2015 Freedom Ride, Day #11: Jerusalem and Ramallah

The original plan was to spend the two last days of the Freedom Ride in Jerusalem. A symbolic and actual defiance of the enforced separation between Palestinians in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. However, realities on the ground came in the way.

Despite several attempts, the Palestinian members of the Freedom Bus were denied permits and thus could not cross the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The international members of the Freedom Ride were put in a dilemma – should they continue or stay? In the end half the group stayed behind to plan a playback performance in central Ramallah and the other continued into East Jerusalem.

A partner of the Freedom Bus, Grassroots Jerusalem, hosted the group who crossed the barrier for a tour of the eastern part of the annexed Jerusalem. During the tour we saw how the wall and the settlements have confiscated Palestinian land, and how Palestinians are being marginalised in East Jerusalem under the Israeli apartheid regime (see UN OCHA or Stop the Wall for more facts on the separation barrier and East Jerusalem).

Later in the afternoon we walked to El Hakawati theatre (The Storytelling Theatre) located close to the old city of Jerusalem. El Hakawati is the home of Palestinian theatre. We heard the early history of Palestinian cultural resistance through theatre told by Amer Khalil, one of the founders of the theatre in the 1970’s and its current Artistic Director.

Inside the Hakawati theatre the reduced (due to some of its members still being in Ramallah) playback troupe was reinforced with a few brave volunteers, and performed a playback event. The audience shared several stories about the difficulties of having to separate from the Freedom Riders who were not granted permission to enter their own capital.

Meanwhile the group in Ramallah had organised a playback event that took place in parallell with the event in Jerusalem. They likewise performed stories of isolation and marginalisation and also solidarity between people from around the world with Palestine and how that inspires and gives hope. 

This day thus ended in two places, at the Hakawati theatre in Jerusalem and at the Al-Manara square in central Ramallah. It was decided that in the morning after, the last day of the Freedom Ride, the group in Jerusalem would travel back to Ramallah to carry out the evaluation with the rest of the group and hope for better luck with a third application for permits in order to join the closing event on Land Day in Jerusalem. 

El Hakawati

Photo: Fredrik Westerholm

El Hakawati

Playback Ramallah II Laura Book

Photo: Laura Book

To exist is to resist

2015 Freedom Ride, Day #9: South Hebron Hills

Friday’s activities included informative and inspiring visits with representatives of shepherd communities that continue to survive after multiple demolitions, as well as observation and presence support with one of our Palestinian hosts during a confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces.

After our morning circle groups and a hearty breakfast in Atuwani, we walked a few hills over to the 158-person village of Al Mofaqara. Sipping tea in a large tent, we met and heard from Sausan Mahmoud Al Sen Hamade, a young woman who walks 2 hours on the way to and back from the university where she studies. Sausan’s family lives under the tent in a carved-out cave that housed her ancestors, with bare rock walls blackened by the fires they light inside the cave in the winter months. Sausan told us of a day in 2011 when the army came and demolished her house, which sat where the tent is now. She was arrested and imprisoned, but her family was not notified of her whereabouts. Sausan asked all of us to tell our governments, wherever we live, to put pressure on Israel to stop evicting people from their ancestral homes and destroying their way of life.

We returned to Atuwani for lunch, and then headed out on foot again for Um Elkheir, also a sheep herding community of about 130 people that abuts the fence of the colony whose settlers consistently harass children and adults in surrounding communities. The walk to Um Elkheir ends in a barbed wire barrier that has wounded their sheep. The barbed wire was erected to protect the settlement. In Um Elkheir we were greeted by an elder Bedouin shepherd, Sleman Al Hadelin. Sleman was so delighted to see us that he implored us to skip the community work we had promised to do and just sit and have tea with him. He told us of how the army came and demolished buildings here despite the fact that he has papers showing he owns the land. He reiterated with great pain how unfair this is, and pleaded with us to share his story. Freedom Riders eventually persuaded Sleman to let us do some work. It was brief but meaningful. One group moved stone rubble from a demolished house to the ground under what will be the foundation for a new caravan (mobile home), while a second group helped rebuild a stone wall nearby.

