I spent last Christmas in the Aida refugee camp in occupied Bethlehem watching children dance, then looking in as a teacher gave a piano lesson to a young boy.
The day was cold and rainy; and far from home and family, I was feeling somewhat down until peace activist Mazin Qumsiyeh invited me to join him on a visit to meet Abdelfattah Abusrour, playwright and director of Al Rowwad, the cultural and theater center based at the camp.
Four of us crammed into the back seat of Mazin’s car as he swerved along the rain slicked stone streets heading for Aida, where he served on the board of directors.
As we rounded narrow roads leading to the camp, hillside grapevines and olive trees gave way to high walls blocking the restful view of farmlands on the other side. During past visits to Palestine, I had watched teary-eyed farmers look on helplessly while tractors tore up crops, workers poured cement, and walls expanded; their grotesque monotony broken later only by spray-painted pictures and graffiti, pitiful cries to free Palestine.
Aida Camp lies north of Bethlehem and south of Jerusalem; two holy cities separated by a thirty-foot wall. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, wire barricades began to appear around the refugee camp and within the next few years, giant walls circled it on three sides. A short time later, the ugly gray concrete began to take on a new face. Colorful pictures told stories of the dreams of youngsters who lived within its prison-like walls. A stairway showing children walking up to the top needed no words.
We meet Abusrour (Abdel for short) in his office. A copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hangs on the wall behind the desk accompanied by pictures of peacemakers, among them, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, and Albert Einstein.
We are served coffee as Abdel begins telling us about Al Rowwad, an Arab word, he says, that means “pioneer.” Describing himself as a “social entrepreneur,” he speaks enthusiastically about the cultural center and the programs offered to children who have nowhere to go and have known little about the world beyond walls and soldiers with guns.
“Our goal is to show an image other than violence; teaching children to rise above the violence and humiliation they face daily is an effective way to resist without bloodshed and to rebuild hope. Art, music, dance and theater are tools with power to resist occupation and to instill ‘peace within.’ We focus on youth and parents, especially mothers.”
He explains that when Israeli soldiers intimidate and goad youngsters to react in anger, in the past, frustration led children who saw no hope, no future to react violently – throwing stones, and even driving some to become suicide bombers. Each martyr brought pity for Israel, more funding for security and increased suppression of our people.
“Growing up under occupation, these children know only images of violence; everyday they see Israeli soldiers with guns, feel defenseless and have low self-esteem.”
As violence from Palestinians diminished, resistance to occupation grew and took another direction. With no army, no airplanes and punishing long prison terms for anyone caught with weapons, armed confrontation against Israel’s strong military was senseless; non-violent resistance was the only reasonable option.
“Occupation creates despondency,” he says, “but blaming it does not bring change; we don’t have the luxury of despair; what counts is to make each day more beautiful than the last. We ask the question, ‘who am I?” then let them see they are Palestinian through art, music, dance, sports and theater. Peace within comes before peace with Israel… children must believe they can create miracles within instead of reacting outside.”
“All religions share these values… and with or without money, we do it; it’s an act of partnership to keep us human.”
The theater program began in the home of his parents. He says the values he learned from them growing up is the “engine” that keeps Al Rowwad (an Arabic word that means “pioneer”) going. They taught me that if you practice violence, even if the cause is just, you lose part of your humanity.
Abdel grew up in the Aida refugee camp and understands the frustrations of children and the parents who have lived all their lives under the control of foreign occupation. As a young adult, he studied medical engineering in Paris; he also took acting classes and performed in French theater, where social change is a common theme. He returned to Palestine on the brink of the Second Intifada, which began in 2000. During Israeli invasions of Bethlehem, Al Rowwad became the emergency clinic at Aida camp.
“Artists should use their power to make a statement not just to entertain…when we are involved in the arts; we are united in [our] culture against tragedy.”
Abdel led us into a large room where other internationals joined our small group as we took seats along one side of the room. About a dozen children aged from pre to late -teen filed in and sat quietly facing us a short distance away. Abed spoke to them in Arabic, introducing us and acknowledging our respective countries; then asked them if they had questions for us. Curious, but shy, they were hesitant. Mazin broke the ice by telling them that today was Christmas, a major holiday where we came from; then described Santa coming down chimneys with sacks of toys for good children. Amused, some children stifled giggles, looked quizzically at a neighbor or just stared back wide-eyed. Asked to tell about their traditions, we heard about gift giving and traditional new clothes during Ramadan. One girl said she hid hers under her pillow.
Abdel then appealed to the reluctant children to show us the debka dance they had been rehearsing. Led by an older student, they performed the traditional Palestinian dance with confidence and pride, synchronized to near perfection.
“The older ones become teachers,” Abdel explained, “that way, we pass on tradition. Children see how they can be change makers; and we should be proud when they ask us, what did you do to make a change?”
Similar to Alrowwad, the cities of Jenin and Ramallah also have theater groups that do not work with Israel. Abdel explains, “When Muslims, Jews and Christians are all treated equally, then we can work together.”
Throughout history, artistic expression has been the target of tyrants aware of its power to challenge authority and create change. Armed only with the power to influence, oppressors take action with censorship and violence. On April 4, 2011, theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis was gunned down in front of the Freedom Theatre where he taught drama to children in the Jenin refugee camp north of Bethlehem.
The son of a Palestinian father and Jewish mother Arna Mer, founder of the Freedom Theatre, the cultural activist had continued her work of teaching theater to children. Like Juliano, Abdel believes theater and culture redirect anger and empower young people to resist militant threats nonviolently. Abdel smiles, “It’s a beautiful resistance.”
The children of Al Rowwad have performed in Europe and in the United States. Abusrour tours the US again in April and May 2012. His visit includes Tampa and Pinellas County.