Hannah Khalil, 2021 Heimbold Chair
Palestinian-Irish writer and playwright, Hannah Khalil holds the Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Chair of Irish Studies for Spring 2021 at Villanova University. Raised in the United Arab Emirates and Ireland, Khalil started out as an actor but was drawn to playwriting because of its expressive potential. Khalil observes, “I tend to write my frustrations and anger into my plays. They are also a tool for me to try and make sense of the world.” Theater also provided for her an avenue to offer a more robust representation experiences that are often ignored or stereotyped. As she points out, “Theater at its best can awaken our humanity, our empathy, it can make us see things from other people’s point of view and unlock academic arguments allowing them to become more than facts and figures. There’s something magical about real people speaking real words in front of us that can allow us to understand stories and the world afresh.” Khalil’s plays aim to make us understand “the world afresh” has been especially powerful in her dramatization of Arab communities. In an interview, Khalil says that one of the reasons she started writing in the first place is to redress the narrow, one-sided representations of the way Arabs are portrayed on stage. Because many have inherited a view of the Arab people through a Western lens—as terrorists; as a people rescued by Europeans or Americans; or as exotic or submissive women—Khalil wants to tell stories that offers an alternative narrative.
Her recent play A Museum in Baghdad, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, provides this kind of alternative viewpoint. For Khalil, the play has been an opportunity to feature substantial roles for non-white actors for all but two of Museum’s cast of actors are of Arab descent: “I have always written Arab characters and tried to make them three-dimensional, and undercut a white middle class audience’s idea of what an Arab person is.” This undercutting of white expectations takes form through the play’s thematic structure. Praised as “a gorgeously intriguing play about the ethical considerations of history,” it examines the complexity of Britain’s colonial exploits in the Middle East. The story weaves two time periods together and overlaps two women—the British colonial administrator Gertrude Bell who started the National Museum of Baghdad in the 1920s and an Iraqi archaeologist inspired by Lamia al-Gailani Werr, the director of the National Museum in 2006. Temporal boundaries blur as the women speak, and Khalil’s strategy indicates the lasting effect of the past. Moreover, the museum itself becomes a crucial space to explore the importance of preserving a nation’s history and its cultural artifacts in the midst of a war.
While Museum delves into colonial intervention in Iraq, Khalil’s 2016 play Scenes from 68* Years looks into the strained relationship between Palestinians and Israelis through a series of vignettes set in occupied Palestine. Shortlisted for the 2017 James Tait Black award, Khalil draws from the stories recounted by her Palestinian family and friends to depict a deeply humanizing story that illuminates the everyday conflicts arising from a contested national space. As with Museum, the past refuses to stay confined in any temporal moment and the characters strive for survival under the effects of a historical event that bleeds across generations. As one reviewer puts it, Khalil’s writing “is smart and economical, simultaneously resonant with warmth and humanity, and shot through with exquisitely dark comedy.” Scenes was produced by Golden Thread Productions at Portrero Stage in San Francisco, and had a Tunisian production called Trouf that was performed at theaters across Tunis in 2019. Everyday life within contested space is also the crux of Khalil’s Bitterenders, which won Sandpit Arts’ Bulbul 2013 competition and was staged at The Nightingale in Brighton. With wry humor, the play deals with a Palestinian family in Jerusalem who is forced to share their house with Israeli settlers.
Immigrant life, a theme common to Irish and Palestinian literature, is crucial in Khalil’s works. Her very first full-length play Leaving Home
followed the lives of two immigrants—an Iraqi man and a Filipino maid—as they strive to make it in London. Likewise, her 2017 work The Scar Test
, which played at Soho Theater, Khalil examined the experience of female detainees at the Yarl’s Wood detention center in the U. K. In both cases, Khalil attempts to strip the shiny veneer that is often the initial perception of England for the immigrant and exposes the difficulties of a broken and prejudiced immigration system.
Khalil’s current work includes a new play for the students of Central School of Speech and Drama called The Censor or How to Put on a Political Play without Being Arrested
and is available to watch on YouTube.
In addition, Myths and Adventures from Ancient Greece
, featuring four Greek myths adapted into online puppet shows launched in January 2021 and are available on the Watermans Arts Centre YouTube
for three months. She also wrote a new version of Ovid's Penelope
as part of 15 Heroines for the Jermyn Street Theatre, which streamed in November 2020. Her radio plays include The Unwelcome, Last of the Pearl Fishers
and The Deportation Room
, all for BBC Radio 4. In 2019 Hannah was commissioned as part of the Arab British Centre and Dr. Johnson's House exhibition “London's Theatre of the East” about Arabs in Elizabethan and Johnson's Britain. Her piece Margaret White and the Alcoran of Mahomet
formed part of the exhibition that ran at Dr Johnson's House in London. Hannah was Writer on attachment at the Bush Theatre as part of Project 2036 from 2016-2017. She was awarded The Arab British Centre's prize for Culture 2017 and is under commission to The Kiln, Golden Thread in San Francisco, Dublin’s Fishamble, and Shakespeare's Globe.
At Villanova, Khalil will be teaching an undergraduate course called “Palestinian and Irish Texts of Conflict” and co-teaching a graduate playwriting course with Prof. Michael Hollinger. She is also looking forward to watching Villanova Theater’s production of her play The Scar Test
which will be streamed in March.