Abundant Middle Eastern Talent at the ’22 Avignon Theatre Fest

18 July, 2022
MILK from Bashar Murkus, with Firielle Al Jubeh, Eddie Dow, Sam­era Kadry, Shaden Kan­boura, Sal­wa Nakkara, Reem Tal­ha­mi, Samaa Wakim (pho­to Christophe Ray­naud de Lage).


Nada Ghosn


This year the 76e edi­tion of the Avi­gnon Fes­ti­val presents a rich the­atri­cal pro­gram, with excep­tion­al par­tic­i­pa­tion by a num­ber of artists from the Arab world, Iran and Afghanistan. Between those liv­ing abroad and those who have tak­en refuge in France or who have cho­sen to set­tle here, they all have in com­mon their com­mit­ment to sim­i­lar themes: women and minori­ties in a glob­al­ized, migra­to­ry world in which we’re all strug­gling to move forward.

“Tran­sit” from Amir Reza Koohes­tani (pho­to Christophe Ray­naud de Lage, cour­tesy Fes­ti­val d’Avignon).

Migrants, sym­bol of the absur­di­ty of the world

Freely adapt­ed from the nov­el Tran­sit by Anna Seghers, the new cre­ation by Iran­ian Amir Reza Koohes­tani En tran­sit, pro­duced by the Comédie de Genève, is inspired by the mis­ad­ven­ture of the play­wright and direc­tor, who was arrest­ed and detained in a Euro­pean air­port a few years ago. Despite being extreme­ly active in both Ger­many and France since 2006, the 43-year-old Koohes­tani lives at least six months a year in Iran, where he is very appre­ci­at­ed and where he con­tin­ues his crit­i­cal work, denounc­ing both the short­com­ings of glob­al­iza­tion and the evils of Iran­ian society.

Amir Reza Koohes­tani was born in 1978 in Shi­raz, Iran. He was 16 when he began to pub­lish short sto­ries in local news­pa­pers. Attract­ed to cin­e­ma, he took cours­es in direct­ing and cin­e­matog­ra­phy; after a brief expe­ri­ence as per­former, he wrote his first plays for the Mehr The­atre Group: And the Day Nev­er Came (1999) and The Mur­mur­ing Tales (2000). With his third play Dance on Glass­es (2001), Koohes­tani gained inter­na­tion­al noto­ri­ety and land­ed the sup­port of sev­er­al Euro­pean the­atri­cal artis­tic direc­tors and fes­ti­vals. He has writ­ten and pro­duced many plays since. From 2006, Koohes­tani has worked fre­quent­ly in Ger­many where he’s mount­ed more than 10 productions.

In 2018, while on his way to Chile to attend one of his plays, Koohes­tani was tak­en into cus­tody by the bor­der police at Munich air­port and then sent back to Tehran, on the grounds of hav­ing over­stayed his Schen­gen Zone visa by five days. “What I was able to fig­ure out, in that wait­ing room where I was only kept for a few hours, is a rather fright­en­ing sys­tem that knows per­fect­ly well that it is not being watched, and that uses the word depor­ta­tion to talk about the fate of the peo­ple it turns away at the bor­der,” he says.

Read­ing Seghers’ nov­el, Koohes­tani rec­og­nized the pain point, the root of which lies exact­ly in the cul-de-sac of a tran­sit zone. From this coin­ci­dence between his expe­ri­ence and the mate­r­i­al of the nov­el, he decid­ed to cre­ate a play. The sto­ry strad­dles two tem­po­ral zones in which a char­ac­ter named Amir, an Iran­ian direc­tor, finds him­self parked in 2018 in the so-called “wait­ing room” of a Euro­pean air­port, where oth­er char­ac­ters from Anna Seghers’ nov­el — desert­ers, Jews, writ­ers, artists, Ger­man oppo­nents of Nazism — appear in tran­sit, who, in 1940, are also wait­ing to embark on a jour­ney to some­where else to survive.


“Told by My Moth­er,” per­for­mance and chore­og­ra­phy by Ali Chahrour (pho­to Can­dy Welz).

Moth­ers omnipresent on stage 

Two Lebanese artists, Hanane Hajj Ali and Ali Chahrour, are also pre­sent­ing this year. Fig­ur­ing promi­nent­ly are Lebanon’s eco­nom­ic col­lapse and pop­u­lar upris­ing in Octo­ber 2019, fol­lowed by the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, then a series of con­fine­ments, and final­ly the dead­ly explo­sion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, which dev­as­tat­ed much of the city, and made liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions nigh impossible.

