Quds cinema (on al-Zahra Street) was for the upper class, al-Hamra cinema for the middle class, and al-Nuzha cinema for the lower class.” It was the latter group that interested Abu Eisheh the most.

Originally, Abu Eisheh had intended to work on a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the Beirut Arab University, but it became clear to him he had “no connection to either business or administration!” His travel to Lebanon nevertheless turned out to be very fortunate, because that is where he met and fell in love with Latifeh, his wife. Although she was also from the Old City of Jerusalem, the two had to go all the way to Beirut to find one another.

“We did everything we could to create theater in Jerusalem.”

Husam Abu Eisheh

Seeing Irony in the Harsh Moments, Even Imprisonment

On September 17, 1980, Abu Eisheh was arrested by the Israeli Border Police because of his affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He was jailed in Israel’s Beersheba prison for over three years, an experience he says was horrid.

Abu Eisheh saw his imprisonment as a chance to educate himself and work on new material. He wrote several theater scripts, which he went on to bring into being as real productions, which he both acted in and directed. “There is humor even in the worst of situations,” he reflects. “It is a special craft to see the irony in the harsh moments. It is always crucial to find ways to build a positive environment. We need to energize ourselves through humor . . . as preparation for tomorrow’s misery.”

“We need to energize ourselves through humor.”

Husam Abu Eisheh

In addition to writing, Abu Eisheh read many books while he was in jail. He also wrote to Latifeh. “We exchanged 250 letters during that time,” he notes. The letters gave the couple’s three sons, Bissan, Samer, and Yazan (now in their thirties), a sense of how open and inclusive Palestinian society had been at the time. Muslim and Christian neighbors had practically functioned as one big family.

“Flipping the Script”

Over the years, Abu Eisheh collected numerous impressive awards. For example, the Carthage Theatre Days Festival in Tunisia7 awarded him the coveted Golden Tanit Award for Best Director for the play “Alive from Palestine: Stories under Occupation,” a show that aims to tell the untold personal stories of Palestinians.

Poster of "Alive from Palestine: Stories of Occupation" a Jerusalem theater production

Poster for the theater performance, “Stories Under Occupation.” Ramallah, July 2018. 

Storyteller and actor Husam Abu Eisheh playing the role of Creon in Antigone in Geneva, February 2017

Husam Abu Eisheh playing the role of Creon in Antigone in Geneva, February 2017. 

Credit: 

© Nabil Boutros

“Thank God, All Is OK”

One of the bittersweet summary Arabic statements that Palestinians often use, and which Abu Eisheh finds compelling, is: “Thank God, all is OK” (il-hamdulillah, nahna kwaysin). Individuals and families may undergo evictions, home demolitions, imprisonments, untreatable injuries, and harassment when they venture from their homes, yet they still manage to live life in gratitude and count their blessings. 

Storyteller and writer Husam Abu Eisheh presenting the Nas wa Hurras program, Jerusalem, April 25, 2021

Husam Abu Eisheh presenting the Nas wa Hurras program, Jerusalem, April 25, 2021.

Credit: 

Kubbe Medya

This sense of contentment witnessed in the people within the corners of the Old City is perhaps what fills Abu Eisheh with profound love. His humor indicates that the beauty of life lies in its simplicity. In this respect, it is the oppressor that looks pathetic, not the other way around. When he gets delayed and interrogated at airport terminals by Israeli security who go so far as to escort him to the plane as though he were potentially dangerous, he decides to see it as “VIP service.” “Knowing that they are taking care of everything, I put my feet up and feel sorry for these young women looking through my suitcase.”

“Once we realize that we can flip the script, the way that we view our situation changes.” Abu Eisheh has seen enough madness in Jerusalem to know that comedy is a necessary form of therapy by which to break some of the barriers, fears, and anxieties that Palestinians are exposed to. In some ways, the appreciation of humor, food, solid connections, open doors, and the love of a city where the people are warm and generous somehow makes one find a way to “Thank God” and strive to be OK.

“Once we realize that we can flip the script, the way that we view our situation changes.”

Husam Abu Eisheh

During the Jerusalem International Film Festival in Gaza in 2018, he received a special honor from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. He has worked with high-ranking Palestinian filmmakers and actors, including Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, and Kamal al-Basha.

However, what gives Abu Eisheh joy is not the accolades of foreigners but rather his surroundings. Always friendly and approachable, Abu Eisheh continues to appreciate the authenticity of East Jerusalem. He finds comfort in the generosity and genuineness of people, simple stories, fresh-cooked meals, and the funny dynamics between friends and married couples. With a strong passion for roaming the streets of the city on foot during different times of the day, he has not ever bothered to get a driver’s license.

When asked about the “heaviness” of Jerusalem, Abu Eisheh admits that the city does take its toll on residents. “But it is the heaviness that makes us who we are and how we are,” he adds. “It is the heaviness that makes us stand out.” As a well-traveled person, he believes that no other city offers the captivating glory of Jerusalem.

“it is the heaviness [of the city] that makes us who we are and how we are.”

Husam Abu Eisheh

Without the heaviness, Abu Eisheh finds that his satirical way of looking at things would not have been possible. The hopelessness and depression experienced by residents of such a conflict-driven part of the world are terribly unjust and require shifting the narrative, or “flipping the script,” as he puts it.

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Notes

4

In Palestinian cultural tradition, a hakawati is “an itinerant storyteller who appeared in cafes and public squares telling stories based on traditional folktales, myths, and legends. The hakawati would use gestures, different voices, a stick and a tarbouche (fez) in telling his tales as a means of encouraging his listeners to interact.” Hala Kh. Nassar, “Stories from under Occupation: Performing the Palestinian Experience,” Theatre Journal 58, no. 1 (March 2006): 15–27.

5

The project was launched by Queen Rania of Jordan in 2010 to provide quality education for Palestinian students in Jerusalem.

6

Initially named Theatre Arts Group, then renamed as Shawk Theatre (1984); the Artistic Workshop (1986); al-Kasaba Theatre (1989); and finally, al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque. Nathalie Handal, “Introduction,” in Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora, ed. Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2015).

7

A celebration of theater hosted by the government of Tunisia established in 1983 that alternates each year with the Carthage Film Festival, a biennial festival of pan-Arab and African cinema originally conceived of as a festival “of colonized peoples.” Ruoff Jeffrey, “Ten Nights in Tunisia: Les Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage,” Film International 6, no. 4 (2008): 43–51.

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