Freedom Theatre tells hidden Palestinian stories

Volunteers build a house in Fasayi'il in the Jordan Valley. Photo from Derek Oakley.

Fasayi'il, in the Jordan Valley, 8pm on a Friday evening; a desert community bathed in the glow of the moon, with barely an artificial light visible for miles.

In the centre of the village a single tent shines, accompanied by a soundtrack of music, singing and laughter. Inside, four black-clad Palestinian actors mime interpretations of stories shared by locals.

There are timely contributions from an accompanying Dabke musician on oud and tablah (traditional arabic string instrument and drum) and improvised rhymes from noted Zajaal poet Abu Naji. They are the dramatic movements of the soldier and shepherd, the fighting and the dying, filling the space and capturing the attention of the 30 or so villagers present.

Speaking afterwards, a local farmer who had been “gifted” such a performance, said: “It is good that you are here. Seeing [the performance] was like reliving the experience.”

This is playback theatre, a method of directly connecting artists with the stories of a community, delivered here by the Freedom Theatre troupe as part of their Freedom Bus project.

For three days, Palestinians and international solidarity activists, including myself and a colleague from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, have converged on Fasayi'il to work with the community.

The aim is to learn about the “particular struggles of their life under occupation, apartheid and colonialism” in the words of Freedom Bus director Ben Rivers. He is taking the project all around the West Bank, with the intention of using traditional Palestinian cultural methods to help to connect a community to the strengths and resources that lie within traditions and identity that precede the occupation.

The nature of the visits vary with the struggles and traditions specific to the area. Fasayi'il is like much of the Jordan Valley region, which has been de facto annexed by Israel, human rights group B'Tselem said.

Structures built by Palestinian Bedouin communities are regularly demolished. Local group Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign (JVSC), which helped coordinate the stay and hosts visitors in Fasayi'il, undertakes building work using traditional mud-brick methods.

The Freedom Bus visit is an opportunity for a wider range of activists to get their hands dirty with this work. Rashed, coordinator of JVSC, says: “We adhere to the support of survival in the face of and against the occupation … we are here to support the survival of people in Fasayi'il and resist racism and the house demolition that Israel uses to try to move people, and create solidarity for different groups including children, women, and men.”

The group labours in the desert sun to mix dirt, water and straw with hands and feet. The work involves digging holes to plant olive trees, a powerful symbol of Palestinian culture. Rashed said planting olive trees provides, “confirmation of the identity of the land, where the olive trees [have been] a long time and [are considered] a blessed and fruitful tree”.

Volunteers can be heard conversing in English, French and Spanish as well as Arabic. Actors and storytellers mix with local and international students, workers and travellers to join in the work in between their own sessions with local children and rehearsals for the evening sessions.

Storyteller Fidaa Ataya, who studied in Egypt to hone her craft, makes a link between the physical and creative aspects of the program: “I bring my story and also draw out those of the children here to mix them together. I can take energy and feeling from them and connect with them more when I work with them in this building.”

The artists are keen to emphasise the mutually reinforcing dynamic they intend to promote through their performances. They view maintaining and recreating Palestinian traditions to tell Palestinian stories as a form of resistance. The specific sense of place in each location has a role in maintaining and enriching that resistance.

“I want to bring support for them to stay here and they can give me energy to keep supporting them (with my stories). For example, I saw a tree here for the very first time that I only know from traditional Palestinian stories. I was inspired to tell that story under the very same tree.”

During our stay in Faysi’il, many individuals affected by the daily violence of military occupation got the chance to see and hear their stories in new forms and share them with the community and their visitors. As the Freedom Bus continues its tour, the company will integrate learning from this activity into the next to ensure that the project responds to and reflects experiences on the ground.

And what of the international solidarity activists? American actor and writer Danny, who is travelling Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories researching a one-man show about the conflict, said: “To see rural Palestine and, whilst my own project is more interesting, to give back in a more immediate way…

“It’s about learning and living freely out of the tradition of the people that live here.”

He is unsure about the long-term impact of a process like Playback used in this context, but is sanguine about the experience: “Is it healing? Is it serving a purpose?” It is difficult to tell …

“The combination of manual labour and an artistic attempt to connect is great. The interaction is valuable to me and I hope that people here feel this way too.”

On the emotional level, Rivers is confident: “The Playback Theatre events were very powerful ... An opportunity for emotional release for the tellers and consciousness-raising of non-locals.”

For a more tangible physical legacy, hundreds of bricks will be produced and laid, raising the walls of a house in the vulnerable area of middle Fasayi’il, where families now live in tarpaulin tents.

The Israeli legal system and military views any such activity in the area as illegal. This is why Israeli Defense Force bulldozers have leveled the entire village at least eight times over the past decade, destroying around 25 structures each time.

As a result, such building is a constructive form of non-violent resistance.

On January 22, Rashed was arrested and detained for three hours by the IDF. The same day, villagers in Fasay’il were verbally warned by IDF soldiers that their houses would be demolished again soon.

There remains a clear and present danger to the community and a need for more and stronger international attention and solidarity. The participants in this solidarity work leave charged with a deeper connection to this place, its mud on our clothes and its stories in our hearts.

I leave contemplating these words from Fidaa Ataya: “Art is a tool for resistance and a kind of education. Without art I can’t make change.”

[Derek Oakley works for Quaker Peace and Social Witness as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.]

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