Encounters in Palestine and Israel, 2012

Jo Salas


In Palestine

Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport I’m mindful of what Israeli and Palestinian colleagues have warned me: don’t say that you’re going to the West Bank. It’s perfectly legal to do so, they assure me—but better not to mention it. So I don’t, saying instead that I’m visiting friends in Tel Aviv. Which I will do, eight days from now.

As promised, there’s a driver from the Freedom Theatre to meet me, M, a small, friendly, middle-aged Palestinian man. We chat sporadically. He tells me he’s permitted to drive back and forth because of the Israeli plates on his car. He teaches me how to say hello and thank you in Arabic. The low-lying countryside near the airport gives way to a biblical landscape, steep rock-strewn hillsides dotted with olive trees. We slow down at the border, not far away, but we are waved through the checkpoint. It is very hot. I hesitate to shed my jacket, out of consideration for M, but after a while I ask if I may. He chuckles—he’s used to Tel Aviv and does not mind bare arms or legs. I keep the jacket on my lap to put on again quickly if we stop.

Freedom Theatre 1I am overheated and travel-weary by the time we arrive at the Freedom Theatre in the northern West Bank town of Jenin. The theatre, a small complex of buildings in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp, is engaged in a project using the interactive method of Playback Theatre to give voice to stories of the occupation. In September they will travel throughout the West Bank, stopping in villages to hear and enact people’s stories. In each place they, along with international supporters, will help with tree-planting and brick-laying. The project is called The Freedom Bus, inspired by the Freedom Riders of the American civil rights movement.

Playback Theatre originated in the US, and as one of its founders and teachers I am here to spend a week training the Palestinian team and traveling with them as they perform in other West Bank towns. Then I’ll go to Israel, inside the green line, to work with members of the Israeli companies. There are, amazingly, over forty Playback Theatre ensembles in Israel. And now this new group in Palestine.

Friends at home were intrigued that I would visit Palestine as well as Israel. Some were critical. “What’s Palestine?” said a new acquaintance pointedly, meaning, there’s no such place.

But there is. And I’m here. In the theatre’s guesthouse I try to sleep through the sounds of people chatting below my window until late into the night, dogs and nocturnal roosters, and then the 4:30am call to prayer in ear-splitting stereo from mosques on each side of the theatre.

In the morning we walk to the workshop space through bright sunlit streets, sidestepping potholes and litter, exchanging greetings with people passing by. The studio is a cool, large, recently renovated space with stage lights, exercise mats, a jumble of stilts in one corner. One actor is not there because the police have detained him. He is expected to appear in the afternoon but we don’t see him until the next morning: he spent the day in jail and does not want to talk about it. Another actor is absent because his new immigrant wife is being held at the Jordanian border and he has to wrestle with the authorities. Others arrive late, delayed at checkpoints between Jenin and their homes in nearby towns.

“This is the way it is here,” says B, the organizer, a visionary man in his thirties who grew up in Australia and has practiced Playback Theatre there and in the US. He arrived in Jenin five months ago and will stay indefinitely. B holds Israeli citizenship [later renounced], though born after his father left the country in despair at Israel’s violence, and his own forebears’ full participation in it.

Because of the obstacles of West Bank life the Playback team has been slow to master basic skills. But they are talented actors. And the shows they’ve done—prematurely, in my view—have been enthusiastically received. After decades of occupation, B says, everyone is tired of each other’s wrenching stories. Playback Theatre gives them a new way to listen.

For three days everyone works hard, practicing the technique, strengthening themselves as a team, and telling their own stories—an essential part of training especially when every performer shares the same devastating experiences as the audience.

S, one of the young actors, tells a story from during the second intifada. He was ten years old. He was asleep when his father left in the dark as usual to work in the bakery. He heard shooting in the street but it was not uncommon and he didn’t worry about it. Then his mother went out and saw a man lying dead. She thought at first it was their neighbor. But it was her husband. She dragged his body home. Later, the army followed the trail of blood to their house, thinking they would find a fighter. The soldiers came inside and pointed to the body. “Wake him up!” they shouted. S’s mother screamed at them: “He’s dead! You killed him!” S looked at the body of his father. Part of him felt nothing. Part of him cried: “This is my father!”

The actors listen intently. They withdraw to the sides of the stage, then, without discussion, begin to enact the story, bringing to life the images and emotions that they have heard. The musician plays his oud, following the currents of the story.

The workshop comes to an end, followed immediately by a public performance in the Freedom Theatre’s black box theatre. People tell stories of resistance and determination. A boy stands up spontaneously to sing a song he has composed.

