The Palestinian playwright, theatre director and writer Rimah Jabr was invited by Jozef Wouters to participate in INFINI in 2016. The resulting contribution, Infini #5, has been shown as a part of the collection and as a separate performance for the past seven years, losing nothing of its strength and urgency. Given the current situation in the Palestinian territories, in dialogue with Rimah Jabr we have decided to republish her letter to Jozef Wouters for Infini #5, preceded by a conversation with writer and journalist Chris Keulemans that took place in 2016.

The Time we lost

A conversation with Rimah Jabr 

‘This morning, I received a message from my sister. There was a funeral procession in Nablus last night. The Israel Occupation Army rolled into the streets. People started throwing stones. Fifty-two people were injured, one died. Today, the army has closed the whole city down.’ 

 Rimah Jabr sighs. Speaking from Toronto, where has lived since 2016, the Palestinian playwright says: ‘That’s how it is. Every day. When you’re there, you don’t really feel it. Until you manage to travel outside and reach other places. Then you realize how much time you have lost.’ 

Rimah lived in Palestine for thirty-two years. To regain the time she lost is the drive behind her astonishing productivity. In 2012, Rimah was invited to Brussels by the KVS (the Royal Flemish Theatre) and the Qattan Foundation for the production of Keffiye / Made in China. She went on to graduate at the RITS performing arts academy in Brussels, wrote four theatre plays, in which she also performed, before moving to Toronto for love. There, she wrote and performed in Two Birds, One Stone, with her Jewish-Canadian friend Natasha Greenblatt, and is now creating a new production, Broken Shapes, alongside visual artist Dareen Abbas.

Infini #5 is the result of a collaboration with Decoratelier, a Brussels based collective/workplace led by Belgian scenographer Jozef Wouters, and dramaturge Jeroen Peeters. After its first presentation as part of the performance Infini 1-15 at the Brussels KVS in 2016, it will now travel to Ghent (BE), Lisbon (PT), Ostend (BE) and Ramallah (PS).

‘I was 30 years old, when I took part in my first theatre workshop,’ Rimah Jabr, now 38, says. ‘I had always been writing, but only in private. I started working in theatre very late. So I am always afraid to lose more time. I still consider myself to be at the beginning of my career. That might explain my productivity. And I’m not a patient person in general. When I sit down and write, I don’t have the patience to edit. I want it to be perfect from the very first version, which is impossible, of course – so only now I am learning to calm down, be patient and really work on the text.’

It’s hard to imagine this furious impatience when you sit down in the theatre and hear Rimah read the letter that carries Infini #5. Her voice sounds calm and introspective. Addressing Jozef Wouters, who asked her to write to him about her choice for the theme of tunnels and endlessness, she sounds as if she is thinking out loud. Aided by time and distance, she is able to reflect on the time she lost, living in Nablus, a large Palestinian city on the West Bank: thirty years of life under a system designed to undermine any sense of normality. 

‘Personally, I prefer to think this: that nothing of what we live is real,’ she says in her letter. A striking observation, to me as an outsider: Palestine seems to be the most real place in the world. ‘If you try to imagine the situation there,’ Rimah goes on to explain, ‘and then one day, you actually come, you will be shocked. I saw it happen to Jozef, when he visited me in Nablus. Everything is so real, that you will feel it cannot be true. It’s too close to fiction. As if you have ended up inside a movie or a novel. But if you live your daily life in a situation that’s so hard to cope with, your brain starts trying to find a way out of this reality. Because if you would really allow yourself to reflect on the life you are living, over and over again, I don’t think your brain would be able to take it. It’s simply too much. It forces your brain to switch off. And you need to jump out of this situation, just to help you handle the impossibility of it all.’

Rimah had met Jozef Wouters first at his Decoratelier in Brussels. He invited her and a wide range of other writers, theatre makers, visual artists and architects (I was one of them) to respond to the question: ‘Which spaces must we show in the theatre today?’ Each conversation resulted in an infini: painted backdrops, raised and lowered on pulleys, as a horizon for the imagination. The complete experience, first presented at the KVS, was so striking that Infini 1-15 was selected for the Flemish Theatre Festival as one of the highlights of the season. And Rimah Jabr’s work might well have been the most memorable of them all.

