Friday, April 13, 2012

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)

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