Written by Nabil Al-Raee; Created and Directed by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty
Produced by The Freedom Theatre
Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 10.22.17
NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place
by Ran Xia on 10.28.17
Rabee Hanani and Alaa Abu Gharbieh in The Siege. Photo by Ian Douglas.
BOTTOM LINE: The Freedom Theatre's docudrama opens the unhealed wound of Palestinian war refugees, and reveals a world left unhinged by ceaseless conflicts.
“Today, we become refugees.” What a decision! The children of the siege, the warriors sheltered briefly by the holiest place on earth, were eventually exiled: banished from their homes, cut off from their ancestry, their descendants forever rootless. It’s an impossible decision. But they had to submit to it so that the civilians in their city could carry on living: those parents, children, and neighbors who blamed them for the loss caused by the ceaseless war. They had to surrender.
The Siege is a fictional account based on the true events of the 52-day siege that took place in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity between April 1 and May 22, 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. The Israeli military surrounded the church, in which Christians believe Jesus was born, while 200 Palestinians, along with 60 priests, nuns, and monks, were trapped inside, with limited food and drinking water.
Co-creators Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty have instilled as much levity as possible into this otherwise grim tale. A tour guide serves as the narrator. Welcoming the audience, he introduces the nooks and crannies of the famous church like a proud parent itemizing the accomplishments of a beloved child. It’s a real travesty: those ancient and sacred structures are now decorated with bullet holes and gunpowder. His brief introduction is intercepted by blasts from the past. We then follow the experiences of a team of anonymous Palestinian gunmen as they keep each other company and try to stay sane during those difficult days.
We watch as the youngest team member gets riled up, itching to pick up a rifle and go out in a blaze of glory. We watch the team's leader brew a cup of imaginary coffee to calm his comrades down. He grinds the beans first, and as he pours out the make-believe, yet nonetheless precious liquid, you can even smell the scent of the coffee. There’s also the wounded one who jokes about praying for his arms. One gets a call from his mother, and the steady voice of an older woman says at the other end of the telephone wire: "don’t you dare surrender. I’ll cut off the breasts that fed you if you surrender."
As exhaustion and hopelessness creep up on them, it gets hard to watch, maybe even harder than actual violence. The hunted men huddle inside, measuring the last bits of their provisions, even trying to seek out the church cat in desperation. (The idea is, of course, immediately rejected by many, since it’s haram, or forbidden by Islamic law.) They cradle the body of their fallen friend, a silent and sudden death that punches everyone in the gut.
Footage from the actual siege is used as projections. While this adds historical context, I found the multimedia element to be largely unnecessary, perhaps even distracting from the narrative. But still, The Siege is one of the most sincere performances I’ve seen this year, for there is an indescribable agreement between the storytellers on stage and the audience watching from a safe distance: such tragedies need to end.
"Today, we become refugees" the survivors say—those who survived the siege in Bethelem were exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip. In other times and other places, refugees have lost their homes because of the earth's wrath, or after fleeing a state of living that's against human decency. But these men became refugees because it was the price to pay for what's left of their homes.
The Freedom Theatre's The Siege is a vastly important theatrical endeavor, from the rarity that is a Palestinian theatre company no less. And it's especially relevant in 2017, when the “land of the free” isn’t quite living up to its promise of “send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me.”
(The Siege played at NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, through October 22, 2017. The running time was 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets were $65. For more information visit thefreedomtheatre.org. For future shows at the Skirball Center, visit nyuskirball.org.)
The Siege is by Nabil Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty. Lighting Design by Andy Purves. Set Design by Anna Gisle. Composers are Dror Feiler, Nikola Kodjabashia, and Noor Al-Raee. Video Design by Mustafa Staiti. Costume Designer and Production Stage Manager is Mohamed Yousef. Translation by Joy Sarah Arab and Malek Bsat. Photography by Baraa Sharqawi and Skip Schiel.
The cast is Alaa Abu Gharbieh, Faisal Abualhayjaa, Ghantus Wael, Hassan Taha, Motaz Malhees, and Rabee Hanani.