New Clear Vision

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Hard to Describe

January 17, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Christine Baniewicz, Culture, Family, Politics

The Freedom Theatre Honors Political Prisoners with Live Performance

by Christine Baniewicz

The house lights dim around me and I settle into my seat. The theater hushes. Two pools of white light flood onto the stage and the performance begins.

It’s Wednesday in Jenin and The Freedom Theater is packed. Journalists, international peace workers and locals from the refugee camp fill the wooden benches. Today’s Playback Theatre performance, Midnight Raid, is the second in a series of creative responses to the Israeli military’s recent incursions and arrests in the camp.

“Thank you again for joining us,” says Ben. He stands onstage before a line of actors, aged 19 to 25. They are dressed in black. “Today we will honor your stories.”

Ben Rivers is an Australian Playback Theatre practitioner, and he conducts today’s performance. “As you know, in the last month, the camp has suffered more than 50 arrests.” A translator relays the message in Arabic. “This is much more than usual.”

According to Addameer, a Palestinian civil institution focusing on human rights and prisoner support, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli military since 1967. This constitutes 20% of the population of the Occupied Territories. As of last September, there were 6,257 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention. 280 of them are children. Nearly 800 are serving life sentences.

“Please,” Ben says. “Raise your hand if you have ever been a political prisoner in an Israeli jail.”

A dozen hands reach out from the audience.

“Thank you.”

Ben has been living and working at The Freedom Theater for nearly three months, training students and community members to perform Playback Theater.

“I felt incredibly angry when I learned that many of my friends had been arrested,” he shares with the audience. I remember last week’s wake-up calls at dawn — who’d they take this time? Does his family know? Where is he now?

Actor and activist Faisal Abu-Alheja was one of the many Palestinians arrested last week. Today he stands onstage, hands by his side, alert and attentive.

Ben begins asking the audience questions: What is your name? How long were you imprisoned? How did you feel when you were released?

“It was amazing, actually,” shares one audience member. “When I was in prison, I met my neighbor. I had not seen him in years, and we became very close.”

Lutvi is slim, maybe 25 years old, and shy. He speaks quietly into a handheld microphone.

“So,” Ben echoes from the stage. “You had a feeling of connection, and friendship, even when you were in prison.” Lutvi nods.

“It helped me survive.”

Ben turns to the actors. “Lutvi’s experience of friendship, despite being imprisoned. Khaleena enshouf — let’s watch.”

And like magic, without speaking, the actors fly into a fluid sculpture of Lutvi’s’s feeling. Beside them, a musician accompanies with twanging, resonant harmony on the oud. They stack their bodies together, swaying gently, looking out into the audience. They freeze.

The lights shift and we applaud.

“Lutvi,” says Ben. “Did you see your feeling?”

He nods deeply, smiling behind a self-conscious hand. Yes yes!

The event continues, flowing from simple experiences to full stories. The microphone travels from hand to hand. Men and women tell stories about demonstrations and tear gas; years spent behind bars and joyous reunions with their relatives.

Midway through the show, Loai Tafesh raises his hand. “I have a story.” He takes the stage, sitting in the Teller’s chair beside Ben.

“Not everything about the prisons is happy,” he says. We laugh a little. Until now, the stories had been colored with hope and resistance and joy.

But Loai’s story is different. “The way they interrogate you, and bother your mind — this can be difficult.”

When Loai was first imprisoned, he spent a week in solitary confinement.

“But it was strange. They fed me amazing meals, and gave me a pack of cigarettes everyday. My room was very nice.”

The bizarre luxury ended when interrogation began.

“After the first week an official took me into a room with a table. Said they were keeping me in order that I apologize. I said, ‘apologize for what?’ And they said, ‘apologize for making us enter your home yesterday and martyr your sister, your mother and your father.’”

Loai couldn’t be sure if he was telling the truth.

“But then he showed pictures.”

The Israeli official threw photos onto the table before Loai — photos of dead women , their faces and bodies covered by Palestinian flags.

“’This is your mother,’ he said. ‘Your sister! Look! Look to the photos.’”

