Day 4 – A Village That Never Sleeps & Always Resists

Day4-8(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)
Written by Roberta Verde, Karin Gisler & Bryan MacCormack

Last night we learned that the countryside is not as quiet as we expected it to be. A whole symphony of animal voices lulled us to non-sleep: dogs, cats, chicken, donkeys, birds and last but not least, mosquitos took part in the concert. And the beautiful full moon shined upon us women sleeping in the open on the terrace.

In the morning, we split in two groups; one staying in Fasayel painting the community house together with the children of the village, the other group driving back to Yerza village to help rebuild the community center.

Reconstruction as Solidarity and Resistance

Day4-1(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

On the way to Yerza the Freedom Bus got two flat tires. There was only one spare and it was clearly Palestinian, as it maintained steadfastness through the rocky roads of the mountains until we were able to buy a second.

Day4-2(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

The Yerza community center has been destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) several times. Each time the village has rebuilt it.

A villager told us that the IOF fly over the area regularly. When they see something new has been built they will come with bulldozers and destroy it.

International support has at times been counterproductive, as it attracts even more attention. Yet, rebuilding something that will likely be destroyed once again is one form of resistance and an example of Palestinian steadfastness.

We started by clearing a path to allow cars to reach the community center then went on to build a platform fort the community center’s floor. Our workers squad included some members of The Freedom Theatre and the Hafez family.

Day4-6(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

We then began throwing aside the smaller stones that lied on the ground. Then one of Naeem’s sons brought a pickaxe to take off the bigger rocks that were stuck in the ground.

One of these rocks was particularly big and went deep into the earth. Observers gathered around the rock and everyone in turns gave a hand; men and women, the Hafez family, Freedom Riders, The Freedom Theatre actors and neighbours that had now arrived.

It’s something that happened spontaneously: everyone wanted to give a hand and with the help of all, the rock was moved.

Mural Painting

IMG_1367(Photo by Anika Machura)

Local children released from their morning school session joined us to put their energy into decorating the outside wall of the community centre.

Freedom Riders, Orijit Sen – a graphic artist from Delhi, and London-based cartoonist and teacher Tim Sanders were on hand to guide the mural painting. Osama from The Freedom Theatre interpreted and facilitated interaction with the kids.

Orijit and Tim had given the work a start and asked the children to paint familiar shapes and figures.

IMG_1431(Photo by Anika Machura)

After a few minutes the children were brightly painted and the walls portrayed the energy that had been expended.

Reflecting on the work, Orijit said, “I am very glad we got this opportunity to do something with the children. It was an unexpected event and very exciting. The children were energised and probably frustrated by a childhood under occupation. This comes out in the way they express themselves. That’s what matters. It’s not about good and bad, but an honest expression.”

Tim and Orijit painted two panels depicting suffering and resistance.

The mural we collectively achieved is very striking. The local cockerel enjoys pride of place on one of the panels; unsurprising to anyone who has been here.

 

house - 1(Photo by Jakov Gisler)

IMG_1444(Photo by Anika Machura)

On another panel the children created an explosion of energy. The mural is memorable, much like our visit.

Performances

Day4-3(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

At night the people of Fasayel came together with Freedom Riders for three theatre performances. The first was Platform, about a Palestinian-American coming back to Palestine for the first time. Facing the oppression of the occupation and embracing his people’s culture deepened his connection and understanding to the land of Palestine.

Day4-5(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

Following Platform came a performance of a short Hindi-language play called Yeh Bhi Hinsa Hai (The Faces of Violence) by Jana Natya Manch (or Janam for short). Earlier in the day, Janam had performed for a group of women in Fasayel. They were thrilled that the women embraced the play and led an engaging discussion amongst themselves. “It was one of our most memorable performances,” said Janam member Sudhanva Deshpande, “I will carry it with me for quite some time.”

Day4-7(Photo by Bryan MacCormack w/Left In Focus)

To end the evening, students from The Freedom Theatre School performed Playback Theatre. An elder man in the village told a story about his family being unable to buy a wedding dress for their soon to be daughter in law. The Israeli Occupation Forces refused to let half of them through checkpoint leading to the markets of Nablus. The family tried another checkpoint and were also denied entry. The bride realised they would have to buy the dress from elsewhere. This deeply saddened her because she knew the dress would not be the same quality.

