Fifteen Bedouin teenagers from the northern Negev town of Hura made Israeli theatrical history with their performance this spring at the Bat Yam Youth Theatre Festival. It was the first time a Bedouin troupe of any age staged a Western-style play in Israel.
The Hura Community Youth Group’s play was its own adaptation of the 17th-century French satire by Molière, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (The Bourgeois Gentleman). The teens transformed Molière’s comic masterpiece into a humorous portrayal of their own cultural reality in the jargon of modern Bedouin Arabic.
In their version, a Bedouin-style tent replaced the stately mansion, traditional Bedouin robes and head coverings replaced period French costumes, and instead of the minuet, five boys performed a fiery debka line dance.
None of the 15- to 19-year-old Bedouin teens had ever performed on stage or even seen live theater, which is not part of their culture. The Hura Community Youth Group was formed specifically for the project.
The youth theater festival, founded 18 years ago in the coastal town of Bat Yam just south of Tel Aviv, produces an annual marathon of plays by young Israeli thespians. Although Arabic-speaking community groups have performed in the past, this was the first time that a troupe of Bedouin participated.
The inspiration for producing a play by Molière came from Pauline Marchand, director of the French Institute of Beersheva and the Negev, the cultural arm of the French Embassy, which is underwriting the project.
“This particular play by Moliere immediately spoke to these young people,” Marchand said. “They understand the pretensions of the rich, and that money can make you crazy.”
Marchand proposed the idea to veteran director Ya’acov Amsellem, who found it was a slow process to coax the normally reticent Bedouin teens to perform a farce on stage, and to win over their parents. In traditional Bedouin culture, men and women do not mix in public.
Ibrahim Sayah, head of the Hura Community Center Youth Division, said many of the girls who initially signed onto the project were forced by their parents to pull out. Eventually, however, the cast included more girls than boys.
“When we started this theater project, there were many challenges to overcome,” Sayah said. “To start with, we were attempting to expose young Bedouin to a culture that is not only Israeli, but also Western and French, and this was very difficult.”
The teenagers came from a range of local tribes and families who don’t normally socialize.
“One of our aims in this project was to show the kids that it is possible to accept ‘the other,’ whatever their ideas or origins,” added Sayah. — israel 21c