We will not die in silence…

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A ‘sudden village’ in Bil’in

Given the fact that I have been working for many years as a writer, I decided to do some blogging for and during ImaginAction’s theatre and art project in Bil’in (Palestine). So I started formulating what we are doing here. The inspiring techniques we are being taught by Hector Aristizabal (facilitator and director of ImaginAction). The games we are playing. The regular meetings we are having concerning the weekly demonstrations and political strategies. The theatre piece we are creating. And the overall experience of everyone involved in this project. This (impossible) task turned out into: not creating a blog and feeling the tensions of experiencing a writer’s block while being involved in the other creative processes. Very quickly, my writings became a few dull sentences stating some general facts of the work here. Uninspiring. Boring even. Which is quite the opposite of my experiences here…

So much is going on at the same time. Inside and outside of me. Being in this ‘sudden village’ (as Hector describes it) has highlighted how complex our human behavior is, and how easy it is for me to be distracted. Living in a community house and being surrounded by people all the time – coming in and out, asking questions in the middle of creative moments (even at this very moment) – makes it very difficult for me to stay concentrated. It does show me more about the Palestinian culture, where constant noise and movement are part of the daily life. In the Palestinian families, sisters, neighbors, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, and (not to forget) children are regularly running in and out of each other’s houses. It creates an amazingly sweet environment of togetherness as well as a lack of solitude. It’s as if the people here have gotten accustomed to the noise. I truly enjoy being surrounded by people. And it can also get pretty intense at times to deal with the chaos.

Accepting the challenges

As a Western woman visiting Bil’in, I encountered many things, such as conflicts (both internal and external), moments of fear, pain and happiness, interesting conversations, painful realizations, yearnings for silence, and so much more. I bumped against walls – cultural walls, invisible walls and internal walls. I made friendships. I might be in the process of losing some. And I made mistakes. Many mistakes. But how to put these experiences into words?

Hector invites us to celebrate mistakes. For me, it is a big learning experience, because I was being taught not to make mistakes, or at least, to avoid them. I have a tendency to ‘want to do good for everyone’ (which is an impossible task) and by doing so, I either loose myself (and create inner conflict), or I all of a sudden find myself in the middle of conflicts that might not even have anything to do with me, but that make me feel responsible. It is a great lesson to let go, to stay true to my own truth, and to dare to state my own inner discoveries – without needing to understand them fully or expecting anyone else to agree. I am here to learn. To grow. To experience. And to share. I am here to humanize myself and all of the people that I meet. To heal old wounds. To see every confrontation as a moment of learning. And to face the challenges with an open mind and heart.

From Israeli settlements to Palestinian village

I have been in Bil’in (Palestine) for ten days now and I still recall the night we arrived here as though it was yesterday. October 8, 2014. I had already been in Tel Aviv for two days, and had just had dinner with the family of an Israeli friend. I met Hector and three other interns at the airport. As soon as the last intern arrived, we took a taxi and traveled together to Bil’in – a village in Palestine that has been occupied by the Israeli since 1967 and counts about 2000 inhabitants.

Around twenty international artists traveled all the way to join Hector from ImaginAction for a two week long project on TO. The Friends of Freedom and Injustice committee had invited Hector to share his work and experience with the community from Bil’in. Having collected around 12 000 dollars for this project, Hector also invited mural artist Francisco and puppeteer Ken to create and bring beauty to this community. The Palestinians were invited to join, and our goal is to create a play for and by the Palestinian participants about the issues in their community. The international interns came with different expectations and wishes, but our common treat is to learn how to work with community through art.

My own reason for participating for this project, was my strong desire to bring healing and transformation in my own ways of dealing with conflict. Besides that, I would also love to bring this work to my own community and to other communities around the world. In my work as a dance facilitator, writer and coach, it has become obvious to me that many people tend to avoid conflict and pain – as do I. Most of us don’t like conflict, or don’t know how to deal with it – myself included. But turning away from conflict does not mean that the wounds are not there. Suffering is a part of life. And even though it has been a large part of my life, I still have the feeling that I haven’t become an expert in it. So from this strong sense of wanting to fully dive into the acceptance and celebration of (my) life – in all of its aspects, I decided to join Hector to a warzone area, which is unlike any place I’ve ever been to.

It was night, so I couldn’t see much of where we were while driving through the settlements. I immediately became aware of the pungent and chemical smell of burning plastic. After 40 minutes, we arrived in a community house in Bil’in that has been finished very recently – and received a mattress, a pillow and a sheet. After introducing myself to some of the interns, I curled up in my little corner in the women’s room, and fell asleep.