Another audience member from a refugee camp in Bethlehem told a story about his mother’s role in the resistance during the second intifada. In her home she had a window with bars over it. When the IOF invaded the camp to capture freedom fighters, she would remove the bars allowing fighters to come in and hide. When the IOF arrived to raid her house the fighters would climb back out the window. She then let the soldiers in and continued cooking as if nothing was happening. The IOF never found the fighters.

 

 

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Day 3 – Northern Jordan Valley

Day3-2Written by Urvashi Sarkar; Photos by Bryan MacCormack with Left In Focus

Large parts of the day were spent in Area C in which Palestinians have very few rights. We spent a significant part of the morning in Tubas, where members of Jordan Valley Solidarity such as Rashid Sawafta explained the various ways in which Israel controls water resources and prevents Palestinians from accessing water. The control of water resources happens in many ways: by confiscating/destroying Palestinian tanks and wells, and controlling access to the Jordan River. People have to travel many kilometers to buy water, which can cost up to 7 or 8 USD per cubic meter. For many Palestinians, accessing water can be an everyday struggle, often resulting in violence and even death.

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The Israelis have designated large parts of the Jordan Valley as closed military zones. The irony, however, is that the Jordan Valley is part of the West Bank which is Palestinian territory under the Oslo Accords. By giving military labels to these areas, Israel forces Palestinians off their own land, preventing them from building, farming or living on the land. Even if they try to build as much as chicken coops, the Israeli army will demolishes them.

The designation of an area as closed military zone is arbitrary. Therefore, Palestinians living in such areas will not know when the area they live in will be declared a military zone. Many areas designated as closed military zones are then given to Israeli colonists to farm. Later, Rashid told us that in 2011 alone settlers made approximately $125 million in profits from exporting produce grown in the Jordan Valley. In addition, the Israeli military leaves explosives on the land which have caused loss of limbs and life.

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In Yerza village, we heard from farmer Naeem Hafez who was shot at by Israelis. His wife was shot at as well. He also lost a 12-year-old son to shooting by the Israelis. Whether being shot at, losing someone to death, or having a family member in prison—each of these elements is present in varying degrees in many Palestinian families.

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Five checkpoints control entry and exit from the Jordan Valley; the worst of them, Al-Hamra, is known as “the checkpoint of death” because young people have been shot by Israeli occupation forces. Long lines of vehicles form as the Israeli Occupation Forces interrogates people and searches vehicles, often causing produce to go bad while being transported.Day3-11

In the evening, the Freedom Bus took us to Fasayel village where Rashid gave a detailed account of the activities of Jordan Valley Solidarity including solidarity building, working with communities in education and sustainable building, and organising resistance. Fasayel is a small village with little infrastructure and limited supplies. However, next to Fasayel is a colony with Israeli settlers with greenery and swimming pools—this was shown to us on a map.

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The day concluded with initial discussions for organizing solidarity around the BDS movement. Organisation wide solidarity in countries like the UK and unity between international trade unions could help in building resistance and pressure to boycott Israeli made products, especially those manufactured in the West Bank.

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Day 2 – Welcome!

Written by Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack, with Left in Focus

Welcome, welcome! You hear this a lot as a foreigner in Jenin. It comes in many languages: English, sometimes. Sometimes Arabic: ahleen. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you are welcomed with music.

Two nights ago when I arrived, I was welcomed by Samer Abu Hantash improvising on the oud—a popular, traditional stringed instrument—on the second-story balcony of the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse. Samer is Palestinian. He will travel with me and about thirty other international visitors for the next ten days throughout the occupied West Bank, accompanying a troupe of Palestinian actors that will perform improvised theatre pieces based on the accounts of audiences living in the different cities and towns we will visit.

This kind of theatre is called Playback Theatre. Developed in the 1970s, Playback Theatre has been used in over fifty countries in a wide range of social and political contexts. A typical performance lasts about 70 minutes. The “conductor” of the show invites members of the audience (the “tellers”) to share their experiences. Once the teller has finished their story, the performers reproduce it as a short piece of improvised theatre accompanied by a musician.

