»Azza«: a Musical Play About a Normal Scene in Palestinian Life

The first performance of »Azza« by the »Shebr Hur« theatrical group, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi and written by him and his group, took place in Haifa after I left Palestine for Germany. Honestly, I don’t like missing any play by Nizar, but I knew that the musical play would be performed in Berlin in September, as part of the »After the Last Sky« Festival — an international multi-disciplinary festival focusing on contemporary Palestinian art — which started on the 9th of September and continued until the 9th of October.

I arrived in Berlin the evening of the 14th of September, and my friends from Shebr Hur arrived the same day as well. We met the next day before their rehearsals in the Ballhaus theater in Berlin: the writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi, the musician Faraj Suleiman, the contemporary dancer and choreographer Samar Haddad King, the lights engineer Moath Al Jabah, producer Khawla Ibrahim, and actors Khalifa Natour, Amer Hlehel, Henry Andrawes, Adeeb Safadi, and Wael Wakeem.

I previously knew what the play was generally about — whether through its advertisement: »a musical play about a house of mourning in Palestine, where a group of men gather to honor the deceased with solace and consolation«; or through friends in Shebr Hur and those who saw the first performance — without knowing many details of its content.

The performance took place on Friday, the 16th at 8pm, and was attended by a diverse crowd of Palestinians, Syrians, and Arabs in general, in addition to Germans, as an English translation of the play was available.

The Story

The play portrays scenes during the three-day »house of mourning« for a man who has just died, through characters connected with the man in various relationships, each with a story to tell about the deceased — his sons, his relatives, and others in the village. The stories range from the most detailed and intimate ones – like the stories from his sons and those that some people knew from his childhood — to other ones which were witnessed, or heard secondhand, by the mourners, covering everything from the man’s student days and adulthood through the very last days of his life.

All of the stories were recounted with absolute seriousness, but it varies in effect between sarcastic and dramatic contexts. A sentence that an actor says can make the audience laugh, while others carry a more serious note — sometimes even inducing tears. Thr ough the writing style of Shebr Hur, distinguishable by its sarcasm in the midst of all the drama, »Azza« gets closer to the reality of Arab houses of mourning, and Palestinian ones in particular: how anyone visiting the house of the deceased somehow feel the need to talk about him as if they were close to him — even if in reality they were not — introducing information about him that is mostly irrelevant and not related to the plight at all. For example, in the case of »Azza«: bringing up the fact that the deceased didn’t like the smell of guavas or tuna.

Another element is the manipulation of time in the storytelling, which sometimes requires the viewer to connect threads. What is meant here is that, except for the end of the play, the stories told about the deceased move between various contexts without a clear chronology. In the beginning, the son is recounting an intimate story that happened not so long ago before his father’s death, then another person talks about his youth. A lot of the stories about the same man are recounted by different voices and from different time periods, and vary in terms of the closeness of the storyteller to the deceased – stories that he was heard saying, and other ones people have told about him. So what’s the truth in all of this? Who is this man? It seems as if somehow the play is answering that by saying there is no reality but death. In a way, all of the stories recounted belong to the deceased, but it’s only at the end of the play that the son summarizes the idea: »my father died 3 days ago.«

The Music

Music is strongly present in the play, not as a background to the storytelling or the dialogue, but as an essential part of it. What distinguishes the music is that Faraj Suleiman composed the phrases of condolence that are generally muttered in the Palestinian houses of mourning, e.g. »you are the preceding ones and we are the followers,« giving it melodic sentences that the actors performed with their diverse vocals, in chorus or in solo.

The live music adds an extra dimension to the play that the producers realize its importance and influence on the sequence of events in the work, and in essence on how the viewer receives it. Thus, it gives importance to the music itself, as an integral element in the theatrical work. The lines of the actors, the decor, and the lighting are all strongly present on the stage, are in dialogue during the performance, influencing each other, making it a necessity for the music to have this space side by side with all the other theatrical elements.


Probably what drew my attention in terms of »movement« is the movement of the actors and their transition from one story to another and from one scene to another. It’s the idea that, throughout the play, the viewer only actually sees one setting, with the same details of decor and the lighting — the familiar white chairs in the houses of mourning, the ones aligned next to each other and the ones placed on top of each other, the green lightning and the simple atmosphere — but all the scenes managed to make me feel as if the decor was continuously changing, giving the theatrical performance a kind of cinematic element as well.

The Importance of the play in the context of the Palestinian cultural scene

»After the Last Sky« Festival specializes in introducing contemporary Palestinian art for audiences in Berlin. Reading the month-long program, you can tell that the organizers worked on programming musical evenings, theatrical performances, exhibitions, and poetry readings from the contemporary Palestinian art scene in Palestine and around the world. It didn’t only introduce the traditional arts, but also focused on the idea that Palestinian art is more than just traditions. Showing that Palestinian art is alive and in continuous production — strongly related to the past, derived from it, but also belonging to the present and its Arabic, global, and human contexts — related to the details of its everyday life. »Azza« is a play that shows the house of mourning for a man from a small Palestinian town. The occupation wasn’t directly mentioned or any other direct political matters, but yet, still, the occupation was present, and the Palestinian suffering inside the borders of 1948 was also present, without being mentioned directly. This is in my opinion what distinguishes Palestinian contemporary art: it talks about us, about our stories as individuals and groups, about our individual worries, which are a part of the general worries, without mentioning the word »general«.

Like many Palestinian contemporary artistic productions, »Azza« rephrases the importance of our individual narratives. Within the story of the son and his father’s death, the »natural death« by itself becomes an argument in the middle of the death imposed on many in our surroundings through killings and torture, which deserves to be thought about and focused on. This loss accompanied by continuous individual pain is not less valued than many other pains we are living, lived, will live, or heard of as individuals or groups, and it is of course part of our story as Palestinians.


This article was published in ‘Abwab’ newspaper, October 2016

»Regardless of the writing style of Amir Nizar Zuabi and the group, distinguishable by its sarcasm in the midst of all the absolute drama, there is an additional impact in »Azza« as it gets closer to the reality of Arab houses of mourning in general, and Palestinian ones in particular: how the family of the deceased and his acquaintances and friends talk about him, introducing information about him that is mostly irrelevant and not related to the plight at all, but still yet, anyone visiting the house of the deceased somehow feel the need to talk about him as if they were close to him, but in reality they are not.«