Loai looked at the photos. He didn’t know what to think.

“It wasn’t until six months later, when I saw my mother in court, that I learned it was a lie.”

Following the re-invasion of the West Bank, all Palestinians who wish to visit a family member detained in Israel (with the exception of Jerusalem ID holders) must receive an entry permit. The application process is lengthy — between one and three months — and in practice, many families fail to receive permits based on “security concerns”. According to Addameer, the reason for rejecting a permit application never varies: “forbidden entry into Israel for security reasons.”

In this respect, Loai is lucky. He saw his mother.

“Normally I wouldn’t tell this story for a bunch of actors to perform,” he says. “Because it’s a serious story. It was very sad. But, I am here, so I figured I would share.”

“Thank you, Loai.” Ben takes the microphone and turns to the actors. “Loai’s story: khaleena enshouf.”

Faisal and Ahhmad Al-Rokh take the stage. They breathe together, absorbing Loai’s story, and launch into improvisation.

The oud shudders. Rokh takes a few solemn steps downstage and sinks onto his knees. Faisal steps behind him and forces his head down, oppression made manifest.

My eyes dart to Loai. He is rapt.

The improvisation continues. Faisal, as the Israeli officer, presents Rokh with three shimmering lengths of fabric. The photos.

“Look! Look!” demands Faisal. Rokh winds them up. “It’s not true,” he mutters. The colors gleam in the stage light. He holds them to his heart.

Loai cries, discreet, at the edge of the stage. The enactment finishes and the audience erupts.

Later, Loai tells Faisal how moved he felt. “You must have rehearsed it before,” he says.

“How could we?” Faisal smiles. “We heard your story for the first time today.”

Two more stories follow Loai’s before the performance ends. By the final story, most of the audience has migrated to the front rows, crowding as close as possible to the stage and leaning in to hear the Teller.

“There are some snacks in the hall outside the theater,” Ben says. “But before we leave, let’s just see a few moments played back, from the entire performance.”

The actors — all seven of them — arrange themselves in a V-shape onstage. The actor at the tip of the V, the furthest downstage, makes a sound and gesture from one of the stories. The six actors behind him mirror his movement. It has a magnifying effect, adding drama and scale. Each actor takes a turn at the front, sharing a different moment from the day.

After each actor has cycled through, they relax and bow. The audience stands, applauding at length, and they bow again.

I leave the theater and stand in the sunlight. Clumps of audience members, actors and journalists hang around, chatting and laughing. I remember the same people waiting for the performance to begin — hanging quietly around the olive tree, or holding insular conversations with the friends they arrived with.

The performance opened something in us. Conversations are warm and free. Folks mingle.

700,000 Palestinians arrested since 1967.

A musician passes his cigarettes to a released prisoner.

More than 600 complaints of torture and ill treatment submitted against ISA interrogators since 2001.

A Palestinian journalist asks questions and scribbles notes.

2,000 cases of torture in 2008 alone.

And I drink it in with my eyes. 2,000 cases of torture. One week ago Faisal’s wrists were red from zip-tie handcuffs. Now his face is red from bashfulness and praise.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling, when your father is released from prison after many years,” one audience member said today. He shrugged. “But I will try.”

I shoulder my bag and weave through the crowd, up to my desk above the theater. It’s hard to describe the feeling, when you’ve connected with a community over shared narratives of oppression, abuse and resistance. It’s hard to describe the beauty of an 8-year-old hushed to attention by the story of his elder. It’s hard to describe my feeling of responsibility, and compassion, and joy.

But I will try.

Christine Baniewicz is a writer, composer and facilitator of community-engaged theatre. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies and Music Composition from Louisiana State University, and currently coordinates web communications for the traveling theatre-arts organization, ImaginAction. Christine’s original plays and incidental scores have been performed in the US, Northern Ireland and Palestine. She also gives applied theatre workshops to encourage dialogue and creative transformation around social justice issues. Most recently she worked with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine to create forum theatre performances with the acting students there. Visit her blog for written updates, photo and video while she works.  {Photo credits: S.E.T.}

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