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Palestinian Theatre as Resistance

Nikki Hodgson | Posted July 19th, 2011 | Middle East

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Originally published on the AIC website. During AIC’s Culture is Resistance Week, five Palestinian actors discuss the role of theatre in resisting Israel’s oppression, and how they chose this path of national and personal liberation.

Theatre as Resistance
Theatre as Resistance

Mustafa, a Palestinian filmmaker, sits flanked by two actors from Jenin’s Freedom Theatre. They lean comfortably into their chairs, their arms draped casually across each other’s shoulders.

“We don’t see any other meaning of theatre,” Mustafa begins in response to the question of theatre as resistance. “It’s all based on resistance. For us it’s a need, an absolute need. There is nothing for the children to do. No school, no education. Our culture is targeted by the Israeli occupation.”

On 6 July, during the second evening of the AIC Culture is Resistance! Week, individuals from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp and the Yes Theatre in Hebron met with internationals and Palestinians to discuss the importance of theatre as a form of resistance.

Founded by Arna Mer Khamis during the First Intifada, the Freedom Theatre has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. After the Second Intifada her son, Juliano Mer Khamis, came back to direct the organization his mother had founded. He lived and worked in the refugee camp until his assassination earlier this year by an as of yet unknown gunman.

Mahmoud, on Mustafa’s right, fought for seven years before putting down his M-16 to join the theatre. To Mustafa’s left, a former drug dealer. “These two were the worst boys you could imagine,” he says. Now they are actors and role models. In 2008 they traveled to Germany to perform the play “Fragments of Palestine.”

Mustafa continues, “We used to take tanks as taxis. This is how our mentality is destroyed by the occupation. In the theatre we are starting with the destroyed mind of a Palestinian child. Juliano…he recognized this and began to address the problems of the occupation by focusing on the inside of the person.”

Raed Shiokhi of the Yes Theatre, founded in 2008, drops his hands between his knees and leans forward. “A man without hope is a dangerous man. This is what I always used to say.” Raed, active during the First Intifada, was seriously injured in 1988. After losing two of his best friends in the conflict, Raed considered becoming a suicide bomber. “I had no job, barely finished school, no hope, no security…I tried to join religious groups, to convince them to take me, but nobody cared about me.”

In 1997 a friend working in the Palestinian Ministry of Culture convinced him to try acting. “There I discovered I am valuable and that life deserves to be lived.” After 14 years of working as an actor, Raed stresses the importance of working with children and involving them in theatre programs. “Theatre is a form of education and emotional management. It teaches them to use the theatre instead of the gun.”

Here there is an interjection. “We cannot say instead of the gun. It is beside the gun. We can show people an alternative form of resistance, but we are not here to tell them which forms of resistance to choose.”

Mohammed Issa from the Yes Theatre responds that the theatrical movement in Palestine began in the 1920s and that a renaissance of the theatrical movement occurred in 1967. “Theatre is one of the most important tools to resist…We use theatre to promote the message of the Palestinian people.” He goes on to explain the delicate balance between funding and theatre. “Mix money with creativity, and be sure you will lose a lot of things.”

However all of the men agree that theatre in Palestine is not simply about resisting the occupation or portraying the plight of the Palestinian people. It is also an important medium to address difficult themes within Palestinian society. “There are no limits in front of you,” Mustafa explains. “On stage you can talk about homosexuality or women’s sexuality.” It is a place to deal with issues that are not openly discussed. The Freedom Theatre in particular has come under the wrath of a more conservative culture and some artists take to the stage at personal risk.

The evening ends with a humorous skit portraying a Palestinian going through a checkpoint. The audience laughs as a half-naked actor stands in front of a perfect portrayal of an Israeli soldier; the aviator sunglasses, the waving of his gun, and the refusal to speak unless shouting orders. He snatches the hat off of the Palestinian. “Not like this,” the actor portraying the Palestinian shouts. “If you want me to remove my hat, you ask me. I will do it.” The soldier kicks him back through the metal detector.

