Socialist Worker

Existing even after catastrophe

by Matthew Cookson
Issue No. 2186

The Nakba, or “catastrophe”, of 1948 saw the creation of the state of Israel by the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.

This is the subject of a powerful new political play, I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother. Knowledge of the Nakba is vital if we are to understand the Palestinians’ oppression and resistance.

The Nakba lies at the root of the current problems in the Middle East. But it is rarely mentioned in mainstream discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis.

This new work by Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi is a dramatisation of the events of 1948, written from the viewpoint of a people usually ignored by history.

The play is set in the Palestinian village of Baissamoon.

It has recently opened at the Young Vic theatre in central London, after it was originally performed in Haifa, Galilee and the West Bank. The play is attracting a young and diverse audience.

I Am Yusuf does not simply focus on the politics of the period, but explores the lives and the hopes of the villagers, making it all the more believable.

Nada’s father will not allow her to marry Ali because he fears that their children will grow up to be like Yusuf, Ali’s brother and the child-like “village fool”.

Yet despite her father’s obstinance, they are determined to be together.


Every villager is concerned about the upcoming United Nations vote that will endorse the plan to divide Palestine between its original inhabitants and the recent Jewish immigrants.

They understand that this will lead to war and great tragedy.

The character of Rufus, a British soldier, represents the terrible hypocrisy of the occupying power. His patronising affection for the villagers is counteracted by his defence of Britain’s policies.

Britain took over the mandate of Palestine after the First World War. The Balfour Declaration was written in an attempt to create a watchdog for imperialism in the Middle East. It confirmed support for a Jewish homeland on Palestinian land.

The Zionists are never seen or named—but they are a menacing offstage presence throughout.

They are only referred to as “they” or “the enemy”. Their gunshots end Palestinians’ lives.

Yusuf says in a conversation with his older self who is watching the events of the play, “Before January, who knew they existed?” His older self replies, “After January, who is sure that we do?”

The loss of their land, and even the acknowledgement of their existence as a people in exile and under occupation, has haunted the Palestinians since 1948.

But they have continued to live as a people and resist oppression. This in itself is a defiance of the state of Israel and the great powers that back it.

This is a forceful affirmation of the Palestinians’ existence.

I Am Yusuf is part of this tradition.

The playwright, Nizar Zuabi, wrote that he inherited a “thorn of pain” from his father that “pricks in the eye whenever we look at this land… Our land.

“We that have stayed are plagued by ghosts: the ghosts of the people that left, and the ghosts of what could have been…

“This play is about them: people, just ordinary people—complicated and beautiful—who led a life that was their own and now lead a life of ‘what if’.”

Zuabi’s poetic, superbly acted and—incredibly, despite the subject matter—often humorous play succeeds in telling the Palestinians’ story.

I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother is at the Young Vic until

6 February. Go to »

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Article information

Tue 26 Jan 2010, 19:23 GMT
Issue No. 2186
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