We retired for tea with Sleman but were quickly interrupted by the presence of Israeli soldiers nearby. Called to provide support, we marched behind and around Sleman as he led the soldiers on a walk around his land. Surrounded by internationals and hearing the spirited protest of Sleman, the soldiers retreated, and Sleman was lifted in triumph. He had already told us that the community would pay the price for our visit for the next three months. After some playback theatre, many of us reflected on the difficult dynamic we create for locals, although we knew that Sleman wanted us there and appeared to feel that today’s victory was worth tomorrow’s likely outcome, which is that the Army will return in the night and destroy everything.

If there is hope on a longer term basis, part of it comes from the presence of Operation Dove volunteers with whom we met in the evening. These human rights workers are from Italy, and do accompaniment on an everyday basis. The two volunteers who spoke to us are committed to doing this for 2-3 years, while other volunteers come for a month or two. I was in awe of their work, but even more of the courageous villagers whose lives we all want desperately to help protect.

Written by Todd Davies, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant

Sausan Atuwani

Samer oud

Playback Um Elkheir

Sleman Al Hadelin

2015 Freedom Ride, Day #7: Jericho & Jerusalem Gate

Waking up in Jericho, our seventh day was supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation. Some of us planned to spend our time sightseeing in the city; others intended to catch up on e-mail or sleep. During our morning breakfast, however, we learned the urgent news that several Israeli soldiers were currently in the process of clearing a piece of land in Abu Dis near Jerusalem which protesters have renamed “Jerusalem Gate.” As a group, we decided that rather taking the entire day off, we would leave Jericho early to pay a visit to Jerusalem Gate.

We arrived at the site in the late afternoon to the sound of bulldozers. Next to a busy road, several Israeli soldiers were guarding the demolition in a fenced off area. A number of Palestinian demonstrators were also at the site, waving flags, shouting slogans, and spraying protest graffiti against the occupation. One of the activist leaders addressed the group and told us about the history of the area. The Israeli attempt to control this area constitutes an attempt to divide the West Bank in half, from north to south. Several times during his talk, Israeli soldiers interrupted him in Arabic, with demands about where we could and could not stand.

Leaving Jerusalem Gate, we went to Ezariyah, a nearby hilltop inhabited by a group of Palestinian Bedouins. They live in very harsh conditions, in shacks and tents with little or not access to electricity or running water, and the Israeli authorities have issued them multiple demolition orders. Ezariyah thus threatens to become the next Jerusalem Gate. From Ezariyah’s high vantage point, one can see the Israeli settlements that are gradually being constructed to the east and west in defiance of international law.

As it began to get dark, we boarded our bus to head south to Atuwani. On the way, we made a quick detour to the refugee camp of Al Aroub where Freedom Bus coordinator Habeeb invited us into his home for dinner and refreshments. We stayed longer than we had planned, talking to Habeeb’s family and enjoying a wonderful impromptu musical concert. Even though our day of rest turned out to be filled with many stories of ongoing oppression and dispossession, the warmth we experienced in Aroub gave all of us a wonderful moment of generous hospitality.

Written by Greg Burris, 2015 Freedom Ride participant
Photos by Bridget Mullins, 2015 Freedom Ride participant

Ezariyah

Jerusalem Gate

2015 Freedom Ride Day #5: Jordan Valley

This day, the Freedom Riders were joined by staff and students from The Freedom Theatre and it was a happy reunion with both colleagues and new friends made during the first two days of the Freedom Ride in Jenin.

The blog post below is written by Sama, 2015 Freedom Ride participant:

The Freedom Ride was mainly on foot today, and discovering the two layers of the Jordan Valley – what one sees and what one lives. The beauty of the countryside is breathtaking! The rolling hills are covered with fertile soils and give some delicious produce such as citrus and dates, and bloom flowers of all different colours. But this idyllic setting is destroyed by the ongoing military occupation that stops the local Palestinians from living their lives peacefully.

