Hiam Abbass: ‘Sometimes they call me ‘the engaged actress’, but I’m mainly engaged for my art’

Hiam Abbass - © Fabio Lovino
Hiam Abbass - © Fabio Lovino

In a new theater monologue the French-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass is playing a prostitute in the Arab world during the period of the Arab Spring. The work of Abbass, both as an actress and director, is often filled with tough themes. Also the link with her own background often reappears in her work, but she says, it’s not a deliberate choice.

Hiam Abbass is known from movies like Lemon tree, Paradise Now and also Spielbergs Munich. As a Palestinian, she grew up in Israel, but most of her live she lived in Paris. On the 24th and 25th of March she is on stage in Brussels for a new theater monologue ‘In the Eyes of Heaven’. In between rehearsals she could make some time for a talk.

‘In the Eyes of Heaven is a story of a simple woman, working as a prostitute during the Arab revolution’, Abbass explains. The woman deals with customers from all over society and through them she finds out a lot about what is happening on the streets. She also learns a lot from her friend, a (gay) sexworker, but also one of the most political bloggers. ‘And it’s about three generations of women: her mother, also a prostitute, herself and her daughter. She almost sacrifices herself for her daughter, so she doesn’t faces the same future.’

Some topics are easier to discuss here than in the Arab world, but the contrary is also true. It’s about society, codes, manners and tradition.

A prostitute in the Arab world, that’s not an easy subject.

It’s a story, the journey of a woman. You could say she incorporates the inner cry for freedom of a lot of women, freedom in a world and political situation where Islamism is rising. But at the same time I don’t think she incorporates every female voice or situation. She just wants to live without being judged for what she is doing, because life made her choose this job, or god as she says.

Also the subject of prostitution is not easily dealt with in Europe as well and also homosexuality often remains an issue. In any society it depends how certain subjects can create an instability and question things that are taken for granted about life. So I’m interested to see the reactions here as well. Some topics are easier to discuss here than in the Arab world, but the contrary is also true. It’s about society, codes, manners and tradition.

How does the character reconcile her faith with her profession?

She believes in god and has a very special relationship with him. Sometimes people are contradictory when it comes to their believes. I’m also faced with my own contradictions with religion.

My dad, for example, was very faithful to his god. His faith was great and I respected him for that. But when I visited his grave recently, I heard other women say how I should behave or dress, as a Muslim woman. I just want to visit his grave and be there, whether I’m bareheaded or not.

My relationship to god or religion belongs to me and I think this woman in the play says the same thing. No one should impose her what makes her religious or not. She has her own view on the world and her own way of seeing, praying and talking to god.

How important is it for you to talk about these issues in your work?

It’s important to tell strong stories that rise up voices. It’s not only about telling a story, but also about the reflection it brings to the audience and the artists themselves. That’s what I like about artistic work: sharing experiences that are not there to teach anybody about what is happening in the Arab world or how harsh the situation for women is. It’s truly about a voice and this voice has a connection to everybody everywhere, because humans and their voices are universal.

A lot of my work is based on political, cultural or religious issues, but it’s not a choice. Journalists often call me ‘the engaged’ actress or director, but that minimizes my way of seeing life. I was born in a political situation so that’s a fact. When I work on something, I look for something that connects me with the project, my history and my roots. So you can call this political or engaged, I don’t call it anything but being myself.

I honestly don’t believe a cultural boycott ever helped artists anywhere.

You mentioned it yourself, you were born in a political situation: you are Palestinian, grew up in Israel and you are an actress. How do you perceive the call for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and more specific a cultural boycott?

That’s a tough question, honestly. If I listen to my heart, I’m against it, but if I’m rational I understand why (the call is there, red.). I honestly don’t believe a cultural boycott ever helped artists anywhere. On the contrary, I think we should break barriers and let art live like it is, because it belongs to everybody. Above all I think it’s important to give your enemy something so he knows who you are. And your art is who you are, so it’s your duty to let them know.

That being said it’s difficult, because I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Israel, so the call for a boycott is different for us. You grew up in Israeli society and with Israeli’s. I also work with some Israeli’s whom I get along with really well. In that case it’s hard to put up barriers.

It’s very complicated and when it comes to real political problems, you have to show when you are against something, but in this case I’m not sure a boycott is the best way to show this.

Does it have to do something with (not) mixing politics and art?

My art is somehow political, so it has nothing to do with mixing politics and art. But it’s about not mixing the purity of art with just political abuse. The political practice has nothing to do with what I do. I can judge about it and I can express my opinion, but if people want to know who I am, they know through my art.

No one can take away my feeling that I’m Palestinian. It’s my culture and my language.

Does it make a difference growing up in Israel to talk about certain tough issues, for example the position of women?

It’s not a matter of being braver, but the occupations are different. The occupation of daily life is different. When you live under occupation for so long and you want to scream your voice out, there are some priorities why you want to scream. In the first place it’s about living a decent and comfortable life, and for us growing up in Israel, I was a relatively more comfortable.

So yes, we can create life in a different way. We are still treated like second-class citizens in Israel, but have the freedom to move and a passport to travel with. We don’t have soldiers on our roofs and we don’t live the wars like people in Gaza or the occupation like Palestinians in the West bank.

But your heart is with the nation you belong to, even if I did grew up in Israel. No one can take away my feeling that I’m Palestinian. It’s my culture and my language.

I saw you were described as an Israeli-Arab actress, how do you feel about that?

I never understood the term Israeli-Arab. It seems like something Israeli’s installed to deny our Palestinian identity. I don’t understand what it means and I never will, but it keeps popping up in my career. Fortunately I live very well with it, because I know who I am and what I am. What I do is what designs my identity and what I do is about the art. That’s why I don’t like it when people call me the ‘engaged actress’. Yes ok, I’m engaged, but I’m engaged for my art more than anything else.

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