We are back with an all new set of interviews, this time for VAULT Festival 2018! Silent Faces will be bringing Follow Suit to the festival at the beginning of March, and then at the end of the festival we will be sharing our BRAND NEW SHOW, A Clown Show About Rain, a dazzling clown and physical theatre look at understanding and dealing with depression. We are so excited to share a stage with such an exciting programme of work, and have been able to chat to a bunch of other exciting/silly/brave/funny/adventurous/interesting and bonkers companies that are bringing work to the festival. We can't wait to get underground!
We got lucky and had the chance to interview Momin Swaitat about his one man show, Alien Land. The play delves deep into questions of identity and is performed in Arabic with English surtitles. Momin's beautifully heartfelt and honest interview was a pleasure for us to read, and we are delighted to share it for our very first Clowns Meet blog of 2018.
What drove you to make Alien Land?
Alien Land is inspired by the 1974 novel The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist, the first science fiction novel in the Middle East. I’ve known the novel since I was teenager but it was only later when I was commissioned by Sarha Collective to perform a short version of the play for an exhibition about the future of Palestine in London that I re-read the novel and adapted it.
I always identified with the protagonist, Saeed. He grew up during the 1948 Nakba (The Catastrophe) when the Palestinian population was displaced and underwent a military invasion. That’s when my own family were displaced and ended up in Jenin. After Saeed’s father is killed, he becomes a refugee and is left in the middle of the universe, with just a donkey for company. Growing up during the Second Intifada I saw my neighbourhood transformed overnight. All the schools were closed and there was a curfew. The thing is, when you have no freedom or space to explore your own land, your mind goes to totally new and unknown places. My whole life I have been inventing stories and alternate realities because my life was so uncertain. I grew up between two worlds really - the fairytale forest next to my home and a terrifying military scene, literally on my doorstep. I experienced my own alien encounter. And this is at the heart of Alien Land.
Finding the right language to describe this time was a very important part of my writing process. During a military situation, a lot of new words are invented. Many of these are pretty dark but also very funny. So many new terms emerged from the street during all the chaos, as a way to express the madness and claustrophobia of our situation. Khawa, for example, which is word that means when you wield an influence over someone that’s so strong they are compelled to do something. Or emtarrad - someone who is wanted by the army and can’t sleep in their home, always on the run. Umm Al Abed: a slang word we give to small makeshift bombs. Haberha - the process of stealing a car. Brouh - a word for a guy who sleeps with older men for money. All these new terms emerged out of the madness. So my play is inflected with them.
The play also looks at my experiences of growing up in a close-knit Bedouin community. I have more than one hundred and eighty cousins and each one has a different style of storytelling. We marry within the family. I explore this a lot in the play. Storytelling and humour is so important to our culture but Bedouins are very underrepresented. We experience a lot of racism. It’s two-fold and it comes from both the Israelis and fellow Palestinians. So that was definitely a driving factor. To bring people into my community.
After I first showed the work in progress in London in 2016, I began touring with it in cafes and bars around the West Bank. I wanted to celebrate the ancient Arab tradition of the hakawati or travelling storyteller, a central figure in this play. Alien Land was selected by The Sundance Institute so I was supposed to develop it in Utah at their lab but I was refused entry to Jerusalem by the Israelis for my visa interview. But you adapt. Now I’m back in London and will keep showing it as much as possible. The play is about the experience of finding yourself thrust into an alien environment so it should travel and evolve!
Who is Alien Land for?
I’m living in London now and I want to really connect with audiences here at a more profound level. I decided to perform Alien Land in Arabic rather than in English because Arabic is so misunderstood here, and in the West generally. I want my play to be a way for people to connect with my culture and my upbringing, to travel with me to my world and to move beyond the headlines. For all London’s diversity, there’s almost no foreign-language theatre shown here and I think it’s a real shame. We need to think about these foreign language productions as adding value to the British theatre scene, not taking it away.
It’s also really important for me to communicate with Arab audiences, to bring new people through the doors of the Vaults - to offer them something new, abstract and experimental. There’s so many young Arabic speakers who aren’t getting to see theatre spoken in their language or about subjects and stories which they can relate to. I want that to change.
What’s the most important thing that theatre should be/do/have?
I consider theatre a battleground. The stage is a place for debate, where ideas are formed and discussed. It should be a site for change in the wider community. We are surrounded by mass media, which deals superficially with people and their experiences. Theatre is a chance to get beyond that and communicate directly with people from so many different backgrounds.
I come from Jenin refugee camp. That’s where I first learned theatre. 18,000 people live within 2km and they have never seen theatre before. Theatre brought back life to the community there. It gave them a space to dream and to form ideas. It added colour to us - the performers - and to our audience. I think the journey of an artist who has suffered is an interesting thing and brings something new to theatre.
What CURRENT news story would you like to make a show about?
The refugee ‘crisis’. I work with newly arrived refugees in London, teaching them physical theatre. Now I’m building a lot of work around their experiences but also what happens to them when they arrive here in the U.K - the forgotten part of the story. It’s so important to go beyond news coverage about refugees. They are dehumanised every single day. They never get the chance to speak for themselves. Working with these young guys has also made me look back on Palestinian suffering - we tend to think we are the only people who have suffered. And we have suffered. We are the victims of victims. But Arabs are also part of the destruction of other cultures.
I started studying at LISPA in 2013. Students came from 32 different countries so physical theatre and movement was its own language. We were encouraged to look at how our ‘cultural’ movements - all our gestures and physicality - could be used in our performance (clowning, mime etc.) So I’d like to develop this with the refugees I’m working with, thinking about the physicalities of different cultures. Stay tuned!
What theatre ‘turn offs’ do you have?
Theatre is often unaffordable and elitist, especially in London, and that’s a problem. I really dislike theatre which makes strong statements but doesn’t open up space for discussion. I don’t want to be told what to think and what to do. I want it to be a dialogue.
What was the last show that moved you to action?
Seeing The Jungle at the Young Vic, starring refugees who had been in the jungle in Calais, speaking on their terms about what they had been through. I took my group along to see it and it was incredibly powerful. But I know the performers gave English audiences something new and unforgettable to take home with them. That’s action isn’t it... When a play influences you after the curtain falls.
What shows at VAULT are you looking forward to?
Silent Faces’ productions of course! I really want to meet other performers and companies whose work overlaps with mine, who are breaking boundaries and pushing into new territories, particularly to do with clowning, physical theatre, mime and black comedy, which relates to my training and interests. VAULT supports a lot of new, emerging young artists testing out ideas. That’s what this performance is for me. I want to test Alien Land out before going on tour later on in the year and it will be an amazing opportunity to connect with other artists and keep in touch as our work progresses. I can’t wait.
Alien Land is on at VAULT Festival for the first week from 24-28 Jan at 18.00, with a matinee on the 28th at 15.00.