Dispatch from the Youth Theater Festival in Ramallah, Palestine—Part Two
It’s taken me some time to write about the end of Ashtar Theatre’s International Youth Festival. Since the final performances, three Israeli teenagers who had gone missing right when the festival started were discovered dead; Israel blamed Hamas operatives, and a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem was kidnapped and killed by Israeli extremists in retaliation. All this triggered intense demonstrations by both sides, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police for almost four days in East Jerusalem and rocket strikes between Israel and Gaza, leading to the current situation in which the death toll in Gaza is rising (as I write this it stands at 274 according to the Guardian; Ma'an News cites 298).
In a volatile, war-torn place, things change quickly and recurring issues of conflict, occupation, and survival dominate—all the more reason to have festivals like this and theatres like Ashtar that persist under such circumstances and create transformative experiences.
The final performances and the field trip we took to the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp linger vividly.
On the Road
We drive north through a landscape of olive trees, tapering pines, and valleys with white rock terraces. It is a beautiful day shimmering with heat, cool inside the bus.
We pass Israeli settlements that you can spot from far away, clusters of red-roofed houses side by side, in lines and squares. Settlements are considered illegal under international law—this explains the checkpoint towers and the presence of Israeli security forces. There is a maze of roads that gives settlers direct access to their homes but requires Palestinians to take circuitous routes. We see olive-colored military trucks with thick metal mesh enclosures. “To protect them from stone throwing,” says one of the Palestinian students, “the soldiers travel like this.” Every time you forget, something reminds you you are in an occupied land. In the Jenin refugee camp, you don’t need reminders.
Entering the camp, the first things you see are blue signs of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees. The camp is home to sixteen thousand refugees who lost their homes in the Nakba (as it is called here)—the Catastrophe—which refers to the period following 1948, when the Arab-Israeli war displaced over seven hundred thousand Palestinians.
The Freedom Theatre, which is inside the camp, was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer-Khamis, building on the work begun by his mother, Arna, to give children a creative outlet in the late 1980s, during the First Intifada. Arna was born in Israel, married a Palestinian, and devoted her life to Jenin, as documented in the film her son made about her work, Arna’s Children.
Two of the Ashtar Festival participants, brothers Kamal and Salim, live in the refugee camp and work with the theatre. Kamal has been helping with the children’s summer camp, which started a few weeks ago—boys between the ages of nine and fourteen spend the day in storytelling, dancing, and group-building activities.
We are invited to see a performance in progress. “This play,” says the director Motaz Malhees, “is about their life and who they want to be. And they have been working on it for a few days now.”
On the stage, six boys sit on desks facing away from the audience. They write intently for a few seconds, rise, carry their desks to the side, run around playing games, then take stances on different parts of the stage. They yell about the camp being attacked, run forward, mime throwing stones, huddle again, and form a line center stage.
“This is my dream,” one boy says. “I want to be a sailor and sail through the seas and challenge all the waves and everybody.” He stands on a chair and salutes. Another circles the group slowly as he talks. “I want to be a cook,” he says, “the best cook in the world, a cook who cooks all kinds of food and people will love to eat it.”
“I also have a dream,” says a third boy. “I want to become a blacksmith—a blacksmith who works with iron—and I will forge a plane and fly it all over the place.” In the end, the boys link hands and bow, shy at first and then, as we clap louder, smiling.
Jenin has come to be known for its militant and cultural resistance—in April 2002 it came under siege by the Israeli Defense Forces and in the resulting clashes about fifty Palestinians were killed. Young actors address this issue in the Freedom Theatre promotional video that we also see. Before they started acting, they say, their dream was to die as shahids, martyrs.
“But after I started acting,” says one, “I began to consider living as a martyr, not dying as one.”
It’s an hour before curtain on 28 June and I’m standing, amid a steadily growing crowd, in the courtyard of Ramallah’s Ottoman Court.
By 8 p.m., there are about one hundred people in the front courtyard of the Ottoman Court waiting for the festival’s final performance. The student dancers mingle with the audience then stop abruptly and make small movements, directing the audience to one side of the courtyard and taking their places on the other side. They begin with sudden stillness and continue with sudden movements and fluidity, take the form of a protesting crowd, raise their arms, throw, fall back, retreat, regroup, jump, increase in power, and decrease in force.
In silence, the dancers move towards the audience, motioning them to join in, and for a few seconds, everyone is together, hands linked, stamping their feet in what looks like the traditional Palestinian dance, the dabke—when suddenly two uniformed men brusquely interrupt, take two of the dancers by the arm, and haul them up the stairs to the second-floor balcony. Another actor, in the uniform of an Israeli prison guard, stands at the bottom of the stairs, guarding the entrance. The shock is palpable for a second, and then someone giggles, realizing that it is part of the performance. Everyone walks up to the second floor balcony in single file, past the guard who sometimes lets them pass easily, and sometimes not.
Upstairs we wait, crowding the balcony, a mixed audience—women with headscarves, children in shorts, expats, artists, international NGO workers, and government employees. The doors behind the mesh open and guards herd out three boys and one girl, dressed in loose prison garb. The prisoners begin speaking as if to relatives, their voices overlapping, asking if the demonstrations are making any difference, how things are on the outside.
A woman tells her fiancé, “Please, if you want to get married, get married. I don’t know how long I’ll be here but I’d like to see you happy.”
There are over five thousand Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons, some are political prisoners who have been jailed for years, while others are “administrative detainees” who can, and are, held for up to six months without Israel having to provide a reason. Every six months, their sentence can also be increased.
Abruptly, the lights go out. The prisoners are led back into the rooms. As the door shuts loudly behind them, a muezzin’s call for prayer sounds from a mosque nearby. A woman near me wipes her tears and everyone claps.
The event continues with the high farce of a commedia dell’arte performance and an installation piece featuring monologues about beauty, harassment, and self-image.
Later, when I catch up with the young coordinators of the festival, Émile André and Lamis Shalaldeh, they are still reeling. “I wasn’t sure how it would turn out,” says Lamis, “but really, with this group, with what we did in ten days, it was a miracle.” Sixteen-year old Firas adds, “Before the festival, I would call myself very self-centered, but now I feel so open. I got to know so many people, people here in Ramallah I didn’t know before, not to mention Norwegians and Germans and Brits and Americans.”
In a short video I put together quickly on the last day, the festival participants play around with the festival’s theme, “now has passed,” with different gestures and deliveries. My favorite is the end, when Waleed and George do a playful sequence in Arabic:
“Now is past,” says one.
“No,” says the other, “the past is now.”
“Actually, now is now.”
“Ah, ok.” They agree, shake hands, and walk out of frame, laughing.