Randa Abdel-Fattah is a Sydney-born writer and litigation lawyer who has authored many books, from picture books to young adult novels. She’s also a Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage who has used her writing as a means of expressing her views about the occupation of Palestine, Australian Muslims, racism, Islamophobia and multiculturalism, as well as the misunderstood status of women in Islam.
Abdel-Fattah’s novel for teenagers Where the streets had a name was published in 2008. It’s a book that co-creative director Eva Di Cesare and the team at Sydney’s award-winning theatre company for young people, Monkey Baa Theatre Company, are now bringing to the stage as a play for high school students.
Adapted and directed by Di Cesare, Where the streets had a name tells the story of Hayaat, a 13-year-old girl who embarks on a mission. She believes a handful of soil from her family’s ancestral home in Jerusalem will save her grandmother’s life. Standing between her and her goal, however, is the impenetrable wall that divides the West Bank.
Di Cesare tells Theatre People she read Abdel-Fattah’s novel three years ago, and was taken by the impact of the occupation of Palestine on the family at the centre of the story.
“They’re forced out of their home, so they’ve got to go and set up again in Bethlehem,” Di Cesare says.
“My fascination with it is how a family reorganises itself to survive underneath that kind of condition. Different family members do it differently. What I loved about Randa’s story is that they’re very full characters and they all deal with the occupation differently. Bubba internalises it all, the mother grabs all her strength and her resilience and forges through and drags everyone with her, and the kids are trying to work it all out. I guess that’s what really got to me, and the big question of what is home, which is something I’ve always questioned as a child of migrants. What is home? Where is home? Is it where you came from? Is it where you are? Is it the people you’re with? What is it?
She continues: “In developing this show and working with the Palestinian community and with Randa, and interviewing her and her father and many people that have been affected by occupation, it really did change. It was like, ‘What does home actually mean to people that are forced out of that home and can’t return and you just hold onto whatever you can? The characters in the book hold onto things like the key to their house and their title deeds to their home. In this story, Hayaat, the granddaughter, decides that in order to keep her grandmother alive, she’s got to go back to Jerusalem and get her some soil and bring that back to her … That’s her dying wish – to touch her land again.”
Di Cesare believes the most beautiful thing about this story is that the family doesn’t simply despair at the situation in which they find themselves.
“They are just continuing with their lives,” she says. “Basically, to exist is to resist. I think that is the beauty in the Palestinian people. That is a joyous thing that I’ve seen in them and that I’ve been really privileged and humbled to have shared with me, as I’ve interviewed and worked on the development of the script.”
That development process has been thorough, involving an extensive engagement program with school students, educators and members of the Palestinian community.
Di Cesare says Monkey Baa has engaged with Year 9 drama students at Sydney’s Sir Joseph Banks High School from the start of the adaptation process.
“We have been going into the school and working with between five and 15 students on the themes of the novel, really teasing those themes out, and then everyone telling their own stories,” she explains.
“Most of those students are from diverse backgrounds … Most of the kids were born here, a couple of them were born overseas and came out here when they were two or three. Some of them have seen some pretty shocking stuff, some have lost families in wars … [and] some have had grandparents locked up because they were activists in different wars. So, these students are very up with what’s going on in the world.”
Di Cesare says she worked with the students to ascertain the most important storyline in the novel.
“Novels can carry three [or] four storylines, and weave them all together. You can pick the book up and you can put it down at any point. In a theatre show … you have restrictions … So, they helped me make a decision on what part of the story resonated most and, of course, that is the story of Hayaat, who makes the decision to journey to Jerusalem and takes her best friend, Samy, with her.”
When Di Cesare created the first draft of the play and took it back to the students, she says they were very forthcoming with feedback.
“They were my harshest critics and they were fantastic,” she says.
At the same time, Di Cesare was meeting members of the Palestinian community. Ultimately, she asked four of those people she met to be her advisers on the play.
“I can’t begin to tell you how generous they’ve all been, in terms of coming on board with the project,” she says. “I have a couple of older members of the community, I have a couple of younger members of the community, and I did that on purpose so that I’ve got lots of different perspectives … I’ve tried to be as respectful and authentic with Randa’s story in bringing it to the stage.”
It’s the hope of the Monkey Baa team that the story will offer young people a multifaceted reflection of the world they inhabit by exploring the experiences of those Australian who have been displaced from their homelands.
Is there a message Di Cesare has for those set to attend a performance of Where the streets had a name?
‘Please don’t come with a closed mind, come with an open heart,” she says. “This is a story, it’s just a story, and it’s these people’s story, and we all have a right to tell our stories.”
WHERE THE STREETS HAD A NAME – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney
Dates & Times: 4 – 5 September, 10:15am & 12:30pm
Bookings: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340
Suitable for: Ages 12 + / years 7 – 11
Duration: 60 minutes (no intervals)