Wednesday April,8 - Aïda camp - Solomon’s Pools

Tuesday 5 January 2010
popularity : 91%

This morning, we wake up surrounded by music to discover that, surprise!... There are pancakes for breakfast !... Today, we are starting the interviews. We have told our friends about our docu-film project about "Palestine as seen by the Palestinians". We had agreed to take the time to immerse ouselves in the life of Al-Rowwad centre, to weave bonds with the people before taking any pictures, filming or asking questions. Our friends are enthusiastic about it: "That’s a great idea ! So, when you go back home, you can show your friends and family who we really are !"

We divide the tasks : some of us are leaving to go to the Centre where they will interview Salam (18) who is a student at Al-Quds University, while the others disappear into the camp in search of pictures to take. A person’s voice and language being his/her soul, we ask all our friends to speak Arabic. This morning Marwa (23, married, with a little baby-girl) will provide the translation into English.

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Both girls feel a bit shy about it, but so are we, awkward with the questions, with the camera and the new MP3 we bought for this occasion ! But the result was worth the trouble : Salam and Marwa allow us to know a bit more about the history of the people of the camp : "It all started in 1948 when the Israeli arrived in the Palestinian villages and threw their inhabitants out, forcing them to leave their houses. These people are now living in areas that are the closest to their original village... At first there was nothing to accommodate these people but then, the UN brought in tents and that’s how the camps started." About Handala, the little cartoon character drawn by Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian refugee from the village of Shajarah ("tree") who was living in Lebanon : "As you can see, Handala has only 10 hairs on the head, which show he is only 10 : he isn’t going to grow up until he is allowed back to his country. He’s barefoot and all ragged, poor and helpless like all the refugees who have got nothing left but what they had on when the Israeli army threw them out of their village. Handala holds his hand behind his back, that way showing he refuses to take part in what is going on and make peace until he can go back home. He refuses to have to give anything in exchange for getting his own country back. His country belongs to him. It was stolen from him and must be handed back without his having to pay for it. We can only see Handala’s back because his eyes are riveted to his village, where he is dreaming of going back to one day", and Mahmoud Darwish (the famous Palestinian poet that is in every Palestinian’s heart)...

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Above all, Salam and Marwa let us into their world. They tell us about their involvement in Al-Rowwad centre : "All the activities at Al-Rowwad aim at teaching the children what we call our « beautiful resistance ». It’s a hard job to teach them non-violence as they are living in a violent environment (the wall, the soldiers). Most of the children of Aïda have no place to go and play or to express their feelings. But we are teaching them to express their feelings in other ways", about the important role of Al-Rowwad Theatre Company : "It’s a big responsibility to introduce your own country to other people… And it’s really hard work for us : we don’t always manage to express ourselves as well as we would like to…We want the other people to see the good side of us, we want them to see who we are, who the Palestinians really are. At the same time, we are really lucky to be able to travel abroad", about their studies and their dreams.

Marwa smiles : "To dream, you need to believe that there are no borders to stop you, but for us, even when we try to dream, we know there are many borders that prevent us from dreaming. As far as I’m concerned, for ex., I really would like to do a Master’s at university but I simply can’t because there are no universities here in Bethlehem where I could do so and I’m not allowed to leave the camp…" As for Salam, her dream is to leave the camp : "Here, there are all these boxes built so close together : we have no room, no privacy. I would like to leave, not to travel abroad but to go back to my village… Sometimes, you know, it’s difficult to answer people who ask you where you are from. You answer, “I live in Aida but in fact I’m from this or that village”… It’s difficult to make them understand that we were transferred from our country into our country, that we are refugees within our own country…"

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We ask both of them if they have a message for the people who will feel like reading or listening to their interview. Salaam answers first : "I would like to tell them that we are not what the media say we are. We are not terrorists. We don’t like killing people. We live in our country, Palestine, and we want to have it back. We have no problems with the Jews. They have their religion, theirs beliefs, we have ours and we live differently, that’s all. But we have problems with the Israeli Zionists… "

Then Marwa tells us : "I’d like to say this to all the people who will never come here : You, who live in your own country, you just can’t imagine what it feels like to be at home without being at home. Just imagine you want to go to Jerusalem, to pray, or simply to visit the town : it is only 10 km away from Aïda, but you first need the permission from the Israeli authorities. Then you will have to travel maybe a 50 km detour to get there, wait at the checkpoint, be searched... It makes me happy to see that people from "outside" travel all the way here. It helps us believe they know we exist. We don’t need more. And I thank them for that."