And then we go on the road.

From Jenin to Ramallah

I’m driving with my friend and former student W, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who has traveled from his home in Haifa to join us. The dashboard of his car is covered with an embroidered cloth on which perches a small box with Easter pastries baked by his mother: W and his family are part of Israel’s Arab Christian minority. Also with us is H, who lives in Jenin and is the brother of the Freedom Theatre’s artistic director. He’s come to support the Freedom Bus team and also to see family members in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he was born. L, a photographer from Finland, is squashed into the back seat with H, along with some of our bags.

The outskirts of Jenin are very green and beautiful, with olive trees and eucalyptus. Hills on one side of the road, flat cultivated fields on the other. A camel saddled with a carpet ambles along the main road amid anarchic traffic. I comment on the greenness and W thanks me for noticing—it’s one of the Zionist myths, he says, that the land was arid and neglected before the Israelis came. “We have always been a farming people,” he says.

Some of the hills are topped by Arab villages with big black rain barrels on every roof; others by Jewish settlements, their orderly rows of red-roofed houses belying their illegal status under international law, which says that an occupying force may not colonize occupied territories.

W is talking as he drives, eloquent, poetic, measured but heartfelt. He talks about how the Palestinian identity has been fragmented by the events since 1948. He feels that the contribution of Juliano Mer Khamis, the legendary founder and director of the Freedom Theatre who was murdered a year ago right outside its main building, was to help to rebuild identity, with people standing beside each other and feeling commonality.

Juliano’s murder remains unsolved. I hear different theories: some speculate about conservative elements in Jenin who did not like the freedom of the Freedom Theatre. Others say it was the Israelis who wanted him dead. There are rumors about romantic entanglements. Whatever the truth, his death is an unhealed wound for the people of the theatre. He is beloved and missed.

W talks about his family’s village of Ikrit, where in 1948 everyone became internal refugees—expelled from their home but permitted to remain “inside” (everyone here says “inside” or “48” to refer to Israel). His family fled to another village where ten of them had to live in one small room. They and others were dependent on the goodwill of the people who already lived there, sharing their already sparse resources of food, water, and housing. Some welcomed them, some did not. Israel’s supreme court long ago granted the Ikrit villagers the right of return—almost unheard-of in Israel—but the government has refused to honor this decision.

As we talk W’s elderly car crawls up the long hills at not much more than walking pace. Other drivers honk and pass us in exasperation. We are trying to get to Ramallah by 11am. W, philosophical, thinks we’ll make it.

We pass by more olive groves. H in the back seat says that 10,000 trees are cut down each year in the West Bank by settlers and soldiers. This particular brutality, like the demolishing of houses, seems entirely sadistic to me. W says that when the army demolishes a house, the family is billed for the demolition—many thousands of shekels. They also have to pay for the rubble to be carted away, or do it themselves.

I can hardly believe some of the stories that I hear during this week, though I witness the evidence with my own eyes. It occurs to me later that this perhaps is one of the reasons that the Palestinian suffering does not arouse more international outrage, particularly in the US. It strains our sense of reality. Isn’t Israel a civilized country, a democracy—our friend in the Middle East?

I ask W and H what they see in the future and what they would like to see.

“Palestine has no future,” says H vehemently. He is 42 but looks much younger. “I see no future for myself. I can see the present, and the past. But there is no future.”

He has lived all his life in refugee camps. He tells me that he has not seen the sea for eleven years, though it is so close.

I try, and fail, to imagine what it might be like to live with no sense of a future.

W says: “I don’t need a country. I don’t need a flag. I want to live without fear. If the Israelis want to control, let them. If they recognize my narrative, my dignity, that is enough.”

He does not see the viability of two states, with the presence of 500,000 settlers already in the West Bank. He predicts that if a clash will come it will be with the Palestinians inside Israel. They are twenty percent of Israel’s population and they are like a volcano. Palestinian citizens of Israel have rights, but there is discrimination. Their different-colored ID cards announce their status. Hundreds of laws, constantly changing, restrict their standing. They tell me about a recent law that says a West Bank Palestinian and a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marry may not live together in Israel. The Israel-born partner is forbidden to live in certain parts of the West Bank. The overt purpose of this law, affecting 25,000 families, is to discourage the birth of more Arabs.

H says, “We don’t have problem with the Jewish religion. We have problem with the occupation.”

