‘Zaatara Cafe’: A tale of old Jerusalem

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Actor Hussam Abu Eisheh performs in the play ‘Zaatara Cafe’ at Darat Al Funun in Amman on October 29. (Photos: Roa’a AbuNada/Jordan News)
It is 1936, in Jerusalem. One, two, three, four… count till you reach shop number five, Damascus Gate. Above the shop hangs a huge sign that reads: Zaatara Cafe. اضافة اعلان

This is the setting for a play recently performed in Amman, written and performed by actor Hussam Abu Eisheh and directed by Kamel Al-Basha.

“Zaatara Cafe” is a monodrama that brings to life 40 years of wise, profane, deeply moving stories and lively characters in a miniature version of the city of Jerusalem.

The performance derives its name from the largest cafe in the Old City of Jerusalem, situated near Damascus Gate. The cafe was owned by Khalil Zaatara, who was forced to close it down in 1979 after the Israeli occupation forcibly deported him to Jordan. Overnight, the cafe was turned into children’s toy store.

The play was performed at Darat Al Funun in Amman on October 29 under the open sky, surrounded by archeological ruins. It served as an opening for Darat Al Funun’s program “Collections and Archives”, which accompanies the dual exhibition “Topography of Place — Palestine and Jordan, Homage to Dr Hisham Al Khatib” and “Revisiting Darat al Funun’s Main Building: Story, History, and Restoration”, currently open to the public through the end of January 2023.

A personal story
The main actor Abu Eisheh is a renowned artist and one of the founders of a popular folk theater in occupied Jerusalem. He has made several contributions to film, television, theater, and radio, including “Alive from Palestine: Stories under Occupation”, “First of May”, “Spartacus” and “Return to Haifa”, among others.

The performance is a tale of Zaatara Cafe, seen through the eyes of Saleh Abu Eisheh, the father of the play’s writer and a cafe waiter who was displaced from the city of Lod.

Saleh worked at Zaatara and acted as a point of connection between various regular customers from around the city, including politicians, intellectuals, academics, merchants, tribal elders, and other key figures. The play reflects the journey of the cafe and the city as a whole, from 1938 until Zaatara closed in the late seventies.

In a sense, the play is a densely textured memoir-in-fragments as Abu Eisheh recounts events he witnessed and lived through with his father. With its inspiration coming from the actor’s personal history, the performance blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, dreaming and waking.

The vital space of the cafe
Over the span of 70 minutes, Abu Eisheh covers a wide range of versatile characters, 21 in number, six of them women. The people he presents come from different social classes in Jerusalem society. There is a doctor, a merchant, a plumber, an Israeli intelligence officer, a school administrator, a neighbor, and more.

The play explores the significance of the historical cafes in the Old City — how they served as a microcosm of society with all its classes and their political, social, and cultural role in national conflicts and burdens.

The play also highlights the Palestinian people’s struggles against the British Mandate and Israeli occupation and how the intimacy and social vitality of cafes was a thorn in the side of occupiers. Even the most simple, everyday rituals of existence could undermine the system Israel was attempting to put in place, and its efforts to suffocate the traditions of the Palestinians.

The subtle coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the city, as well as their affection, tolerance, and familiarity with one another in the face of their common resistance of the occupation, is another recurring theme of the play.

In contrast to most monodrama performances that compensate for the absence of multiple actors with audio and visual techniques, Abu Eisheh presented his performance without music or artistic effects, using limited props: a table, a chair, a hookah, a bag, and some cloth. The simplicity of the stage placed the main emotional focus on the narrative.

Reliving the story of Jerusalem
The play’s writing foregrounds the act of telling and ruminating on intentions, expressing undeveloped impulses, fears, or yearnings in clear, logical prose. 

While “Zaatara Cafe” is deeply meaningful on the levels of performance, content, and text, it is Abu Eisheh’s dazzling theatrical performance that accomplishes the delicate balance between numb and raw. The spectrum of emotions spans from mirth to grief, mourning, and laughter again. While we have seen Jerusalem thousands of times on screen, we may not have heard tales from the heart of the ancient city in the way Abu Eisheh tells them.

Since it was first produced, “Zaatara Cafe” has received several awards in regional festivals such as the Fujairah International Arts Festival and the Carthage International Monodrama Festival in Tunisia.

Luma Hamdan, Darat al Funun’s director, said the choice of the performance to kick off the “Collections and Archives” program was careful and deliberate, as it is based on a true story of Palestinian life. “Through his relations and interactions, we get to relive the story of Jerusalem during that period,” she explained.

“The play offers a unique approach to using archives in a dramatic and live setup that is engaging to the audience and at the same time, eye opening to how history could be revisited and presented,” she told Jordan News.

On stage, the tales and pains of the Palestinians are poignant, each tale earning applause with heart wrenching subtlety and art.

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