This was experienced throughout the whole day and it started off in Al Jiftlik. Located in the centre of the Jordan Valley, we stopped in a conglomeration of five communities to visit Mash3l from the women’s association. She listed for us the multitude of problems for people living in the area. There is a lack of paved roads, places for child recreation, training centres, communication networks, childcare, internal transportation, jobs, electricity and above all… water. The Israelis have declared the whole area a military zone, which consequently pushes the local inhabitants off of their land. So Mash3l and others started up this women’s centre in order to provide a space for them to learn, make, expose and sell their crafts made out of sheep wool and seeds from their crops.

The Jordan Valley makes up 20% of the West Bank, and it provides for 35% of the total produce distributed to Palestine. This agricultural success is associated with the area’s unique location below sea level, which is likened to a giant greenhouse where crops ripe early in the winter. However, the illegal occupation by Israeli settlers of what should be the breadbasket of the West Bank, means that only 5% of it is still under Palestinian control and the roads are severely controlled, making it difficult to trade or to access clinics, schools and water. The Hamra checkpoint is a good example of this oppression. Here, drivers are continuously checked by security officers as they try to drive through the main road. It 2005, it got nicknamed the Death Checkpoint due to the shooting and killing of five people. But this event wasn’t an exception. Unfortunately, each person we meet seems to have stories to share that are filled with sadness and injustice.

This was the case in Makhoul and Samrah, where locals told us about the third demolition of their house within a month, their stolen water that is diverted to the settlements, the blocked humanitarian assistance, the burning of native plants that feed their livestock or the destruction of schools. Here, “to live is to resist”, and this phrase is not said lightheartedly. By the simple act of waking up in the morning and going to bed at night in their own homes, most of the families in the Jordan Valley who have been living here for generations are resisting the occupation that is trying to push them out of their land. Here, it is clear that the historical process of Palestinian dispossession which the academic Ilan Pappe has called “ethnic cleansing” continues into the present.

The Freedom Bus project was not started as a way of doing touristic and artistic tours of the West Bank. And this is not why we joined either. It is helping us to understand more fully this occupation and to speak to Palestinians first hand. Our role as witnesses is to go home and share the reality on the ground, which is way too often distorted in mainstream media. We are not innocent and have to transform knowledge into action – action that has been called for by the locals themselves. They are asking for political support, which can be demanded and fought for back in our own countries. They are also asking for the support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which should be implemented on a personal level as well as in our schools, supermarkets, offices and nationally. As internationals we have a role and we can work in solidarity with the Palestinians to make a difference.

This was indeed re-iterated by Abu Saqeer, a strong resister of the occupation living in Al Hadedeye, a community 20 minutes further along on our walking route. Here we ate a delicious bulgur based lunch and then it was time for a bit of Playback Theatre. The Freedom Bus ensemble used improvisation to re-enact people’s stories and embodied fear, sadness, injustice, as well as happiness, excitement and hope. The troupe gave life to several stories of oppression told by local audience members. They also performed a reenactment of the murder of Eric Garner, the Black American who was choked to death last year by a white police officer. It was a wonderful performance!

We then went on for the last bit of our journey, where we encountered a bit of interaction with the Israeli army that was questioning our peaceful walk through the meadows and our interest in the stolen water and dividing trenches. Fortunately, they let us continue on our path after a few minutes, and we made our way back to Fasayel.

Amidst the injustices and difficulties imposed on the Palestinians on a daily schedule, there is so much beauty and human warmth that can be said about this region of the world, and that should be protected.

Walk in Jordan Valley

Playback Jordan Valley

Al Hadedeye Jordan Valley

Lunch in Al Hadedeye Walk to Al Hadedeye

2015 Freedom Ride Day #3: Bil’in

Late in the evening, the Freedom Bus arrived to Bil’in where a group of tired Freedom Riders spent the night. In the morning, the group got up early and enjoyed breakfast with Rani and his wife, volunteers for the Bil’in Friends of Freedom and Justice.

Close to 60% of Bil’in’s land, including some of its best agricultural land, has been annexed for Israeli settlements and the construction of the separation wall. Bil’in, much like Nabi Saleh, has continued to resist the confiscation of their land through weekly demonstrations that have now gone on for many years. And every Friday the Israeli army responds with both physical and psychological violence. Working side-by-side with activists from all over the world, the people of Bil’in managed to achieve the recognition of the Israel High Court, which at the end of a long legal battle ruled that the route of the wall near the village was illegal and must be changed. The struggle for justice is far from over though. As an example, one of the community leaders, Abdullah Abu Rahmah, is currently under indictment for what the prosecution has called the ‘ideological crime’ of organising protests.

