Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From Jenin to Ramallah

After a few days teaching in Tel Aviv I have some time today to return to my notes from the West Bank.

We left Jenin a week ago, April 11. I’m driving with my friend and student W, who’s come to join us from his home in Haifa. Also in the car is H, who lives in Jenin and is the brother of the Freedom Theatre’s artistic director. He’s come to support us and also to see family members in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he was born. L, a photographer from Finland, is squashed into the back seat with H along with some of our bags.

The outskirts of the town are very green and beautiful, with olive trees and eucalyptus. Hills on one side of the road, flat cultivated fields on the other. A camel saddled with a carpet ambles along on the main road amid anarchic traffic. I comment on the greenness and W thanks me for noticing—it’s one of the Zionist myths, he says, that the land was arid and neglected before the Israelis came. The Arabs have always been a farming people.

Most of the hills are topped by villages. Or settlements, with their red-roofed houses in neat rows. In the Arab villages all the houses have big black rain barrels on the roofs.

W is talking as he drives, eloquent, poetic, measured but heartfelt. He talks about how the Palestinian identity has been fragmented by the events since 1948. He feels that Juliano Mer-Khamis’s contribution was to help to rebuild identity, with people standing beside each other and feeling commonality.

He mentions internal refugees—people expelled from their villages “inside,” meaning within Israel (everyone here says “inside” to refer to Israel), but not sent to refugee camps in the West Bank. His family was among them. They were compelled to leave their home and ended up in a village where 10 people had to live in one very small room. They and others were dependent on the goodwill of the people who already lived there, sharing their already sparse resources of food, water, and housing. Some welcomed them, some did not.

W’s elderly car crawls up the long hills at not much more than walking pace. There are not many cars on the road, fortunately. Other drivers honk and pass us in exasperation. We are trying to get to Ramallah by 11am. W, philosophical, thinks we’ll make it.

We pass by more olive groves. H in the back seat says that 10,000 trees have been cut down. This particular brutality, like the demolishing of houses, seems entirely sadistic to me. W says that when the army demolishes a house, the family is billed for the demolition—many thousands of shekels. They also have to pay for the rubble to be carted away, or do it themselves.

W is looking back to how it all started. After WW2 the Europeans just wanted to “lose the headache” of the displaced and traumatized Jews, he says. And the Jews wanted and needed somewhere to go. Other places were considered, not just Israel. Land in Uganda was approved by some of the Zionists, but those advocates were assassinated.

I ask them W and H what they see in the future, and what they would like to see. “Palestine has no future,” says H passionately. He is 42 but looks much younger. “I see no future for myself. I can see the present, and the past. But there is no future.”

He has lived all his life in refugee camps. He tells me that he has not seen the sea for eleven years, though it is so close.

I try, and fail, to imagine what it might be like to live with no sense of a future.

W says: “I don’t need a country. I don’t need a flag. I want to live without fear. If the Israelis want to control, let them. If they recognize my narrative, my dignity, that is enough.”

He does not see the viability of two states. He predicts that if a clash will come it will be with the Palestinians inside Israel. They are 20% of Israel’s population and they are like a volcano. Palestinian citizens of Israel have rights, but there is discrimination. Their ID cards are a different color from the Jews’ cards, proclaiming their difference.

H says, “We don’t have problem with the Jewish religion. We have problem with the occupation.”

As we drive through another village W points out a garage called “Haifa Garage.” “That means that it’s run by refugees from Haifa,” he says. “They remember their home with the name.” This village, like the others, has mostly rather stark, utilitarian cement houses, but in a few favored spots there are imposing houses with arches and pillars. I also see many buildings that appear to have been abandoned before they were completed.

We drive by another small village surrounded by fields and olive groves. W and H explain that this is a 3000-year old village, populated by Palestinian Jews—a living embodiment of this ancient and shared history. They are Jewish by heritage and religion, but culturally they are Arabs.

Then a new-looking settlement, surrounded by Arab land on which the settlers have cut down all the trees.

A donkey, escorted by Arab women, pulls a cart laden with garlic.