Cultures meeting cultures meeting people

I got to experience the Palestinian people as very generous, open and friendly people. Every day, we would come together with our international group in the morning, and would meet with the Palestinian participants in the afternoon. We played a lot of games with the girls and boys from the village. Many of them were curious about the project, and the overall experience of our contacts with the villagers has also been very hectic. Many of them come and go, talk and walk away again, or just run around. We had things being stolen, and had to start locking the doors to our rooms. Also with these precautions, things still got stolen and were returned to us. We invited people from the village to come and watch what we were doing, and asked them to join. But only few stayed and decided to be a part in the play that we will be performing in three different locations. Many people – and especially children – came to watch what we were doing.

It has been interesting yet very challenging to be working with so many children in the community. During one of the workshops, Hector asked them to make images about Bil’in. They started showing us images of the violence they witness here, and of stones being thrown to the soldiers who respond by shooting and beating the demonstrators. Then – after being asked to make images of their daily lives – they created images of their other activities, such as: going to school, cooking, eating, playing football, working on a computer, etc.

One of the exercises that really affected me, was when Hector asked us to partner up with someone, and tell a story through movement and words about a moment of our childhood when we felt safe. My partner took me to the basement of his parent’s house in the North of Palestine, where he would hide when the soldiers were around. Every day, as he went to school, he would pass a military check point – where he would get beaten or shouted at most of the times. “I miss my childhood,” he told me, “because it was full of adventure.” He dreams of being an artist, and inside, he is feeling like an old man dying. “I will not cry about it. Life is hard, and many times, I feel lonely and in need of touch or a friend, but I will continue smiling and laughing.”

Celebration of (community) life

And this is what I see many people do in this village. They continue celebrating their lives, within all of the hardships and terror. Ever since the separation wall, the Bil’in community has also become much stronger. They have found their ways to make things possible and to continue living their lives with a smile. We were fortunate enough to experience a few festivities. During the Harvest Festival, the villagers performed dance and music. The men were holding sticks, and moved them above their heads. The children danced along and threw flowers on the stage. I started playing with the children, and we danced around in small circles. The women and men were sitting separate from each other, and I started realizing that I was crossing some boundaries. Only certain women, such as the mother and the grandmother, were dancing. But the other women were observing the festivities from a distance. It became obvious that I had entered a different culture, and that I had no clue of their norms and values. But as Hector says it, it is only by crossing the boundaries that we know where the boundaries are. So I decided to play along with the children, and to simply be myself.

The next day, we were invited to a wedding party in the village. The women and men were dancing in a different section, divided by a wall – but we could go up to the roof and see the men dancing. As soon as we entered the women’s space, I was astonished by how beautifully they were dressed. They were moving so gracefully, moving their hands and hips into different directions, circling up with other women, and echoing each other’s movements. At a certain moment, the mothers went to the men, and started dancing in between them, while the groom was being carried around on a chair. As soon as the dancing ended, the food was being brought, and we started eating the most delicious hummus, salad and bread. What a colorful and heart-warming festivity!

Walls between walls (invisible and visible ones)

As much as Palestinians love dancing and music, there are also restrictions and rules that interfere with my own needs for space and freedom. The Palestinian women, for instance, are only allowed to dance inside of their houses or divided in a separate space with other women. On the streets, a woman is not allowed to touch a man or walk alone with a stranger. And in the evening, hardly any woman will be spotted on the street. It took me many mistakes to learn about the cultural rules. For example, I love walking around on my own, and I made male friends – who wanted to show me around the village. I also have a tendency to move my body when someone turns on music or when I am feeling excited while being outside. My body is so accustomed to moving that it has felt like needing to shut myself down completely. I turned this challenge into an invitation to both move according to my own bodily needs and to stay respectful for this culture, (hopefully) without offending too many people. Again, this is an impossible task.

There is no such thing as only one culture. Every culture exists out of different subcultures with different norms and values. It has become very clear for example that the committee members who are organizing this project have very different rules and agendas than other villagers I have met. Even within one family, certain rules might be open for discussion. It is also much easier for me as a Western women to get into contact with the Palestinian men, because they are the ones dominating the streets. At the same time, this might be unaccepted behavior for some. I have become so curious about the stories of the women – who mainly stay inside and take care of house and children. It is my wish to sit in a circle with them, to listen to their stories (unbiased by a male presence), and to be a witness to their pain and dreams. During one of the workshops, a Palestinian youngster told me that they get bored a lot of the time – especially the girls. There is no other sport for them to do here except football. So also for boys who want to play basketball, there is just no place to go.