Freedom street Bil'in

The first activity of the day was community work and the freedom riders split up in groups; some went painting, others did cleaning next to and the third group played with children. The painting group was lead by Hamza, a professional painter from Ramallah. The result was a colourful wall full of different figures.

After lunch there was a presentation by a representative of the Center for Freedom and Justice who talked about the history of Bil’in. He told about the continuous expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements and the resilience of the Bil’in residents towards the stealing of their lands which has been in their families for generations. The freedom riders walked to the wall to see the situation with their own eyes, not least the vast settlement just behind the wall. The whole area around the wall was full with barb wire and empty teargas canisters. The whole scenery was very surreal and hard to comprehend; the huge settlement with new, modern apartments standing on Bil’in property. The villagers are right there, on the other side, yet it is impossible to go there. Very close, but also very far away.

As an act of solidarity and resistance the freedom riders erected a large pole with the Palestinian flag on it. The pole with the flag on the hill overlooking the area where the settlers live; a nice symbol of resilience.

Freedom Riders 2015

Settlement

Bil'in barb wire

Freedom riders wave flag Bil'in

At the end of the afternoon it was time for the second Playback Theatre performance of this ride, hosted in Bil’in’s cultural centre. The sunt went down and this gave the performance a great background. The story which made the biggest impression was from Ahmed, who told about the daily struggle of living in Bil’in and the death of his brother killed by army soldiers. The performance of the actors moved him emotionally and because of that the audience was moved as well. This was definitely the most inspiring performance on the Freedom Ride so far.

Playback in Jordan Valley

Freedom Bus

Bil’in’s struggle is beautifully documented in the Academy Award nominated film Five Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat from Bil’in together with Guy Davidi, and in Bil’in Habibti by Israeli activist Shai Pollak.

Walk for Water Justice in the Jordan Valley

IMG_0093

On 22 March 2013, World Water Day, the Freedom Bus joined with Jordan Valley Solidarity, E-Wash and Palestinians from across the West Bank, in a solidarity walk through communities in the Jordan Valley. Our aim was to raise awareness about unequal water allocation and the accompanying social and economic impact upon Palestinian communities living in the Jordan Valley.

Under terms negotiated in the Oslo Interim Agreement, Israelis are allocated four times more water from the shared West Bank mountain aquifer than Palestinians.

????????????

In addition, the Israeli Civil Administration (which governs Area C communities, including the Jordan Valley) refuses to grant permits to Palestinian farmers for the construction of cisterns used for rainwater collection. Cisterns that are built without permits are frequently demolished by the Israeli authorities. The high cost of tankered water has also reduced the ability of communities to pay for essentials such as food, health care, and education for their children. Unequal allocation of water, together with illegal land confiscation and settlement expansion, has allowed the Israeli agricultural industry to develop and dominate in the Jordan Valley whilst driving Palestinian inhabitants to the very edge of a viable existence. For farmers and herders in particular, the pursuit of traditional livelihoods has become increasingly difficult.

The walk set off from the small hamlet of Mak-Hul and ended in Ras Al Akhmar. There was a constant military presence during our walk. Throughout the day we heard people talk about the disparity between the Palestinian communities and the Israeli settlers, who are monopolising all the water resources and agricultural potential of the land in the Jordan Valley.

We held a Playback theatre performance in El Haddidya, gathered on dust plain next to some wheat fields, with rolling hills in the background. But this landscape has another story. It is used by the Israeli Defence Forces as a military training area and it is not unommon to hear gunshots and military planes flying overhead. This community is directly next to Roi settlement, which is fully equppied with water, electricity and sewage facilities, whereas people El Haddidya live in tents and are unable to even build basic dwellings on their own land. Even tent structures here are in danger of being demolished. We heard stories from people in the community about the hardships of their life under military occupation in the valley.

