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New play brings tales from Palestine to the London stage

A new one-man play, staged to mark the 69th anniversary of the Nakba and 50 years of occupation, brought Gaza, Ramallah and Yarmouk refugee camp to the heart of London.

 By Christa Blackmon

James El-Sharawy in the play 'Camouflage,' London, May 18, 2017. (Christa Blackmon)

James El-Sharawy in the play Camouflage, London, May 18, 2017. (Ho-Chih Lin)

A 12-year old boy escaping from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus is left alone to sort out the quirks of his biology in an overcrowded raft headed for Europe. A vain yet independent girl struggles with her father’s rules and her first taste of sexual love. A shallow 20-year-old taxi driver is desperate to get laid despite the watchful eye of Hamas. And a vibrant actor living in Haifa yearns for his dream role where he doesn’t get shot.

These stories of passion, hope, longing, and crushing injustices are given the spotlight in Camouflage, a new one-man play written by director and academic Ahmed Masoud, and starring British-Egyptian actor James El-Sharawy. The show ran for one night only in Amnesty International’s London headquarters to mark both the 69th anniversary of the Nakba and 50 years since the occupation began.

Standing against one of the simple panel backdrops, with a handful of props and few sound effects, it is El-Sharawy’s physicality and the fluctuations of his voice that carry the action forward. Flipping his accents, pitch, and movements for each character, El-Sharawy plays not only the role of storyteller, but also a number of other characters within the story itself. As 17-year-old Nibal, he adopts flirty feminine gestures but must also communicate her terror when he embodies an Israeli soldier that taunts her with cigarette smoke. He is the taxi driver Zeid, as well as an intimidating Hamas officer, an alluring widow on a date, and a rather lonely grandmother.

The stories are separate from each other, not only spatially but in their content. What connects them is their characters’ struggle to live their awkward youthful experiences in spite of war. El-Sharawy brings them all together in a dramatic pantomime at the end where the movements from one story give way to those of another, each character acting out their own version of camouflage: Thaer and his friend as scarecrows running to the border, Nibal and her bikini lounging by her pool trying to forget the occupation outside her home, Zeid and his desperate attempts to look cool on Tinder, and Sami sneaking into an Israeli nightclub before his Palestinian dance moves give him away.

James El-Sharawy in the play 'Camouflage,' London, May 18, 2017. (Christa Blackmon)

James El-Sharawy in the play Camouflage, London, May 18, 2017. (Ho-Chih Lin)

“The play is very much dependent on storytelling,” says Masoud, who was born in Gaza, came to the UK to study English literature, and has become active in a number of performing arts. “Taking the audience onto an imaginative journey so they could picture what it could be like to be a 12-year-old boy escaping war while still going through puberty problems, or a girl falling in love for the first time. It’s bringing the Arabic tradition of the hakawati into a dramatic style.” (In Arab culture, the hakwati is the storyteller. The hikaya, or tale, is an oral tradition of relation true events in a fictional format with memorable and arresting flair.)

Masoud’s stories are not just an exercise in empathy, but a brutally honest look at classism, sexism, and hypocrisy within Palestinian society. The teenagers aren’t merely frustrated by the occupation, but also by the prejudices of their elders. Nibal desires her independence and is furious that her widower father tries so hard to secure a husband to “take care of her” when he is gone. Even worse is the mother of one of her suitors, who drops her own husband’s high position in Mahmoud Abbas’ cabinet into their conversation as though Nibal and her father should be groveling at their feet.

Zeid, meanwhile, cannot stand the tight restrictions on social interactions put in place by the Hamas authorities and rails against their conservatism. Ironically, Zeid is also a carrier for the prejudices of his elders, mimicking his father’s classist disgust for refugees from other villages in Gaza.

That these youth both rebel against some oppressive social norms and continue with others makes them just like most other teenagers. Even among audiences sympathetic to Palestinians, this portrayal might seem a bit shocking, especially for Western audiences, who commonly encounter a relatively uncomplicated, sanitized story of Palestinians — one where they are not individuals but rather avatars of suffering. As if one needs to be a blameless saint in order to recognize suffering as legitimate and in need of redress.

Camouflage succeeds as a play on a number of levels: as social critique, as part of Arab tradition, as comedy and tragedy, and as art that values individual stories and not commodities of pity. What’s next for the production is still to be determined, but the activist community would do well to take notice. Dark comedy is just as good a genre as documentary when it comes to human rights storytelling.