During the workshops, we got to play three theatre pieces based on issues that came up within our own personal lives – as a result of being in a culture in which the norms and traditions are so different from ours. Every one of us has been bumping against certain restrictions or expectations that weren’t being met, and we started from one image in which a conflict was being introduced. Based on this image, we created three theatre pieces – each related to a different topic. Especially for the European women, lots of gender issues came up – so we took this moment as an opportunity to create different interventions and dive deeper into our own experiences here. It turned out to be a beautiful theatre piece, in which I was singing and dancing. Making myself ready to go to a wedding. But all of a sudden, three women would come and show me that my dress was inappropriate. That I had to wear more clothes and cover my skin. They started wrapping me up in colorful scarves, while I kept on moving in circles. Until I was fully wrapped, couldn’t move anymore, and finally: fell down…

On the first evening of our stay here, I met a Palestinian photo-journalist who has been exhibiting his work all over the world. He has travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East due to the importance of his activist work, and has a huge knowledge of politics. Meeting him has taught me a lot, and provided me with opportunities to ‘go outside’ – and by doing so, to truly connect to the daily lives of the villagers. He invited me to his family house, where I got to connect to many of his family members. I went to help them with their olive harvest, got to play with their children, was being given many gifts and had the chance to talk to the women. It was so relaxing for me to just be away at times from the creations and chaos of the sudden village in the community house and to be surrounded by family. I was also being told that there are no Palestinian homeless people and that no Palestinian children get assigned for adoption, because the family will always take care of their family members. Besides that, most of the families here are large in number – for instance, it is not unusual for a grandmother to have ten children and 22 grandchildren.

Free Palestine

In the past two weeks, we have been talking a lot about the non-violent demonstrations that have been taking place here in Bil’in for the past ten years. Given the fact that these would be my very first manifestations in a war zone and my body responding pretty strong to the tear gas, I decided to join as a witness for both of the demonstrations that we took part in. For the Palestinian people, it is important that their messages are being spread across the world. So I decided to observe what they are putting themselves through every Friday, and to share their stories through my own eyes.

Our first manifestation started before the start and ended before the end. As soon as we arrived – and some people were still getting out of their cars, the soldiers started throwing tear gas canisters and we were forced to move back. Before the demonstration, we received a short explanation about the could-s and couldn’t-s so we would not go unprepared. But from the moment I found myself in the middle of it, I realized no words can prepare anyone for the intensity of what is happening here. Two people have died, and thousands have been injured and arrested. Due to the inhalation of the tear gas, I couldn’t breathe and my face started burning. The heaviness of the gasses, the dust and the heath were weighing on all of us. We came to a standstill, and started singing a protest song with one very clear message: FREE PALESTINE. The soldiers were coming from different sides and continued throwing tear gas canisters and sound bombs in order to move us back. After being there for what felt like an eternity (but in reality must have been about 15 minutes), I decided to step away from the demonstration and could only utter three words: “This is insane.”

A girl was standing in front of her driveway – running into the house as soon as another teas gas canister was being thrown. The powerlessness of this child was in stark contrast to the demonstrators and also the soldiers. A few yards away, I saw a family having a picnic with their three children underneath an olive tree. The olive tree symbolizes the pride of the Palestinian people. Most of them are farmers, and since the Israeli Occupation in 1967, more than 1100 trees have been burned. The children were laughing and playing, paying almost no attention to the scenery that was going on around them. For them, this was just another regular Friday afternoon. Getting used to violence at such an early age is one of the most painful things I can imagine.

Death lurks around every corner

The experiences of the demonstrations left me with many questions – and with fear, anger, sadness and hope. I also got to experience the stress of it in my body. The line between heroic struggle and useless loss can be very thin at times. But for the Palestinians, going to the wall and demonstrating is a way for them to show their anger, to release their emotions, and to share their messages with the world. Another example of the terror people are adjusted to, are the sudden nightly raids that happen very regularly. We were awoken around 3 am by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) who entered the village. Turned out that the Israeli soldiers were looking for someone in the village, couldn’t find the person, beat up the neighbor, threw some sound bombs and tear gas, and then left again. Again, the harshness of the reality in Palestine stroke all of us.

A few days ago, a young boy was being shot during a military raid in a neighboring village. He was only 15 years old, and was ‘accidently’ being hit by a life bullet while the Israeli soldiers were looking for another man to arrest. I heard this story in the evening while we were driving up to a new community building overlooking the settlers on the other side of the wall. Seeing the destruction, realizing how much land these people have lost, sensing the violence ever since the coming of the settlers and feeling the pain of the family of this boy, I started crying. A friend from the Committee approached me and gently told me: “Don’t cry. Remember, we will not die in silence.”