Throughout the evening, theatre weaves its way in and out of the personal stories of these five men. Earlier Mustafa translated the story of Mahmoud and how he went from a freedom fighter to the Freedom Theatre.

But now Mahmoud addresses the crowd in English.

“We [Palestinians] believe in all forms of resistance. A kid throwing a stone. We believe in him. A man with a gun. We believe in him. Man with pen and paper. We believe in him. For seven years I was a fighter with a gun. Now I am a fighter on stage.”

Just Another Day in the Office

Nikki Hodgson | Posted June 24th, 2011 | Middle East

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The Alternative Information Center is a joint Israeli-Palestinian activist organization focused on political advocacy, grassroots activism and an end to occupation. Here you find news of resistance within Israeli society, settler violence against Palestinians, the economy of oppression, and the daily struggle to carve out a life within the fissures of a long-standing conflict.

It is within this organization that I am beginning to find my place. After my morning run where I keep an eye out for wild dogs and taxis zipping too quickly around the corners, I head to the office. There is a portable stove with two gas burners. It’s a daunting nest of wires and cables and the knob to turn on the gas is broken. We use a spoon to turn the switch and there is a whoosh as the flames spring forward, licking the sides of the coffee pot. I suppress the urge to make the sign of the cross every time I light this contraption. Boiling the coffee 7 times for good luck (Hey, it can’t hurt…) I set it on a tray amongst an array of mismatched cups and carry it downstairs to offer my colleagues coffee.

When your addiciton to coffee is stronger than your fear of explosion...
When your addiciton to coffee is stronger than your fear of explosion...

Then I scan the news. I start with the BBC and move to the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times and the International Herald. From there I check Reuters, the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz 7, Ma’an, Electronic Intifada and the Palestinian News Network. I’m looking for stories and information to fill in the gaps between what I glean from the ground.

There is no water again. Why? An impromptu checkpoint has been set up just out of town. Why? Internationals are no longer able to board the bus to Jerusalem from Beit Jala. Why?  Two Palestinian minors were arrested and detained last night. Why? The IDF has destroyed wells in Hebron. Why? The settlement across the valley is expanding. Why? The talks have been derailed again? Why?

As a child I was under the impression that I could dig to China. I set about with a plastic shovel and began digging in the sandbox of my school’s playground. I felt that if I could just dig a little deeper, a tunnel would appear before me and I would tumble through and land in China. Only that didn’t happen. Instead I hit a wall, a layer of cement. It is the same thing here. I keep digging and digging, believing that at some point I will come through the other side. Instead I hit walls of every form imaginable.

Every day I face an inner struggle to keep moving forward and to continue as undaunted as when I first began. Every day I learn a little bit more about journalism and about finding that line between the truth and personal safety. My own and that of those around me. Every day I become a little more exasperated with ideological extremists and a little bit more enamored with the hopeful idealists.

And I ask myself, why have I chosen such an impossible situation to muddle through? I can’t answer that. I didn’t choose this place. I fell into it and when I tried to pack it away neatly under “interesting academic experiences abroad,” I could not.

I look at my colleagues furiously typing away or conducting loud conversations on the phone, cups of coffee and ashtrays litter their desks and plumes of smoke curl lazily toward the ceiling. They are Palestinians who are clinging to this land as daily oppression beats their hands away. They are Israelis refusing the complacency of a life that does not question what happens on the other side of the wall. They are Italians, French, Americans, and British who have somehow ensnared themselves in this beautiful and tragic place. Perhaps they came out of curiosity or a desperate attempt to fix a problem they feel partially responsible for. We reach through the barbed wire hoping to clamp down on some elusive symbol of peace. A dove, a rainbow, an olive branch. Something to assure us that the end of checkpoints, fear, and degradation is nearer than we think.