We drive through Bir Zeit—“well of olive oil.” In the town square there is a photo of Saddam Hussein. H says, “I like this man.” W, sensing my surprise, reminds me that before Saddam turned into a murderous monster he achieved good things for Iraq, including supporting women’s rights. In the distance are the large, modern buildings of Bir Zeit University. Most of the students are Arab, but there are also Jews, Christians, and internationals.

We finally arrive in Ramallah, cars and people jostling each other on the busy streets. It is high up and you can see nearby Jerusalem from some places. “We can see Jerusalem but they can’t see us,” says a woman I meet later, smiling ruefully. Some of the women on the street are in tight jeans and stiletto heels, along with their fashionable-looking headscarves. A few have uncovered heads. They look very different from the women in Jenin in their elegant but stiflingly hot head-to-toe garments. We pass Mahmoud Abbas’s residence, which is also the seat of the Palestinian Authority. W and H are sarcastic about Mahmoud, as they refer to him. They say that opinion is divided about him: some say he is a collaborator with the Israelis. Others respect his leadership.

After the performance I go to meet a woman who is a distinguished Palestinian theatre director. We have been in email contact and looking forward to meeting each other. She is waiting for me at the door of her theatre. I feel as though I’ve known her for years. We have dinner, along with her husband and professional partner, and two friends from Jenin. Soon she will bring her production of Richard 2nd to the Globe Theatre in London as part of the Globe to Globe festival, with 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages. She lives in Jerusalem, a 10 or 15-minute drive from Ramallah if you have an Israeli passport: an hour--or more, depending on checkpoint delays--for any Palestinian no matter how distinguished, because they are not allowed to use the four-lane highway that connects these cities.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On the hill top

I am sitting under an olive tree in an open space on top of a hill, partly open field, partly rocky outcrops with deep holes that might be wells or caves, I’m not sure. It is sunny but there is a cool breeze and the air is delicious. Around me are red and yellow wild flowers, daisies, anise. Just down from this beautiful wild spot are the houses and terraces of an ancient Palestinian village. Does this sound idyllic? Looking out a little further, on most of the hilltops around there are settlements, and there is one so close to the village that they could talk to each other without raising their voices. If they wanted to, and if they spoke each other’s languages. And if they could bear to talk through the barrier of razor wire that fortifies the settlement. Down in the valley you can see the wall under construction. When it reaches up here it will surround this village, all but cutting it off from the world. And on this rocky hilltop, a little distance from the rest of the village, there is a Arab family’s house which will have a special curl of the wall all to itself, four meters high, ten meters from the house, making it a prison within a prison.

I am here with the Freedom Bus crew who will do a performance right here on the hilltop for people from the village, other local people, and a large group of internationals led by Luisa Morgantini, the former vice president of the European Union. A band that is famous in the Arab world is also here and will play before and after the performance.

Wandering around as the team prepares the stage area, I cross paths with two Palestinian women who are gathering anise. One of them speaks some English and we talked, out there in the soft breeze. She says that her daughter lives in the house that is about to be surrounded by the wall. I’ve already met her son-in-law: the sound system for the performance is plugged into his house with a long cable. The woman tells me that one of her sons was recently released from prison after five years. Her other son is currently in prison. She says they do not know why. I encourage them to come to the performance.

People start gathering—children, young people, men and women. They find places to sit on the rocky ground. Except for the sparse small olive trees there is no shade.

S, the local community organizer who is translating, announced that the army has arrived and set up a checkpoint down the road. They are turning people away, and taking the IDs of anyone who objected. There is a flurry of alarm. Everyone knows what the army can do, and this village has received a lot of aggressive attention at their weekly protests against the wall. “Stay calm,” she said. “We’re not doing anything illegal.”

The show begins with three songs from the band—beautiful songs, accompanied on the oud, and much appreciated by the audience who clap and sing along. The Playback show is not so easy, with kids wandering onto the stage area, the audience straining to hear, too many camera-wielding people stepping in front and blocking other people’s view, even walking right up to the actors. It’s important to document these extraordinary events--but this is too much.

