She came to London in the hope of performing and developing her one woman’s show as part of an annual festival that celebrates Arab women artists; but, now, weeks later, she finds herself stuck in Corona limbo, unable to return. Riham Isaac is the 36-year-old Palestinian multi-disciplinary performance artist whose great work over the years includes co-directing a play with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle in collaboration with Banksy that took place in Bethlehem.
When Isaac came in early March, it was at the invitation of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival that features the creative output of Arab women from the Middle East and North Africa region and its diaspora. It was to perform her latest solo piece titled ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’ and to seek the audience’s feedback and active participation in a workshop by giving them a questionnaire asking for their views on love to help further shape her project.
Fortunately the performance went ahead and was a success with an almost full house at East London’s Rich Mix venue. But then within a few short days the city went into lockdown and much of the AWAN scheduled programme had to be cancelled. Still determined to hold also her planned workshop, she managed to conduct it via the Zoom online app and did get some insight from participants. But ever since then, she hasn’t been able to go back to Palestine to get on with her life; and, although she is in a safe place, she is beginning to feel rather homesick.
I got in touch with Isaac recently for two reasons. Firstly, I am in awe of her quest to investigate that awesome, gigantic and fluid thing called love from a Middle Eastern woman’s perspective and wanted to learn more about her artistic repertoire: and, secondly, I was concerned for her welfare being away from all that is familiar and waiting, like her family, friends and the Art Salon which she runs as an arts space for the community in her grandmother’s house in her hometown of Beit Sahour.
She was kind enough to respond.
Nahla Ink: First of all, are you somewhere safe during this Corona lockdown? When were you due back home and how does it feel to now be staying put in London?
Isaac: I was due to return on 6 April and have been trying ever since to rebook my ticket but it is not happening. I am not sure now if I will be able to go home for another month. It is tough to be stuck during such a crisis and it is the uncertainty that is the most difficult thing to deal with. I am somehow safe but not too comfortable; I miss my family, my familiar things, my privacy, I am feeling alone sometimes. There are also obligations like your work that you need to think of so it is not easy but what can you do! I am just hoping soon we will find a way to get all stuck Palestinians back to their homes!!
Nahla Ink: Having attended both the AWAN performance of ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’ and also joined in your workshop, I see that humour is a major element in what you do. Tell me some more about this.
Isaac: I am inspired to make work that is deeply connected to the authentic self. This is a method I both use in my productions and workshops. Playfulness, humour and spontaneity are all ways through creativity and help you to release and get out of your comfort zone. It is okay to be a fool and I use this a lot as a tool. What I am trying to avoid is the critical mind, the right and wrong in the creative process, at least in the beginning; and, then, of course later you can restructure and think of it with your analytical mind.
Nahla Ink: You seem to be at ease in different artistic roles, including being a director, an actress, a singer, dancer and an arts teacher. What led you to become a performance artist and what have been the highlights of your career so far?
Isaac: I think I was meant to become a performance artist, because when I first joined a theatre club during my undergraduate studies – when I was in fact studying Physiotherapy – I felt completely at ease and in my element. I had to learn a lot but I continued with it even after I graduated from university and went on to become a professional actress working with different theatre companies in Palestine.
I would say the highlight of my career was coming to London to study at Goldsmith for an MA in Performance during 2012-2013. It crafted my talent, offered me new tools, took me out of my comfort zone and I was able to look at my work in a new way. I realised that I quite like to create multi disciplinary works using all my talents, like singing, dancing, visuals and video. I also started to work independently and tackling issues that I found deeply embedded within me.
Nahla Ink: Does your title refer your audience to the classic book by Roland Barthes titled ‘A Lover’s Discourse’? Were you at all influenced by it?
Isaac: When I started my research about LOVE I found myself stumbling upon lots of thoughts, images and ideas; but then, I also found it difficult to express it in words. It seemed like a hard task but then there was the drive within me to explore this theme. There are also two aspects involved: firstly is how do you write about love and describe it; and, then secondly, how do you reveal both the lightness of the topic and the darkness as well? It is not a Cinderella story.
So I came across ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ by Barthes which became a huge inspiration for my piece as it allowed me to dig deeper into that question of how to write about love. To quote Barthes: “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive.”
Nahla Ink: Your play is also very much about love in the way that an Arab society thinks about it. The script and the visuals of your performance also bring to life some of the old Egyptian films with the music and all the romance of an era gone by. So what is that love and how are you challenging it?
Isaac: I come from a society where certain roles are imposed on both men and women. For example, there is the idea that the man is the one who chooses his wife; or, also, the view that the man is wanted more if he is a player and tough, whilst the woman has to be a lady and act the good girl.
There are certain cultural expectations that we take upon ourselves as Arab women and we don’t even know from where this behaviour comes from. So I refer to the classical Egyptian films where you can see it visually how these archetypes are and how they have been incorporated in our tradition as Arabs and that impact on our psychology. But then my work also reflects on the universal dynamics of love and relationships that are relevant to the Western viewer as well.
Nahla Ink: Any thoughts on love in times of Corona?
Isaac: Well it is tough to be alone during these times and lucky are those who are with their loved ones. But, then again, it might be challenging to be with your partner as well. However, I do think it is definitely an opportunity to reflect on your status and to deepen your relationships whether you are single or with someone. Maybe we can all connect more to who we are and what we want from Love. I don’t know but that during difficult times, we all definitely need to reach out to the ones we care about, be they our partner, friends, or family!
Nahla Ink: Lastly, I know how keen you are to get people to engage with your project by offering their unique ideas about love that will help you shape the final work of ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’. How can they help and connect?
Isaac: I would like people to answer two questions mainly that I will then reflect upon and use in a creative way towards the finished work. These two questions are: Will we even know how to Love? How do we learn love?
If you wish to respond to Isaac’s questions, please message her via Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rihamisaac/
For more on Riham Isaac: https://www.rihamisaac.com/
For more on the AWAN Festival: https://www.awan.org.uk/