Highlight of the Month

Another Life, but Onstage

An excerpt from the Collection of Adel al-Tarteer, Dramatist and Artist

Adel al-Tarteer, Ramallah, Late-1960s

On August 14th, 1951, at the hands of the midwife Umm Jouda, al-Tarteer came to life, on the land of the village of Rafat between Ramallah and Jerusalem. He is the descendent of a family from Lydda exiled during the Nakba, consequently settling under a tree in a metal-clad attic. When he was a mere 40 days old, he was carried by donkey to Ein Munjed in Ramallah.  

Al-Tarteer grew up, and his imagination grew with him. He sat in his father’s guesthouse, surrounded by adults, and in his father’s shop, where ploughs and coulters were made; like any curious child, with the wood he would draw whatever he saw, and take on the roles of different characters. These collective experiences planted the seed for his first theatrical experiences in ‘The Attic Theatre’. Here, so close to his family, al-Tarteer felt a form of responsibility. Little did he know, from the early 1970s to the present day, his stubborn personality, sense of humour, and convincing impressions would make him one of the pioneers of the theatrical movement in Palestine. This archival collection of hundreds of photographs and dozens of documents, from magazine clippings and newspapers to publications and play tickets, is proof of that impact.

Al-Tarteer was one of those who heeded the call for expressive alternatives to economic, social, and political problems. With the help of a group of young adults in Ramallah and Jerusalem, teamwork enabled him in 1970 to establish ‘Balaleen’ (Balloons), his first independent theatre troupe. Its first performance took place onstage on January 22nd, 1972, at al-Omariya school in Jerusalem, entitled A Slice of Life. It inspired eight other theatrical performances between 1972-1975: The Darkness in 1972; The Weather Forecast, The Emperor’s Cloak, The Treasure, and The Cripple and the Walnut Tree in 1973; Come Let Me Talk to You My Friend in 1974; and Antoura and Latoof and Tirbaytak Ammi in 1975.

Booklet introducing theatre troupes: Theatre Committee, 1980

The dramatist never relinquished a single scrap of paper, photograph, or notebook. Arranged and categorised according to the date on which they were published or written, they also included press clippings, positive and critical. In this way, he learned from his mistakes and pushed himself to improve, something he was not alone in among his theatre colleagues.

Entry Ticket for the play ‘A Slice of Life’

Upon visiting the Sandouq al-Ajab (Wonder Box) headquarters in the Old City of Ramallah, an old house that al-Tarteer personally renovated, one is surrounded by this archive. On the wall, he has posters for every performance he put on; puppets are scattered throughout the house, as are handmade wooden carvings. Photographs document his travels to Arab and international theatre festivals. There are boxes of paper clippings, newspapers, and magazines, such as ash-Sha’b, al-Fajr, Al-Quds and Al-Ayyam. There are also other advertisements and entry tickets sold for a symbolic price that, for both Balaleen and Sandouq al-Ajab, allowed the provision of necessary supplies and technical equipment. This included clothing, décor, and training venues, all to encourage the audience to participate and establish a relationship between Palestinians and their theatre. 

A scene from the play Ras Roos

After 1975, when the sun set on the Balaleen troupe, its young members found themselves contemplating how to develop their thinking towards the theatre. They opted to do so by forming a new theatre company they called Sandouq al-Ajab. They wanted to do right by the theatre and strengthen the ties between it and the audience through professionalisation and dedication. Sandouq al-Ajab presented several works, including When We Went Mad in 1976; The Alienation of Said ibn Fadlallah in 1979; Ras Roos in 1970 (presented by al-Tarteer, it was the first monodrama in the history of  Palestinian theatre); The Truth in 1982; The Blind and the Deaf in 1986; The Hat and the Prophet, al-Tarteer’s second monodrama, in 1990; and finally, Hikayat Abu al-Ajab (Abu al-Ajab’s Tales), ongoing from 1993 to the present.

Sandouq al-Ajab headquarters in Ramallah

Al-Tarteer has a special interest in children’s theatre, which he considers a positive step in local theatre history. It is because of this that Hikayat Abu al-Ajab, a long series of tales told by al-Tarteer in character as the storyteller Abu al-Ajab, is ongoing. Throughout, Abu al-Ajab roams everywhere with his Wonder Box. The Wonder Box is a mobile theatre through which he presents folk stories drawn from human and Palestinian heritage. Al-Tarteer brings some of these stories close to lived reality, making them suitable for adults and children and expressing both the past and the present. He does so without limiting himself to these stories but instead goes beyond them, meshing them with situations based on his personal experiences.

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