By Laila Albina
ASHTAR for Theatre Productions and Training, a nonprofit NGO established in 1991, is known as one of the most dynamic local theaters in Palestine, with progressive and dynamic global, political, and economic perspectives. The theater aims to confront and challenge many of the societal standards of Palestinian life and continuously encourages people of all ages to question various aspects of their everyday lives. ASHTAR Theatre has two main functions: offering professional-level training courses to teachers, schools, and college students in Palestine and producing theatrical performances that encourage students to experiment and express their artistic talents in new and unconventional ways.
The head of ASHTAR Theatre, Edward Muallem, aims to adopt new and creative approaches that push the boundaries of our surroundings. One of Muallem’s missions is to inspire audiences to “listen as they hear, contemplate as they see, and imagine as they reflect.” His goal has always been to expand freedom of expression and to make theater, expression, experimentation, and modern art integral parts of everyday Palestinian culture. Focusing his work on enhancing the expressive opportunities and abilities of the Palestinian people, he has continuously promoted the achievements of all participants to encourage all forms of creative thinking on the global stage.
Love for theater has also prompted ongoing political expression. Muallem has created a safe environment for young theater artists to express their political beliefs in the face of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. He has used his platform to further the Palestinian cause in ways that have previously been underutilized in Palestinian culture, for example, through books, song, theater, and interactive festivals.
On July 8, 2022, ASHTAR organized a cultural and artistic event to celebrate Eid Al-Adha as part of ASHTAR’s International Youth Theatre Festival. The event participants included a group of Irish, British, Swedish, Italian, and Palestinian young actors and theater students that came together to express themselves and create a community of open expression, joy, and celebration during festive times. Aimed at families and children, the event was organized on the streets in order to bring recognition and celebration to the people who are less likely to attend a theater production at ASHTAR Theatre’s hall. The parade included a giant colorful puppet and butterfly costumes worn by some of the participating artists as it moved down the street adjacent to the Ottoman Court. During the events, a group of violent vigilantes invaded the festival and under false pretexts and allegations proceeded to brutally beat and injure both participants and onlookers. In spite of the ongoing brutal assault, there was no police protection or intervention. The mob then followed the ASHTAR actors to the municipality theater, where they had sought refuge, and further beat and attacked them.
The attack on ASHTAR Theatre is part of a series of systematic attacks that aim to disrupt the foundations of freedom, including the freedom of expression and speech in a cultural setting. Iman Aoun, the artistic director of ASHTAR Theatre and Muallem’s wife, stated that the attack was led by “homophobic and color-phobic” motives.
Muallem, who was also hurt during the attack on the festival, claims that while the incidents were completely uncalled for and rooted in anger, misunderstanding, and closed-mindedness, he intends to use them as an opportunity to change the dialogue surrounding the freedom of artistic expression in Palestine. Muallem and Aoun are determined to engage in further work with the Palestinian community on the crucial importance of the freedom of self-expression. The attack on ASHTAR not only represents an ambush on the freedom of artistic expression but also sheds light on major societal issues. Muallem’s mission in Palestine is to foster a dynamic and integrated balance of healthy dialogue while furthering an understanding of the needs of a growing generation of Palestinians that choose to use alternative means of resistance.