March Freedom Ride: Day 2 and 3, Ein Hiluwe and Khirbit Samra

Driving to Ein Hiluwe took us past a large Israeli military base and through hills where we could see soldiers training. We watched as they climbed the slopes in formation, armed with heavy weaponry. Now and again we would hear the loud roar of military planes passing overhead.

Gathering in a tent in the small village Ein Hiluwe, we sat under kerosene lanterns and watched a performance from the Freedom Bus Playback troupe, joined by Zajaal poet, Abu Naji. We heard stories from the local community that highlighted some of the difficulties of living in the Jordan Valley, including unequal access to water and harassment from the Israeli military.

A man called Khadri told a story about trying to get water from a local well. There were settlers waiting for him when he got there. When his tank was half full, the settlers called the Israeli army. The soldiers came and poured away his water. He had to travel over six kilometres to another spring to get his water. He was furious. He said that he remembers a time when water was just a natural resource that anyone could take from the ground.

A shepherd called Nabil volunteered to tell a story. He was grazing sheep with a friend one day when Israeli soldiers approached them and told them they had five minutes to leave. When the soldiers returned five minutes later and Nabil and his friend were still there, one soldier tried to pull a gun. Nabil’s dogs jumped on the soldier. This made the solider so angry that they arrested Nabil and took him to an isolated area, where one of the soldiers pulled out a knife. Nabil was convinced he was going to die. When the Israeli captain came, the soldier threw the knife into the undergrowth to hide it. However, the commanding offer colluded with the other soldiers, saying that he had seen the shepherds throwing stones. The captain told Nabil that if he ever saw him again he would kill him.

In Khirbit Samra, another small village on the other side of the hillside, volunteers from the Freedom Bus helped to build a school for the local children from traditional mud bricks. Currently, the children of Khirbit Samra have to get up at 5.30am in order to travel to a school that is far away. Volunteers shared songs from their different countries while they worked. Hassan and Rami from the band Toot ‘Ard, and Fidaa, a hakwati (traditional storyteller) and other Freedom Bus riders, played music and told stories to the children of Khirbit Samra. There are over 50 children living in the village. That night, sitting under lanterns hung from the large central tree, we heard stories of the struggles their parents face while trying to raise them in such hard conditions. The Playback troupe was joined by musicians from Toot ‘Ard, and traditional Zajaal poet, Abu Naji.

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Mahyoub, a man from Khirbit Samra, shared a story of an event that happened two years ago. One day he was returning from shepherding and found the village full of Israeli military jeeps and bulldozers. He saw that they were in the process of demolishing his house. “I was afraid they were demolishing the house over the heads of my children,” he said, “I felt as though it was the end of the world.” The soldiers told him to shut up, and tried to prevent him from getting near his house. He stood in front of the bulldozer shouting, “Stop! Stop!” He was dragged away by a soldier and hit on the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. They took him to the hillside nearby and pointed a gun at head, telling him not to move. Luckily, his children were not physically hurt in the demolition, but his story emphasised the huge struggle parents in these traditional communities face while trying to give their children safe and happy childhoods.

A man called Abdullah shared a very painful story about his father. His father was very sick and had to be moved from a hospital in Jenin to one in Nablus. As they tried to pass through the nearby checkpoint, the soldier refused to let them through. Abdullah pleaded with him, asking, “What if this was your father and I was refusing to let you through?” But the solider just kept repeating that they could not pass. Abdullah had no choice. He had to carry his father on his back for 1.5km. At one point his father fell and injured his foot. “Perhaps it is better that I die here,” he said to Abdullah. “No,” Abdullah replied, “We must keep struggling. One day things will get better.” Abdullah’s father died, and he was not even allowed to bury him in his own land.

This story highlighted the way in which the occupation controls all parts of Palestinian life; from birth and childhood, to old age and death.

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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.

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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.

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