At one point during the performance, a group of people appeared on the horizon and came walking over the hill towards us. It was a group from the communities in the South Hebron Hills, which is also in Area C and faces similar problems, who had travelled to show their solidarity with the people in the Jordan Valley. After the Playback performance, the community served a beautiful lunch for hundreds of people. They brought out armfuls of bread and pots of lentil soup.

Suddenly, in the middle of lunch a huge sandstorm started. It was a fierce storm, which turned the sky dark with clouds of dust. We decided to continue our walk, and descended into the valley, but the storm quickly intensified. We had to wrap our heads up in scarves and battle through strong wind and dust blowing into our faces.

As suddenly as it had begun, the storm stopped. We stopped next to a dry riverbed and in front of a yellow water tanker, Fidaa, a hakawati storyteller, told a traditional story about water, accompanied by Hassan and Rami from Toot ‘Ard. It was a reminder that there is a deeply rooted Palestinian cultural tradition that transcends the daily brutalities of the occupation, and gives strength to resistance here.

An event like this, where people come together to hear stories and see situations first hand, engages all of our senses. This means our understanding of the situation is not purely intellectual – we listen, taste, and feel a piece of the daily reality of life in the Jordan Valley, with all its hardship and struggle. This visceral experience stays with us, mobilising us, and informing our own activism and solidarity when we return to our own countries. When all the statistics, facts and figures are forgotten, we will remember the stories we heard here and the faces of the people we have met. These encounters will sustain us as we take the struggle beyond Palestine.

‘To Exist is to Resist’: Seminar day in Jiflik


Hosted by Jordan Valley Solidarity, in the beautiful Friends’ Meeting House in Jiflik – the oldest building in the Jordan Valley – The Freedom Bus group heard talks from Mazin Qumsiyeh and Saed Abu-Hijleh about the history of Palestinian resistance, the nature of apartheid and personal experiences of living under occupation.

480446_485496198165758_736240734_n

Members of the Freedom Bus with Mazin Qumsiyeh

Mazin Qumsiyeh, Professor of Biology, Bethlehem and Birzeit University

Mazin opened his talk by questioning the idea of coming ‘in solidarity’ to Palestine. He argued that instead of thinking of ourselves as standing in ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinians, it would better to see ourselves as part of a global struggle, of which the Palestinian struggle for freedom is only one part. The same kind of people that are the cause of Palestinian suffering are the kind of people who are in positions of unjust power everywhere, he said. The problem in Palestine, Mazin argued, is not religious. It is to dowith money, resources, and greed. The Palestinian people are seen by the Israeli state as an obstacle in the way of resources.

Mazin is the author of Popular Resistance in Palestine, a book detailing Palestinian resistance against colonisation from 1881 to the present day. He talked about the first Palestinian uprising in 1881, which used petitions, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and lobbying to demand an end to colonization and the creation of a secular, democratic state. Arguing that these demands have been consistently made by Palestinians since this first uprising, Mazin put Palestinian resistance in the historical context of anti-colonial movements across the globe.

There were further Palestinian uprisings in 1917, 1921, 1929 and 1936. The history of these moments of resistance is not well known. For example, the first demonstration to use automobiles was held in Jerusalem in 1929. It was organised by Palestinian women, who arranged to bring 120 cars from across the country into the Old City in Jerusalem, where they drove through the narrow streets, horns blazing.

Mazin’s history of non-violent resistance – known in Palestine as ‘popular resistance’ – was fascinating. There are many forms such resistance can take, from weekly demonstrations to boycotts and strikes. Perhaps the most fundamental form of popular resistance is simply to remain on the land, living and working, and refusing to be moved. This kind of resistance is key to Palestinian life in Area C, where homes and infrastructure are constantly being demolished, and traditional ways of life are becoming increasingly difficult. Mazin argued that in this way, every Palestinian living in Gaza or the West Bank is engaged in resistance every day, hence the famous slogan: ‘To Exist Is To Resist.’