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We are all back together at 11, ready for a little trip to Solomon’s Pools (huge water tanks where, according to the legend, King Salomon liked going for a walk in the tenth century B.C.).

The weather is simply great and we go frolicking around the park with Ribal, Marwa, Mazen, Jamal et Ayssar. We have missed greenery (there are apparently no gardens nor trees inside the camp) and we intend to make the most of it !

Djembé et chicha
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We sit down in the shadow of the trees : some of us poison themselves smoking chicha, others try their hands (and feet!) at dancing dabka, the traditional Palestinian dance. We (of course) play a bit of improvised music (Ayssar at the Jembe, Laetitia at the Jew’s harp), along with (of course again) rap songs by our Freedom’s Sons Band... why hold back ? Then we have a nice little a pic-nic, a long siesta and muffled chatting under the midday sun.

Aysar et Laetitia
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One thing leading to another and Marwa starts telling us about her young brother who has been in prison for several months. In Palestine, melancholy is never far away from joy, and vice versa...

Around 3.30 p.m., we get back on our mini-bus and go back to the camp, yet not before Mazen has offered us a little goldfish he has caught in one of the pools and which we immediately nickname Habibi, (in English, "my love, sweetheart"). Great atmosphere on the coach all the way back : what a gang we form, together with these Palestinians !

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The kids of Aida have now gotten used to us, 5 to 10-year-old boys and girls who call us out each time we go up and down the street that leads to the centre : a concert of "wats-your-ném?" that makes them roar with laughter. They want to try our sun-glasses, pose for the picture, ask Laetitia for more balloons, and Julian for more funny faces. Some of them are a bit aggressive, they hang on to us and our bags, but we remember Martine’s advice : keep calm but firm.

Today, like every other day, we stampede into the computer room which is made available to us for one hour and quickly send our mails before dropping another few lines on the travel blog.

Stop ! Time is over! Half of us go and join the theatre workshop : today we are honoured to attend one of the centre’s theatrical company’s last rehearsals before they all fly to Austria where they will present their new play. For Tanguy, Anne-Claire and Theodore, it is not a premiere since they saw the show "Who is afraid of the wolf ?" the same company gave in Brussels in 2008 : Ribal (19 years old) was already playing, the part of the wolf actually. But from now on, he takes care of the production and gives useful instructions to the young actors, all aged 10 to 18.

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Abdelfattah Abu-Srour, the director of the centre, wrote the new play called : « We are the children of the camp », and it’s both deeply moving and uncomfortable to see these children embody a true story, theirs, their parents’ and grand-parents’, the story of their people. They are serious, concentrated, and with a lot of restraint, they enact a rather heavy text for such young shoulders, but if their memory fails them a moment, or they start floundering and miss their cues, they burst out laughing and so does the director, a sign that indeed in Al-Rowwad, the activities are at the children’s service, not the other way round : there is no irritation on the part of the adults who train them and everything that would be lacking in term of professionalism gains in purity, sincerity and conviction.

A l’école - At school

- Child 2 : Teachers like me very much, because I ask a lot of questions…
- Child 5: Whether I asked or not, nobody cares. Neither in the school nor at home !
- All : We are pupils in the school, We have the right to study. We have the right to play. We have the right in our childhood. We have the right to talk for ourselves !
- Child 5 : You have the right to shut your mouths, to close your eyes and to forget even that you are children !
- All (song) : Oh my teacher, teach me History / tell me : where is my country ? / here or on Mars? / I am Palestinian / I don’t hide my origins / I asked them : where is my country ? /They said it doesn’t exist (...)

