And Here I Am: Theatre as AK-47

And Here I Am: Theatre as AK-47
Society: A new one-man-show tells the true story of a refugee jihadist who renounced violence to become an actor thanks to Jenin's famed Freedom Theatre, writes Hadani Ditmars.
7 min read
20 July, 2017
Abdulrazzak's one-man-show has wowed critics [Oliver King]

After a successful UK tour of And Here I am, playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak's one-man-show about Ahmed Tobasi's journey from Jenin jihadist to acclaimed actor will be coming soon to Palestine.

"I'm consulting with a translator," says the Anglo-Iraqi playwright from his home in London, "and we hope to bring the play to Palestine this fall."

But the play that tells the story of young Tobasi's transformation from a member of Islamic Jihad fighting the 2002 Israeli incursion into Jenin to a student of Juliano Mer-Khamis' renowned Freedom Theatre in the middle of a battered refugee camp, through to his international career as an actor, may have to be adapted before being shown in the actor's home town.

"We'll have to cut the sex scenes," says Abdulrazzak, whose plays are known for their frank humour and tackling of often taboo subject matter.

Acting on the advice of Tobasi himself, the playwright says he may have to omit parts about the young actor's journey into adulthood in the company of an attractive aid worker in Norway, where he sought asylum and attended theatre school.

"But we can likely keep that part in the play for performances in Ramallah," he says.

Niceties and script edits aside, Abdulrazzak is excited to see what audience reactions will be like in Palestine, especially in light of audience response in the UK.

An audience member in London, he says, told him after a performance at the Arcola Theatre earlier this month when the play premiered at the Shubbak Festival: "I've watched news about Palestine on television for years but I never understood what they were fighting for - but this play got to me."

Watching the nightly news can make you glaze over horror... But theatre can make you delve into it and really connect with the characters

"That's the power of theatre," adds Abdulrazzak, noting its advantage in "activating empathy" over more televisual media.

"Watching the nightly news can make you glaze over horror," he observes. "But theatre can make you delve into it and really connect with the characters. Theatre can take you on an emotional journey in a way that journalism can't."

Researching and writing And Here I am - the title comes from a famous poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish "I am from here. And here I am. That's what my father shouted: I am from here. And here I am. And I am I. And here is here" - took the playwright on his own emotional journey.

After director Zoe Lafferty saw Abdulrazzak's Love, Bombs and Apples - another one-man-show told through a series of four dramatic monologues by different characters - in 2015, she asked him if he'd like to work on a script of Tobasi's life story.

Known for her politically charged work including The Queens of Syria - a retelling of the Trojan Women via the Syrian civil war - and 2015's The Siege - a play about the siege of the Church of the Nativity that was protested by pro-Israel groups when it toured the UK - Lafferty's work with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin had introduced her to Tobasi's acting talent and his compelling life story.

She saw the roots of a great dramatic narrative in his jihadi-turned-actor tale, and asked Abdulrazzak to write the script - a process that he says was "very collaborative" and which relied on Lafferty's recollections of the charismatic Mer-Khamis, who was assassinated outside the Jenin theatre in 2011.

Watch the trailer for And Here I Am

Abdulrazzak's journey took him to Palestine for the first time ever, to meet with Ahmed in Jenin and to travel through the same streets where he grew up, fell in love, got recruited by Islamic Jihad at age 15, saw his friends and family killed and wounded by the Israeli military incursion, and where he was eventually arrested and sent to prison for four years.

"Ahmed's personal story was riveting," says Abdulrazzak. He likens it to ideological switcheroos he'd witnessed in Iraq - with Communists becoming Islamists, or former Baathists turning to the Islamic State group - and he was keen to visit his hometown and get a sense of things on the ground.

But the playwright's journey to Jenin was almost foiled by a four-hour interrogation once he landed at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv. Certain he would be deported, Abdulrazzak was delighted when he was finally released and met with a taxi driver Lafferty had arranged to take him to Jenin.

Once there, he embarked on his own theatre-inspired form of interrogation, interviewing Tobasi about his childhood, his time in prison and his work with Mer-Khamis.

"I think I drove him mad with all my questions," says Abdulrazzak. "I would ask him to tell me the same stories over and over again." But the results were rewarding - offering tiny details gleaned that were like nuggets of content: A story about how he narrowly avoided being sent on a suicide mission at age 15 by an older member of Islamic Jihad, or the almond eyes of the girl he loved in Jenin - a romance thwarted by his imprisonment - or how he foiled factionalism in prison between secularists and Islamists by setting their cells on fire.

Abdulrazzak found the people of Jenin to be overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable, especially when they discovered he was Iraqi.

"Although, unfortunately, when they found out I was Iraqi, the first thing they would say was 'Saddam was a great leader'."

After the 2002 destruction of Jenin's refugee camp and much of the city, the Iraqi leader had helped finance the rebuilding of several homes, and Abdulrazzak was surprised to find posters and murals of Saddam plastered around town, often next to images of local martyrs.

The playwright - whose own family had to flee Iraq in the early 1980s due to a relative's Communist affiliations - says "they were always disappointed when I told them I was not a fan of Saddam".

Jenin is not a normal place... the feeling that someone could be spying on you at any time and that sharing information could result in your arrest or imprisonment

For Abdulrazzak, the experience in Jenin also took him back to his own childhood as an Iraqi refugee. Although he admits to being comfortably installed in suburban Surrey by the mid-1980s, his family had first sought refuge in Algeria, where they were confined to run-down public housing estates.

"I remember making makeshift soccer balls out of garbage bags with my friends," he recalls, and found a resonance with the way children in Jenin would try to normalise their situation by making do with basic equipment and playing games amid great upheaval and violence.

"Jenin is not a normal place," he says, noting the nightly arrests by Israeli soldiers, violent street clashes between rival Palestinian factions, huge poverty and unemployment rates and "the feeling that someone could be spying on you at any time and that sharing information could result in your arrest or imprisonment".

He captures this feeling of what he terms "justified paranoia" in the play, especially in the prison scenes where the "emir" - the jihadist leader on the inside - accuses the Fatah man of being an Israeli spy, when in fact it turns out the reverse is true.

In many ways, the play is a tribute to the legacy of Juliano Mer-Khamis and The Freedom Theatre, which continues to be a community cultural hub, offering free theatre classes for children next to walls postered with generations of young martyrs.

But the play also questions the validity of Mer-Khamis' premise of theatre as a cultural weapon. He was famous for spouting lines like "theatre can be as violent as the gun".

"Palestinians are doing all kinds of creative, non-violent acts of resistance," notes Abdulrazzak, who mentions videos young activists have broadcast on YouTube where they are painted blue and dressed as Na'vi from Avatar for weekly demonstrations against the wall in Bilin.

"But the world only takes notice when there are acts of violence."

A key scene in the play has young Ahmed tell Juliano "we've been resisting peacefully for ages and no-one cares". But in the end, after a successful performance at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, he imagines Mer Khamis' ghost saying: "You finally got that the stage can be your AK-47."

Tickets are still available for the last few performances of Hassan Abdulrazzak's And Here I Am, in Cambridge (20-21 July) and Halesworth, Suffolk (22 July). Buy your tickets here.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars