Theater of hope: a drama school in the West Bank | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 17.03.2013
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Theater of hope: a drama school in the West Bank

Changing society through theater: Three students of the West Bank's first and only drama school talk about their struggle establishing a theater in the West Bank. They hope that their work can help their society.

When Palestinian Malak Abu Gharbia was 12, she met the famous Syrian comedian Doraid Lahham after one of his plays. "He asked whether I wanted to become an actress one day too," the 20-year-old said. "I wasn't able to say a single word." But since the encounter, film and theater have always been part of her life. She soaked up everything that had anything to do with it, read plays and went to see performances whenever possible.

For the past half a year, Malak has been able to live out her passion: she studies acting at the theater academy in Ramallah in the West Bank. Juliet in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was one of the first roles she learned.

Actors rehearsing (Photo: Folkwang University) Rechte: Folkwang Universität der Künste. Angeliefert von Katrin Schlusen am 7.3.2013

The young actors have to fight against many stereotypes in their society

The woman, who was born in Jerusalem, learns acting, as well as things like improvisation, singing and pantomime five days a week. She also trains her voice and learns her lines.

The academy was founded in 2009 with the help of the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany. The teachers from there advise the Ramallah academy and exchanges and guest performances are part of the cooperation.

So far, the lion's share of funding has come from Germany, but Palestinian authorities in future also want to contribute. The academy contributed to maintaining the history, heritage and culture of Palestine, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said at the opening in 2009.

Little acceptance for theater

Despite the euphoria, the initiators of the project are aware that they still face many difficulties. Aside from a lack of infrastructure, there also simply isn't enough acceptance of theater yet in the West Bank.

"In Arab countries, there's very little in the way of theater culture," said George Ibrahim, head of the academy and actor and director of the Al-Kasaba theater in Ramallah, adding that was why there are very few contemporary plays.

Malak Abu Gharbia (Photo 2013, Ramallah drama school)

One of Malak's first role is Shakespeare's Juliet

In light of the situation in the West Bank, there's the added difficulty that people once again need to learn how important culture can be for their society. It's an experience that Malak also had, "I have met only with intolerance." In her small home village of Al-Ama near the Israeli fence, neighbors asked whether she didn't have anything better to do with her life than study something where she won't get a job or a have future.

Without the support of her family, Malak said she would not been able to pursue her dream - certainly not as she's a woman: "Women need the permission of the family," said Petra Bargouthi, one of the academy's instructors.

Expressing feelings though theater

But even with permission is no guarantee students will finish their education. Often parents take their daughters back out of the school. Too often the studies there go against their religious sentiment. "Smoking for instance, or contact with men - those are things we can't have," said Barghouthi. Malak, however, said she is not willing to accept such a traditional view of women's roles in society, "It's something we have to change."

Ramzey Hasan also said he wants to use theater to wake up society. The 29-year-old is in the third year at the academy and studied psychology before he went into acting. "People here have to realize how much their life is connected to culture," he said.

Many people in the West Bank are still dealing with the pain and aftermath of the last Intifada, he said, adding that theater could provide an outlet to them.

"Theater can help them to cope with that," Ramzey said. He said he realized how well he could express feelings and thoughts by acting and that by doing so he "learned a lot about himself."

An uncertain future

Ramallah acting academy ( (photo: Folkwang University)

The academy was set up with help from a German arts university

Petra Barghouthi knows how much the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and difficulty everyday life in the West Bank impacts on the way the 21 drama students develop their art. "In rehearsals we often have emotions coming up that are buried deep below," she said.

Assuming other roles enables the young students - often for the first time - to leave behind their traumas and past experiences, but reality pulls them back in, said Muayad Owda, one of the academy's first six graduates.

The 25-year-old works with a street theater that's playing across the entire West Bank but the salary is very low. "I have to have a job on the side," he said. "The market here is simply too small."

The young man from Kalkilya said he would like to go abroad, "By the time there is something happening here, I'll be 80 years old."

For Malek though, leaving is not an option. The school is the first step in establishing theater in Palestinian society, she said, adding that for her, theater is connected to her hope to reinvigorate society.

"Even if we don't get anything out of it, then the generation after us will," she said.

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