Palestine Pulse

Palestine theater pays homage to country's pioneer journalist

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Article Summary
A new play, "The Owner of Al-Karmil," pays homage to the man who established Palestine's first major newspaper and faced strong pressures at first from the Ottoman Empire and then from Britain, which subjected his co-editor wife to administrative detention.

RAMALLAH, West Bank —Al-Karmil, the first major newspaper in Palestine, has been legendary when it comes to the history of journalism in the region. Established by Najib Nassar (1865-1947) in 1908, the newspaper staunchly advocated an independent Palestine until its closure in 1944.

A new play by actor and playwright Amer Hlehel named “Saheb Al-Karmil” (“Owner of Al-Karmil”) narrates the story of this newspaper by taking the audience back to Haifa in 1908. In the play, produced by the Palestinian National Theatre,  Hlehel portrays Nassar and Khawla Ibrahim plays Nassar's fearless young wife and co-editor, Sadhij Bahaa Nassar.

The play links the existence of the paper to Najib Nassar's failure at farming. In the early 1900s, Nassar, a Christian Arab Palestinian who was a pharmacist by profession, decides to invest in a five-acre field in the village of Samakh near Tiberias, but his first crop fails. His neighbor, a Jewish settler, suggests he plant bananas the next time and gives him the Jewish Encyclopedia to read about farming. Going through the encyclopedia, the young pharmacist realizes that the settlers aim to create an Israeli state in Palestine in the near future.

Concerned about Palestine’s future, Najib Nassar sells his farmland and buys a printing press in Beirut to provide a voice for the Palestinians. When the second constitution of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 allows publication of newspapers by individuals, he launches the newspaper, calling it Al-Karmil, after Mount Carmel, the highest point in Haifa.

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 In the play, as in life, Nassar has provided a strong voice not only through the paper — which declared its aim to be “opposing Zionist occupation" — but through pieces he penned for regional papers. In columns and investigative reports published in various papers in Damascus, Syria, and Istanbul, Nassar sought to provide detailed information on the aims and policies of the Zionist organizations in Palestine and abroad.

Al-Karmil’s criticism of the alliance between the Ottoman Empire and Germany led the Ottoman Empire to close down the paper in 1914. Nassar, accused of spying for Britain, fled Haifa. In 1918, he was arrested, but then pardoned before the end of the war.  He consequently returned to Haifa and reopened the newspaper.

The paper continued its fight against Zionism under the British Mandate, criticizing the British policy of what Nassar called “tolerance and selling off of Palestine lands to Zionist gangs.” The paper also focused on identity, heritage and culture in Arab and Palestinian society. In the 1920s, a women’s section was added to the paper — to be run by Sadhij Bahaa, whose grandfather was the founder of the Baha’i faith. It was not long before the young trainee, impressed by Nassar’s courage, personality and political stance, fell in love with him, despite their age difference of 20 years. The two were married in 1927 and ran the paper together until its closure in 1944.  

The road was bumpy — the paper was closed down several times and even when it was reopened, the couple faced threats. Sadhij Bahaa Nassar was subjected to administrative detention for 11 months, both because of her articles and activism. She founded the Arab Women's Union Society in Haifa and launched protests during the great strikes in Palestine in 1936. Today, she is known as the first female Palestinian political prisoner during the British Mandate.

Although the play focuses on the Nassars' lives, it also showcases the political, cultural and social circumstances that Palestinian civil society struggled through during the British Mandate. The play highlights, in particular, how political authorities, both Ottoman and British, sought to dominate and control the media.

“Through theater, we are trying to shed light on people who played important roles in the history of Palestine. This is why we chose Nassar and his wife, as they were the founders of the press in Palestine and played a political, national and social role,” Amir Khalil, the director of the Palestinian National Theatre, told Al-Monitor.

“Life before the Nakba — 'the Catastrophe' as the Palestinians call the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 — has not been highlighted in cinema or... on stage, so we are trying to shed light on this period through the biography... of leading figures,” Khalil said, adding that the play is part of the Memory Theater Project, which aims to create awareness about Palestinian heritage, identity and history.

With competition from cinema and TV, the theater industry in Palestine and Arab countries needs new and smart ideas to attract audiences, he said.

The play has been performed three times thus far. Its premiere was March 14 in Jerusalem. A second show was performed in Haifa on March 28 and a third in Ramallah on March 30. The play will travel to Nablus, Jenin and Hebron, as well as other areas to be announced at a later stage.

Hlehel, who was behind the idea of the Memory Theater Project, told Al-Monitor that the play is part of a historical documentation project targeting artistic, cultural and political figures who had an impact on Palestinian society but who are not well known among the younger generation. Still, Nassar’s character has appeared in fictional works, including award-winning Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrullah’s “Time of White Horses.”

Hlehel said the theatrical works presented within this project are based on documented historical information gathered by researchers and historians in cooperation with the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Hlehel said researching the history of Al-Karmil and its owners had been a difficult task, as there had been many conflicting stories about his life, alliances and works. “We had to resort to the archive of Al-Karmil newspaper in order to collect information about the political and social conditions in that era as well as Nassar's positions regarding political events. We wanted to know how he was influenced by that period and what impact he left,” Hlehel said.

Hlehel said the idea to work on Al-Karmil came to him as he was researching the life of Karimeh Abbud, the first female Palestinian photographer. “I remember that the historian Johnny Mansour drew my attention back then to Nassar's rich and important experience,” Hlehel said.

Two previous theater works were performed in 2016 as part of the Memory Theater Project, both on the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Hlehel said the Memory Theater Project is to include additional theatrical works on Abbud, poet May Ziade, the writer Khalil al-Sakakini and the Palestinian composer and poet Wasif Jawhariyyeh.

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Ahmad Melhem is a Palestinian journalist and photographer based in Ramallah for Al-Watan News. He writes for a number of Arabic outlets.

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