In spite of this end­less series of set­backs, as of March 2021 chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Ali Chahrour’s troupe has returned in hopes of sav­ing what remains of his project: danc­ing the inti­mate sto­ries and vic­to­ries of the moth­ers. After a tril­o­gy about funer­al rit­u­als, the cur­rent per­for­mance is about love. It brings togeth­er a first piece enti­tled Layl-Night and now a sec­ond, Du temps où ma mère racontait.

This lat­est piece is root­ed in inti­mate and heart­felt chron­i­cles, icon­ic sto­ries of moth­ers and their fam­i­lies, some of whose mem­bers are lost or miss­ing. “We tell their sto­ries for the sur­vival of mem­o­ry. Some fam­i­lies stay to tell and sing on stage, to pre­serve what remains. They dance to sur­vive,” he explains.

Orig­i­nal­ly sched­uled as part of the 74e Fes­ti­val d’Av­i­gnon of 2020 — can­celled of course due to the Covid pan­dem­ic — the per­for­mance brings togeth­er Laila Chahrour the moth­er with her 18-year-old son Abbas, who decid­ed to join the ranks of the fight­ers for Syr­ia in 2017. Along­side them dances Ali Chahrour in a work where his kin­ship with Laila is inter­twined with the sto­ry of his aunt Fati­ma, and her jour­ney to find her son, Has­san, miss­ing in Syr­ia since 2013.

Hanane Hajj Ali in “Jog­ging” (pho­to Mar­wan Tahtah).

They are joined by the Syr­i­an actress Hala Omran, as well as musi­cians Ali Hout and Abed Kobeis­sy, whose musi­cal approach refers to the cul­tur­al her­itage of Arab folk songs, prin­ci­pal­ly the songs of fam­i­lies dur­ing moments of joy and sor­row. The per­for­mance thus stages the inti­mate net­work of fam­i­ly dif­fi­cul­ties and tragedies braved by moth­ers through their bod­ies and voic­es, their micro wars lodged in the homes of Beirut and its suburbs.

I don’t want to be buried. Mom, I don’t want to rot in the ground. I don’t want my eyes and my heart to be cov­ered with dust. I don’t want any­thing to tie me to this coun­try.… I dis­own it,” declares Hanane’s son, played by actress and author Hanane Hajj Ali, a promi­nent fig­ure in the Lebanese cul­tur­al scene, in her per­for­mance Jog­ging, cho­sen for the In pro­gram as a con­se­cra­tion of her career.



Hanane, a woman in her fifties, jogs dai­ly in the streets of Beirut to fight osteo­poro­sis, obe­si­ty and depres­sion. While run­ning, she revis­its her dreams, her desires, her dis­il­lu­sions. The effects of this dai­ly rou­tine are con­tra­dic­to­ry, as it stim­u­lates two hor­mones in her body: dopamine and adren­a­line which, in turn, prove to be destruc­tive and con­struc­tive in the heart of a city that destroys to build and builds to destroy. Alone on stage, Hanane, the wife and moth­er, reveals her iden­ti­ty by embody­ing dif­fer­ent faces of Medea, one inside the oth­er, like Russ­ian dolls.


MILK from Bashar Murkus, with Firielle Al Jubeh, Eddie Dow, Sam­era Kadry, Shaden Kan­boura, Sal­wa Nakkara, Reem Tal­ha­mi, Samaa Wakim (pho­to Christophe Ray­naud de Lage).

Aes­thet­ics of the post-disaster

Milk, a work-in-progress by Pales­tin­ian direc­tor and author Bashar Murkus in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Khashabi col­lec­tive, is about cat­a­stro­phe. Not about the caus­es of a dis­as­ter, nor its type, nor its con­se­quences, but the way it divides time into two: the before and the after. Milk takes place in this rift of time where time itself col­laps­es, extend­ing over an indef­i­nite peri­od of time.

“How does a dis­as­ter hap­pen? In an instant. How does it end? Nev­er, it folds.

Bashar Murkus, born 1992 in Kufer Yasif in the north of occu­pied Pales­tine, is a Pales­tin­ian the­atre direc­tor and writer based in Haifa. He is a found­ing mem­ber of Khashabi Ensem­ble and, since 2015, artis­tic direc­tor of Haifa’s Khashabi The­atre, an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian the­atre. His works have been staged in Brus­sels, Genk, Gent, Antwerp, Bern, Dublin, Mar­seilles, Paris, Tunis, Berlin, Hanover and New York. He also teach­es act­ing and direct­ing at var­i­ous aca­d­e­m­ic and arts insti­tu­tions in Haifa and Europe. Since 2011, Murkus has direct­ed near­ly 20 the­atre pro­duc­tions, express­ing his deep artis­tic, polit­i­cal, social and human­is­tic vision, pro­vid­ing an intense the­atri­cal glimpse into con­tem­po­rary Pales­tin­ian culture.