Abdelfattah hands us the Anglo-Arabic script so that we can understand what’s going on. There is now a mimed scene that cruelly illustrates the arbitrary to which the Israeli soldiers subject the Palestinians at all the checkpoints …

Le cri du peuple - People’s cry

- Child 1 : A people and a country vanish, as if never existed
- Child 4 : And the world keeps silent, with no shame
- Child 9 : The country has a new name
- All : Israel
- Child 3 : A foreign people occupies the country
- Child 5 : He forces our people to exile
- Child 7 : He confiscates lands, builds settlements
- Child 6 : Puts people in jail or in exile, controls and governs, demolish our houses
- Child 1 : Turns the ground, deracinates trees, makes new roads, demolishes the buildings
- Child 8 : Transformed our land into desert, our water sources became scarce
- Child 4 : They violated the land, stole the water
- Child 9 : Forbid our lands from irrigation
- All : Come with me brother, let us enflame the revolution, father
- Child 10 : Let this occupier be worried!
- Child 6 : Regain our violated rights
- All : Let the dawn of freedom come!

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- All : We are the generation of the Intifada
- Child 1 : We have suckled the freedom with the stones
- Child 2 : Our air is tear gas bomb
- Child 4 : Our perfume was the smoke and the fire of burning tires
- All : We are the generation of the Intifada

Enfants du camp - Children of the camp

- Child 1 : We are the children of the camp
- Child 4 : We were born as strangers in our own country
- Child 5 : We lived in camps
- Child 6 : We were called refugees
- All : This land is our land
- Child 2 : The land of our fathers and grandfathers
- Child 3 : We have been here for years and years
- Child 7 : In here we lived, here we were raised
- All : This is our land
- Child 8 : Here we had olive trees
- Child 9 : There we had a garden
- Child 10 : And up here we had a vineyard
- Child 6 : Behind the hill lies the tomb of my grandfather
- Child 5 : My grandmother gave birth to my father under the olive tree they uprooted by there
- All : This is our land, and our children
- Child 2 : From here they uprooted olive trees
- Child 3 : And my father cried. He has never cried, but when they uprooted the olive trees, he cried
- Child 1 : From here they want to uproot us
- All : But our roots are deep here
- 3 children : From here they want to uproot our memories
- All : But our roots are deep here
- Child 7 : From here they want to uproot our eyes and feelings
- All : But we are here rooted as beech trees

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Act 8 : the children are lying on the floor, dead? Asleep ?… One of them, Aissa, gets up and starts talking about herself : "My name is Aissa Abou Srour. I’m 14. My native village is called Natif, but I was born in Aïda. One day, as I was going back home with my friend Mohammed and some others, we were all surprised to find the Israeli army in front of the entrance to the camp. All the youngsters got together and started to throw stones at them. I called Mohammed :”Come ! let’s throw stones too ! » He didn’t want to. I insisted and dragged him with me. Suddenly we heard a gunshot. All the people in the camp had heard it... One bullet only, and Mohammed was lying on the ground. I bent over him and I cried :: "Mohammed !... get up Mohammed !... Call for help!!" But Mohammed was already dead, dead as a martyr... Mohammed used to act theatre with me . He would say : "We can face the colonizers in other ways than by throwing stones at them, by acting : let’s show the whole world what we can do"...For you Mohammed, I will continue to resist, but your way, the one you had chosen...The whole world will be able to see and understand that the children who throw stones are human beings too..."

She collapses on the spot. Riwae comes on stage, bends over the martyrs, then talks to us : “ My name is Riwae. It means ‘the promise’... I’m 13. The name of my native village means « The old one ». I was born in Aïda. I’m dreaming of becoming a design engineer... I like music and theatre and I’m so good at school... My mother was a teacher. She would help me a lot with my studies .But on March 8, in 2002, the occupation army came into our camp. The soldiers smashed the walls and bombed the houses to get in. We had heard voices in front of our door. My mother got up to go and open it. That’s when we heard an explosion. There was smoke everywhere in the house and my mother was lying on the floor, surrounded by soldiers of the army. She was covered with blood...

