Mirna Sakhleh, Beit Jala, Palestine
Mirna Sakhleh is a creative collaborator at Al Harah Theatre, Beit Jala. She writes plays, acts, directs, gives workshops and drama classes and coordinates a lot of the work and life at the theatre. She helped establish and run the first group of the PARC Academy, a programme for stage designers, light designers, sound engineers and production managers. Most recently she directed her own play Hazbara at Al Harah Theatre and appeared in the film Degrade. Lydia Ziemke was able to observe her work during a long workshop and several shorter visits. They speak after Sunday lunch with a view over Beit Jala, the surrounding wall and settlements.
LZ: Mirna, could you describe a normal day? What do you do? What is in your mind?
MS: A normal day for me? I wake up at 8, I go to my work – I have a full time job at Al Harah theatre for almost 6 years. From Monday to Friday it is like that, I go to the office of the theatre. I live in Bethlehem, and to reach Beit Jala, when the streets are empty it takes me 7 minutes by car, if there is traffic there it could be 10, 15 minutes.
I often think about this journey from my house to the theatre – you have to pass by the northern entrance street of Bethlehem, which was cut much shorter, because a part of the Apartheid Wall was built on it. It used to be a long street from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, now, because to go from Bethlehem to Beit Jala you have to take this road, you see the wall every single day of your life. For me this journey, when I pass by, my mind is very active. First of all, regularly there are towers and in each tower there is a soldier, guarding. The most common image that comes to my mind is that we are living in a big school here, and all these soldiers are the school gate keepers – what’s the name of a school, where you also sleep?
LZ: a boarding school –
MS: – yes, so this is what I feel every day, that we are students in this kind of school, and the soldiers are the guards and they take care that no one leaves this school illegally and if they want to pass somewhere near they need a permit in line with their rules and system and protocol.
And the second thing that comes to my mind every single day, when I pass, is this: I listen to music, loud music. And I always I imagine what the soldier might be thinking…you know, every day, there is routine, so I am sure, the soldier starts noticing when each car will pass by…so for example, when my Fiat Panda comes there is music, and then there is this boring car and the boring man who always listens to the news….i always think about this – as a short film. That someone passes every day and plays the exact same music.
Some arabic songs have weird lyrics, which talk about a love story for example, but which you can understand from a very political point of view. So one day I passed there with a friend, we were enjoying our time with loud music. We were listening to a new song by Najwa Karan, my favourite singer, “w msibeh w nezlat aleina“ and the words were saying in arabic “we have a new catastrophe!” It’s a love song, of course, but when we passed by the wall, and when we heard the words, we were laughing about it, that this, the wall is the new catastrophe, that has just fallen on our heads, the wall and the occupation.
LZ: And the routine –
MS: – exactly that. You have to see him every day.
Another point I see daily, if you go past the theatre, up the hill, there is another checkpoint. When our friend Suha, our accountant in the theatre, was getting married, we went to pick her up from the house. The people who drive to the church and the house, we do beep beep, you know it’s the tradition etc., and when we came past the checkpoint the soldier came out: he was excited, he wanted to see what was going on and then he was laughing and clapping his hands, he wanted to join the happiness and cheered for the wedding. So every day you see situations that make you feel human and inhuman at the same time. In the end he is a human being, he likes it when people are happy, he wants to clap and be happy. But on the other hand he is the one who decided to be in the army and that he wants to be a checkpoint soldier.
So all these situations happen and you see them daily, this is my daily life, I think about them every day.
So I go to the office at Al Harah – I work, we make plays, we tour, we travel, we do office work, sometimes we do very boring things, sometimes we do very exciting things, in the end of the day its work.
I come back the same journey happens. It’s like that.
If you are interested to hear what is in my mind every day, it is those ideas more than anything else.
LZ: Do you agree with this?: My impression is, that absolutely everybody is thinking about the occupation absolutely every day.
MS: I agree that absolutely they all do, but at the same time – and it is not because we don’t think, or as if it is not affecting us anymore – but people here have got used to everything and they started taking it for granted too much. Because I think I still have my mind working, but the majority of people they don’t use their minds or feelings this way, they get used to things, as if they have been like this since 2000 years ago. They think we cannot change anything, so they lost hope and say this is our situation, our reality, lets not think back when the wall didn’t exist. No – I want to remember the days when the wall didn’t exist! I didn’t live in 1947 so I don’t know Palestine with no Isareli occupation, but I remember when we had a major street connecting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and suddenly there is a big wall cutting a lot of Bethlehem away and taking 15 % of the land!
For me it’s not acceptable to reach this point when the abnormal becomes the normal to the Palestinians.
LZ: Imagine the occupation is gone tomorrow – how would it affect your life?
MS: I am not a fan of the system which rules now, the Palestinian Authorities, as simple as it is. I am always worried, if the occupation suddenly disappears – it will not happen but – what is the future with the PA? For me they have reached a dead point, they have proved their failure, they are not able to govern 3.5 Mio people in the Westbank and 1.5 Mio in the Gaza Strip. The political parties have made our situation much worse because they are fighting between each other and they have forgotten that we have a main problem: the occupation.
For 8 years Hamas and Fatah have not spoken to each other. And they should call elections, the presidential election and the legislative council for 10 years now. 2006, this was the last time they did elections and they have done nothing. I am desperate about the local PA situation. Fatah and the PLO have reached a very bad level.
LZ: So organization of …life would get even worse?
MS: For me the people who are working hard for Palestine and for the Palestinians -who they carry our name and raise it in Europe, the West or in America, in all the world – they are only individuals, or non-governmental organizations. That’s it. I don’t believe that the governmental public sector is doing anything for Palestinians. Who put the name of Palestine on the international map in the last 10 years? Independent film makers, or theatre artists, or painters, or dancers, or even sport athletes. The Palestinian sports are improving a lot, but who participates? It’s the individual athletes, runners or swimmers who succeed…but you never see a team for basketball, or hand ball or foot ball – because the team sports need public sponsorship and they need organization to spend money on and to work on it. The individuals have their parents to sponsor them and they just do it.
LZ: The Cultural Minister came to the PARC – Graduation ceremony, how was that?
MS: When we do a big event like the graduation of PARC, the cultural minister comes, and it is nice, ok. But it is all protocol. What has he done for the theatre or for PARC? They only come to give a prestigious look to the event. Bur it is us who work for 24 hours to make this happen. I am disappointed for what the PA is doing (or is NOT doing).
LZ: If you could live and work in a different city, Berlin, Paris or Stockholm, what would you write about?
MS: In Berlin?
LZ: Or in Stockholm, or Paris!
MS: I would love to write a new play. I would love to work with the refugees, the Syrian refugees, the Iraqi refugees who went to these countries. I would love to work on this topic and make workshops in much better circumstances than here.
LZ: Join our programs in Berlin any time! But if you could be free from all the crises, what would you write about?
MS: Outside the crisis?
LZ: Yes, the different crises – if you didn’t feel the responsibility for here or the refugees there…
MS: I am not sure. I have a few ideas for future plays. Its mostly political stuff, about the situation in the region here. But then I often think: do I have to do this all the time? Is there not anything else I could talk about? And then I really feel, that – you know you work so much that you stop to… – you need a break, you need a different atmosphere to work in, a different situation to get new inspiration. And sometimes I feel I reached a point that I really feel I need this. You feel challas – enough, is it only these problems that the world consists of?
LZ: (writing down) find residency for Mirna…
MS: Yes, please! Let me make a play that is just good but doesnt talk about all the problems – and it will be more helpful for the people, especially the refugees – let them laugh and let them cry about something else for a change! To feel human again…
LZ: Thank you very much.