A couple weeks ago, I traveled to Palestine & Israel.
I was visiting my extended family in Israel, but I also traveled to the West Bank to learn more about conditions under the occupation and explore possibilities of how to engage with the Palestinian struggle through visual and theater arts.
Via a network of friends, I had the great fortune to meet and stay with Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem University and the Director of the Palestine Natural History Museum in Bethlehem. Prof. Qumsiyeh is not only a brilliant and incredibly generous man, but does a lot of work to spread information about Palestine to the world - not only of the hazards and challenges to the Palestinian people - but of the need for environmental protection of the land of Palestine itself.
Through Prof. Qumsiyeh, I was connected to the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Center for Children in Aida refugee camp, directed by Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour. In a stroke of perfect timing, we were able to arrange a two day children’s mask making workshop as part of Alrowwad's two week Winter Camp called "Abdelrahman Obaidallah".
"Alrowwad has named the winter camp “Abdelrahman Obeidallah,” after the 13- year old child Abdelrahman, who was shot dead in the chest by the Israeli Occupation forces in Aida camp. The objective of the camp is to enhance leadership and confidence among children who live under occupation and whose families are subject to harassment by Israeli soldiers.
Dr.Abdelfattah Abusrout the Founder and General Director of Alrowwad said that the idea of holding a safe artistic and cultural winter camp is to give children a space for fun, develop their mental capacities, and encourage them to remain involved and active.
Mira Abusrour the Coordinator of the education Unit said that the parents and children were satisfied with the variety of the winter camp’s activities that are provided in such tense political situation specially that the camp has no playgrounds or other public facilities where children would benefit from to seize their time in learning new skills and practice their daily activities."
On an unseasonably sunny January morning, we walked from Bethlehem to Aida Camp, tracing a path along the massive concrete apartheid wall (including a detour though a local cemetery, whose grounds were littered with tear gas canisters and rubber bullet shells.) We arrived at the camp, entering through an archway topped by a giant key, representing the right-to-return. Aida is a camp of about 6,000 people living on 6 acres of land. It is a place made entirely of concrete and butts up against the wall that separates them from the olive groves that used to be their livelihood and natural playground.
My students for this project were about a dozen playful and very curious children, aged around 9-10 years old. A couple of them knew basic English, but I relied heavily on a local translator to communicate the concepts and techniques of the workshop. The staff and teachers not only translated for us, but assisted with the hands-on methods of the workshop. Through another stroke of good fortune, I also had wonderful assistants in the form of a pair of American volunteers (Deb and Ryan) who were also staying with Professor Qumsiyeh to help with the Natural History Museum.
Given the last-minute nature of the arrangement, I had to squeeze a normally five session workshop into two 3-hour blocks over two days.
I began the first day by introducing the children to the few expressive masks that I had brought with me, displaying the ways that different masks can convey different emotions and personalities.
We studied how to draw faces, dissecting the basic shapes and proportions used to arrange the eyes, nose, mouth, etc. We asked questions about how changing those shapes and placement effects perceived emotion, age, character.
We then began the step-by-step process of constructing masks out of recycled materials.
Beginning with a flat cardboard form, each child drew out the face of the character they wanted to create, cutting out holes for the eyes and mouth (making sure that they were the right size and place for each child’s face.)
We then used bundles of crumpled newspaper and masking tape to sculpt the skeletal/muscular forms of the nose, brow, cheeks, and mouth. We used plenty of tape to make sure these forms were securely attached and solid enough to support the paper mache shell. We “skinned” our masks with torn newspaper and mache paste, making sure to create a smooth, strong surface. The masks were left to dry overnight.
(This is far more than I would usually try to accomplish in one day with children of this age, and we were incredibly impressed by the extent of these kids’ attention, able to remain engaged and focused for the better part of three hours with only a brief lunch break.)
The next day, we completed our masks by painting them. The children were given total free range in terms of style and method of painting - with some choosing careful geometric patterns and others going for a looser arrangement of color fields.
While kids waited for layers of paint to dry, we did some drawing lessons - learning to draw some of the native wildlife of Palestine, including snakes, butterflies, gazelles, and the beautiful Palestine Sunbird.
During the lunch break, I gave some of the children the masks that I brought with me, and they had great fun running around the camp as wild and expressive characters. It was poignant and intense to watch them play out the characters of Rage and Sorrow with each other, within the context of their refugee home.
The kids also had a great time trying to teach me Arabic, focusing on useful words for “friend” “beautiful” and “thank you”.
When the masks were complete, we gathered to introduce each other to the masks, sharing their names, where they were from, and what kind of things they liked. Not surprisingly, many of the characters were named “Clown” or “Crazy”, lived in the Aida Camp, and loved things like candy and playing. Finally, we did a little masked dancing and gathered outside for pictures.
It was an amazing experience, and I was truly inspired by the creativity and exuberance of children living under such challenging conditions.
I am looking forward to returning to Aida Camp and deepening my relationship to the fine folks of Alrowwad.
A few days later, I also had the chance to visit The Freedom Theater of Jenin Camp in the northern region of the Occupied Territories. For the past ten years, this group has been generating a powerful form of Creative Resistance by exploring and expressing the Palestinian experience through performance. They have worked with artists and groups from all over the world and their professional acting school is currently touring India with Indian group Jana Natya Manch.
It was both educational and inspiring to meet with the multicultural team of artists and organizers. The Freedom Theater has been working with masks through the commedia dell'arte tradition, and we were both very excited at the prospect of me returning to guide their students in the process of making their own masks.
Unfortunately, the depth of what it means to live under occupation was made sickeningly clear when the Israeli Army stormed the theater grounds in the middle of the night and arrested one of the Freedom Theater's assistant stage managers. When we spoke about it in the morning, I learned that this sort of thing has become regular and expected for the people of Jenin- a reality made disturbingly clear by the stage manager’s father describing it as “almost normal.”
This was a truly unsettling experience to witness, and it deepened my comprehension of the nature of these people’s lives.
I have been moved by the intense work these artists are doing & I look forward to the opportunity to work with the Freedom Theater in the near future.
My time spent in Palestine (and in the starkly contrasted environment of Israel) gave me much greater insight into the conditions of the conflict. I nurtured new (and old) relationships with amazing people and was given important tools to start dismantling the many institutional myths surrounding this place. In turn, I was honored to offer what I hope to be creative tools for children living under occupation to cope and persevere. I only hope that I can return to expand these offerings before too long.
I certainly left with more questions than answers. But I also left with an energized commitment to continue learning & helping - however I can.
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