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The Hourglass: What I Learned About Empire in the West Bank

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily By Nathan Schneider 

It took three vehicles to get to Jenin. The first and last were shared taxis that played pop music the whole way; the one in the middle was a bus driven by a handsome and solemn man with a big, religious beard, whose television played music videos memorializing martyrs. If the West Bank is shaped like an hourglass, Jenin is at the top of the upper bulb, where the sand is when it’s full. Thousands of years ago, the dusty city was named after its gardens, but more recently Ariel Sharon called it a “hornet’s nest of terrorism.”

My destination, a place called the Freedom Theatre, adjoined a refugee camp that was completely flattened by made-in-the-USA Israeli bulldozers during the Second Intifada. On the walls of buildings all over town were posters celebrating young men with big guns. At the time, one of the Freedom Theatre’s founders, Zakaria Zubeidi, was sitting in a Palestinian Authority jail with no formal charge. Before turning to theatrical resistance, he had been the local commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which for a time put him at number one on Israel’s most-wanted list. A year earlier, a gunman murdered the Freedom Theatre’s half-Israeli co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, in the courtyard where the final taxi dropped me off.

I had come for the inaugural tour of the Freedom Bus, a ten-day sequence of performances across the West Bank. The other internationals along for the ride made for a varied group, the main factions being college students from the United States and retirees associated with the Swedish National Touring Theatre. The first night at our lonely hotel in Jenin, fatigue led me to fantasies of escape, of hiding back across the Green Line in Israel-proper, where for the previous day the half-Jew in me had felt the rare and guilty pleasure of being among my own.

For this tour, Freedom Theatre actors employed a method known as Playback Theatre – sort of a stepchild to Rogerian psychotherapy and sibling to Theatre of the Oppressed. The basic model involves an audience member telling a story from her or his life, which then the actors spin into an improvised skit. This process is supposed to honor the unsung experiences of ordinary people while inserting them into the collective lore of the community.

Every day the performance was in a new place – and place, it turned out, was the star of the show. We went to Faqqua, a village along the Green Line that had run out of water. The Playback performance happened right beside the border fence, where Israeli soldiers watched from the roof of a Humvee. On the other side of the fence were Israeli fields, irrigated with water siphoned out from under where we stood. There was a story about a grandmother beaten by settlers while she went to fill a jug for her family. Boys instinctively scampered toward the soldiers, but the elders tried to calm them: “Behave, so everyone knows Faqqua is the best village in the world!”

In Nablus, actors performed outside a home that had been bulldozed, crushing family members from three generations inside. The night we were at Nabi Saleh, a teenager arrived back from two weeks in an Israeli jail, and his friends honked car horns and shot off fireworks as his story became a Playback skit. There, for years without stopping, the villagers have marched every Friday to protest the confiscation of their land and their water. After the Playback, a group of children sang a song to Musfata Tamimi, who’d been killed a few months earlier by a tear-gas canister that hit him in the face. In Al-Walajah, the performance was at a house encircled by Israeli walls. We helped put out a brush fire with blankets and shovels on a parched hillside near Beit Omar. In the old city of Hebron, which has five hundred or so Jewish settlers living in its central artery – guarded by two thousand soldiers – the kids were so restless and stir crazy that we had to end and pack up early. One night the show was at a Bedouin camp tucked beside a highway, a place that was as foreign to the actors from places like Jenin and East Jerusalem as to the Swedes.

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