As we drive through another village W points out a garage called “Haifa Garage.” “That means that it’s run by refugees from Haifa,” he says. “They remember their home with the name.” This village, like the others, has mostly rather stark, utilitarian cement houses, but in a few favored spots there are imposing houses with arches and pillars. I also see many buildings that appear to have been abandoned before they were completed.

We drive by another small village surrounded by fields and olive groves. W and H explain that this is a 3000-year old village, populated by Palestinian Jews—a living embodiment of an ancient and shared history. They are Jewish by heritage and religion, but culturally they are Arabs.

Then a new-looking Jewish settlement, surrounded by Arab land on which the settlers have cut down all the trees.

A donkey, escorted by Arab women, pulls a cart laden with garlic.

We drive through Birzeit—“well of olive oil.” In the town square there is a photo of Saddam Hussein. H says, “I like this man.” W, sensing my surprise, reminds me that before Saddam turned into a murderous monster he achieved good things for Iraq, including women’s rights. In the distance are the large, modern buildings of Birzeit University. Most of the students are Arab, but there are also Jews, Christians, and internationals.

We’re finally arriving in Ramallah, cars and people jostling each other on the busy streets. It is high up and you can see nearby Jerusalem from some places. “We can see Jerusalem but they can’t see us,” says a woman I meet later, smiling ruefully. We pass Mahmoud Abbas’s residence, which is also the seat of the Palestinian Authority. W and H are sarcastic about Mahmoud, as they refer to him. They say that opinion is divided about him: some say he is a collaborator with the Israelis. Others respect his leadership.

Some of the women on the street are in tight jeans and stiletto heels, along with fashionable-looking headscarves. A few have uncovered heads. They look very different from the women in Jenin in their elegant but stiflingly hot head-to-toe garments.

In Ramallah

The rest of the Freedom Theatre crew–the performing team, the video team, and about twelve boys, ages 11 to 14, from Jenin and a neighboring village—have traveled by “service,” pronounced as if French, a kind of taxi-van that’s the only public transport around the West Bank. We meet up with them at the headquarters of a large foundation in Ramallah that has organized a photography project for the Jenin boys and for a similar group in Gaza, exploring and recording the problems of water in their community. The foundation has arranged a video hook-up with the Gaza children. We can see them on a large screen—about ten boys and girls, a little younger than the Jenin boys. These children cannot meet in person, although they live in the same country, no more than a hundred miles from each other.

The Gaza children present their findings: no municipal water system, very little water available by any means, most of it contaminated. They can use seawater but it is inadequately desalinated. People get sick. They say Gaza is becoming like a dump because there is no system to deal with garbage. The kids are confident and well-informed, passionate but good-humored. “We can’t clean ourselves!” says one boy.

The Jenin children watch, absorbed, and ask questions. One of the boys presents what they have prepared: photos of wells that are useless because they are not permitted to drill deep enough. Wells that reach the aquifer get demolished by the Israelis, who use satellite technology to find them. They show photos of the luxuriantly green fields belonging to the settlement the other side of a razor wire fence, thanks to a spring that used to be on village land: the name of the village means “spring.” In the summer they run out of water altogether and have to buy water from a truck which shows up every few days. Even this water is not guaranteed to be pure.

The kids ask each other about swimming pools—no one has access, of course, to a place to swim that’s nearby and clean. One of the adults asks what it is like to see the Israelis with their plentiful water. “We feel we are not free.” “We feel it is injustice.” “We feel abused.”

After a lunch break the Freedom Bus team performs Playback Theatre for the children. I’m struggling, not successfully, to contain my feelings as I sit in the audience with someone murmuring translation in my ear. I am both shattered and inspired to witness the spiritedness of these young children in the face of monolithic cruelty. The children listen to each other’s stories, watch each other on the screens, laugh and clap together. In spite of the technological awkwardness the process works. A little girl in Gaza, radiant in her red sweater and neat brown ponytail, tells a story about getting 93 per cent on her science test. “When I grow up I’m going to solve my country’s water problems.” A boy from the village near Jenin tells a story about seeing a fire in a field and trying to get help. It took an hour for the truck to arrive and by then everything that grew was destroyed.

The Freedom Theatre’s videographer captures the enactments so that the kids in Gaza can see—at some cost to the audience in the room, since he has to be on stage with the actors, sometimes blocking our view. But it is worth it.

The last story is told by W, my friend from Haifa. It turns out that Juliano Mer Khamis was a friend of his family. W speaks about knowing Juliano when he, W, was a child, but never visiting the theatre until now. His story is about Juliano’s vision of the arts as a way of creating freedom.

