From Silence to Silence
“A performance has only one possibility—in other words, the nature of sound being ephemeral, once it is over, it is finished.”
This is how Daniel Barenboim describes the experience of playing music in a live performance, in the book Parallels and Paradoxes, which chronicles a series of conversations with Edward Said that took place between 1995 and 2002. Later, he comments: “In other words, it is the sort of equivalent to the life of a human being or of a plant: that it starts from nothing and ends in nothing…” Said adds: “From silence to silence…”
Ah, the silence. The hush.
When I first read that book, I noticed some points of convergence with the philosophical, artistic, and political themes I engage with. Theater is my mediating art, and I am researching and probing these topics through the dramatic arts.
Nothing can substitute for a live performance. That moment before the lights go up on stage, before the first word is spoken, before the first breath—that moment is the absolute silence that provides the space for creating from nothing, to sustain a world that draws on reality. But the same moment also leads persistently and deliberately toward generating an alternative reality on stage. A reality in which we continue debating with Socrates on the nature of the “moral virtue”—and keep seeking the definition of the “moral badness,” always connected to the societal, geographic, and political context.
Defining the nature of a live concert, Barenboim says: “It never comes again.” And indeed in the theater, radically and absolutely, if we don’t perform, if there is no one watching us and listening to us—we do not exist. That essentially is our complete dependence on the audience and the space.
Eighteen months ago we launched a working process because we were given a home—the space and audience of the Pierre Boulez Saal at the Barenboim-Said Akademie, which houses the project that Barenboim and Said established.
For years I have read Said’s works and listened to Barenboim’s playing. As an “uprooted” artist, directing theater outside my homeland, beyond the realm of my native language, that anthology of conversations has become one of my bedside books. I agree with Barenboim that an artist whose profession goes beyond a profession and becomes a way of life—an artist who engages not only in self-expression but also in the expressions of others—can be a creative artist anywhere. The geographical location is less important. One can have several identities, and the sense of belonging to diverse cultures is inevitably enriching.
In theater, however, words and language build another narrative—their presence, the interpretation that the actors give it are no less important than movements and sounds.
It is not abstract art, and when I communicate with the actors, when they communicate with their fellow actors and the audience, it also depends on verbal, not just emotional, and intuitive understanding.
This is the first time I have directed a work that is totally based on Arabic—a language I don’t speak. Goethe discovered Islam through Arab and Persian sources and started to study Arabic.
I discovered Arabic culture through a continuing dialogue with Khalifa Natour—my partner in creativity, whose captivating oeuvre and powerful love of the Arabic language introduced me to a multi-layered culture crammed with imagery, for which I am deeply grateful. Arabic literature, particularly the books Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, has been part of my life for years; although always through the mediation of Arabic-to-Hebrew translators, it was still my journey, my Iliad.
All the artists involved in this project have their own Iliad and Odyssey—those who were exiled, those who were displaced, and those who returned.
Kinan, Ramy, Ashraf, Annie, Miriam, Khalifa, Saleh, Omaia, Carlos, Anan, Rawan, and Morad come from various nations, different generations, belong to different religions, and speak a range of languages in diverse dialects. All of us left our homes, and we met each other in this boundary-crossing artistic space. Here, we plunged into the jolting scenes from Khoury’s book, and the marvelous situations Brecht offers us in his play Mother Courage. We shifted between German and Khouri’s literary Arabic, between the actors’ many dialects, English as the language of communication in rehearsals, the influence of fairy tales that we each first heard in our native language, and powerful love for art, music, and humanity.
That’s how the project took shape.
In the Said-Barenboim discussion on performance and freedom of interpretation, Barenboim says: “After all, the composer’s notation is, in some respects, much more approximate than people like to think—you know, this question of truthful to the letter, it doesn’t really exist.” Said wonders why that is, and Barenboim responds: “Because the score is not the truth. The score is not the piece. The piece is when you actually bring it into sound.”
Considering playwrights like Chekhov, Shakespeare, or any play written as a play, Brecht’s as well, I of course agree with Barenboim. But when it comes to authentic testimonies, like those in Khoury’s books, the words are truth, and the stage we give them transforms them into a work of art. The stage, however, also casts doubt on their veracity, since the context is artistic, the structuring of an alternative reality.
