Where the Streets Had a Name: Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah
The Point Magazine caught up with Randa Abdel-Fattah to talk with her about her new play adaptation, the importance of oral storytelling traditions, and how she draws strength when the emotional toll of her social justice work becomes too overwhelming.
This month, Monkey Baa Theatre Company will premiere Where the Streets Had a Name, a new Australian play based on the novel of the same name by Abdel-Fattah. Abdel-Fattah has a PhD in sociology and is a researcher on Islamophobia, racism and everyday multiculturalism in Australia.
The play introduces audiences to Hayaat, a thirteen-year-old girl on a mission to get a handful of soil from her family’s ancestral home in Jerusalem, as she believes it will save her beloved grandmother’s life. But standing between her and her goal is the wall that divides the West Bank.
The play is a dramatic interpretation of Abdel-Fattah’s novel and her perspective on one of the world’s most contested geo-political issues. Developed after an extensive engagement program with school students, educators and members of the Palestinian community, Monkey Baa hopes that this story will offer young people a multifaceted reflection of the world they inhabit by exploring the experiences of Australians who have been displaced from their homelands.
The show will premiere at Riverside Theatres on August 30th, followed by performances at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre in September.
Where the Streets Had a Name is a new play based on your novel. Can you tell us a bit about your book?
The book was inspired by my family history and being part of a diaspora community, and my own activism. It is a story about a young girl growing up in occupied Palestine. And it is about the day-to-day lives of children with a focus on family.
Is this your first play adaptation? What has the experience of seeing it transformed into a play been like?
It’s been incredible. I had a really great working relationship with Monkey Baa, and the Creative Director and founding member Eva Di Cesare, who has done a brilliant job turning the essential parts of the book into a one-hour play. She was amazing in how she honed in on the most important aspect of this narrative. And it is beautiful how much Monkey Baa have wanted to connect with Palestinian stories. They got a group of people from the community and advisers from all different ages on board because they wanted to engage with them and help them to better understand the Palestinian perspective. It made a huge difference; they were honouring the Palestinian narratives, rather than just being a company that took over the story. The people came through from word of mouth and people connecting through networks. One of the most amazing aspects of this play is that it’s the first play for young audiences about Palestinian life. Monkey Baa have really connected with schools and they are running storytelling workshops with the school. They have been getting young people to speak with their family and grandparents to collect their own personal family histories. Some of these will be collected and shown at the performance. One of the essential messages of this book is about the importance of family, history, and homeland – and these workshops help. It’s so much more than a one-hour play.
"Any form of social reform or social justice has a huge emotional labour that needs to be considered and taken into account. When I feel exhausted, I check my privilege. I don’t have the luxury to quit and give up, despite everything we may go through here with racism, or Islamophobia, or the fact that my father can’t return to his home, it’s still our responsibility to bear witness."
– Randa Abdel-Fattah.
The book/play is set in Palestine? What are some of the key issues covered in it?
It speaks to families about displacement, loss of homeland, and migration. It’s about inter-generational family – especially the relationship between Hayaat and her grandmother. The story is about this connection with her grandmother, and it is grounded in stories from 1948. These can be magical relationships, the ones we have with our grandparents. That’s a personal aspect as I had an extraordinary relationship with my grandmother. It’s about oral history and how we need to pass down stories. With displacement and migration, you have no access to records, museums, or family histories. This is what occupation has done, oral history is all that’s left to you. When you’re displaced, you’re not only robbed of your homeland, but also of records and being able to trace your family history. Through the oral storytelling workshops, we wanted children to realise what a luxury it is and to reconnect.
Now you have a play for young people. What do you think the format of a play helps with and what do you feel is important especially for a young Australian audience to understand about Palestine?
It’s why I love writing young adult history. These are not just universal themes they connect with, but it’s an amazing point in their lives coming to terms with their identity. Their political consciousness is starting to emerge and it’s a great time to plant some seeds with stories from across the world. They are at a point in their lives when they’re willing to hear stories of so called ‘others’ and push beyond the boundaries. Palestine needs to have a wider audience and I have found younger people are so open and sympathetic to the cause of Palestine and to connect at that basic human level.
You work extensively on issues of multiculturalism and interfaith work. Can you tell us a bit about what motivates you to do this work and how you keep going?
I’ve come to a point where the emotional labour is harder to deal with than the intellectual labour. Any form of social reform or social justice has a huge emotional labour that needs to be considered and taken into account. When I feel exhausted, I check my privilege. I don’t have the luxury to quit and give up, despite everything we may go through here with racism, or Islamophobia, or the fact that my father can’t return to his home, it’s still our responsibility to bear witness. And you need a sense of humility that you are just chipping away and you can only do so much. You need to do this work with the right intentions and try to avoid your celebrity status. You need to check in on why you are doing this work and always ask, am I speaking for people, or am I giving them a platform to tell their own story? If you think you can see change from sending one tweet, forget it. If you do the work in an area you love, you won’t burn out.
I’ve been visiting schools for the past fifteen years, and yesterday, I visited a school and realised the questions I was asked about Palestine were reflective, self-reflexive and switched on. So I really do see the changes. You do start to see the results of collective efforts. Solidarity is important. Draw strength from each other. I truly believe that activism not grounded in community practice is worthless.
You were part of the Islamophobia report launch last month. Were you surprised by the results that came out, and what do you think Australia can benefit from such a report?
Not surprised at all. I see a huge benefit. There is place for quantitative analysis in an environment where media and politicians need sound bites. There’s always a place for that kind of work. But it’s also important we always remember these statistics are part of a wider context of peoples' lived realities. If we don’t focus on what happens to people on the streets, and what enables these things like racism and Islamophobia to happen, it just becomes ubiquitous.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think an important aspect of the play for young people is about intergenerational themes. There are a lot of people going as families, so I’m interested to see what that brings. It will hopefully have schools attending too. It’s just such an amazing initiative to get Palestinian narratives heard.
Where the Streets Had a Name: Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah
The views expressed by the interviewee in this story are her own and should not be taken to represent the views of The Point Magazine.