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In Gleaming New Ramallah Theater, Palestinian Musical Marks Resurgence

August 12, 2004
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In flows the audience: fathers holding toddlers’ hands, teenage girls in head scarves and blue jeans, young couples exchanging glances. They all stream up the wide stone staircase leading into the gleaming new Ramallah Cultural Palace to see “Al Fawanees,” or “The Little Lantern,” a performance being billed as the first large-scale piece of musical theater to be put on in a Palestinian area.

Inside the air-conditioned, wood-paneled theater, trombones, violins and Middle Eastern instruments known as ouds tune up amid the buzz of giddy whispers. The whispers snap into silence when the cast of 60 children in satin robes takes its place on a stage glowing with colored spotlights.

“Welcome to you all,” they sing. “We have much to tell you.”

Playing to sold-out audiences, the musical, which opened last Friday for a week, marks a resurgence of cultural life in Ramallah, where four years of the intifada have taken a toll on! this bustling city considered the center of West Bank Palestinian life.

During the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, and in the early part of the uprising that began in the fall of 2000, entertainment and cultural events were shunned as frivolous distractions while so many families were burying their dead.

Now, though, the mood has shifted and the arts are viewed as a way to express feelings about the conflict and as a social outlet.

“As artists this is what we do,” said Suhail Koury, the director of the National Conservatory of Music — Palestine, who composed the “Al Fawanees” score and produced the show. “We are all part of the struggle,” he said, adding that creating art is “better than throwing stones.

“It makes people feel different, so they can have a different view on life and can become better Palestinians.”

The appetite for culture is growing here, according to Rita Jannsen, who works for the United Nations Development Program and is the inter! im director of the one-month-old cultural center, which was built by t he U.N. agency largely with funds donated by the Japanese government.

“When you go to cultural activities,” she said, ” the places are always full.”

The musical, based on a fairy tale by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafi, tells the story of a young princess grappling with the will of her late father. He has challenged her to bring the sun into the palace as a condition for becoming queen of the kingdom.

In a lilting voice and backed by a German orchestra, the princess, played by 16-year-old Zeina Amr, sings “Who can carry the sun? This is a very difficult mission.”

After several frustrated attempts to physically catch the sun and carry it back to the palace, the princess locks herself in her room and sulks — until a note is slipped under her door saying that locking herself away will never lead to a solution.

Eventually, the princess orders the walls of the castle to be torn down, letting in the group of people that has gathered outside singing, “Rem! ove the walls so the sun come in.”

The symbolism of the story in today’s reality is two-fold, said Koury. The walls being torn down, Koury says, symbolizes “the actual wall of Israel and the wall of dictatorship which we have a little bit of here and a lot of in the Arab world.”

He adds, “It’s also a fairytale for the kids.”

Kanafani, who wrote the fable for his niece, was a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was killed in 1972 by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut. Though just 36 when he died, Kanafani was a prolific writer and remains a major figure in Palestinian literature.

The cast, selected from a group of 500 children in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and eastern Jerusalem, welcome the sun’s appearance in the castle with cartwheels and flag-waving.

“We don’t need walls, we don’t need towers,” the chorus sings. “With the stones from the walls we have to build schools and theaters. We have to build old age homes and music halls. Sta! nd up and work instead of lying lazily on your mattresses, get everybo dy busy. May your potential be the potential of the entire nation.”

The audience claps loudly, rising to its feet in ovation.

“This is the first time I am seeing anything like this,” said Mohammed Khaled Sadka, 22, a Ramallah construction worker. “I’m proud these young boys and girls are able to do this.”

The production, which took two years to prepare, was sponsored by the European Union and other organizations, including the French Consulate.

For Amr, who, along with another young girl, is playing the princess on alternating nights, the experience of two years of rehearsals during school holidays, along with the final production, is something that will always stay with her.

“You feel you and the orchestra are combining as one,” she says. “It is a wondrous feeling.”

Since children from three cities participated in the musical, rehearsals rotated among Jerusalem, Ramallah and the Bethlehem area. That meant traveling by bus through Israeli military che! ckpoints, frequent scenes of delay and friction with Israeli soldiers.

Amr says that for her, the musical is about keeping focused on one’s goals. “You have to work hard and strive, especially here,” she says.

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