|The late François Abu Salem.|
|El-Hakwati Theatre 1982.|
By Jackie Lubeck
Talk to me, white paper. Begin. His name was François Abu Salem. He was born the eldest son to a family of five talented and exceptional people. He was raised in the Palestine of the 1950s and ‘60s, but in the wake of the‘67 war, his family was pressured to leave the country by its newest occupiers.
Living in Europe in 1968, he saw the uprising of its students and intellectuals, their voices heard around the world in the face of injustice-all injustice. It was in this atmosphere that talented individuals could take a radical turn. Power to the people, literally.
In 1970, François came back home to live in his family’s big empty house in Sheikh Jarrah. With inspiration and a plan for his hurting country, he filled the house with the people who would become Palestine’s first contemporary theatre company, Ballaleen (Balloons). The play, Darkness took place in the dark, set in a theatre where the lights had gone out, where all had broken down, and where actors hidden in the audience were given a chance to offer their differing opinions on how to fix the situation.
Darkness was the beginning of François’s socially and politically charged work.
Because of the difficulty of working in a furious country, Ballaleen soon split up into two companies, and then three. It was in 1975, whenthe newest company, Sandouqal-Ajab was performing Lamanjanayna (When we Became Mad) at the Frere School near the New Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, that I met François. Lamanjanayna is a round play, that keeps on going around and around and around and around.
Although François was criticised for being hard on his own people, the work was impressive and could not be ignored. As Sandouqal-Ajab fell apart, another play was just waking up, ready for the birth of El-Hakawati Theatre Company.
The company, with François as its artistic motor, would not only call itself a collective, but would behave as a collective, each member with his or her role, each one believing that this modern theatre was possible and necessary. We were an artistic army.
In 1979, the play, In the Name of the Father, the Mother, the Son was performed in Palestine and, in a whirlwind tour, shown throughout Europe. For the first time, the Palestinian people were represented as a kind, humorous, sincere, and troubled people who had lost their country in a series of events that left them refugees in their own home. Also, for the first time in a long time, the name Palestine was used in the press in a positive light, as inthe Palestinian theatre company, El-Hakawati.
After this tour through Europe, the company made Mahjoob Mahjoob about the last five Palestinians on the planet. Performed here and abroad, the play was a wonder. The talent of François, his avant-garde vision, and the way he lead the collective company was working. It was not falling down. This play was followed by Ali the Galilean, a masterpiece looking at the Palestinians of 1948 whose villages and cities were “incorporated” into the Jewish state. The play was the funniest play we made, as ridiculous as the situation it talked about.
Then it was 1984. The company stood strong together. We rented the old burned-out shell of the Nuzha Cinema after difficult negotiations. The company of actors became a company of builders, and as people passed by the building site, the most common comment was, “impossible.” From October 1984 to March 1985, El-Hakawati Theatre Company handbuilt the theatre that opened under the name of the Nuzha/El-Hakawati Theatre. But by 1990, we were turned out!
During the marvellousyears in the theatre we made The 1001 Nights of a Stone Thrower (title self-explanatory, I suppose), and The Story of the Eye and Tooth about twin brothers separated at birth and now at war. And in 1986 came, what was for me, the best of them all, The Story of Kufur Shamma-a gorgeous play about the Palestinian diaspora. The play was performed in Palestine and abroad, over 100 performances with three different casts and rave reviews from Europe, America, Palestine, and even some of the “cousins,” or the few Israelis who came (or dared to come) to see the work.The last play I made with François was In Search of Omar Khayyam While Passing Through the Crusades and Dramatic Story of the Sect of the Assassins. The play had miraculous ideas but it was all too much. The company was breaking into pieces and by closing night (which was the same as opening night), my artistic and personal life with François was over.
I cannot write about François Abu Salem after 1990, but for fifteen years we were an artistic duo, a married couple, and we worked nonstop with a company that stayed together, loyal, and in love with theatre. François was a talent. He knew what had to be said a year before it could be said. For this he was criticised. His personal life was always a question, and only in death was he finally called a Palestinian. François was many things, Palestinian being one of them. He was also an artist, writer, director, thinker, husband, father, son, and brother.
He was troubled in the last ten years of his life. He had lost his footing in the country he loved. I spoke to him the day he died. He said, “I need a job.” I find this a tragic last request. The words that will now follow his death will never tell the whole story. In the book Prisoners of Love by Jean Genet (about his last days with the Palestinian fedayeen), Genet says he could never really understand the Palestinian revolution because the reality lay in the daily lives of the people. Perhaps the same thing can be said about François. Other people will have other opinions. This is my short story.
I end with the names of the El-Hakawati Theatre Company that made the company what it was in spirit and in art: François Abu Salem, Jackie Lubeck, Edward Muallem, Radi Shehadeh, Ibrahim Khalayleh, Adnan Tarabshi, Talal Hammad, Mohammed Mahameed, Munera Shehadeh, Iman Aoun, Amer Khalil, and Francine Gaspar. Regarding the building of the theatre, Imad Metwalli, Imad Samara, and Ramzi Sheikh Qassem joined the El-Hakawait team. Goodbye Francois.
Jackie Lubeck is the writer and playwright for Theatre Day Productions, the youth theatre company working in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. She is a co-founder of TDP (1995).