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When it was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in the wake of the 2008-9 Israeli incursion on Gaza there were cries of blood libel by certain pockets of critics and academics, who called Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children” “horrifically anti-Israel;” accusing her work of being ‘”beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse.” One year on and there was no such outcry at this week’s performance at the Lebanese American University’s Gulbenkian Theatre.
“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” is an ambitious 10-minute play that attempts to chronicle 70 years of turbulent Arab-Israeli history, taking us seamlessly through pivotal events: from the Holocaust, to the Jewish immigration to Palestine, the creation of Israel, the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs, the First Intifada and finally takes us up to the most recent – Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,417 Palestinians died.
The work is made up of seven scenes, which see parents, grandparents and relatives debate how much their children should be told, or not told. “Tell her there’s dead babies,” one mother instructs in her monologue. “Did she see babies? Tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves.”
The nameless protagonist, portrayed by diminutive yet feisty Assil Ayyash, who channels the confused ramblings of the seven guardians, is referring to the media coverage of the invasion of Gaza. Should she let her child watch? Of course she shouldn’t. But if she doesn’t then she won’t be able to come to terms with it. “But tell her they’re filth,” she then reasons, then accedes: “Don’t tell her that/ It will frighten her.” Her schizophrenic dialogue is a reasoning with herself that she and her fellow countrymen have the right to defend the land that was promised to them. A troubled post-war analysis that she can’t seem to conclude.
But her battle is not only with herself. The entire performance sees her fighting for center stage with antagonist and only other actor, a young mute Palestinian played by Hussein Nakhal. The physical battle for space that takes place between them for the length of the play is too obvious a metaphor to miss.
While Nakhal writhes on the stage, slamming his body on the floor in a hypnotic self-flagellation, covering himself with the soil of the land – in a vain attempt to claim it as his own – it is ultimately Ayyash’s howls which triumph. Nakhal denied the last word by virtue of his muteness.
“Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel?” she screams. “Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her/Don’t tell her that.” The urgent repeated refrain ‘Tell her/Don’t tell her” demands most of the short script and Ayyash ensures it is delivered forcefully enough to tear us away from whatever else may be going on down stage.
But perhaps British playwright Churchill’s use of voicelessness is not meant to represent eternal subjugation. The LAU production’s director Fuad Halwani suggests that the suppressed have other tools at their disposal –or as he sanguinely puts it: “We try to fight for home with words, but when words fail us there is only music and action.”
Nakhal’s violent thrusting and thrashing takes on a counter-rhythm of its own, possessed by music that only he can hear.
A patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Churchill says she intended her play to be a political event, and LAU’s cast and director see the vision through with more than a little verve. The audience was handed slips of paper at the end of the performance with the message: “Dear Europe, Sorry about that cloud of ash over your heads and that you can’t travel anywhere. We feel just the same. Sincerely, Gaza.” “Seven Jewish Children” shows that fog may work to quieten the people of Gaza, but they will not be silenced