Thus in Milk, the spec­ta­tor first sees an emp­ty room inside which images accu­mu­late in a black silence. Sud­den­ly, bod­ies enter, bod­ies rush in, bod­ies are car­ried, help­less corpses fill the space. Lost men, parched women cry­ing for milk from their breasts, an excess of milk that no one drinks, sol­diers steal­ing the milk.

And the bod­ies pile up, car­ried away by the liv­ing who are exhaust­ed. The women embrace the bod­ies of the dead and then turn them into earth. The earth sinks and fills the scene which becomes a field, its grass is yel­low, the women water it with their milk, it becomes a par­adise. Lat­er, the par­adise will be destroyed.

A moth­er refus­es to let her son come out of her womb because she is afraid for him. He reach­es puber­ty inside her womb, but even­tu­al­ly comes out and with his first steps buries his moth­er. A moth­er claims the stolen corpse of her son, the sol­diers tear his flesh and stone her with it, while grief turns her into a dog, her lan­guage becomes howling.

The black pieces pile up and become a moun­tain, a moun­tain that resists climb­ing, on which it is impos­si­ble to stand. Bod­ies descend from his pick­axe, and above, the wom­en’s legs melt and expand. The inca­pac­i­ty deforms the women. Milk over­flows from all sides, milk of death, not of birth. White paints over black, white eras­es black, white eras­es everything.

The patri­archy at the bench

Kubra Khade­mi (pho­to Julien Pebrel).

In par­al­lel to Avignon’s plays and per­for­mances the Lam­bert Col­lec­tion presents, as it does every year, a tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tion at the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Avi­gnon, through August 31, fea­tur­ing Kubra Khade­mi, the Afghan fem­i­nist painter and per­former who has been a refugee in France since 2015, who dis­plays her new series First but not Last Time in Amer­i­ca.

Born in 1989 in Afghanistan, Kubra Khade­mi devel­ops a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary work whose aes­thet­ic feeds as much on medieval Per­sian poet­ry and iconog­ra­phy as on the most con­tem­po­rary artis­tic prac­tices, abol­ish­ing space-time bound­aries with an extra­or­di­nary jubilation.

In this new series, Khade­mi cre­ates a world that resem­bles a fres­co, in which the bat­tles of ances­tral tapes­tries, led this time by women, emerge. Their hero­ic ges­tures are adorned with sin­gu­lar words: Per­sian poet­ry, both epic and mod­ern, pop­u­lar poet­ry known as “under the navel,” but also the slo­gans bran­dished in the street today by Afghan women against the Tal­iban. These women evolve with­in mytho­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives devolved to men, or sit­u­a­tions that, with beau­ty and humor, free them­selves from patriarchy.

“Land Mine, Grenade” from “First but not Last Time in Amer­i­ca,” Kubra Khade­mi (cour­tesy of the artist).

Also at the Col­lec­tion Lam­bert, the fes­ti­val is screen­ing Focus Iran, a doc­u­men­tary film about five young artists, four of whom are women, which offers a par­al­lel encounter with cre­ative pho­tog­ra­phy, and an image of a coun­try as com­plex as it is unexpected.


Con­tem­po­rary Arab women poets

The Shaeirat project, which means “poet­esses” in Ara­bic, is a mod­u­lar pro­gram of per­for­mances, each per­formed by the Ara­bic poet­ess who wrote it. These read­ings, each last­ing about an hour, are fine­ly craft­ed in their scenic dimen­sion and incor­po­rate, often from their con­cep­tion, the French trans­la­tion of the poems, with Eng­lish ver­sions also available.

Soukaina Habibal­lah (pho­to Hind Alilich).

Shaeirat is envi­sioned as an activism whose voca­tion is to give voice to new Arab poet­ic voic­es on both sides of the Mediter­ranean. If each of the per­for­mances has its own autonomous life and a sin­gu­lar his­to­ry, with per­for­mances spread over the sea­son in the Arab coun­tries, the invi­ta­tion to the Fes­ti­val d’Av­i­gnon 2022 con­sti­tutes the col­lec­tive birth of the project.

In Dodo ya Momo do, Soukaina Habibal­lah inter­weaves the voic­es of a grand­moth­er and her grand­daugh­ter who speak to each oth­er through the moth­er’s absence, and two haunt­ing themes: the grand­moth­er’s post-colo­nial trau­ma and the grand­daugh­ter’s post-par­tum depression.