During the question and answer session, Mazin outlined the best ways in which internationals can help the Palestinian struggle. Firstly, he said, self-educate. Read and learn, so that you can make arguments and have discussions about Palestine and its history. Secondly, use the skills that you have. “I don’t want to see someone with excellent media skills planting trees,” Mazin said, “If you have specialist skills, use them.” Thirdly, he emphasized that the most useful work is not necessarily in Palestine itself, but in our own countries. Support in the West is key for Israel, especially in the United States and England. It is here that political work must be done to undermine this support.

Saed Abu-Hijleh, Professor of Political Geography, An Najar University

Saed began his speech by talking about his own history. Born in 1966, his formative years were spent under the occupation. In 1976, when he was 10-years-old, six Palestinians were killed in the ’48 territories during Land Day demonstrations. There were protests in response all over the West Bank. Shortly afterwards, a 15-year-old girl who was in his sister’s class was shot by an Israeli soldier. Along with other school students, he joined the demonstrations in response.

In April 1982, when he was 16, an Israeli soldier entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and shot dead four Palestinians who were praying, injuring seven others. In response, there was a mini-uprising. On 27 April, Saed joined a demonstration in Nablus along with other students. An Israeli soldier machine-gunned him with explosive bullets. Saed was shot many times, and was lucky to survive. A few months later he was sent to Israeli jail. He was sent to Al Farah prison near Tubas, which was in fact a military camp used to hold activists from all over the West Bank. While in prison Saed was tortured, beaten and whipped with electrical wires. However, Al Farah prison brought activists from many different areas together, and they were able to forge links and learn from each other. This enabled them to organise nationally, rather than just locally.

In 2002, during the second intifada, Saed’s mother, Shaden, was helping those in the local community who were being affected. She was a school teacher, and a member of the Popular Committee, involved in supporting those who needed help with shelter, food etc. One day Israeli soldiers came to Saed’s family home and shot his mother dead. She died in his arms. You can watch a video of Saed talking more about his mother and her legacy here:

Saed’s descriptions of his life and experiences were extremely moving. Saed is also a poet and we were lucky enough to hear some of his poetry, which you can read here.

March Freedom Ride: Day 1, Jenin.

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.

Stories by Firelight – An Account from the Jordan Valley

From 26-27 February 2013, the Freedom Bus held a solidarity event in several Jordan Valley communities.  The following account is written by Jo Salas, co-founder of Playback Theatre, and a participant in the Jordan Valley Solidarity Stay.

***
We are in the gentle hills of the Jordan Valley, under a starry sky, in a Bedouin village of several families on land that they have owned and grazed for centuries. The air is pungent with sheep dung. There is no electricity in the village—they are not permitted to have electricity, nor to build permanent structures—but along the ridge of the hills just a couple of hundred yards away marches a line of poles and wires carrying electricity to the nearby Jewish settlements and to the massive army base just down the road.

The Freedom Bus performers and their helpers are setting up a stage area. They’re going to do a Playback Theatre show under a spreading Doma tree hung with lanterns whose light is augmented by a blazing campfire on the side. The team is traveling with ten or so internationals on a three-day solidarity trip, visiting Bedouin, farmer, and herder communities, planting olive trees and making mud bricks, eating together, and doing Playback shows so that the villagers can tell their stories.

I’ve joined them just for this evening, driving from Jenin with Abu Naji, a famed Zajaal poet whose traditional form of improvised poetry and song will play a part in the performance. We drove through lush farmland and villages and into an exquisite valley of scattered olive trees and wildflowers. And then we see Israeli soldiers walking down the road, guns at the ready. A little further there is a checkpoint. Cars are stopped, engines off, people waiting in the warm breeze. The word is that they have closed the checkpoint because two boys in the last village threw stones at the soldiers, who are now hunting for them. In the car we are quiet but anxious. If we can’t get through this checkpoint it will take several hours to reach the village. We’ll be late for the performance. After twenty minutes the soldiers start letting cars through. They peer at us, suspicious, but let us go.

Abu Naji and Adnan in the front seat are on their cell phones, trying to find the village where we are heading. The instructions lead us onto a small side road, and then into a field. We follow a long stony track, driving very slowly. Up in the crook of the hills we find the village, and our friends.