During that first conversation, her immediate choice of landscape was: tunnels. Later, when Jozef visited the West Bank and Nablus for the first time and witnessed the wall, the checkpoints, the brightly lit and heavily guarded settlements on the hilltops, the confined life inside the Palestinian cities, he asked her again: Why tunnels? Rimah replied with a letter that speaks to us about the endlessness, the feeling that you can continue forever without seeing a light in the distance, the weight of the world that is moving around up there, somewhere above you.

For those of us living outside of Palestine, it might be hard to imagine the claustrophobia of life in a country where a simple trip from one side of the city to the other, let alone from one city to the next, will always confront you with roadblocks, where the Israeli army can let you pass or keep you waiting at will. 

‘The fact that you’re not allowed to travel, of course, makes you lose your dignity. Just like the fact that they make you lose your time. In Belgium, when the train is ten minutes late, people get mad, because they’re late for school or work. Imagine that someone else is totally in control of your time. And on top of that, it really is a game of life and death. At the checkpoint you are standing face to face with a young person who is carrying a machine gun. To reach your destination, you need the permission of this young guy or girl. And although this person is stealing time from your life, you have to keep quiet and smile. A sudden move or an angry face might cost you your life. It’s this mix: they are paranoid but possess the power, you are angry but trying very hard to remain rational.’

‘There are so many examples. A soldier ordering a man to dance, otherwise he wouldn’t let him pass; the man danced. A woman delivering her baby in her husband’s car at a checkpoint, because they were not allowed to cross and reach the hospital, no matter how the husband begged. The ‘hole’, a spot at the checkpoint below street level, where men are forced to sit for hours, not allowed to talk to anyone, while their papers are being checked. Those checkpoints are not really a security check; they are part of a systematic way to humiliate people, keep them down and spread fear.’

Writing the letter for Infini #5, in response to the questions Jozef kept asking her, Rimah Jabr started to realize how these experiences have shaped her work so far. ‘Everything I have written is about people being stuck in a situation. Two Ladybugs is about three young people in a coma, who meet each other in that world beyond life. One of them is an Israeli soldier who shot the other two. The Prisoner is about someone who remains mentally stuck even after he is finally released from jail. My third play was about a couple being holed up in an apartment about to be destroyed by the Israeli forces. It all has to do with the life I lived, growing up in Nablus, the checkpoints, the lost time, feeling lazy and helpless, unable to do anything about anything.’

‘In Nablus, you feel you’re not achieving anything, because the absence of a normal system won’t allow you to do anything. It is not a lack of time - we always had a lot of time, doing literally nothing, sitting at home, eating, watching television. But it was the time that has been wasted all these years. Because on any given day, the city, the shops and the school could be shut down – just like Nablus has been shut down today. As a kid, we used to cheer when there was a curfew again. No school, just staying home for another week. Later on, this emptiness becomes almost like an addiction.’

Rimah has always given herself a physical presence in the plays she wrote and produced. In Infini #5, she is very present, too, but this time it’s only her voice. ‘People can hear me. My voice is there. I don’t have to appear in person. The stage is already so beautiful to watch. This is not about me or my personal story. It’s about letting people feel and experience the endlessness, while they are listening to my description. They will see a cathedral of palm trees, inspired by the Bosco di Palme (1754) by Italian architect Giovanni Carlo Galli-Bibiena.’ Jozef Wouters suggested this etching and his team at the Decoratelier went through the painstaking process of copying it thirteen times, each one a bit smaller than the one before. All they needed was paper, glue, tape – and time, hours and hours of time. The result: a scenography built just for the eye of the viewer. It leaves no space for actors. And as Galli-Bibiena was the one who pioneered a vanishing point that is slightly off-centre, the gaze of the spectator is caught in an endless perspective. ‘It looks open, but you cannot see where it ends,’ concludes Rimah. ‘It’s all about following this view, trying to find the way out and forgetting that you tried and trying again, carried along by this hope that you will never lose. There is no end, you are arriving nowhere, but you keep walking.’

Chris Keulemans (traveling writer and journalist based in Amsterdam, participant in Infini 1-15)

Letter from Rimah Jabr

Nablus, July 22nd, 2015

Dear Jozef,

Thank you for your letter. In the meantime I’ve been thinking more about the video and the model of the tunnel, even though I still love the drawing. Here are my answers to your questions.