And here we are with children using theatre to transcend the barriers between them.

After the performance I go to meet a woman who is a distinguished Palestinian actress and theatre director. She is about to bring her production of Shakespeare’s Richard the Second to the Globe Theatre in London. She is waiting for me at the door of her theatre. We’re meeting for the first time but she feels like an old friend. We have dinner, along with her husband, also an actor and the manager of the theatre, and two friends from Jenin. Our hosts live in East Jerusalem, which used to be a 20-minute drive from Ramallah on a four-lane highway. After several fatal attacks on Israelis the road was closed to Palestinians for eight years. Now reopened by court order, it is accessible to Palestinians only through a checkpoint which takes half an hour or longer to get through, followed by another lengthy delay negotiating the resulting traffic jam.

My new friend and her husband talk with controlled exasperation—even humor—about this reality of their daily lives; the way they, like all Palestinians, are treated by Israel as potential terrorists. “Oh yes,” she says, smiling at my incredulity. “They’ll strip-search us at the airport when we go to London. Always.”

On the hilltop

I am sitting under an olive tree in an open space on top of a hill, partly field, partly rocky outcrops with deep holes that Jo at Al Walajah croppedmight be wells or caves, I’m not sure. It is sunny but there is a cool breeze and the air is delicious. Around me are red and yellow wild flowers, daisies, anise. Just down from this beautiful wild spot are the houses and terraces of a Palestinian village. It is idyllic. But soon this land will be confiscated from its historical owners to become an Israeli national park, barred to any Palestinian. The other nearby hills are topped with settlements, one so close to the village that they could talk to each other without raising their voices–if they wanted to, and if they spoke each other’s languages. And if they could bear to talk through the barrier of razor wire that fortifies the settlement.

Down in the valley the separation wall is under construction. When it reaches up here it will surround this village, Al Walajah, all but cutting it off from the world. And on this rocky hilltop, a little distance from the rest of the village, an Arab family’s house will have a special curl of the wall all to itself, four meters high, ten meters from the house, making it a prison within a prison.

The Freedom Bus team is about to do a performance right here for local people and a large group of internationals led by Luisa Morgantini, the former vice president of the European Parliament. A band, famous in the Arab world, will play before and after the performance.

Wandering around as the team prepares the stage area, I see two Palestinian women who are gathering anise. We walk towards each other. One of them speaks some English and we talk, out there in the soft breeze. She says that her daughter lives in the house that is about to be surrounded by the wall. I’ve already met her son-in-law: the sound system for the performance is plugged into his house with a long cable. The woman tells me that one of her sons was recently released from prison after five years. Another son is currently in prison. She says they do not know why. There have been no charges.

People start gathering—children, young people, men and women. They find places to sit on the rocky ground. Except for the small olive trees there is no shade.

S, the local community organizer who is translating, announces that the army has arrived and set up a checkpoint down the road. They are turning people away and taking the IDs of anyone who objects. There is a stir of alarm. Everyone knows what the army is capable of, and this village has received aggressive attention at their weekly protests against the wall. “Stay calm,” she says. “We’re not doing anything illegal.”

The band sings three beautiful songs, accompanied on the oud. The audience claps in rhythm and sings along. The Playback show that follows is not easy, with kids wandering onto the stage area, the audience straining to hear, too many camera-wielding westerners stepping in front of audience members, even walking right up to the actors as they try to perform a story. The actors’ lack of experience is all too evident, at least to me. (By the time I visit again, a year later, they are doing outstanding work.)

Al Walajah audienceIn spite of the challenges, the stories flow. A young boy is the first person to speak up in response to the conductor’s question “How does it feel to be here today?” “Belonging,” says the boy. It turns out that he lives in the house that will become a prison. Later, his father raises his hand. “Today I feel we are not occupied,” he says. Everyone cheers.

There is a story about a 3,000 year old olive tree, a symbol and proof of the ancient Palestinian culture. A middle-aged man tells a story about the suffering of the child next door who came home after school to find his house demolished. And then the woman I had met picking anise came to tell her story about the army raid on her house five years ago, when they took her son. They destroyed many things in the house, she said, and they used sound bombs, to terrorize the family. She could do nothing but hold the children and try to protect their ears. She felt completely alone. “Now I don’t feel alone,” she says, gesturing to all of us.

By now the soldiers, guns at the ready, are 50 yards away at the entrance to the field, five trucks parked so as to be visible to us all: a deliberately threatening presence. S borrows the microphone again. “They won’t do anything as long as you’re here,” she says to the internationals. “Please stay until we can all leave together.”