Christa Blackmon is a media anthropologist living in London. Her work explores the intersection of art and human rights. In 2016, her Masters dissertation on oral histories of the Nakba online received a Distinction from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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    1. Mark

      Shame about the cultural boycott that makes many people eschew anything like this eminating from Palestine.

      I would have liked more content about living under two nasty governments that aren’t interested in the welfare of their citizens: Hamas and Fatah.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Mark: I have always believed in the universal awfulness of humanity, so I have no problem imagining that if given the chance, the Palestinians could create a miserable little state.

        But it would be THEIR miserable little state. Farshstaist?

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          In that case you have no problem imagining that if given the chance the Palestinians will use their miserable little state to continue their conflict with Israel. Now, lets say you were in our shoes, would you accept creating an awful miserable little state on your doorstep which continues to violently insist that it has the right to continue fighting against you until you are destroyed?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “There’s no stronger voice than the voice of a just and comprehensive peace, just as there is no stronger voice than that of the right of people to self-determination and freedom from the yoke of occupation. The time has come to live, you and us, in peace, harmony, security and stability.
            “The only way to end the dispute and the struggle against terror in the region and in the world is the two-state solution based on the June 1967 lines, Palestine alongside Israel. We have accepted the UN resolutions; we have recognized the State of Israel and agreed to the two-state solution, and the world has also recognized the Palestinian state. The time has come for the State of Israel to recognize our state and end the occupation. We are still extending our hand in peace.”

            …every Israeli must ask himself why, rather than extending our hand in return to the moderate Palestinian in an effort to put an end to 50 years of controlling another people, Netanyahu and his government prefer to continue the policy of refusal, whose price continues to soar.
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/1.792523

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            The problem is that Judea and Samaria are a part of the Jewish heritage and that nobody heard about the “Palestinian” people before the 60s. As usual, the leftist do not mention the million of Jewish refugees who have been expelled from the Arab countries in the 50’s and in the 60’s

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            I consider every mention of peace out of Abu Mazen’s mouth to be a lie as long as he is unable to accept the principle of two states for two peoples. Until that changes all that is on offer is a ceasefire and not peace because the Palestinian state will be driven by an ideology that rejects the legitimacy of the existence of Israel. Politics within such a state will revolve around confrontation with Israel and opposition to Israel. No sustainable peace can hold in such a scenario. Those that choose to ignore this obvious truth are either fooling themselves or trying to fool others.

            Haaretz editorials have for a while now been pro-Palestinian propaganda, that is when it isn’t just anti-Israeli propaganda. In general it is a newspaper whose editorial line is directed by people who see it as their mission to bring about international pressure on Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Abu Mazen is accepting two states for two peoples: The Israelis and the Palestinians. You want to racialize it and demand he formally ratify the Zionist narrative and formally ratify the second class status of Israel’s Arab citizens. It won’t happen. And you know it won’t. You’re free to have your private idiosyncratic interpretation if you like but we all know Netanyahu invented this utter impracticality to stall talks and he is inventing other preconditions to stall talks as well. We know you want to stall talks. Please don’t pretend that what you really, really need is for a Palestinian leader to ratify your historical narrative and renounce his own. This is a tired rigamarole. You trot out the “two states for two peoples” gambit and I say why that gambit is not honest and is an impractical nonstarter conceived and designed exactly to be a nonstarter and around we go.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            I don’t know what this “Israeli people” thing is. There are Israeli citizens with equal rights, but there isn’t an “Israeli people”. There are the Jewish people and Israel is their nation state. That is what the Arabs rejected in 1947 and that is what this conflict has been about for 100 years. Making peace means the Palestinians giving up their opposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East and accepting living in peace next to it. If Abu Mazen refuses to do so as part of a “peace agreement” and of a “two state solution” the only credible explanation is that he and his people intend to continue the conflict. If the Palestinians get their own state and they continue to reject the legitimacy of the existence of Israel then their politics will continue to revolve around confronting Israel. Their politicians will compete over who is more anti-Israel in word and in deed and who can promise to their people a plan to “liberate all of Palestine”. In other words, Abu Mazen’s acceptance of a “two state solution” and his words about peace are a ruse until he actually accepts the principle of two states for two peoples.

            We don’t need him to ratify our historical narrative. We need his people to change their own into one that is actually conducive to making peace. That is the only way a two state solution would actually lead to peace. Otherwise we would just be handing over strategic assets to an enemy that has no intention of living with us in peace. That is, to use your terms, a non-starter.