You ask me why I chose a tunnel as the space to talk about people being stuck. For me, it is not only about being stuck in a place though, it is also about being stuck in time. Outside of Palestine, time seems to be running normally. But here, if you’d switch and puzzle my life periods in different historical periods I lived, it wouldn’t change a lot of things. I see myself as a child living the second intifada and I can see myself as a grown woman living the first intifada.

Everything I wrote for theatre was about the feeling or mind of people being stuck in a situation.

Now I remember a fly stuck inside a window. She tries to flee, her small brain, her short memory helps her to forget in which areas she already tried to find an exit, so she might try the same area many times in five minutes. We also forget, and we also keep on trying, hoping that we will find the exit to our situation… I see many dead flies in between two window frames. They keep on moving until they are dead.

Why is the tunnel important as a landscape? Being underground is a different feeling, the same feeling you have when you are late and you are on a different level, a different rhythm than the rest of the world... 

When you are late and you run to catch your appointment you actually run to catch up the time that you missed, which is something that will never happen – this is what I feel about Palestine, we will never be able to catch up the time we missed, I’ve always felt we are late and that we have our own rhythm, which is caused by the situation of being stuck. Even our steps are different, the transport we use works this way – you drive, you stop at the check point, you wait, you drive, you stop at the check point, you wait. 

And then people invented something else to move between cities, what we called in 2002 ‘iltifafy’ which means meandering, which means driving around and in between cities and villages through mountains, using animals between two spots to be able to continue your trip avoiding the check points, and this goes like the concept that ants use. So you spend your day waiting, stuck, you missed a lot of time that you need to catch up. How to reimburse the time you lose on check points or ‘iltifafy’ – you will never do.

So why tunnels? The limits of the ceiling in the tunnel make for a heavy movement. I don’t have an explanation for this for the moment but I feel that the whole world is sitting on my head. Again, a different world, a different rhythm than people on the ground. 

The idea I have in mind is not about being stuck in one place or one memory or one period, it is for me about being stuck in life, in a life that was chosen for you since you were born. So it is about the hope of finding the exit that you might find in this tunnel. You don’t see the end of it, you don’t know how far you are from this end, or how far you are from the exit, so you go on but you are not sure…

In Bibiena’s drawing you don’t see an end – it is open for choices, it is more confusing than the images of tunnels. You think you are out or free but probably you are not – which is the general feeling in my country where there is a lot of confusion, where no one has a clear plan, where when you talk about plans people laugh. Explaining this, I will have to use big words… but practically it is not easy to have a plan, and even when things become better, you are just used to improvising, and the system we have is an ‘improvising system’ which affects people so they don’t believe in planning as all their plans are dropped for one reason or another, so they cynically laugh at you when you talk about plans.

Even on a personal level, you might plan to visit a friend, and suddenly there is a curfew, so then you have to postpone. It is like your time is frozen for a while, and again, you lose grasp of your plans, or of the time, which is already running normally outside your world.

One by one, starting at the back, the thirteen plans move upward and out of view. The illusion of infinity dwindles, and a few minutes later only an empty stage remains.

Bibiena’s drawing reminds me of a time in the past when people didn’t know that the earth was round and they wanted to reach the end of the earth. Maybe it is the story of the human being…

Sometimes I think this feeling of being stuck is maybe more general than I believe. Maybe it is not only my feeling as a Palestinian who lived intense experiences – and I mean also intense in information, intense feelings and intense shocks. Maybe many people have the same feeling. Maybe it is the original experience of every creature when we are in the womb inside a sack for nine months more or less. Sometimes I think that this feeling is that old.

I like the illusion in Bibiena’s drawing. When I look at it I am thinking of the illusion of our existence as human beings. The drawing reminded me of the question: Is everything we live… are all the problems and feelings and ideas we have… are they real? Personally I prefer to think this way, that nothing of what we live is real, it gives you hope and lightness. I find it a smart way to protect your brain from collapsing.

Looking at the illusion, the feeling of being stuck and confused will disappear suddenly. I felt that each small line in the drawing is part of the same line, that if I would pull at the edge of it, it would become undone like a knitted pullover returning to a single thread, that I would be walking in a blank space after a while.

Maybe I’ve been straining from your questions, Jozef, I’m afraid that we’re going wider than we need for this project. If you’d have more questions, you can write me.

Best wishes,