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.