Adaptation, editing and directing: Ofira Henig
Dramaturgy and Arabic translation: Khalifa Natour
Original Music: Kinan Azmeh
Poem: Ramy Al Asheq
Visual Concept: Ashraf Hanna
Costumes: Annie Atedgi Yalin
Light: Henning Streck
Subtitles Editing: Murad Abu Elheja
Acting: Anan Abu Jaber, Saleh Bakri, Carlos Gharzuzi, Khalifa Natour, Maia Omaia Kish
Recorded singing: Basheer Asli
Supported by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
The show is in Arabic
Last rehearsals, and the Berlin premier:
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.”