By Amir Nizar Zuabi, Monday 11 June 2012 10.10 EDT
It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare is a Palestinian. And when I say “is” I do mean “is”, not “was”. The man might have been born in Stratford-upon-Avon four centuries ago, but he is alive and well today in Aida refugee camp, not far from the church of the nativity in Bethlehem. Shakespeare scholars may dispute this. But the reason I say this with such conviction (and even dare, sometimes, to believe it) is that, reading his plays, I have a sense of familiarity that can only come from compatriots.
Partly it is there in the rhythms of the writing, the constant weaving in and out of verse – something present in nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays. Even when I read them in English, to me they feel as if they have the rhythms of Arabic meters. For Arabs, the poetic form of the Qur’an is one of our cultural foundations, and Shakespeare’s blend of verse and prose seems as natural as the way we think; it is the way we breathe. These are the rhythms of men breathing warm air under a blazing sun.
When I think, too, of what Shakespeare writes about, I become totally convinced by his Palestinian-ness, preposterous though this might seem at first glance. There are not a lot of places where the absolute elasticity of mankind is more visible then in the Palestinian territories. In the span of one day, you might find himself reading a book in the morning, then in the afternoon be involved in what feels like a full-scale war; by dinner you and your wife have a lengthy discussion about the quality of that book, and just before you slip into bed there is still time to witness another round of violence before you tuck the children into bed. This mad reality blends everything – injustice with humour, anger with grace, compassion with clairvoyance, comedy with tragedy. For me this is the essence of Shakespeare’s writing; and the essence, too, of being Palestinian.
This Shakespeare, I grant, is not an academic chap. He is Shakespeare as I think he should be performed – untamed, not civilised and polite, but alive and kicking. He lived in dangerous times, and made the most of them in his work.
For all that I feel we share, he does, of course, have much to teach us; there is much Palestinians, as well as others, can learn. In all of his plays, there is no absolute evil and no absolute good. He knows both we and our causes are always flawed, so he does not write with hate, but from a sense of complexity – a complexity that is easy to lose in areas of conflict, where it’s easy to get caught up in anger and injustice, and start to think in black and white. In Shakespeare’s writing, no matter how black it looks on the page, there is always a bit of grey.
Writing from a land that has seen more than its fair share of prophets, I have no problem in annexing the great prophet of theatre if it means we can think of his plays as a stark warning to us that live there. In the plays, there are only two outcomes: love or death. In real life, I hope very much we choose the first, not the latter.
Amir Nizar Zuabi is a Palestinian director and actor, currently directing The Comedy of Errors for the RSC as part of the World Shakespeare festival.