The Siege

Posted on 30 May 2015

Last Saturday night (May 23rd) we went to see the final night’s performance of The Siege, a Jenin Freedom Theatre production based on the siege of Bethlehem’s Nativity Church in 2002. The company is touring the UK and we went to the wonderful Battersea Arts Centre, part of which was recently devastated by fire. Despite the massive damage, the theatre was still able to play host to the amazing talent that Palestine has to offer.

For almost 90 minutes I was utterly gripped. The opening was very clever, with ‘Issa’, the Bethlehem tour guide, drawing the audience in to a place of comfort and security. For those who know Manger Square and the surrounding area, the local tour guides are ubiquitous. Cheerful, multi-lingual, persistent, but usually with good humour; Issa was no different. His calm, cheery manner was starkly contrasted when the stage shifted suddenly to the heart of the story: the siege of the Church of the Nativity.

The stage darkened and footage of the invasion of Bethlehem and the subsequent dash of fighters and civilians to Nativity Church was projected onto a massive screen. Suddenly, the stage was invaded: the tension and urgency was palpable. Palestinian fighters were in the Church—seeking sanctuary, trying to stay alive.

Drawing on testimonies from the 13 Palestinian fighters who were exiled after the 39 day siege, the five fighters on stage began to share these untold narratives. Throughout the siege, Palestinians were portrayed as terrorists, armed men, fighters; not as fathers, husbands and brothers. This invariably is the way all Palestinians are portrayed: the truth of their struggle is erased by the need to ensure that Israel remains the victim. The voices that we heard were deeply passionate and human. They told stories of love and fear, of memories and passions, of life and humanity. It was tragic and comic, touching and humbling.

The narratives of Palestinians have been suppressed, distorted or misrepresented for many decades. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient for the West to confront its role in allowing the injustice Palestine to continue; nor does it wish to confront its complicity in the creation of this bloody mess.

The Siege is a vital piece of theatre that has finally given a truly Palestinian account of events that, until now, have been entirely shaped by others. It was also a very powerful reminder that all Palestinians are fighters, no matter who or where they are. And in particular in Palestine, where each day is a struggle against injustice and oppression.

And for me in particular, this was personal… intensely personal. I was living and working in Bethlehem during this time. I’d been in Palestine since the start of the second intifada, September 2000, and experienced the uncontrolled descent into chaos. The play transported me back 13 years to a time of darkness and despair. I remembered things I’d forgotten and it stirred emotions that have been buried deep. The juxtaposition of the footage and the actors was immensely powerful, linking the faceless and mechanical relentlessness of military might to the human cost of such actions. The script, staging and performance were outstanding and as good as anything I’ve seen on stages with far more resource than the Freedom Theatre could hope for.

The day the siege ended is one that I shall never forget. I had lived in an office for six weeks with numerous people from all over the world coming and going, but that morning I was alone—and I was so glad I was alone. I turned on Bethlehem TV and watched as the men came out, one by one. And I wept as I knew the price that had been paid by so many already, and the price that many more to come will continue to pay. And as I watched the closing scene on that stage in London, which included that very same footage from Manger Square all those years ago, I wept again. This time I was not alone.

Read my journals from April and May 2002.

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