            Sooner or later the Palestinians will accept the principle of two states for two peoples. It is in everyone’s interest, and especially in those of the Palestinians, for this to happen sooner. It will be added to a long list of things that the Palestinians “would never accept”.

            And let’s clear some things up. The idea of two states for two peoples didn’t start with Bibi. It came straight out of the mouths of the Israeli Labor Party in the 1990s. The negotiator that put it on the agenda was Tzipi Livni when she was negotiating under Olmert.

            And another thing, the side that was stalling the peace negotiations were the Palestinians who put up precondition after precondition under the previous administration. There was the demand for the release of Israeli Arab terrorists (strange that the PLO insists on the release of members of the “Israeli people” from Israeli prisons), a settlement freeze, a timetable for negotiation, and whatever else they chose to throw in there to avoid actually talking with Israel. I tend to recall the pages of this site being full of stern assurances that the Palestinians would not return to direct talks to Israel at all, and that if they did it would only be if these preconditions were met. All those preconditions appear to have fallen away. Oh well. There goes another thing that the Palestinians “would never accept”. Don’t you people get tired of empty posturing?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ‘I don’t know what this “Israeli people” thing is. There are Israeli citizens with equal rights, but there isn’t an “Israeli people”. There are the Jewish people and Israel is their nation state.’

            There in a nutshell is the whole argument. Why is there an American people and a German people and an Italian people but not an Israel people? If there is not today an Israeli people why could and should there not be an Israeli people?
            ‘…Because a “Jewish” state – as opposed to a state whose culture is Jewish or is “a national homeland” for Jews – will always be a racist, discriminatory state…. Does that mean Israel must be an inherently racist, exclusive state? Not at all. That’s why Israeli identity was invented. Unlike “Jewish,’’ Israeli identity could, in theory, be inclusive….In fact, it’s possible to imagine an Israeli identity that is indifferent to questions of ethnicity or religion (to be sure, this is not the case now): a country that has many Jews in it and a dominant Jewish culture, but a country to which non-Jews belong in the same way Jews do.
            There is no such thing as “a Jewish and democratic” state; there never was and there never will be, unless you want to redefine what citizenship in a modern-day democracy means. But there could be an Israeli and democratic state, at least in theory (*).
            I would like to live in a state that defines all its citizens on equal terms. Politically, it means that I support the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel (if and when a two-state model is discussed; a bi-national model requires different definitions). But I don’t want any country or institution to recognize it as a “Jewish state.” Israel can be a state whose culture is Jewish or the national home for Jews, but it cannot and should not be a state just for Jews.’

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            I don’t have a problem with the future creation of the idea of an “Israeli people”, but it most certainly doesn’t exist right now and isn’t going to come about as long as existential questions are left unresolved. The Israeli Arab prisoners that Abbas insisted on getting released as a precondition to negotiations were not “Israeli people” as far as Abbas was concerned. To him they were Palestinians. And to a large number of people on this blog and amongst the Israeli Arabs themselves, Israeli Arabs are “Palestinians with Israeli citizenship”, thus likewise rejecting the idea of them being members of an “Israeli people”. Abbas knows this and so do you. Identities are things that evolve over time and they are certainly meaningless when defined, accepted or recognized by outsiders like Abbas.

            As such, the idea you propose that Abbas accepts two states for two peoples “The Israelis” and “The Palestinians” is quite obviously a ruse to avoid having a conversation about the actual problem — that Abbas and the Palestinians maintain a narrative in which the only acceptable outcome is one where the State of Israel and any element of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East is eliminated. All of their objections, such as that doing so would “undermine” their narrative (their narrative being that Israel has no right to exist) only reinforce the perception that they are not in the very least interested in actually living in peace with Israel once their country is created. There is only one thing that Abbas can do to undermine that perception, you know what it is and you don’t want him to do it. Even your formulation would be something that Abbas wouldn’t be able to accept: “Israel can be a state whose culture is Jewish or the national home for Jews” so your objection here is intellectually dishonest.

            Israel is Jewish and democratic. How we define how those two things work together is up to us and not up to you or Abbas. And we can define that in any damn way we please regardless of whether you like it or not. What we do expect from an agreement is that Abbas and the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in the Middle East. It is a bitter pill that the Palestinians will have to swallow because it is the only way they have of building a state that is focused on being successful rather than a state that is obsessed with destroying Israel. It is also the only way we are going to allow them to have a state in the first place because it is the only safe way we have of doing so. Only when the Palestinians are truly interested in living in peace next to Israel can they be trusted to have a state that isn’t going to pose an intolerable security risk to us.

