Dispatch from the Youth Theater Festival in Ramallah, Palestine—Part One

I write from Ramallah, Palestine, in the middle of Ashtar Theatre’s Second International Youth Festival.  It’s been four days since the festival started, but it feels longer as intense experiences do—we have all spent hours together, in workshops and out of them, getting to know each other and our art-making, and also getting a historical and political education. The festival began on the evening of June 20 with an opening address in the garden of a white-walled guest house and conference center.

The speakers, in Arabic and English were Émile André and Lamis Shalaldeh, both young graduates of Ashtar Theater’s drama program and coordinators of the festival. They welcomed us by declaring, “Despite the problematic political situation, we have managed to prove that art is larger than borders and checkpoints.” The group they addressed, sitting around small tables, was current Ashtar theater students, twelfth graders from Norway’s Kongsbakken Upper Secondary School in Tromsø and workshops leaders from countries such as Palestine, Germany, and Romania.

The missing were notable too: a group from Tunisia did not get permission till it was too late to buy tickets; a trainer from Egypt was still waiting for visa clearance; and a small contingent from the UK were being detained by Israeli security forces at the airport in Tel Aviv and no one was sure, that evening, whether they would be allowed in. Eventually, one would be denied entrance.

Ramallah is in the Central West Bank, north of Jerusalem, in Zone A of occupied Palestine, an area administered by the Palestinian Authority, but which requires passing through an Israeli checkpoint to enter and leave. It is a city of cream-colored buildings, brown hills and valleys, fig and pomegranate trees, cafes and bars.

In 2012, eleven young theater students succeeded in starting Ashtar’s first youth festival. Ashtar Theatre, which was founded in 1991 by Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem, describes itself as “a dynamic local Palestinian theatre with a truly progressive global perspective.” Their core programs are drama training of local youth through an extracurricular after school program, Theater of the Oppressed Forum Theatre productions that explore “essential critical topics in Palestinian society” and international collaborations. This year’s youth festival, once again organized by its students, will also be their graduation project. The theme is “now has passed.”

“The idea is,” says Artistic Director Aoun, “to seize the moment because the present is already past. We are doing this festival to break the isolation of our young artists, connect them with other international artists and their mentors.” The workshops will culminate in a performance at the Ottoman Court, built in the early 1900s as a police station and court in the old city of Ramallah. It has an amphitheater space, a garden, balconies and walkways, and a small underground dungeon-like prison room.

 

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That evening, at the opening dinner, the Palestinian and Norwegian kids sat at separate tables—till someone brought out a microphone. Then Nour went up and sang folk songs while Uday accompanied her on a tabla, Linn from the Norwegian group sang a trembling trill of a song, and then all the kids—from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem—ran up to the mic and sang the Palestinian national anthem. The Norwegians responded with their anthem; someone put on a song with a driving beat and together they all danced into the night.

Video of Palestinian national anthem:

 

 

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In the first few days of the festival, the workshops have been taking their distinct shapes quickly.

 

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Munich-based choreographer Anna Konjetzky and dancer Sahra Huby are long time collaborators. They led participants through a series of kinetic exercises, jumps, lunges, small movements with hands, big movements with bodies, leading to a final performance that will focus on the power of group dynamics, influenced by the gestures of street protests. Their dance installation “Abdrücke folge” (“Following imprints,” choreographed by Konjetzky) which features Hubry performing in a space edged with white borders resonated powerfully with the students.

 

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Live artist and theater director from Romania, Ioana Paun’s workshop will be an exploration into “what is stringent for the students now, what they want to change” and a final performance as “collective action.” In one of the workshop exercises, participants staged “images:” Two girls stood a few feet apart, connected by strands of blue plastic, one encircled herself with her arms, the other stood by an open window. The image symbolized the feeling, said one of the girls, of “my father managing to change his identity card from Gaza to the West Bank. It’s important because with a Gaza travel card, you can't really go anywhere but with a West Bank card, at least you can travel within what is left of Palestine.”

 

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“So it’s a positive thing,” I said, “and yet why is one of you by the window?”

“Because," she said, "here in the West Bank it looks like sometimes we can see freedom, but really it is so precarious.”

 

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In the workshop of Mohammed Eid, an actor and director at Ashtar, the subject is the Palestinian political prisoner. To prepare, students played sensory and physical games employing the Theater of the Oppressed methodology to break down barriers; they also spent time enclosed in a small space. In the final performance, as Eid tells them, “some of you will be prisoners, some guards and the audience, without their knowing it, will be led through the path that family of detainees go through to see their loved ones.” Over 5000 Palestinians are currently prisoners; until recently 75 of them were on a hunger strike.

Walking into the workshop of Roar Sørli and Per Sand Øey, drama teachers and directors from Tromsø, Norway, you often hear a lot of laughter. They have been teaching improv exercises and Commedia dell’Arte techniques. Students tried on masks and mimicked gestures and acrobatic movements of archetypical characters such as the melodramatic lovers and the clownish Harlequin. For the final performance, they will develop a plot featuring an oppressor who compels the protagonist into cycles of repetitive actions. They have directed their high school students in a version of Ashtar’s pioneering production, The Gaza Mono-Logues, a series of thirty one monologues written by teenagers in the Gaza strip during the 2008-09 war. Since their debut in 2010, the monologues have been performed in over thirty countries around the world.

Gaza Monologues video:

 

We get to see excerpts from this powerful production: one evening, the Norwegian and another, the Arabic version. Performed by four Ashtar students, the performance began with bodies covered in a sheet, rising, pulling, pushing, a face appearing, disappearing, imprints of faces against cloth, hands stretched out into the dark, and resonant lines about loss, freedom, and destruction.

More from Ramallah in about a week, after the festival has ended, after we’ve gone to see the refugee camp Jenin and its renowned Freedom Theatre, and after the final performances in the Ottoman Court.  As I wrote to a friend today, “As much as I have words for this experience, what I have more is silence because there is so much, that is beautiful and intense, to process in this encounter with young Palestinian voices.”

 

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