This afternoon—after a group-building exercise with the other international visitors—I caught up with Ihab Talahmeh to ask him a little bit more about the form.

“The main thing when we are working with Playback,” Ihab told me, “is to make the stories alive.”

Ihab is twenty-three, a third-year acting student at The Freedom Theatre. He grew up in a village south of Hebron, and will conduct the Playback Theatre performances that we have scheduled over the next ten days. 

When I asked him what he was looking forward to most on the upcoming Ride, he told me a story about Atuwani, one of the villages the Freedom Bus stopped at last year. The village is very near the town he grew up in—fifteen, twenty minutes away.

“But before I came to The Freedom Theatre,” he told me. “I didn’t know about this village.”

One of the objectives of the Freedom Bus, we learned the night before, is to connect villages throughout the West Bank to one another. Because the West Bank is so fractured by illegal settlements, Israelis-only roads and military checkpoints, Palestinians who wish to travel from place to place suffer the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and harassment, long delays and unexpected roadblocks. As a result, even geographically close communities often can’t communicate with one another.

“When I went there,” Ihab said, “I was shocked about the situation, about how people can live there. When I saw them—how they resist the occupation—when the occupation came before my eyes, to destroy a house or something: all the people from the village stood in one line and fight the army.”

He smiled. “This is amazing for me,” he said. “I learn from them.”

Earlier, when I’d asked Ihab what he feels Playback Theatre has to offer the people of Palestine, he told me he felt that, as an actor, he was bringing energy and power to the communities he visited.

After Atuwani, though, he feels differently about it.

“I am not going to give them the power,” he told me. “They already have it. They give it to me.”

– – – 

After speaking with Ihab, I rejoin the rest of the group for a walking tour of the Jenin refugee camp: a half-kilometer square of pale white, bullet-riddled concrete block buildings, huddled close to one another and connected by a network of dim, narrow roads and alleyways. Together we walk over the uneven ground, pausing to observe discarded bullet cartridge casings or to peer into the small square windows of old abandoned houses.

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“People who live here,” our guide told us through a translator, “originally came from Haifa, Akka, Yafa, and the villages. In 1948, they were forced out of their own homes and the land by the Israelis.”

He goes on to tell us that when people first came to this area, they were given tents to live in, assuming their expulsion from the land would be temporary—maybe one or two months before they could return to their homes.

“But things took a long time,” he said. “So people put brick over brick, stone over stone, something to avoid the rain and the sun.”

Our guide—a resident of the camp himself, his family hailing from near Afula—frowned then, and spoke a short line in Arabic.

“It’s been sixty-eight years since then,” he said.

– – –

Our evening ended at Al-Kamandjati music school with a performance by the visiting theatre troupe from India, Jana Natya Manch, another playback performance, and sandwiched between both: a short musical performance by the student Oriental Music ensemble.

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Welcome, welcome. The drum tapped, the flutes sounded in and around the ouds, the violins, the cello. No one on stage looked much older than fifteen.

And I want to tell you something hopeful, here. End this blog with something beautiful inspired by the music, the drumming, the rhythm that surrounded me in the school tonight.

Instead, however, I’m going to tell you what Osama, one of the six acting students, told me thirty minutes ago after dinner.

 “Sometimes,” he said, “growing up in the refugee camp, you know, I get the feeling that… okay, I have this dream.” He made a fist above his head. “And I am holding onto this dream so hard, so hard.”

Osama looked up at his fist. “But I am afraid, sometimes, that if I open my hand—” he opened it — “There will be nothing inside.”

For a moment, neither of us spoke as we looked together at his empty palm.

But then Osama shrugged. “But I have to hold on,” he said. “And I believe—really, I do—that even if there is nothing, nothing in my hands to hold—that I can put something there. I can create the dream, yani. From inside.”

Tonight, as the full moon rises over Jenin, I am dreaming inside of what will be created these next ten days, and feeling welcome, welcome, welcome.

The 2016 Freedom Ride Begins

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All 48 participants of the 5th annual Freedom Ride arrived in Jenin safely. Gathered at Cinema Jenin, they received a warm welcome from Freedom Ride coordinators, followed by a descriptive introduction to The Freedom Theatre and cultural resistance from Artistic Director Nabil Al-Raee. Ben Rivers, renowned theatre practitioner, gave his insights into the local context and purpose of Playback Theatre and the Freedom Bus.