            You know and I know that the Palestinians will eventually do so. So, why fight it?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You know, you’ve gone on and on with this hackneyed, empty charge that Abbas is undyingly obsessed with eliminating Jews from the Middle East and destroying Israel and he and his cohorts are idiots that have not accepted reality and live to make Jews suffer and are not interested in actually living in peace with Israel once their country is created, that it is all a plot to get a state after all these years just so they can turn right around and rub their hands with glee and say “Aha! vee fooled you, you miserable Jews!, now vee execute our eeevil Stage 2 from our secure bunker in deep Palestine and vee vill be destroying your helpless state, hahahahaha!!! It’s just ridiculous.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Who says it is a secret plot? According to polls almost half of the Palestinian population is explicit that achieving the “right of return” and “liberating all of Palestine” are the primary objectives. The other half have “creating a state on the 1967 lines” as the primary objective with most placing the other issues, that is the “right of return” and “liberating all of Palestine” lower in their priorities. The PA when it talks about achieving a Palestinian state does not negate the other “priorities”. It just promotes achieving a Palestinian state as part of a national program with additional stages that must be left unmentioned until after that has been achieved. Abbas and his merry band of idiots are not idiots. There are two possibilities. Either they continue to believe in working gradually towards the destruction of Israel. Or they are just not particularly brave and are incapable of telling their people to face reality. In either case there will be no peace until they convince their people of a vision of living in peace next to a Jewish state. They most certainly have not put in any effort into doing that up until now.

            If Abbas and the Palestinians weren’t interested in destroying Israel or undoing Jewish sovereignty then he wouldn’t have a problem accepting the principle of two states for two peoples. It is just that simple.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            (1) Sure, there is such a thing as a Jewish democratic state, just as you are working tirelessly for a “Palestinian democratic state” which enshrines in its constitution Arab supremacy and Islam as a state religion. If you have no problem with that, then you should have no problem with a Jewish democratic state.

            (2) Many countries, even some that are democracies, have a situation where the public does not identify with the state but rather with some ethnic or religious sub-group which is their primary identification. Good examples are South Africa, Belgium, and Spain. In South Africa, one’s race is one primary identity, in Belgium you are either Walloon or Flemish first, and in Spain Catalonians are greatly offended if you call them “Spanish”.

            It is the same in Israel…there is no “Israeli national identity” because the Arabs reject it. Left wing Israelis will refer to themselves as Israeli when they actually mean Jews. Alexander Yakobson in Ha’aretz some time ago noted a conversation among several “progressive” friends of his who were discussing the conflict over land in the Negev between “Israelis and Beduins”. Yakobson mentioned that Beduins are also “Israelis” but his friends didn’t understand what he was talking about…and recall these are “open-minded, tolerant, universalist ‘progressives'”.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      “Even among audiences sympathetic to Palestinians, this portrayal might seem a bit shocking, especially for Western audiences, who commonly encounter a relatively uncomplicated, sanitized story of Palestinians”

      You mean they commonly encounter propaganda and have a hard time seeing Palestinians as actual human beings as opposed to actors in some morality play?

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      It is encouraging to see that at least some Palestinians are willing to take an honest look at their own society and its flaws.

      I find the writer’s comment that “As if one needs to be a blameless saint in order to recognize suffering as legitimate and in need of redress.” to be most significant in understanding the way “progressives” actually view the Arab/Israeli conflict. Instead of looking at the people in the conflict in a realistic sense, they project “saintliness” on the Palestinians and refuse to see the real internal problems they have which unquestionably play a major role in preventing their society from being able to accept a true compromise peace with Israel (and I mean “Israel as the Jewish State”). Instead they project all their own prejudices against Israel (and, frequently, Jews in general) onto the Palestinians, making them their “soldiers” against the Israel they can’t reconcile themselves with. That explains why so many “progressives” fell in love with Arafat and now with Barghouti as the dreamed of ideal rulers of the Palestinians. It doesn’t matter that it is inevitable that they will be corrupt and will this make their Palestinian government corrupt, they will still support them simply because they use violence to confront Israel, regardless of what negative effect they will have on the Palestinians themselves. All that matters is that they fight Israel, so they MUST be saints!

      Reply to Comment