A gaggle of excited children surround Fidaa, a storyteller from the Freedom Theatre who has been telling stories and playing with them since the team arrived earlier in the day. They chant together—the children know long verses by heart. They leave for school at 5:30 each morning, walking a long distance to the bus: the village is not permitted to build their own school. I sit on a bench that someone has dragged down to the Doma tree and after a while the children come and join me. One tiny child snuggles close and holds my hand, gazing up at me with solemn eyes. The others are shrieking, apparently convinced that if they raise their voices I’ll understand Arabic. We get as far as exchanging names and the number of siblings we each have. They have many—seven, eight, nine.

I talk with two men who are part of a solidarity organization in a nearby town. One of them, a lawyer, tells me that when he was seventeen, during the first intifada, he was imprisoned for 28 months for throwing a stone. “They counted us many times a day,” he says. “They would wake us up at two o’clock in the morning to count us.”

A few days ago I finished teaching a Playback Theatre workshop in which the Freedom Bus performers took part and we are happy to see each other again. I watch them preparing to perform, in the dark, in the dirt, in this rather chaotic atmosphere, and I marvel at their dedication and good humor. They are fueled by their passion for resistance and justice. As Palestinians they live every day with the humiliations and deprivations of the occupation. They are committed to reaching out to the people of this valley who are victimized perhaps the most of all—the poorest of the poor, invisible even to many other Palestinians, voiceless and powerless, but unshakably determined to stay on their land.

The performance begins. Abu Naji steps out and sings his welcome. I do not understand the words but his expansive gestures and full-throated voice invite us all to listen, to embrace this moment together. The conductor speaks to the audience, this odd assembly of villagers and their children, local Palestinian activists, dreadlocked young Europeans and Americans, the Freedom Bus team, and a few other visitors like myself. A man from the village expresses bemusement when Dabdoub, the conductor, asks everyone how they are doing. “It’s very strange that you’re here, with us who have nothing.” The actors play back his comment, and he laughs—“That was strange!”

Several others speak up, and then Dabdoub invites someone to come to the teller’s chair on the stage area to speak at more length about something from their lives. A middle-aged man accepts the invitation.  The soldiers came to demolish his house. He pleaded with them to let him take out some of his belongings first. They refused, and destroyed his house, and beat him, and arrested him.

The musician plays his oud and the actors enact the story. Hassan, playing the teller, picks up a handful of dirt and lets it sift through his fingers. The man watches, absorbed, and nods when it is over. A woman comes next. She talks about living in a firing zone. The children are in danger but the soldiers don’t care, she says. We hear later that people from other villages are afraid to come to this one, because of the frequent shooting. It has kept them away from the performance.

Abu Naji’s powerful voice interweaves with the action, the ornate contours of his music linking these stories of the present to centuries of music and story in this historic land.

The third story is told by a younger man. One day the soldiers accosted him out in the hills. They said that the land was a natural resource and sheep were not permitted there. He argued that the land belonged to him. His family had always grazed their sheep on it. The soldiers arrested him and took him away. They did not give him a chance to find someone to look after the sheep. Later when he was released he took his case to court. After a long struggle his right to graze sheep on his land was affirmed. But now, he said, the soldiers do not respect this decision. They still threaten and harass him.

The performance ends with Abu Naji’s voice once more. There is no resolution for these stories, no redemptive vision of change or hope. But there is the telling, and the listening. Someone stokes the fire and the conversations continue.

Image

Day Nine: September Freedom Ride ends in Beit Sahour

The final evening of the September Freedom Ride found us all gathered in the Old City of Beit Sahour to watch performances from DAM, Ministry of Dub-Key, Toot Ard, Palestine Street and the United Struggle Project. Against the background of beautiful, old Palestine houses, the sound of hip-hop and reggae echoed down narrow streets. The energy of the crowd was raucous and ecstatic. The subject of resistance was, however, never far form anyone’s mind.

The songs of these Palestinian musicians might detail some of the sufferings of daily life, but they also encourage steadfastness and resistance to the occupation. Indeed, as we have discovered throughout the ride, the very act of creating art in such a situation -whether in the form of music, film, photography, poetry or theatre – is a form of rebellion in itself.

Over and out Freedom Riders, see you next time!

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Anne Paq

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler