Two weeks ago I touched down in the UK after twelve days in the Middle East, including Rebel Cell performances in Egypt and Palestine, and a visit to Tel Aviv, and my impressions of the trip have been percolating constantly ever since, trying to find a smooth exit, but it's mostly been gridlock. However, the further I get from the experience the less of it I am likely to capture with any lucidity, so I'm going to try to piece it together.
The trip was originally initiated by a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which has a fund for promoting cultural exchanges with Egypt, especially ones with a political or democratic slant, and the play Dizraeli and I co-wrote in 2008 apparently qualifies. The play is about the politics of resistance and progressive change, set in a totalitarian future dystopia, and it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between two ideological adversaries. Dizraeli’s character argues for the collectivist anarchist model of direct action and my character argues for participatory democracy and the social contract. At the root of this debate is the question of whether “the system” (ie capitalism and liberal democracy) is inherently exploitive and requires an overhaul (or overthrow), or whether it provides collective net benefits and only needs to be regulated and fine-tuned to correct specific abuses and injustices. This question is largely academic in England and Canada, since there are very few people here who would endorse an armed revolution (hence the dystopian future setting), but in Egypt and Palestine, where the right to vote, freely travel, peaceably assemble, and speak your mind are routinely suppressed with state violence, the question of “revolution vs reform” weighs much more heavily.
We were booked to perform the Rebel Cell at the El Sawy Culturewheel in Cairo on March 27th and had our travel and fees covered from the UK and back by the ESRC, just for a single performance, so naturally we decided to cast our net a bit wider. We reached out to contacts in both Israel and Palestine, hoping we could arrange performances of the Rebel Cell on “both sides of the fence”. Our rationale was that the subject matter of the play is highly relevant to both Palestinians under occupation and conscientious Israelis who oppose the occupation, and it would foster dialogue and possibly provide a small means to “reach across the divide”, etc, since that is essentially what the play is about: the importance of respectful debate and of friendships that cross ideological boundaries. If our motives sound naïve, I should add that Dizraeli and I are not particularly well versed in the politics of the region, nor did we really do our homework before embarking on this trip. My only excuse is that I’ve been too busy over the past few months, but busy is always relative. In retrospect I feel a bit like a kid who has been skipping through a field, oblivious to the sign nearby that says “Danger! Landmines!” Why does the child miss the sign, because he is merely engrossed in his thoughts, or because he has a psychological incentive to overlook it? And why do I suspect there is something quintessentially Canadian about this feeling? In the case of this trip, the sign said: “Danger! Cultural Boycott!”
Our first clear glimpse of the danger sign came when we were planning the dates of our trip: should we try to go to Israel/Palestine before Egypt or after? When we floated this idea to Dr. Caroline Rooney, the Zimbabwean professor of post-colonial studies who secured the funds and coordinated everything for us, she said it wouldn’t be possible to get us flights to Israel because of the cultural and academic boycott (ie: as an academic she would play no part in arranging this or funding it). So we had to get our flights in and out of Cairo and travel to Israel in between. Actually at this point I should mention that when I say “our flights into and out of Cairo” I am only referring to myself and the Rebel Cell DJ, but not Dizraeli. This is because Dizraeli undertook his journey to the Middle East entirely overland with a documentary filmmaker in tow, taking trains and buses from England through Europe, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and finally to Egypt, ten days in each direction, as a form of climate change activism. The concordance between our travel decisions and the arguments of our characters in the play is uncanny and could inspire an entire doctoral thesis, but for now I will treat this as a tangent, since the bottom line is that we had to arrange to be in the same place at the same time, one way or another, in order to do the play. If you want to learn more about Dizraeli’s overland adventure and its purported political significance, check out UnPlaned.com.
So what to do about this boycott question? When we heard the news from Dr. Rooney about our travel funding restrictions Dizraeli and I had a conversation: should we perform in Israel? What if we get offered gigs in Israel but not Palestine? What if we get offered gigs in both, by a peace-building NGO, but the funding all comes from Israel? What if the Palestinian venues won’t host us after playing in Israel? The two closest friends I have who are knowledgeable about the area are Daniel, a British MC living in Israel, who is also one-half of a Jewish/Muslim hip-hop group (the Jewish half), and Noa, an Israeli living in England, and both of them advised us to play both sides, essentially to ignore the boycott for the reasons cited above, ie to “keep artistic dialogue open despite possible disagreements”. Let's call this the "Leonard Cohen approach", since he recently played a concert near Tel Aviv, and answered the boycott call by attempting to set up a gig in Ramallah to "balance" the Israeli one (sound familiar?), which fell through in the face of strong opposition from the boycott campaign. He then offered the proceeds from his Israel concert to support peace-building efforts through a fund that was to be administered by Amnesty International, but Amnesty also divested in the face of boycott pressure, so the funds instead went to a charity called Parents Circle. However, Daniel was at the concert and he tells me Leonard Cohen made repeated calls for peace from the stage, calls for both Palestinians and Israelis to respect the suffering and humanity of the other side, and in his view this was a positive event that brought peace closer.
Noa and Daniel also both pointed out that when it comes to boycotting oppressive regimes, it would be pretty inconsistent to play Egypt (a politically-closed society with widespread censorship) but not Israel (a politically-open and self-critical society). So we decided to keep our options open and see whether any offers came through, but to use our discretion in terms of who was funding the gigs, venues, etc.
When the British film director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) pulled his most recent film out of the Melbourne Film Festival because the festival was partially funded by the Israeli government, he and his co-producers defended their decision in the Guardian by saying “Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is”. This was essentially our position as well: how could we reach out to individual Israeli citizens without providing support in any way for the state of Israel?
However, with our Cairo performance only ten days away we still hadn’t been offered any gigs in either Israel or Palestine, so the entire debate was beginning to look, once again, academic. Since we had already booked our trains and planes and committed to the dates it was starting to look like we would end up doing the tourist thing after all, visiting Israel and Palestine but not performing in either, and since you get to Palestine via Israel from Egypt anyway there seemed to be very little controversy. But then we got word from a contact of Dizraeli’s, Baha, that we would be performing the Rebel Cell at two different venues in the West Bank, in Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem) and Ramallah April 1st and 3rd.
I had read some arguments for and against the cultural boycott online in the run-up to our trip, but my instinct in such cases is to suspend judgment until I’ve seen for myself what is at stake. In the next installment, I’ll try to explain what I saw, and how it has affected my views on this quintessential question: what is the best way to promote justice?
To be continued...