In her read­ing, Soukaina Habibal­lah, who is per­fect­ly bilin­gual, inter­weaves the Ara­bic and French ver­sions of the poem cycle: as if the two voic­es were alter­nat­ing in her own body, her own psy­che as a poet. The sound artist Zouheir Atbane cre­ates for this read­ing an envi­ron­ment from record­ings of immemo­r­i­al Moroc­can lul­la­bies that Soukaina Habibal­lah has record­ed from old Moroc­can women in sev­er­al lan­guages: Amazigh, Dar­i­ja, Sahraoui…

Celle qui habitait la mai­son avant moi, Rasha Omran, 2022 (pho­to Mostafa Abdel Aty).

She Who Lived in the House Before Me is a series of mon­odra­mas of the “I” of a sin­gle woman who lives in an apart­ment in the down­town area of a megac­i­ty haunt­ed by the sin­gle woman who lived there before her.

Lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, fail­ures in love, feel­ings of loss, the show is a three-voice ora­to­rio: the Ara­bic voice of the poet Rasha Omran; the French voice of the Syr­i­an actress Nan­da Moham­mad; and in an uniden­ti­fied idiom, the unheard voice of the impro­vis­er Isabelle Duthoit.

Poet Car­ol San­sour (pho­to Dirk-Jan Visser).

Car­ol San­sour’s In the Sea­son of Apri­cots is a tour de force: the poem cycle seems to embrace the entire life expe­ri­ence of a woman poet who hap­pens to be Pales­tin­ian. One finds, with­out being able to untan­gle them, dai­ly life and pol­i­tics, desires, child­hood mem­o­ries, moth­er­hood. The insis­tent mem­o­ry of the moth­er is like the refrain of this long, fine­ly chis­eled song.


I’ll plow every­where and then I’ll go away 
At the press of your soul
And in the tav­ern of your body
I will get drunk
I will sur­ren­der to your hands 
Time will pass
You and I
Every­where we will be

Aware of our deep sadness
We force our bod­ies through infi­nite tunnels
Where the world is work­ing to per­fect its plans to exter­mi­nate our children
Q: Are you an Arab artist?
A: Me? God for­bid! Thank God I am a crim­i­nal. On me the mer­cy and the grace of God. 

Morn­ings with green, yel­low and hon­ey tones
In apri­cot season
The smell of carameliz­ing sugar
Chil­dren play in the dust
And my moth­er is mak­ing coffee
Milk, tea
My moth­er
In apri­cot season
Always my mother

“Ne me croyez pas si je vous par­le de la guerre” (pho­to Christophe Ray­naud de Lage / Fes­ti­val d’Avignon)

Don’t believe me if I tell you about the war is a poet­ic per­for­mance in three voic­es where Asmaa Aza­izeh’s deep, almost mas­cu­line voice, whose pow­er echoes the strength of her own poems, dia­logues with Haya Zaa­try’s vocals and gui­tar and elec­tro melody. The poems are worked like songs and the two young women, who look like twins, stand out on fas­ci­nat­ing still video shots. The poet­’s moth­er sit­ting on her diwan, the waves of the Pales­tin­ian Mediter­ranean, the old city of Haifa cre­ate a para­dox­i­cal inti­ma­cy with the per­form­ers and offer an ide­al acoustic for the inten­si­ty of the voices.


Mil­lions of years ago, winged crea­tures did not exist.

To get any­where, we all crawled on our bel­lies and short legs.

We did­n’t get any­where, but our bel­lies were chaf­ing at the hard­ness of the ground. Then our legs start­ed to grow like moun­tains. And every time we stopped in the shade of a tree, one of us would shout, “We’re there!” But it was only an illu­sion, high­er than the mountains.

Mil­lions of years ago, drag­on­flies emerged from ugly lit­tle rivers. The water weighed on their backs like a heart­break, so they asked the uni­verse for wings, so they could make out the anguish as clear­ly as the stones in the riverbed.

Since then, we all fly.

Mil­lions of wings and planes dark­en the sky and roar like hun­gry locusts. 

But not one has asked the uni­verse to deliv­er us from the illu­sion of arrival.

And our hearts con­tin­ue to clench.

Also per­form­ing are the Pales­tin­ian intel­lec­tu­al and trans­la­tor Elias San­bar and Franck Tor­tiller and band, stag­ing the poems of Mah­moud Dar­wish, the great Pales­tin­ian poet of the land and the home­land, to music. A spir­it­ed jazz ora­to­rio, the piece Et la terre se trans­met comme la langue (And the earth is trans­mit­ted like lan­guage) speaks of the pain of exile, and res­onates with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion head on. You can explore the com­plete sea­son 76e Fes­ti­val d’Av­i­gnon sea­son here.


Afghan artistArab theatreexileIranIranian filmmigrationPalestinian theatreSyriawar

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.


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