CROSSING BORDERS, land-wise, otherwise

by Shebana Coelho

in National Conference

Post image for CROSSING BORDERS, land-wise, otherwise

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

For about ten years now, it’s become my way of living: crossing borders, within and without, land-wise and otherwise, following what calls, not knowing what will come next. But still, I never imagined I’d be going to Palestine to collaborate with Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre and its Artistic Director, Iman Aoun for a month.

“Ah, so you are doing a project in Palestine,” someone says when I tell her I leave next week.

“Well, yes, I say, it is a project but also…it’s not like that. Not only like that.”

“What then?”

“It’s like this…”

Iman Aoun came to Santa Fe, New Mexico last year. She was on a CEC ArtsLink Fellowship. We did an exchange – she took my creative writing workshop; I took her Theater of the Oppressed workshop.

All I knew about her is what I had read on the ArtsLink website:

“actress, director, educator, and co-founder of Ashtar Theatre”

“deals with socio-political issues in Palestine to raise audience awareness and create social change”

“works with community groups using Theater of the Oppressed techniques”

“conducts specialized training workshops for theater students regionally and internationally”

What she knew about me was what she read on the flyer for my workshop – a fiction/memoir writer, and filmmaker, born in India, new to playwriting, newer to directing, with creativity workshops to “nudge the subconscious onto the page and tell stories only you can tell.”

Her writing in the workshop was clear, immediate, tactile. There was sun in it and darkness, and visceral images, drawing from memoir  – generations of women in a house with thick stone walls, a girl under a tree, an airport in Yemen, veiled women, veiled lives. And there was urgency  – she has been ready to write like this for a while.

I wondered if it was because her process is heavily collaborative: the personal story usually becomes group story. It felt like the memoir writing was calling out another part of her – as her workshop called out another part of me. The deep and shallow play of the Theater of the Oppressed exercises; the body kinetic, gestures, the trust in groups, developing a play together and presenting it in Forum Theater. Here was the audience in the play, interacting with social, personal and political issues. One of the skits that emerged was about domestic violence – a daughter and her abusive mother.

“What can you do in this circumstance to strengthen the position of the oppressed individual?” Iman asked. “What?”

An audience member volunteered to be a neighbor – the way out is to comfort the daughter, take her away. That would solve it. He walked into the play. The woman playing the mother summoned up a primal anger. The girl playing the daughter stared at him, and then turned and ran away, down the length of the gym where the workshop was being held and out into the parking lot. He stood there, in shock; we sat there, in shock. The sudden desertion, the sudden emptying of plans.

“What can you do in this circumstance to strengthen the position of the oppressed?” Iman asked again. “What?”

We began again with someone else’s suggestion. It could have continued a long time.

“In fact,” Iman said, “it usually does.”

She shared with me The Gaza Mono-Logues – thirty-three monologues, developed in workshops conducted by Ashtar with teenagers in the Gaza– via video link. Because at that time, in 2010, and even now, not even those in Ramallah could get into Gaza. The goal of the project was to give the children a way to heal, to give solace.

The voices are at once tender and incendiary.

“Every pit has a bottom except for Gaza.”

“Our dream has become to die a good death, not live a good life.”

“Gaza….unlike all cities, doesn’t have any children in it.”

The play continues to be performed and read – in 2010, it was presented on the same day in fifty cities, in thirty different countries.

Iman and I spoke of land and connection; I told her how I’d been following what calls, how I had started in documentaries till I heard the call of writing and traveling. How I went to immense landscapes-Tierra del Fuego, Lago Titicaca, Mexico, the steppes of Mongolia and eventually rooted in New Mexico. What drew me was land – literally and as metaphor. I keenly felt stories indigenous to land, rising from the interaction of landscape, history, narrative. How my encounters with the outer landscape had shaped my inner landscape and inspired some of my deepest writing – including a series of plays which had emerged in the last two years: one based on oral histories of four ghosts towns in New Mexico and another set in a Catholic enclave of India, about race, and murder.

Iman talked about the mundane and profound in Palestine, driving from East Jerusalem to Ramallah, developing theater and story in an occupied land, maneuvering the personal, artistic and political, feeling drawn to the desert and indigenous stories of New Mexico. I listened, felt the connection of artists who have stories to tell together, something kindred, but also unknown so there is room to create what is familiar and unfamiliar.

Come to Palestine, she said, come do your workshops, come develop work with us.

We needed a name; it emerged from another conversation: Land Out Loud, excavating creative expressions using land as metaphor, catalyst, theme. It would be a multi-genre project – theater, of course but also whatever else lent itself to it. We would begin in Palestine and then reach out, producing work in different art forms, fostering cross-cultural collaborations, and art-making.

CEC ArtsLink funded me for this first step – to conduct a series of workshops with members of Ashtar’s ensemble, continue working with Iman on her memoirs/one woman show, and document the experience through my own writing.

I’ll also be there for Ashtar’s second annual Youth Theater Festival beginning June 20. It brings together around 50 young theater artists from the Arab world and other countries to engage in dialogues/workshops and collectively create a play that will be performed in Ramallah. Iman describes the performance as a “promenade” of sorts, physical theater with skits performed on the move. The theme for this years’ festival is “now has passed,” the idea being, she says, to seize the moment because the present is already past. The festival emerged out of The Gaza Monologues, with the same goal, to break the isolation of young artists and connect them and their mentors.

I leave June 15.

And yes, it is a project. Of course. It has plans. They have begun to be implemented.

But I also go carrying the mystery of what will call, what I’ll follow and all that I don’t know.

And I love that. I love starting from a place of not knowing, the way I love a blank page, the way I love a dark stage, a dark path before the journey begins. Because then, the only way is forward and when you go forward, you walk into story, past buffers and what separates you is behind you. The border is past, encounter is ahead…. and this, yes, this is what it is like.

Shebana Coelho is a writer, and director. She received a Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Fulbright grant to Mongolia. Her plays include Undo (2014, The Players, NYC as part of an evening of Things Unsaid, three one-acts), Greenland (2013, Santa Fe Playhouse), The Tree, Bless Me Father and When the Stars Trembled in Río Puerco, an oral history play which she also directed, adapted from the work of folk historian Nasario García which premiered at Santa Fe’s Teatro Paraguas in April 2014 and will be presented at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center in September. Her documentary work has been broadcast on American Public Television, National Public Radio, and BBC Radio Four; her writing has been published in Chronogram magazine, Word Riot, Lummox, Malpais Review, Sin Fronteras, Time Out Mumbai and Vela magazine. She recently received a CEC ArtsLink Projects award to collaborate with ASHTAR Theatre in Ramallah, Palestine. While in Palestine, she will be blogging at She was born in India and lives in New Mexico.

  • Marc

    Beautiful, Shabana. Right on the spine of your humanity and those who you are collaborating with. Hey, the monsoons have started in NM. All Praise. Marc

  • Shebana

    Thank you, Marc. It continues to be amazing to be here.

  • Irene

    What a time for you to be there…when tensions and tempers are flaring… collect the stories, Shebana, and help others reach each other through their stories. Bring back the stories to us too, who are trying to understand what a future for Palestine might mean. Irene Thomas