Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Palestinian-themed Merchant of Venice in the Netherlands (scholarly article)

An article by Jessica Apolloni in this month's Shakespeare Bulletin examines a Moroccan-Dutch author's Palestine-themed Merchant of Venice adaptation. Here are the opening paragraphs:
Shylock Meets Palestine:Rethinking Shakespeare in Abdelkader Benali’s Yasser
University of Minnesota
Abdelkader Benali’s Yasser (2001), a recent adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, expands and complicates the cross-cultural tensions in Shakespeare’s play. Yasser is a monologue centering on the character Yasser Mansour, a Palestinian actor thinking through what it means to play the role of Shylock after growing up near the Israeli-Palestinian border in the 1980’s Intifada. While Yasser contemplates the idea of playing a Jewish character, he struggles to identify with Shylock as a member of the ethnic group that currently opposes Palestine. Benali examines questions of stolen, ascribed, and confused identity through Yasser’s plight to understand Shylock. In this process, the “fiction” of Shakespeare’s text permeates Yasser’s reality. Yasser claims his English girlfriend, who plays Portia, “forces him into Christianity,” and becomes his antagonist both on and off the stage; the pound of flesh becomes symbolic of the blood spilt in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Yasser’s adult life in the West increasingly reflects a sense of Shylock’s persecution (Benali 12).1 Through Yasser’s reflections, Benali illuminates the fluid boundary between text, performer, and audience.
Situated within the growing interest in Shakespeare and the Arab world [how happy does that make me? -ML], Yasser adds a new layer to the continued process of understanding, adapting, and portraying Shakespeare.2 Benali uses the cultural baggage inherent in staging The Merchant of Venice to think through literature’s role in revealing violent tensions and also at times contributing to cultural conflict. In this process, Benali rethinks what it can mean to perform Shakespeare today. As the play progresses, Yasser Mansour finds a way to make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by connecting imaginatively with Shakespeare’s creation of an earlier social system that situates Jews and Christians on opposing sides. In the porous relationship between [End Page 213] fiction and reality that is developed in Yasser, we see the means of establishing prejudice in literary works as well as their potential for creating common understanding. Benali places the violent cultural conflict of The Merchant of Venice center-stage, continually exposing the play’s problematic performance history in order to establish a dialogue with his audience. The cultural weight of Shakespearean performance becomes a ‘cultural touchstone’ for Benali’s discussion of the current Middle East conflict (or page ref if quotation). In Benali’s rethinking of Shakespeare, Yasser gets to the heart of cross-cultural conflict by looking at questions of identity and exploring literature’s power to create a common means of communication.
What it all seems to come down to, sadly, is that Palestinians are the new Jews. Here's her conclusion:

Yasser can then confidently state, “The Arab understands Shylock better than anyone!” (3). Through his persecution as a Palestinian, Yasser can empathize with Shylock’s plight in The Merchant of Venice. Although throughout the play we get a glimpse of what it would be like to grow up in the Intifada, a time of intense violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Yasser realizes that despite their constructed differences, there is no one better to play the role of Shylock than himself. Both Yasser and Shylock live in societies where they have indefinite legal and social existences, their communities enclosed within high-rising walls (Falke 230). The sixteenth-century indeterminate status of Jews in Europe parallels the current ambiguous status of Palestinians, with both identities lacking solidarity in sovereign, legal, and social statuses (Shapiro 175; Falke 233). Benali equates the violent cultural tensions occurring in Shakespeare’s text with current cultural conflict. Through the power of role-playing, Benali highlights the innate similarities between two perceivably opposing identities in Yasser and Shylock.
While Yasser realizes that no one is better suited to play Shylock than himself, the terrible prejudice he has faced in Western society is what creates this bond. Yasser and Shylock have come to an accord that is merely based on a mutual sense of violence, oppression, and injustice. Yasser’s journey leads us through questions of identity, the politics of staging Shakespeare, the impact of role-playing, and the horrific implications of cultural misunderstanding. Benali evokes Western perceptions and prejudices through the lens of Shakespeare in order to articulate an individual voice pleading for mutual respect. The last lines of the play illustrate a hopeless dream of Yasser’s, in which Lucy will move to Palestine with him so that she can see the place where he was born. Here, she will learn his language and finally stop seeing the difference between a Christian and a Muslim (42). Yet we know from what we have previously seen in the play that this is an impossible dream. Lucy not only ignores Yasser’s concerns over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but she also blatantly refuses [End Page 228] to understand Yasser’s culture. In the same way Portia refutes Shylock, Lucy suppresses Yasser’s challenging of current social structures. It appears nothing can overcome their antagonism, both on and off the stage. In Yasser’s final unattainable dreams, the play echoes the same sense of unease felt in the resolution to The Merchant of Venice, where the fantasy of a happy ending illustrates the long road still ahead in reaching mutual understanding.

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