Sitting around tables in the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse, participants shared a meal and introduced themselves, nurtured new relationships and rekindled old ones. Many months of preparation and a long day of travel have come to fruition as this year’s Freedom Ride makes its way across the occupied West Bank.

2016 Freedom Ride Itinerary

21 to 22 March: Jenin
Introduction to The Freedom Theatre and The Freedom Bus
Group-building workshop
Tour of Jenin Refugee Camp
Music recital by Al-Kamandjati
Playback Theatre performance
Jana Natya Manch performance

23 to 24 March: The Jordan Valley
Presentations by Jordan Valley Solidarity
Rebuilding the community centre
Painting the local school
Playback Theatre performance
Jana Natya Manch performance
Platform performance

25 March: Al-Nabi Saleh
Presentations by Popular Struggle Committee
Safety debrief
Weekly protest

Saturday 26 March: Bethlehem (Free day)
Walking tour from Al-Makhrur to Battir (optional)
Jana Natya Manch and Platform performance (evening, Manger Square)

Sunday 27 to 29 March: Bethlehem
Tours of Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps
Talks by Mazin Qumsiyeh (Palestine Museum of Natural History), Sudhanva Deshpande (Jana Natya Manch), Omar Barghouti (PACBI), Lubnah Shomali (Badil), Gerard Horton (Military Court Watch), Omar Kettani (Right to Education Campaign)
Live music by Shajar
Playback Theatre performance
Platform performance

29 March: Hebron
Tour of Hebron with Defence Committee for Hebron
Painting murals in Hebron’s Old City

30 to 31 March: South Hebron Hills
Presentations by Popular Struggle Committee
Playback performance
Platform performance
Vegetable planting
Olive tree planting
Playback Theatre workshop

1 April: Beit Sahur
Reflection and evaluation

First day of rehearsals!

Today was the first day of Playback Theatre rehearsals leading up to the 2016 Freedom Ride in Occupied Palestine! This year, our Theatre School students Ihab, Samah, Ibraheem, Osama, Ameer and Raneen will give interactive playback theatre performances in communities across the West Bank. The students will also be performing a unique production, with the working name Platform, that will be built along the ride based on stories from the communities that the ride visits. Stay tuned for more!

Student actors

March 2016 marks the 5th annual Freedom Ride – Continuing Cultural Resistance in Palestine

With just one week remaining until The Freedom Theatre’s 2016 Freedom Ride begins, anticipation runs deep in the emotions of theatre members and international participants.

During the last weeks, Freedom Bus coordinators and affiliate groups have met with communities throughout the West Bank to prepare for the ride, determining where the theatre will perform and where workshops, cultural events and community work will take place.

From Jenin in the north, through the Jordan Valley, Nabi Saleh and Bethlehem to Hebron and the south Hebron Hills, international and Palestinian Freedom Riders will learn from the diverse lived experiences of marginalised Bedouins, villagers, city and refugee camp residents.

Mustafa Sheta, Freedom Ride coordinator and secretary of the Board of The Freedom Theatre, said he “considers the Freedom Ride to be one of the most significant cultural solidarity initiatives in Palestine.” With the aforementioned intentional selection of locations, Sheta stated, “The Freedom Ride goes to the most marginalised communities, whose residents are exposed to the toughest conditions of life, to participate in their daily circumstances. They get to directly see the strength of these people who are able to carry on with life and continue to struggle against the occupation and against the injustice.“

Participants will accompany communities in the building of a playground, rebuilding a demolished school, painting murals, planting vegetables and olive trees, as well as partake in political discussions and film screenings. Freedom Riders will also have the opportunity to engage with committee members who coordinate popular resistance in local communities and renowned activist and scholars such as Omar Barghouti and Mazin Qumsiyeh.

By offering an in-depth and highly personalised understanding of the daily experiences of Palestinians across the West Bank, the Freedom Ride will contribute to building relationships between international allies and communities in resistance, as well as strengthen connections between various activists and organisations involved in the transnational Palestine solidarity movement.

Beginning on March 21st, our blog will include day by day accounts of the 2016 Freedom Ride.

To exist is to resist