So what should happen then? We should tell a story. In fact, we don’t discuss ourselves but the stories we carry with us. And here the question of the message arises. Said remarks: “Music doesn’t explain itself in the same way that a word does in relationship to other words,” and Barenboim mentions the inherent danger of messages: “Words such as redemption, glory, or revolution, whatever it is, bring with them the danger of them using the music, even on a subconscious level, as a description of these ideas. I think that the true expression of absolute music has to be found in the world of sound and sound relations themselves.”
While art is not aimed at projecting messages or educating, theater comprises words and concepts—and words possess contradictory meanings. In theater, we walk a tightrope, for it is more than abstract sounds. Rather, it is a never-ending journey between the urge to shout and scream out pain and wrath on a stage, and the existential instinct of every artist hoping to create moments of beauty and poetry, with immense love for life and humanity. Loving and being loved.
In My Name is Adam: Children of the Ghetto, Khoury depicts an incident in which, to the sound of gunfire, soldiers force an old woman, Um Khasan, to dance. In my memory and imagination, the figure of Um Khasan merges with the character of Mother Courage, the heroine of Brecht’s play.
That is where our story opens, where our silence begins.
Thanks to Elias Khoury, who made the dialogue possible and allowed us to adapt and interpret excerpts from his book, and thanks to Yehouda Shenhav, who is translating Khoury’s words into Hebrew and devotedly bridging between the two cultures.
Thanks to all our friends at home, particularly Youssef Abu-Warda and Ala Hlehel who worked with us in the initial stages of the process. Thanks to Tsafrir Cohen and Tali Konas - the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, to Prof. Orna Ben-Naftali - the Emile Zola Chair of Human Rights, and to our friends in Berlin—especially Tobias Veit and Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne who have had a wonderful dialogue with us for many years.
A big thank you to Ole Bækhøj, Clara Stangier, and the staff of the Pierre Boulez Saal who listened to us and dreamed with us. Without you, the project could not have come to fruition.
And finally—thanks to Edward Said for being who he was, and for what he thought and wrote, and to Daniel Barenboim—for being who he is.
Khoury writes in his book: “My never-ending ambition is to arrive at a meaningless text, like music… this is my story, I am an author and I am sorrowful unto death.”
Ofira Henig’s (Adaptation, Editing, Director) productions have included Chekhov’s The Seagull and Three Sisters, García Lorca’s Yerma, Genet’s The Screens, as well as Hippolytus, Princess Yvonne, Salome, Back to the Desert, Scenes from an Execution, Ulysses on Bottles, Sea Breeze, Both Upon a Time, Sky, The Claim of Don Quixote, and In Spitting Distance. She has been honored with some of Israel’s most important awards for her work. After beginning her career as resident director at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, she was appointed artistic director of Jerusalem’s Khan Theater in 1995 and six years later took over the same position at the Jerusalem Festival. In 2004, she created her own ensemble at The Lab, a new alternative theater in Jerusalem. She subsequently collaborated with Peter Brook and in 2007 was invited to establish a new theater in the city of Herzliya near Tel Aviv together with her ensemble. In June 2011, Ofira Henig was dismissed from her position for having taken an active part in the protest against the Israeli government that forced actors to perform in the occupied territories. Since then she has worked internationally and directed The Bees’ Road (Schaubühne Berlin), Geh mir aus der Sonne (Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Spielart Festival München), Three Dog Night (Deutsches Theater Berlin), and KIND OF (Schaubühne Berlin, Ruhrtriennale). She divides her time between Tel Aviv, where she teaches directing at the university, Daliyat al-Carmel, where she lives, and Berlin, where she creates her projects.
Born in Damascus, Kinan Azmeh (Music) trained at New York’s Juilliard School and the Institute of Music of his hometown, and also holds degrees from Damascus University’s School of Electrical Engineering and the City University of New York. As a clarinetist, composer, and improviser he has appeared at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, the Opéra Bastille in Paris, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, the Salzburg Mozarteum, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where his collaborators have included the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the NDR Bigband, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, among many others. He has written compositions for solo instruments, chamber music, orchestral works, and film scores. Last year, he premiered his new Clarinet Concerto together with the Seattle Symphony. A member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Players, he also performs regularly with his ensemble Hewar, as a duo with pianist Dinuk Wijeratne, and with his quartet, the Kinan Azmeh CityBand. He has been closely associated with the Pierre Boulez Saal since its opening in 2017.
