RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — PALESTINIANS are learning to laugh at themselves as they prepare to vote in their first self-rule elections tomorrow.
''Democratic by Force,'' a satirical play about the undercurrents of power and patronage in Palestinian society, has audiences here chortling with laughter at Abu Safwan, a stereotyped character who epitomizes the opportunism and hypocrisy of many election candidates.
The script, by Palestinian playwright Mahmoud Shquair, himself a candidate in the election (Briefing on the election, Page 10), compassionately exposes the shortcomings of a vote that is overflowing with candidates but short on political parties, platforms, and real issues. It captures the awkward moment of transition of a people caught between centuries of occupation by foreign powers and the prospect of self-determination and freedom that is not yet quite at hand.
Israeli soldiers withdrew Dec. 28 from Ramallah, the West Bank seat of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). Now crowds are returning to live performances at the small Al Sirraj theater, recently converted from a movie house where angry Palestinian youths watched violent Hollywood movies during the uprising known as the intifadah.
But the emergence of satirical plays, which began in neighboring Jordan a couple of years ago, is something new here.
''It's a period of weightlessness in our history,'' says political scientist Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University, who was in the audience the night this reporter attended the play. ''We are free, but we are not free. You see change, but you can't grasp it ... so the best thing is to laugh about it.''
In the play, Abu Safwan, a real estate agent played by Zuhair Nubani, unashamedly uses his money and influence as the member of an important Palestinian family to buy the additional prestige that he believes election to the Palestinian Council will bring. Eventually, his unprincipled tactics become too much for his supporters.
When his funds run low, he suggests to his adviser that they apply to the European Union for international donor money to fund the campaign.
Asked whether he would support the normalization of ties with Israel, Abu Safwan takes a prompting from his adviser, clears his throat, and announces with great confidence: ''I am not with it ... I am not against it.''
Abu Safwan is a caricature, but his behavior is not that far removed from the actual election campaigns in which entrepreneurs, shopowners, academics, and a handful of politicians are resorting to every gimmick in the book to gain advantage over their rivals.
''During 28 years of occupation the people lost control of their own destiny,'' Professor Jarbawi says. ''The election will give them control over their destiny again.
''That means they can laugh again.''