But as we tumble our languages together over yet another cup of coffee, we realize that the English word for the bird of peace is too similar to the Italian word for “where.” Dove. Dove (do-vay). One subtle flick of the tongue is the difference between finding peace and searching for it, reminding us that what works on paper does not always correspond to reality.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem

The Swing of Things

Nikki Hodgson | Posted June 20th, 2011 | Middle East

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A slight breeze ruffles the stagnant summer air that has settled heavily into our office space. I found a powdered mix of Oregon Chai sitting neglected on a dusty shelf in the market across the street and I am happy to relish the creature comfort of sipping out of a normal-sized mug. The minuscule cups of Arabic coffee are perfect for a social gathering, but I am habituated to the American ritual of sitting down to work with a gargantuan mug of coffee…or in this case Oregon Chai. I’ll take what I can get.

Bethlehem/Beit Sahour
Bethlehem/Beit Sahour

Saturday morning and not many people are in the office. The Palestinian weekend is often split in order to accommodate both Muslims and Christians. Last night there was a big party on the rooftop of a colleague’s house. Palestinians, French, Italians, Spanish, Irish, British, Mexicans and Americans buzz excitedly, the rising crescendo of conversation throws words down onto the street and passerby’s catch snippets of dialogue: “referendum” “revolution” “civil resistance” “checkpoint” and “soldier.” We are a motley crew of global citizens, but we all have a passion for politics and peace. It’s what brought us stumbling into this place. And now we reinforce those ideals over an array of Palestinian salads and Taybeh beer.

The past week has found me quietly stepping into the swing of things. I know the toll this place can take on a person’s well-being and I give myself more space than necessary, careful to allow myself the chance to process the overwhelming frustration I feel while going through checkpoints and to cry the tears I choke back in public.

Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint
Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint

I rise every morning at 5:00 a.m. to go for my daily run through the hills of Beit Sahour. The desert hills, the scrubby vegetation, the roosters crowing, and the donkeys leaning lazily against wooden posts are the only witnesses to my morning ritual. I release my fury by sprinting up hills. In the evening I sit quietly on the roof of my apartment building and scan myself for any unprocessed emotion.  Exasperated by the leering and heckling of Palestinian boys? Disgusted by the disgraceful behavior of a rude soldier? Shocked by the extreme hatred of a settler? Grateful for the hug of a friend? Or maybe just irritated by the incessant cigarette smoke.

For me, actively processing these emotions is a necessary part of thriving here. It is too exhausting to passively ride the waves of buried frustration or to be swept away by the sudden tsunamis of fury and sadness.

The normal stress of living in a different country is compounded by the fact that internationals (particularly Americans) often arrive armed only with optimism and an innocent faith in a non-existent justice system. We arrive here eager to help, but ill-equipped to process life under an oppressive military rule. Some adapt, some can’t wait to get out, and some fall to pieces.

Me? I run, write, and reach out. Those are my “three R’s” to maintaining my peace of mind. I know I will have my days of crumpling sadness and impassioned frustration, but this time I am prepared and will not be caught off-guard. Sometimes it’s enough just to slip into the air-conditioned haven of CaféSima in Bethlehem. Chocolate cupcakes, iced lattes and sympathetic conversation can work wonders.

CaféSima
CaféSima

Other times I indulge in some outrageously expensive American import (Arizona Green Tea, anyone?) and spend the evening trying to load Golden Girls on YouTube. If it gets really bad, I retain the option to retreat to Tel Aviv (The Bubble) or Eilat. Two Israeli cities so (psychologically) far removed from the conflict that if it weren’t for the occasional sight of a soldier casually slinging an M-16 over his shoulder as he boards a bus, life would feel almost normal.