There is more music after the Playback show—joyful, releasing music after the somber stories.

And then I have to go, very abruptly. The taxi that is to take me to Tel Aviv for the next phase of my teaching trip has arrived early and my hosts are too tense with anxiety about the soldiers to let me linger. Every cell in my body is saying “Stay! Don’t leave!” But I must not. We say a hurried goodbye under the suspicious eyes of the soldiers, and in seconds I am speeding down the hill toward Jerusalem, only ten minutes away but another planet.



We are driving on a new, immaculate road that is closed to Palestinians. The taxi’s Israeli license plate is prominently displayed on the dashboard. We slow down at the checkpoint but do not have to stop. In another few minutes we are in Jerusalem itself, with all the accouterments of a modern, prosperous city—wide, well-kept roads, shopping malls, billboards, substantial buildings. Western-looking people walk by, women in tank tops and short skirts, a couple kissing on a corner. It is a million miles from the pot-holed roads, ancient cars, and ramshackle buildings of the West Bank. A million miles, and ten minutes. This comfortable world is closed to almost all of the people I have just left.

We descend from Jerusalem into open country, past Ben Gurion Airport and on to Tel Aviv. The driver leaves me outside my host A’s house and she welcomes me warmly. It has taken not much more than an hour to get here. I am completely unable to absorb or accept this transition, though I am happy to see her, to meet her husband U, and to see the little rooftop guest apartment where I will spend the next week and a half. They—U especially—ask about Jenin and the Freedom Theatre project over dinner. I answer briefly because I feel distraught and I am afraid I will break down. I don’t know much about their politics. It turns out that they are both very progressive—U, Israeli-born, is utterly cynical about the Israeli government and wishes that the US would withdraw its support. Everything would collapse, he says, and that would lead to immediate change. A, who came to Israel as a refugee at six years old, stops short of some of his opinions.

I plead fatigue and go upstairs to be alone and rest.

The next day I begin a Playback Theatre workshop for experienced Israeli practitioners. Several express immediate interest in my visit to Jenin. (They ask about “Jenin” rather than the West Bank: Jenin is notorious in Israel for its militant resistance, particularly during the second intifada only a few years ago, and they believe it to be dangerous.) I am surprised and pleased by their sincere interest but I am not ready to talk to them. I don’t know what to say. I am so raw, so heartbroken at the tragedy and misery that I have just witnessed. As their guest and teacher, I don’t know how to share this with people who are, or are allied with, the agents of this injustice.

I decide to offer a talk about the West Bank at lunchtime on the third day, for anyone who’s interested. About ten people show up. The door to the small room keeps opening and more people squeeze in—in the end, about 20 of the 28 participants join the circle. My intention is simply to tell what I saw, without political interpretation. I tell them about the Freedom Theatre and the Freedom Bus project. I tell them about the performances in Ramallah and Al Walajah. I tell them how touched I was by the children from Gaza.

My heart is thumping as I talk. I am anxious about their response, and grateful for the supportive presence of the two women on each side of me. Two others, who are settlers and very conservative in their beliefs and lifestyle, listen with frowns and make notes. At the end there are questions. A young woman asks gently, “What it is like to be with us, after this experience?” She really wants to know. I say that the transition was indeed difficult but I am glad to be with them all. It’s true. I say that I, as an outsider, am here to listen and learn.

Someone asks if the Palestinians expressed hostility to Israelis. I say that they were antagonistic to the occupation, not necessarily to Israelis. In fact, though I do not say this, the angry comments I heard were all in reference to aggressive and humiliating behavior by Israeli soldiers. I refrain from saying this because they have all been Israeli soldiers. Some of them have children currently in the army—the first story of the workshop was about a daughter’s military service beginning the next day. The pervasive presence of the army–on the streets, in everyone’s personal lives, even as an organizational client for Playback Theatre performances–is something I’m finding astonishing and hard to take in, so different is it from anything I’ve experienced at home or in other countries.

I tell them that the Palestinians want the occupation to end. They want their human rights.

We have a few more minutes before the afternoon session. I tell them, as a coda, that I myself have roots here—that my grandfather, a rabbi, was born in Jerusalem, his forebears having come to Palestine from Lithuania in the mid 1800s, though I’m not Jewish because my mother’s family is not. The tension in the room defuses instantly—there is surprise, relief, pleasure. They are full of questions and they want me to be much more curious than I am about my distant relatives who presumably still live here. “You could be our cousin!” says someone. T, the American-born settler who is constantly trying to get me to “see the other side,” corners me and says she’ll get her friend the genealogist on the job.