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My father tried to get to her to help her but the soldiers didn’t let him do it... He wanted to call for help, but they forbade him to ...They packed us all in one room and went on destroying the walls of the house... After two hours, they let my father call for help. The ambulance arrived one hour later and took my mother. My father went with her to the hospital. As for the soldiers, they continued piercing the wall that separates us from our neighbours and went in their house... My father came back, but my mother never did... On that day, I decided to fight and resist. I have chosen acting as a milder form of resistance to make my cries be heard. I have chosen to make theatre, to draw and play music to make my suffering be heard in the whole world... " Riwae kneels down, takes the hand of one of the martyrs into hers and stays next to him for a moment...

There are 3 more scenes to be played before the final curtain but the young actors still have to study their text. We leave them, a bit confused actually. Of course we read and gathered information about Palestine before coming, but hearing and seeing history relived by these 12 to 18-yezr old kids who once the rehearsal is over start talking, running and laughing again as if there were no camp, no concrete wall around it, no armed soldiers on the watchtowers is very disorienting…

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In the meantime...

In the meantime, the other half of the group has gone to attend Youssef’s basket-ball match : basket-ball in wheel-chairs with young handicapped athletes. Disorganized departure from the Centre (the Palestinian way) as expected : we first desperately wait for the ordered taxis, which when they eventually arrive are no longer needed. Well not both of them : Youssef and three of us take one while the others have already left on foot with Mourad and use the opportunity to give him a hand. Murrad is in charge of the "Images for Life"-workshop and hangs up posters advertising the photo exhibition that will be held in the Centre from Friday on.

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On the basketball court, the group is kindly welcomed even if with a hint of surprise. We all sit down on the steps and watch Youssef and the other players practise. They all have one or sometimes even two artificial legs and it is really impressive to see them move around on their adapted wheelchairs : they sometimes look as if they were about to fall on the ground (reaction : oh!... in the public), but they manage quite well (sigh of relief in the same public). They are really good at it, and practise seriously. Of course we are all dedicated supporters of Youssef and cheer him. He smiles at us , makes different signs to us... He really is one of the best, believe us !!


This afternoon, we all walk down to Beit Jala the neighbouring village that clings to the side of the hill just across the valley and tells its history to anyone who is willing to hear about it.

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Beside the mosque, the church and little houses, there are the ruins of the mayor’s house : during the second Intifada (octobre 2000), young people from a neighbouring refugee camp had entrenched themselves in it and fired at the inhabitants of the Jewish settlement opposite the village. The Israeli army had then fired shells at it before setting up an operation and entering Beit Jala.

We get into the house on tip-toe, not totally certain of the reaction of the house-ghosts... The inside of it is all in rubble, twisted iron bars, smashed open staircase and broken arcades give us an idea of the great mansion this should have become... We can’t but shudder at the fine mess they have made of it all...

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Through one of the breaches in the bombed wall, we discover the new neighbours : Gilo, one of the 12 Jewish settlements that surround Jerusalem since 1967, a real town of 37.000 inhabitants built on Palestinian lands Israel annexed. In other words, it is on the Palestinian side of the Green Line which has separated Israel from the West bank since 1949 : proudly planted on top of the hill that faces us, it towers above the valley and the Palestinian houses of bethléem and Beit Jala.

Leading to it, one of these modern motorways, at the exclusive use of the settlers. To build it, the Palestinian roads were just interrupted and stop against heaps of earth or concrete walls. The Palestinians are prevented from going and coming normally. "Their" roads being cut, they have to go really long detours to get to their work place or fields, go to school or visit their family. We are in the West Bank, though... Also called "the occupied territories". All this is staggeringly ridiculous and brutal...

At night we are back at the Guest House where a delicious meal, prepared by Ribal’s mother, is waiting for us. We spend another quiet evening together with our friends. Mohammed gives us an unbelievable number of bird songs (+ kettle and policemen whistling !) while Mazen pretends he can play the guitar...

Mohammed and the birds
Music together

And then (it has turned into a tradition) mingled music and rap-songs, just for the fun of it and the pleasure of being together, so well together indeed.

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Read the continuation of the trip