Suvendrini Lena is both a playwright and a practicing neurologist and Assistant Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry. Her most recent play Rubble is coming to Theatre Passe Muraille, running from February 25- March 18. Rubble is based on the poetry of Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish (translated by Fady Joudah) and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. (Read her powerful poem “Running Orders” here.) The play examines the value of art against the backdrop of the crisis in Palestine. I had a chance to ask Suvendrini about the play and about how her medical and writing practices inform each other. I am so grateful for her thoughtful and impassioned responses to my questions.
Your play Rubble is based on the poetry of Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. How did you come to know their work, and when did you know that you wanted to make a play from their poetry?
I studied history and literature as an undergraduate and first discovered Darwish’s poetry while studying for a summer at the American University of Cairo. I came to know several young Egyptians who were resisting the Mubarak dictatorship and were themselves inspired and moved by Darwish’s powerful poetry of resistance and love.
Lena’s poem “Running Orders” arrived in my in box one day, forwarded by an American friend. It was 2014, in the middle of the Gaza siege. I immediately saw in my mind the family, the children, the soccer match she describes. I saw it as an opening scene, immediately. Within Lena’s larger body of work Darwish’s work resonates in certain ways, and therefore connecting the two poets felt very organic.
Why was it important to you to preserve the form and diction of the poetry rather than translating their images and words into a more traditional script of prose dialogue?
Form is as important as content in poetry, so to be faithful to poetic source material I think the poetry must be enacted unadulterated as much as possible. There is in this work a dialogue between, or juxtaposition of, poetic form and theatrical form. This offers the audience an opportunity to reflect upon form, emotional valence, rhythm, imagery, and indeed narrative voice, in theatre versus poetry. Of course Darwish’s work is used in a beautiful English translation by poet Fady Joudah. The translation is a poetic text in its own right, while the Arabic original text is also offered. So there are many contrasts for lovers of poetry and language to savour.
The play begins with a warning that the inhabitants of a home in Gaza have 58 seconds in which to evacuate before their home is destroyed. The action then moves backwards and forwards though time, both mythical and historical. It struck me that there must be something very similar when you are taking a patient’s history: you begin in a moment of crisis, and you have to work backwards to find out how they arrive there.
That is a perceptive question, although most medical encounters need not be in moments of crisis (they shouldn’t be anyway). But yes, there is a parallel with my process of understanding my patients, particularly those who carry trauma. Traumatic memories seem to create a cycle of return and repetition. The past, present and future are all subject to this cycle. The characters here are caught up in the repetitions of a much larger human traumatic history, one which weighs upon Gaza and Palestine in particular.
How else does your work as a doctor inform your writing, not just in terms of content but method?
You could say that there is bi-directional learning between writing and medicine. In medicine, good efficient diagnosis, treatment and communication relies on close attention to psychological and physical details to develop a comprehensive understanding of complexity within a short period of time. This happens in a good theatrical scene as well. When I work something over in a theatrical scene, in writing, as well as with actors, I often see a new layer, always present but not initially apparent to me. It’s interesting how medical communication relies so much on fixed roles, and some key aspects of shared language, so much of this in day to day medicine is unconscious for all players. In the theatre, we get to look at this deeply, become conscious of these elements.
There is a layered polyphony of voices and languages on the stage and a theme of archaeological excavation. Again, this layering seems to resonate with a psychoanalytic method of sifting through the past to bring meaning to bear on the present.
In Rubble, Leila the archeologist and mother, traces her own roots deep into the soil of Gaza. She is committed to the facts of history. Gaza has been the site of so many occupations, so much colonization and destruction. The evidence of this, from the time of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans, French, English and Israelis all lies in the Rubble. Why does Leila unearth it? What meaning does this past offer the present? These are some of the questions of the play. No matter how you answer, History is important.
The poet says, “In siege, time becomes place, petrified in its eternity.” That sounds like a definition of trauma.
Yes. And one might also think of life asserting itself against overwhelming odds. Against the probable future. The present, the experience of the present becomes everything. “Time becomes place” is such an interesting poetic image (Darwish’s). On one level it’s almost physical – a singularity of space and time – is a quantum concept – but also an expression, an assertion, of being, of simple existence vs the siege.
The poem that inspires the action in this play, “Running Orders” by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, tries to make sense of the nonsense of the “courtesy call.” In this you and the poet seem to brush up against the absurdist tenet that conventional language has failed, that meaninglessness is at the centre of language. The temptation to despair must be enormous in the face of such absurdity. Where do you find hope?
Again, your question is such an interesting response to the ‘call’. Darwish has an answer for this question of hope:
In the opening stanza of A State of Seige (2002) he writes:
Here, by the downslope of hills, facing the sunset
and time’s muzzle,
near gardens with severed shadows,
we do what prisoners do, and what the unemployed do:
we nurture hope.
To resist means: to be certain
of the well being of the heart and testicles,
and of your chronic illness:
the illness of hope
I see the creation of art and poetry as the embodiment of hope – it is always, even in utter despair, the assertion of an “I,” a subjectivity, of the poet’s humanity.
What do you hope that audiences will be able to see differently after seeing your play performed?
That is a difficult question because I don’t want to make assumptions about what audiences are coming to the play thinking or feeling such that something specific would be different afterwards. We hope as theatre makers that the experience of collective art, presence within the drama, moves and changes us in a positive way. Art should break stereotypes, challenge assumptions, and the journey should be meaningful.
If I had to enumerate specific goals I could suggest these:
1) I would like audiences to leave the play with a thirst to read Darwish, Khalaf Tuffaha and other contemporary Palestinian poets, because the work is beautiful and powerful.
2) I would like audiences to seek opportunities to hear Palestinian voices speaking their history of occupation and resistance.
3) I would like audiences to ask questions about their own potential for agency in bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In the first scene, Leila tells the poet that it is not possible to be just a spectator. What do you hope a Canadian audience will bring to its performance?
T’karonto is an interesting and important place to stage this play. The proximal cause of the Israeli occupation lies in decisions made by colonial powers, Britain and France, during the British Mandate period. Here in Canada we live in a settler colonial state. We are engaged in a vexed and fitful process of truth and reconciliation with respect to historical and present injustice. I’m interested in the theatre as collective space for the examination of contested truths – a space that can deepen and expand our sense of compassion, agency and courage to acknowledge truths and engage in acts of reconciliation on the basis of these truths. If theatre is working that way there are no spectators, we are all witnesses, thinkers and actors.
All quotations from Darwish are as translated by Fady Joudah in The Butterfly’s Burden.
Rubble is a co-production from Theatre Passe Muraille and Aluna Theatre. Tickets available here.
For more on what’s happening in March, check out our City Girl’s Guide.