Back to Bethlehem

Nikki Hodgson | Posted May 16th, 2011 | Middle East

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It’s been a year and a half since I left the West Bank after living and working there for 6 months. As I prepare to head back to Bethlehem to work with the Alternative Information Center as an AP peace fellow, my mind pulls images from various scenes of my last visit. Waiting outside my apartment for the Arab-Israeli taxi that will take me through the checkpoint and into Jerusalem, my host family stands around my packed bags as my host mother scurries around trying to fit a few more items into my carry-on: the Arabic coffee I love, some Palestinian pastries, a bag of spices. I hug my friends good-bye and tell them I will see them again. Inshallah, they say. God-willing.

Standing in line at the Ben Gurion airport, an Israeli soldier approaches me for the initial screening questions. She carefully examines my passport, asking me questions about how long I’ve been in Israel and what I’ve been doing. She closes my passport.

“Have you been to the West Bank?”

Images of my host family flash through my head.

“Just to Bethlehem. To visit.”

We stare at each other for a few moments. My heart is thudding in my chest. I have the names and addresses of all of my Israeli friends in my pocket. Just in case. But she hands me my passport, and motions for me to get back in line. They conduct a routine search of my luggage, pulling each item out one by one before I am allowed to retrieve my boarding pass.

As the plane lifts up above Tel Aviv, I look at the lights scattered along the coast and reaching out toward the hills, imagining that I can see Jerusalem and just beyond that– Bethlehem. The desert hills are bathed in moonlight as they exude a peace their inhabitants have rarely known.

Now as I pack my bags to return to Tel Aviv and then onto Bethlehem, I set aside the contact information of my friends in Israel and carefully scan every item of my luggage looking for anything that might trigger the suspicion of an Israeli soldier.

I am eager to be heading back. I am fond of both Israel and the West Bank which sometimes puts me in awkward situations at dinner tables on both sides. Living in the West Bank naturally inspired a certain amount of bias as I lived the occupation day in and day out. The unpleasant encounters I had with ideological settlers and IDF soldiers left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nonetheless I was fortunate enough to work for a joint organization and had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time in Israel. Working with Friends of the Earth Middle East introduced me to many amazing Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians who are working together to protect their environmental resources.

As I spent more and more time in Israel, it became increasingly difficult to take sides. How could I begin to negotiate my way through such a complicated set of extremes? The hatred I experienced from Israeli settlers in Hebron versus the thoughtfulness and selflessness of the many Israelis I knew who were working toward peace. Or when the rocket attacks of Hamas militants stood in stark contrast to the grace, generosity, and patience of my Palestinian friends and colleagues? There is no way to negotiate through this complicated mire of humanity and come out with a neat picture that makes international policy simple and a peace agreement within easy reach. There is no way to paint a picture where violence makes sense and losses are easily assuaged. Grief paints the same face the world over.

In an area of deeply embedded allegiances, I developed even more respect for the Israelis and Palestinians choosing to fight for peace at the risk of being considered a traitor or a coward.

This time around, though I will be again residing in Beit Sahour, I am determined to draw more connections between the Israeli and Palestinian activists. I am looking forward to spending as much time as possible following the revolutionaries and peace activists in Israel. The refuseniks–or conscientious objectors– for example have piqued my interest and I want to know more about the teenagers in this video. Are the numbers of Israeli conscientious objectors increasing or have they stayed the same or decreased even? What is their life like in Israel after they refuse to serve? What did their families and friends say? Do they regret their decision or stand by it just as firmly as before?

There are so many different angles and sides to this conflict, and yet it seems that we only ever see the same stereotyped portrayals again and again and again. The AIC is one organization trying to change that, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Fellow: Nikki Hodgson

AIC


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activism adapting AIC Alternative Information Center American Israel Public Affairs Committee Bil'in blockade Congress Culture daily life Diplomacy Flotilla Flytilla Freedom Theatre Gaza Glenn Beck Green Line Hebron human rights hypocrisy IDF Israel Jenin Jerusalem Matzpen Palestine Protest Restoring Courage Settlers Theatre U.S. West Bank


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