One can only imagine the pain that families are going through here. Every person has its own traumatic story to tell. Of being shot at in the leg, arm or feet, of their children being taken and put into prison, of being beaten to never recover from brain damage again, of being traumatized after spending three to ten years in jail, of being accused of throwing stones, of needing to go to work at the settlers in order to earn some money (even though that land used to be theirs), etc. So I listen to the stories. And I write about them. Praying that they may be heard. Praying that they may create change and hope. Praying for every person living in this village, and for every human being living on this planet, that they may keep seeing the beauty in the midst of it all. And that healing may happen. This is so painful to watch, and at the same time, we need to witness it in order to share – and by doing so, heal – it. Only then, the wound becomes the womb. The breakdown becomes a breakthrough. The loss becomes a new beginning. This is the work. It is happening – right now, right here. And we are doing it, together.

Observing and being observed

In a small village, there is no place to hide. Coming here as a tourist, I am of course being very inspired to learn more about the culture and the people. At the same time, people are also watching me, following me in my everyday movements. This is what I refer to as observing and being observed. There is always one eye in and one eye out, wherever I go and whatever I do.

Several mornings, we started our workshops with a dance session. It was such a lively experience to guide my friends here through a movement meditation, and to invite them to explore touch and release through the body. It also helped me to release the emotions I have been experiencing here, but haven’t had the time for to truly digest or integrate. At this very moment, I can feel how tired and tensed my body is. I haven’t been sleeping enough and have been taking on a lot of stress from listening to the stories here and from experiencing the demonstrations. Even though, I didn’t participate in the front of the demonstrations – meeting the soldiers from far away and breathing the gas took me to very traumatic memories of my childhood in which I felt unsafe and violated. It is such an intense experience to feel fully taken over by a burning sensation in my breathing – as it is our one and only connection to this life.

I have learned a lot from seeing Hector at work during the workshops – especially in the midst of chaos and conflicts. He continues to hold the space for all that arises, telling us that all of these moments are part of our learning experience. It is so good to stay reminded of that, because after a while – especially when I am tired – it start becoming more difficult to step out and observe my own process here. I am being challenged again and again to find my own center point, and to follow the things I want to be doing. I haven’t been involved in the theatre as much as I thought I would have, but I have been observing a lot of behaviors, both inside of our sudden village as in Bil’in.

Imagination creates beauty

For the second demonstration, we decided to also include a procession of beauty through the streets of the small village. The basic idea behind this was to create beauty and to celebrate the olive harvest. Ken created beautiful giant trees, a giant gas bomb and all of us were dancing around with branches from the olive trees. From here, we went to the demonstration, where the soldiers were already waiting for us just on the outskirts of the village. I was standing next to a house, near a few local children, and before I knew it, I was breathing in tear gas again. My body just couldn’t handle it. So I went back to the community house. The demonstrators found their way all up to the wall, and two friends were being hit by tear gas canisters. But all of us ended up returning safe and released.

Yesterday evening, we went to see a dance concert in a beautiful theatre space in the city nearby Ramallah. It turned out to be a heart-warming evening, full of laughter and joy. We went there in a small van with some family members and friends of the Bil’in dancers. During the concert, children and adults were performing the local and energetic Palestinian dances. The music also made the whole very energetic and powerful, and the lyrics include lots of political messages. Afterwards, my Palestinian friend told me that two weeks before, one of the dancers was being killed by a soldier. “This is the life,” he told me. And he added that he was feeling touched by the beauty of the dances as much as he is being touched by the people dying.

The theatre work with Hector has created lots of moments of healing, conflict and healing. I came here with the idea to fully become involved in the theatre play. But I ended up writing, dancing and making connections with local community members. I went out and took a lot of pictures. I listened to many people’s stories. And as Hector beautifully told us: “Imagination is our greatest human right. We have come together by fate, and we are here to witness, to open up to new possibilities, and to explore new ways of seeing and acting. This work is about healing and humanizing others and especially: ourselves. We are working with the people, and they are beautifully complex. We don’t ask them to act, we ask them to be themselves and to perform something in which they are experts. It is impossible for anyone to mess up if they are allowed to be who they are on stage. We are not here to fix or change anything. We start from the social and political issues of people, and from there, we become interested in their personal conditions and emotions. We keep asking questions and we keep looking for alternatives. This is where the magic happens.”

This night, we performed the theatre piece for the local community here. It was an honor to be a witness and a part of this. Our being here might have stirred a lot of things in this community and inside of ourselves. We have no idea what the consequences of our presence is. Sometimes, only one word can inspire someone’s course in life. One action might encourage someone to look for alternatives. Or one hug can create a spark of hope. Every moment is full of possibilities. And the effects might not yet be visible, or might never become visible at all. So we stay open to whatever arises. And we continue to share our stories…

You can read more stories on the blog of ImaginAction: imaginactioninaction.wordpress.com.