Jesse Cox opens a small window onto a big world
In October of 1972, in a quiet residential building in Rome, Palestinian translator, poet and journalist Wael Zuaiter was shot and killed by Israeli secret agents tasked with hunting down and exterminating members of the Palestinian organisation known as Black September.
It was Black September who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. In the wake of this tragedy, Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir authorised Mossad to locate and destroy militant Palestinians operating in Europe. The first name on their list was Wael Zuaiter.
But why Zuaiter? There is very little evidence to link him with terrorism. On the night of his death he was with his Australian fiancé, Janet venn Brown. According to Brown, who was with Zuaiter for seven years and who in 1984 wrote a memoir called For a Palestinian, he was targeted because he was a vocal activist, not because he was a terrorist.
Now performer and radio producer Jesse Cox – Janet’s grand nephew – returns to the story of Wael, documenting his relationship with Janet, recreating the story of their romance, and, he hopes, illuminating something the ambiguity surrounding Zauiter's death.
Wael Zuaiter: Unknown began life as a 12 minute show that Cox and illustrator Matt Huynh put together for an event called Radio with Pictures in Sydney.
"The idea was pairing radio producers and graphic artists for a kind of hybrid storytelling," explains Cox. "Then from that we pitched it to the Next Wave Festival."
That's where he met director Mark Pritchard, who has helped develop the show into a more resolved live performance.
The show can be seen as part of a wider archival impulse among contemporary performance artists, a fascination with the dormant mystery of material remains and with the storytelling possibilities in their recovery.
"The setting of the stage is an archival room. Basically, I'm going through the archive, the things that I've discovered and collected, and using them to tell the story," says Cox. "But then the archive includes a live musician, and also quite a rich sound world in terms of atmosphere and field recordings."
There are interviews with Janet venn Brown, with Zuaiter's family in Nablus, and with an Israeli expert on Mossad who has written extensively on Zuaiter's murder. And there are photos and documents from the archives and libraries established by Brown in Italy.
"After his death, my aunt was basically Wael's archivist. She kept everything that was written about him," says Cox. "Before she returned to Australia she left them in two libraries in Italy, one in Rome, which has the majority of the papers, and one in Massa, which is this little town north of Florence, where she left a number of photographs and also his copy of 1001 Arabian Nights."
This is a particularly treasured artefact. Wael was shot 11 times, and one bullet pierced the spine of his Arabian Nights, a book he was in the midst of translating into Italian, tearing the pages and leaving a poignant trace his violent end.
Wael Zuaiter was, at the time of his death, Fatah's official spokesperson in Rome, and it has been alleged that Fatah, the Palestinian political party formed by Yasser Arafat, used Black September as a front for its paramilitary operations. So the possibility of Zuaiter's involvement in terrorism can't be dismissed. He was certainly a committed and sometimes confrontational advocate.
"You talk some ex-Mossad agents," says Cox, "and they say, no he was the right target he was meant to be killed. You talk to some Palestinians they say that he was killed because he was too influential, he was an intellectual. That's why he was killed. Then you talk to some journalists and they say, oh we don't really know, but it was probably just bad intelligence. But it was probably a mistake. He probably wasn't meant to be killed."
To account for all these possibilities, Cox has had to re-write, or at least re-evaluate, a little bit of the family history as passed down from Brown.
"I think Janet would love me to tell her version 100%," he says. "That's a challenge, negotiating with family, when you undertake a documentary like this."
For Cox, the story of Janet and Wael offers a way of navigating the fraught terrain of Middle East politics. He admits to feeling apprehensive about privileging any one perspective on Zuaiter's murder. Instead, he aims to show how we are all touched by major geopolitical upheavals, whether we realise it or not. Janet venn Brown's story reminds us that international events always impact on private lives.
"My great aunt, by chance, fell in love with this man," says Cox. "It's a tragic love story, so if there's any way that we can tell this love story as a way to try and open a little window onto the bigger the story. Maybe that's a more gentle way of looking at larger political questions."