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“Oslo”, the theatrical reproduction

The Oslo Accords are a muddied historical moment in the so-called Palestinian Israeli conflict. We know quite well the photo of Bill Clinton facilitating a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, but how did they get there? I was made curious by posters of the Jerusalem skyline in the London tube. As a Palestinian, I felt addressed by them, so I watched the play. Reporting back, my skepticism has been confirmed and my intrigue quashed. I wrote this review to counter glowing reviews with a much-needed critique. The Oslo Accords are a difficult history for Palestinians to recount as it constituted the status quo that chokeholds us today, but by further caricaturing stereotypes, excluding historical context, and making its political position a flimsy neutrality that omits political nuance, “Oslo” the play only adds insult to injury.

The play is praised for bringing history and politics to the stage, yet the only historical context it provides comes from seconds of footage of the first Intifada accompanied by the voice of the Norwegian foreign officer. She describes instigation by the Palestinians and retaliation by Israel, making the relationship between them seem like tit-for-tat, invisiblizing the backdrop of exploitative domination by one side over the other.

“Oslo” may have exposed the Norwegian role in the peace talks, and yes for such a high profile event, knowledge of the back channel is interesting, but the narrative it presents is as novel as the coverage we have seen on TV for decades. Worse, it dilutes political nuance and political questions with a theatrical performance of cultural difference. The choice to strike that tone results in a failed supposed neutrality with a natural skew towards the powerful, and that is its political position.

As politics are often defined by its actors, the cast of “Oslo” is also a subject of critique. Rogers was minimalistic in representing the delegations of the accords: 7 Norwegians and an American, 5 Israelis, 2 Palestinians. An imbalance in representation to establish the un-leveled playing field that unravels. The cast is proudly theatrical with multiple outbursts of shock and ego, but of course, none is angrier than the Arab. The Palestinian characters were obnoxiously loud breaking into tantrums, throwing props across the stage, and one was particularly sexually inappropriate – ‘Reel Bad Muslims’ sort of thing. It could be argued that the representation of one Israeli delegate was as scathing, but one of five Israelis is seen as one materialization of Israeli charm while two out of two disagreeable Palestinians is cultural representation. Yes, these character quirks may have been the creation of J.T. Rogers’ orientalist subconscious, and they may have seemed hilarious when answered with the resounding validation of a majority white audience, but for those of us who are directly affected by negligent representation, it was hard to watch much less laugh.

So what about the now infamous Norwegians? The play hinges on their perspectives as white saviors of history and awkward heroes of the play. ‘It all started’ they narrated proudly, with their romantic adventure to the exotic Middle East, as they described being in the midst of war in the Orient. There, they witnessed a standoff between Palestinian and Israeli boys with the cliche of ‘hatred but also fear in their eyes’ (of course) – the moment that inspired them to ‘change the world’. The ego of white supremacy to assume it could make ‘peace in the Middle East’ is and has always been enthralling for the likes of Norwegians and Americans who watch us both on-stage and off, fascinated not only by the Middle East conflict but by the perpetually failing peace.

At a time when criticism is answered with the threat of ‘anti-Semitism’, I can imagine JT Rogers’ deliberation over how to blunt some of the humor for a pro-Israeli audience in New York and London. That is when I started to ask, was he forced to think twice about Arab and Palestinian characterizations? Did he even consider that there would be at least some people of color watching his play?

Yet, again, another white man is directing our narratives, and while he wrote, cast, and directed us, he did not write with us in mind, nor for us in the audience. And like the director’s, the gaze of a white audience that nods and laughs at our story seems more determinant of our affairs than we are. In that way, J.T. Rogers play is not much more different than the history and process of Oslo itself.

I cannot tell you how it ends as I left after the 3rd hour, minutes before the end. I left abruptly out of protest – I did not want to appease Roger’s narrative, and though I know how the catastrophic ‘peace’ unravels in real time, I wanted – want – to leave space for our voice, imagination, and resistance for the future.

Months after I wrote the above the plot thickened, Oslo continues to haunt Palestinians, today more than ever. The US’ role, the concessions the Palestinians made, and the ones that Israel manipulated are the issues it must deal with today. As Trump moves the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he clarifies 2 things: despite the Norwegians and the Palestinians, the US-Israel alliance is hegemonic, it does not negotiate, it builds upon the destruction of the Oslo accords today.

At least no one is more of a caricature than Trump. Even J.T. Rogers wouldn’t be able to warp that.

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