Driving down to the Dead Sea for the second day of the World Culture Forum was a bit different than the first one. There were far more checkpoints along the way, army tanks, military and policemen, and the checkpoints really checked you out. Once you got to the hotel they checked your car thoroughly and they also screened you as if you were in an airport before you entered the hotel. Your luggage went in a van, which has a portable x-ray conveyor belt and then you walk through a metal detector before entering the buildings. There are male and female soldiers and security guards who are there to make sure you don’t have any weapons. Inside the hotel there is yet another such metal detector to walk through to get to the meeting rooms for the conference (this one makes less sense: they only check those who walk down the stairs; if you ride the elevator you can avoid it completely). The slightly less security on the highway I think is due to the fact that no royalty or members of the prime ministry came to the second day of the conference. The tanks are only on the road by the Dead Sea resort hotels. All of this is new, of course, since last month’s hotel bombings; when Fatima and I went to the same Mövenpick Hotel a couple of months ago there was no such security to be found.
I arrived at the conference to see two performances. The first one was billed as an “artistic pause,” something on the schedule every day. It’s a thirty-minute performance piece that breaks up the morning and there are no competing events during this pause. I love the idea and name of such a concept. I wish every day there were reminders for people to do just this: pause to experience art. This particular day it was a dance performance by Sangeeta Isvaran (see photo above). She is from Tamil Nadu (where Murli & Divy are from) and she practices a number of dance forms including Bharatanatyam (classical dance from Tamil Nadu). She danced two different numbers, one a traditional Bharatanatyam piece, which was dedicated to Lord Krishna. This second dance was very moving and beautiful complete with the beautiful chant at the end “om shanti.” I’ve seen Bharatanatyam dances before and I really find them moving and beautiful. But the first dance was quite remarkable. It is entitled “Faces of Hatred, Faces of Love.” Though it was written in Tamil, it was created in Cambodia and Indonesia because she works in regions of conflict, especially areas where there is Christian and Muslim conflict. In this piece she remained seated on the floor, positioned in a few poses and primarily used her torso, face, and arms as a means of performance and expression. Each of her fingers had long sticks of lit incense duct taped around (reminded me a little bit of Ani DiFranco’s Lee press on nails as guitar picks). She uses this incense as a way to invite peace and tranquility into the space where she dances, but at the same time the smoke emanating from the incense represents war and carnage for her. At the conclusion of this stirring performance she sang in Tamil, “I seek for one look filled with love, one word whispered with tenderness, one caress…where will I find it?”
Immediately following this performance there was another one, though this wasn’t an artistic pause. It was competing with one of the numerous panels on cultural branding of nations. It wasn’t a difficult choice for me. This was a play, which I learned about in a panel on the first day, called “Memoirs of a Woman,” and it was performed by the Performing Arts Center of the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation’s company. This was very fascinating to watch how the interactive theater is performed. The show begins by having the audience look at stills in the life of a married couple. As they pose each time the facilitator asks the audience what they can surmise from what they see at various phases in the marriage of these characters. The facilitator then tells us the play will begin to allow us to assess the mistakes made in the course of their relationship. Thus, the play begins as a flashback to the brief courtship of the couple, which consisted of a snapshot when the man hands an Abdel Halem cassette to the woman. We then see a succession of other moments in their life, including moments of domestic violence, the play’s main theme. At one point in the middle of the play, the facilitator jumps back on stage and asks the audience, “what’s the justification for violence against another?” Various people comment and then the play continues with a teenage son who becomes violent against his teacher, obviously because of what he’s learned at home. When the father and son are on the brink of going to battle with one another the facilitator intervenes yet again, khalas! (that’s enough!) and the characters then sit down to have a discussion with the audience while they remain in character. This was really fascinating to hear the audience members speak not only about the specific context of domestic violence in the play, but violence more globally and the way it reproduces itself in cycles. At one point a new friend I made at the conference, who has his own fabulous theatre company Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center in the Aida refugee camp just outside Bethlehem, asked a question of the man. Upon hearing that some audience member thought that the wife was silent, he commented that this wasn’t true because during the course of the play she tells a friend and her parents. No sooner does he ask if it would be possible for a neighbor or a friend to convince the husband to quit abusing his wife, then he is brought up on stage to play a neighbor. This was really fantastic to see not only dialogue between the audience and the actors but also real interaction between them.
At the conclusion of the event someone asked the actors if they think their interactive theater helps to change people’s minds about issues such as domestic violence. He offered a figure that I imagine is a bit low, 5%, but in any case, I certainly saw the power of this type of performance and imagine it would be amazing to use in the classroom setting as well.