Ashraf Hanna (Visual Concept) lives and works in Haifa. He graduated from the University of Haifa in 2000 with a degree in Fine Arts and Set Design and has worked with many theater companies internationally. As a set and costume designer, his productions include Blood Wedding and Al Zeir Salem (Al Kasaba Theater, Ramallah), The Sultana of Cádiz (Barenboim-Said Music Center, Ramallah), Death and the Maiden and A View from the Bridge (Al Midan Theater, Haifa), Samson et Dalila (Vlaamse Opera, Belgium), and In the Penal Colony and Taha, both directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi (Young Vic, London). He has also designed costumes for Fear and Misery of the Third Reich and Forget Herostratus! and sets for Exit the King (Ensemble Itim) and Sea Breeze directed by Ofira Henig (Haifa Theater). He was an ensemble member for The Maids and Henig’s The Bees’ Road. His work as a visual artist has been seen in the exhibitions Emotions (Mainz, 2006) and King Lear Path (Prague Quadrennial, 2003). His most recent installations include Yamamah and Manam (Qalandiya National Exhibition, 2014), Nasikh (Fattoush Gallery, 2018) and Strangers Among Us (Beit Al Karma, 2013).
Annie Atedgy-Yellin (Costume Design) holds degrees in Set Design and in Theater and Art History from Tel Aviv University. She has designed sets and costumes for Gufa (Acre Theater Festival), The Spotted Tiger (Mezia Theater, Jerusalem), Things I Forgot in My Mother’s Closet, and Ticket to the Circus (both Tmuna Theater). Her costume designs include Practice Makes Perfect (Acre Theater Festival) as well as Ofira Henig’s KIND OF (Schaubühne Berlin) and Three Dog Night (Deutsches Theater Berlin). She has designed the lighting for The Four of Us (Tmuna Theater), Paper Heart Pearl (Acre Theater Festival, Jaffa Theater), and Pregnancy and Childbirth (Tmuna Theater).
Ramy Al-Asheq (Poetry) is a Syrian-Palestinian poet, journalist, and curator based in Berlin. He has published five collections of poetry in Arabic. Many of his texts have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in translations to English, French, German, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Bosnian, and Kurdish. Several of his works have inspired songs, performances, and works of visual art. His first poetry collection, Walking on Dreams, was published in 2014, after which he was invited to Germany through the artist-in-residence program of the Heinrich-Böll-Haus Langenbroich. The following year he received a literature award from the Al-Qattan foundation in Ramallah. In 2017, Ramy Al-Asheq launched the German-Arabic culture magazine FANN. He also works as a curator for Literaturhaus Berlin and is the co-founder and director of the Arabisch-deutsche Literaturtage festival in Berlin. In 2018, he was selected as a fellow of the Academy of Arts in Berlin and won two artist-in-residence scholarships from Künstlerhaus Lukas in Ahrenshoop and Künstlerdorf Schöppingen. His poetry collection Gedächtnishunde was published in 2019 in a German translation by Lilian Pithan. Two of his books are set to appear in English this year: My Heart Became a Bomb, translated by Levi Thompson, and No One Noticed When You Died, translated by Isis Nusair. Ramy Al-Asheq is currently a fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.
Miriam Damm (Lighting Design) grew up in a village in Germany. She began her career in 2002 at Projekttheater Dresden, where she was in charge of lighting and sound, and subsequently became a member of the lighting department at Deutsches Theater Berlin. In 2005 she took up studies in Lighting Design at the HAWK University of Applied Sciences and Art in Hildesheim, from which she graduated in 2011. As part of her thesis, she collaborated with Erich Schneider, head of the lighting department at Berlin’s Schaubühne, on a production of Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg. In 2012–13, she was the lighting designer for the one-man show LEO, which toured to London, New York, Canada, Russia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. From 2013 to 2017, she served as head of the lighting department at Anhaltisches Theater Dessau, where her productions included L’elisir d’amore, Norma, The Beggar’s Opera, Die Walküre, and Cavalleria rusticana, among others. She most recently returned to Dessau to create the lighting for the fairy tale The Snow Queen and the musical Cabaret.