In spite of the challenges, the stories flow. A young boy is the first person to speak up in response to the conductor’s question “How does it feel to be here today?” “Belonging,” says the boy. It turns out that he lives in the house that will become a prison. Later, his father raises his hand. He looks around at all the people gathered and said, “Today I feel we are not occupied.” Everyone cheers.

There is a story about a 3,000 year old olive tree, a symbol and proof of the ancient Palestinian culture. There is a story told by a middle-aged man about the suffering of the child next door to him, who came home after school to find his house demolished. And then the woman I had met picking anise came to tell her story about the army raid on her house five years ago, when they took her son. They destroyed many things in the house, she said, and they used sound bombs, to create terror. She could do nothing but hold the children. She felt completely alone. “Now I don’t feel alone,” she says, gesturing to all of us.

By now the soldiers have appeared at the entrance to the field, five trucks parked uphill so they are very visible. A threatening presence. The word is that they won’t do anything as long as the internationals are here, so the organizers make sure they do not leave until the event is over and everyone can leave together.

There was more music after the Playback show—joyful, releasing music after the somber stories.

From Bethlehem:

From Bethlehem:

We arrived in Bethlehem last night in the dark and I haven’t yet had a chance to look around yet. “We” means the Freedom Bus team―the five Playback Theatre performers, the artistic director, myself, and A, a young Canadian who’s with us this week. Yesterday we were in Ramallah, along with twelve boys, ages 11 to 14, from Jenin and a neighboring village, plus a videographer and two photographers documenting this whole project.

The children had taken part in a photography project exploring and recording the problems of water in their community. In Ramallah we went to the headquarters of a large foundation where they had arranged a video hook-up with a group of children in Gaza who’d just completed a similar project. We could see the Gaza children on a large screen―about ten kids, a little younger, and half of them girls. The visual contact in itself was amazing―these children at the moment have no possible way of ever meeting, although they live in the same country not much more than 100 miles from each other.

The Gaza children presented their findings―no municipal water system, very little water available by any means, most of it contaminated. They can use seawater but it is inadequately desalinated. People get sick. They said Gaza is becoming like a dump because there is no system to deal with garbage. The kids speaking about it were confident and well-informed, passionate but measured. “We can’t clean ourselves!” said one boy. The Jenin children watched, rapt, and asked questions. One of the boys presented what they had prepared: photos of wells that are useless because they are not permitted to drill deep enough; photos of the luxuriantly green fields belonging to the settlement the other side of a razor wire fence, thanks to a spring that used to be on village land. (The name of the village means “spring.”) In the summer they run out of water altogether and have to buy water from a truck which shows up every few days. Even this water is not guaranteed to be clean.

Again, questions and discussion. The kids asked each other about swimming pools―no one has access, of course, to a place to swim that’s nearby and clean. One of the adults asked what it was like to see the Israelis with their plentiful clean water. “We feel we are not free.” “We feel it is injustice.” “We feel abused.”

After a lunch break the Freedom Bus team did Playback Theatre for this audience of children separated by distance and rigid political boundaries. Sitting in the audience it was all I could do not to break down in tears, both at the tragedy of the situation and at the extraordinary spirit of the children. They listened to each other’s stories, watched each other on the screens, laughed and clapped together. Amazingly, the process worked. A little girl in Gaza, radiant in her red sweater, neat brown ponytail and delighted smile, told a story about getting 93% on her science test and how she was going to solve her country’s water problems when she grew up. A boy from the village near Jenin told a story about seeing a fire in a field and trying to get help. It took an hour for the truck to arrive.

The Freedom Theatre’s ace videographer captured the enactments so that the kids in Gaza could see―at some cost to the audience who was present, since he had to be on stage with the actors, sometimes blocking our view. But it was worth it.

The last story was told by W, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who had traveled from Haifa to join us. He is a former student of mine, and it turned out that he knew several people in the Freedom Theatre world, including Juliano Mer-Khamis, the legendary director of the theatre who was murdered a year ago right outside the theatre. In the show, W offered a story about knowing Juliano when he (W) was a child, but somehow never visiting the theatre until now. It was a story about Juliano’s vision of the arts as a way of creating freedom.

And here we were in Ramallah, giving children the chance to use theatre to transcend the walls between them.

(name withheld while in the West Bank)