The first day of the March Freedom Ride finds us in Jenin refugee camp, at The Freedom Theatre. In fits and starts small groups of internationals arrive in the shaded court of The Freedom Theatre, drinking Turkish coffee and getting to know each other. They have come the March Freedom Ride, bringing together Palestinian artists, activists and musicians in a ride in solidarity with communities in Area C.
Area C, created under the Oslo Accords, comprises 61% of land in the West Bank, and is under full Israeli civil and military control. The March Freedom Ride will visit two particularly volatile regions located in Area C; the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. In these areas, local Palestinians suffer from unequal access to water resources, violence from settlers, and frequent – and sometimes violent – harassment from the Israeli army.
On our first night in Jenin, we gathered to watch a performance from the Playback acting troupe, who were joined by the reknowned Zajaal poet Abu Naji. Members of the audience were invited to share personal stories, which were then transformed into improvised theatre pieces by the actors.
We heard a story from a woman called Mariam about an experience she had as a child growing up in El Arub refugee camp. One day, she was going to buy sweets from the shop when she was stopped by Israeli soldiers. At that time it was illegal to display any kind of Palestinian flag. Mariam was wearing a small flag on her shirt. They soldiers began to question her and she was so afraid that she ran through the back of the shop and hid in her uncle’s house. However, the shopkeeper told the soldiers where she would be and they found her. They told her they would take her to prison in Ramle, inside Israel. She said that at first she was very afraid but, as time went on, she decided she would no longer be afraid, and that she would just not give a damn. Her flag was inside her heart. The unit of soldiers kept bothering her whenever they saw her on the street: “Where’s your flag now?” She hid from the soldiers until their unit was changed over and she no longer had to see them.
A young woman called Lianne, who had travelled from New York to join the ride, shared a story about her family and her own life. Her grandparents were Palestinian, born in Jerusalem and Haifa. They left after the Nakbeh of 1948 and went to Lebanon. Her parents were born in Lebanon, but after the war they too were forced to flee. They went to America, where Lianne was born. After 9/11, Lianne’s parents told her that she should never say that she was a Palestinian, and that she would never be able to go back to Palestine. It was not until she went to university, and met other Palestinians, that she was encouraged to visit. She described her joyful tears on arriving in Jerusalem and seeing the Damascus Gate, filled with the sounds and sights of Palestinian life.
It was a fantastic beginning to the March Freedom Ride.