Saleh Bakri (The Writer) was born in Jaffa and has been seen in many theater productions in Palestine and internationally as well as in cinema. He most recently performed on stage in Fireworks, a new play by Dalia Taha that premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2015. Several of his films have been selected for the Cannes Festival, including Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains and Salvo by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, which won the 2013 Critics’s Week Grand Prix.
Khalifa Natour (Dramaturgy and Translation, Um Hassan) is a Palestinian actor who also works as a dramaturg and has appeared on stage around the world. He collaborated with director Peter Brook in Becket’s Fragments and 11 & 12 by Amadou Hampâté Bâ at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. His one-man show In Spitting Distance, directed by Ofira Henig, won First Prize at Jaffa’s Theatronetto festival in 2006 and was seen at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the Barbican in London, Rome’s Romaeuropa Festival, the Sydney Opera House, and in New York. He has also worked with Henig on her productions of Ulysses on Bottles (in the title role), The Screens, Salome, Both Upon a Time, and most recently The Bees’ Road and KIND OF at the Schaubühne Berlin. Among his collaborations with director Amir Nizar Zuabi is Stories Under Occupation at the Al Kasaba Theater in Ramallah, which was also seen at the Young Vic in London and on tour. At the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, he has adapted and performed in Jedareya by Mahmoud Darwish (which played at the Edinburgh Festival, in Geneva, and other cities), Aza, and most recently Grey Rock, a Remote Theater Project production performed at La MaMa and at the Public Theater’s “Under the Radar” Festival in New York, at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. His screen appearances include the films Rana’s Wedding (2002), The Band’s Visit (2007), The Other Son (2012), and Tikkun (2015) as well as the TV series Fauda (2020).
Carlos Gharzuzi (The Son) graduated from Tel Aviv University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Performing Arts in 2018. His theater credits include Ofira Henig’s productions of KIND OF at the Schaubühne Berlin and The Claim of Don Quixote (as Don Quixote), as well as Murder at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater and Lord of the Flies at the Jaffa Theater. On screen, he was seen in the films Dancing Arabs, directed by Eran Riklis, and Amun, directed by Anar Absarov, as well as in the 2019 HBO miniseries Our Boys, based on the true story of the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager.
Maya Omaia Keesh
Maya Omaia Keesh (The Daughter) graduated from Tel Aviv University in 2018 with a master’s degree in Acting, Creation, and Research. From 2002 to 2008, she participated in the activities of Theatre A’oyon in Majdal Shames, where she was seen in a production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Khalifa Natour. Other projects have included Sartre’s Behind Closed Doors directed by Siwar Awad at the Khashabi Theater (2016), Forsa, a comedy by Ayman Nahas at the Academy of Arts in Berlin (2019), and No One Noticed When You Died, based on a poem by Ramy Al-Asheq and a sculpture by Abeer Farhoud, which she created and performed in. She played the leading role of Claire Lannes in L’amante anglaise by Marguerite Duras and participated in Ofira Henig’s KIND OF at the Schaubühne Berlin. Earlier this year, she was the dramaturg for a production of Lord of the Flies, based on the book by William Golding, at the Jaffa Theater. She has also been seen in the film Mafak directed by Bassam Jarbawi.
Anan Abu Jabir
Anan Abu Jabir (The Soldier) holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Performing Arts from Tel Aviv University, where he graduated in 2019. On stage, he has performed in Murder at the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv, The Arabian Nights at the Habait Theater in Jaffa, Eshtonot at the Bat Yam Festival, KIND OF directed by Ofira Henig at the Schaubühne Berlin, Lack of Interest to the Public at the Acre Theater Festival, and Barefoot in the Park with Al-Majd Productions. His film credits include Personal Affairs, Oppressed Borekas, Afrodita, and Borekas at Sunrise.
To be publish soon.