Tuesday 24 June 2014

(S3) Palestine part 2 - The Freedom Theatre

I am torn - between a place I have grown to love and my place of birth and upbringing. The last time I wrote to you all, my story didn't end happily and I wrote in that email that I would assure you that it would get better, so be assured, it got much better - I was just too lazy to write about it. I've found writing helps me to express my sadness or anger but happiness is harder to express via writing for me. Just a natural emo I guess.

I am writing this in the back of a car, returning to Ramallah from Jenin, but more specifically The Freedom Theatre. This organisation has been the one place I definitely wanted to see before I left this beautiful land. Why? In 2011, I went to Berlin for a cultural exchange, the topic was titled Gender and Sexuality but that's not why I went. In all honesty, I went because I had never been to Berlin before and thought it would be fun. It was. The exchange involved participants from Great Britain, Germany, Lebanon and Palestine. This is when I met Mustafa, a name that I will probably never forget. Mustafa and I didn't have much time to speak one on one, but when you were in his presence, you enjoyed yourself, he was the life and soul of every gathering, until Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered. Juliano was a film director and one of the co-founders of The Freedom Theatre. Upon hearing of his death, Mustafa broke down. This man, this bold confident man, broke down. He didn't care who saw, he didn't care who heard. This man was breaking down. He left Berlin after one week of arriving and travelled back to Palestine. For some reason, he left a lasting impression on me. 

After Berlin, I knew I wanted to come to Palestine but why, I don't know. When I first arrived, people kept asking me, from the Israeli officers to locals "but why Palestine?" And I couldn't answer it, not honestly. I came to learn and I told them that, however I could have gone to a different country to learn about their way of life. But why Palestine? I came to Palestine to see what her land looks like, to smell her land, to listen and engage with her people and to see what this conflict ridden land is like to live in on a daily basis. What have I learnt?

American films always show a pretty little hippy looking blonde girl talking about her desire to travel to India to "find herself" and I always wanted to gouge my eyes out at that point. Give it a rest. But get gouging guys, because it's crazily weird how being in a foreign country without family and friends can teach you about yourself. I learnt that I am attached to Slough, to my route to work, to the Horlicks Bridge, to Gino’s cafe lunches with Charlotte, to my parents and siblings and to my job, my passion, more than I ever thought I would be attached. I realised that every Tuesday at around 7.30, I would think of Aik Saath. I would think of how all the young people would be sharing their news in the safe space of Newsround. 

I realised that confidence can decrease and increase and decrease and increase and that just keeps on going. I realised that some people will always be able to see past your fake smile and some people will never be able to see past the words you actually speak. They don't care to know about the distant look in your eyes. And then there are the ones that see your expressions and can't hear your words. They are the ones that get under your skin because no matter what you say, no matter how convincing you think your words are, they can see through you. At first, and many other times, that person (or people) will irritate you like crazy but eventually you realise this is all part of the journey. Being in Palestine doesn't mean all I have to do is speak to Palestinians or speak about the conflict. Being in Palestine means trying to live outside of my comfort zone, comfortably. To flourish, not survive.

The Freedom Theatre reminded me of my love for Aik Saath. A Palestinian man named Adnan gave us a tour of the place, he told us about the history of the organisation and then asked if we have any questions. My friend did - before arriving to the infamous camp in Jenin, Khaled (a Palestinian man, local to Ramallah) and Lee (a Korean guy working in Jenin) were laughing about how when you enter the camp, people always ask you if you are visiting The Freedom Theatre, but they asked in such a way that you could see they do not want the answer to be yes. I assumed it was just because it might be a typical tourist thing to do but no. Khaled asked Adnan why such questions were asked and why people made negative comments - this is one of the parts that really made me think of Aik Saath. He said people are scared of change. The Freedom Theatre is resistance through art, Israel has not just occupied the Palestinian land, but also her economic and social aspects. The Freedom Theatre works to educate the young people of Jenin and primarily the camp. Jenin like many parts of Palestine is a conservative place. In my short two day stay, I saw a total of three women. I then met some girls at the theatre itself, totalling my tally up to seven females. The Freedom Theatre has acting classes for both male and females, it is open to all religions (the founder was a pro – Palestine Jewish woman, Juliano’s mother), The Freedom Theatre, like Aik Saath is a safe place for young people to come, share their experiences and be educated upon issues that will help them become stronger, happier young people. 

But what connected me most to that man Adnan was his passion. He lives right next to the theatre, his children have been part of the theatre but most importantly, he knows of the constant rumours spread about his work and his passion, yet he continues. "Ahlan wa sahlan" (welcome) he says, to everyone and anyone - "let my work show you why The Freedom Theatre is an organisation to support" and it does. It speaks volumes. 

We were invited to watch the first full performance of their latest production, "Enemy". Their actual performance is tomorrow but I couldn't stay and luckily, I didn't have to. The young people were amazing. I couldn't understand a word (actually, I understood a few words) but our language barrier didn't matter. The young people spoke with their bodies, their passion displayed through their hands, and their powerful facial expressions. These young people reminded me of my young people at Aik Saath. My young people with passion, energy and loyalty to the Saath. My young people make me proud. They make my heart feel warm and fuzzy (where's the emo in me gone?)

Now I am near Abu Dis but it's taken us a little longer than we had expected due to a combination of Lee getting lost and Israeli soldiers stopping cars at the checkpoints. We got stopped at one - he asked who we are. Khaled explained that he is Palestinian (note that he didn't specify where exactly but made a statement by saying he is Palestinian), he pointed at Lee and said he is Korean and then pointed at me saying she is English, the soldier replied in Hebrew "What? Is every country in this car?" I only learnt about this joke later, if he smiled and laughed, I might have realised that he was actually quite funny. But the soldiers don't laugh or smile. They stand there with their big guns and stern faces pointing, checking.

My time in Palestine is nearly coming to an end. I only have twenty - four days left, only. It is now that I realise time is precious - what you choose to do and who you choose to spend it with will impact the who that you are.

I am glad that I chose to come to Palestine, that I chose to struggle through the tough first month, that I chose to admit I am finding this hard, but more importantly that I chose to experience this land through her people.

Long live Palestine.

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