T walks out of the room beside me. “I would like to take you to Sderot,” she says. “They have rockets fired at them all the time, perhaps by the parents of those adorable children you saw.” She knows I’m not coming to Sderot, near Gaza, though I have compassion for people enduring the trauma of living under rocket fire. As my host A says, kids in bomb shelters are kids in bomb shelters. I don’t condone Hamas’s violence. But how can T not feel the desperate poignancy of innocent children who grow up imprisoned, unable to defend themselves against weapons far more deadly than the Hamas rockets?

T has pressed me repeatedly to visit her settlement and I have demurred. She is my student, and I like her as a person. I enjoy the way she sashays in her long skirts like Mae West. I don’t want to say outright that I am unwilling on principle to visit an illegal settlement. But by now she must realize that my excuse of being too busy, while true, is not the only reason.

After several days it is still jarring to find myself here in this free, Western, privileged world. A said yesterday, “The situation is bad. But the fact is we have a nice life.” It’s true. Tel Aviv blooms with flowers, seaside cafés, world-class performing and visual arts. But I am acutely conscious of the Palestinians, so close and so invisible. The dissonance exhausts me. I can’t forget for a second that twenty miles away are two and a half million people who have no freedom of movement, no autonomy, who live in poverty and extreme stress, stigmatized as terrorists, subject to random imprisonment and violence.

At the same time, I feel affection and respect for the community of Playback people here. They have been welcoming and appreciative. And I’m slowly getting a sense of the price they themselves are paying. Denial takes a toll. Facing the situation is agonizing. Doing something about it requires a degree of courage and vision that is out of reach for most people.

At dinner one night I meet a young couple, L and M, who used to go into the West Bank to train people working with special needs children. Now they cannot, they say, because of border restrictions (although D, a committed activist I meet later, ignores these restrictions—“I know it’s very hard for an Israeli to go into the West Bank,” I say to her. “But I do,” she responds simply). These young professionals, with valuable skills to share if they could, ask me about my experience in Palestine. I tell them some of my stories. I quote the Palestinian H’s comment on the drive to Ramallah—that he sees no future. L says, “We see no future either. Our present is OK, yes, but we cannot see what will happen, or that anything good can happen.” She is nursing her baby boy as she speaks.

I’ve been noticing more and more young soldiers on the streets. Perhaps they are coming home to their families for the two celebrations that come soon after the Holocaust Day: Soldiers’ Memorial Day, immediately followed by Independence Day. A cynical juxtaposition, some say. The young men and women in their brown uniforms look vibrant and healthy. The women manage to be stylish, with long flowing hair and low-cut pants. No one wears hats. Shirts are open at the neck. They look like what they are, everybody’s children, everybody’s brothers and sisters–everybody.

These attractive young people striding along the streets of Tel Aviv could be the soldiers who are feared and despised by my friends in Palestine. Just as, though no one spoke of it, the workshop participants listening so attentively to my comments about the West Bank undoubtedly included some who spent time there in uniform.

I read somewhere recently: “Israel does not want to know what its sons are doing in the army.” And its daughters too.

Irrevocable harm has been done. So many Palestinians have been displaced, humiliated, brutalized, killed. Israelis too have their tragic personal losses, their own violent traumas to live with, eroding trust and openness. And worst of all, perhaps, the corrosive knowledge, conscious or otherwise, that their brave new world is founded on the displacement and suffering of an entire population.

It is almost superhuman—though some, both Palestinian and Israeli, try very hard—to hold onto hope and the possibility of change.

One of the actors in the Freedom Bus team said to me, “I will never see a solution. It won’t happen in my lifetime. Maybe in my son’s, or his son’s.” He does not yet have children. His compatriot H sees no future. L and M, the Israeli couple who used to travel to the West Bank, see no future. And yet the future will come. “Maybe it’s just a question of temperament,” says D, the Israeli activist, trying to understand why she stubbornly insists on doing something, as opposed to nothing. The perseverance of such people, wrote David Grossman in The Yellow Wind, “is what keeps alive the alternative to an otherwise general paralysis and lethal despair.”

I think of Juliano Mer Khamis’s vision of transformation through the arts, and the theatre work that brought me here. I think of L and M’s children whose small bodies hold a life force propelling them into the future, as living organisms must. There will be a future, bearable or not.

Copyright © Jo Salas 2012