Personal Essay: The storytellers of Ramallah

Student actors use theater to help them live with the occupation and Israel’s attacks on Gaza

"He put his hand on his heart and fell down a martyr." Ashraf Al Sousi performs his Gaza monologue.
Photo courtesy of Ashtar Theatre

Last month in Palestine, I met a 10-year-old child named Handala. He was barefoot, with his back to everyone. I saw him everywhere — drawn, painted, and sketched — in the West Bank, a symbol of a childhood frozen by war and occupation.

I went to Palestine to work with young students of Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre. Over five weeks, we wrote together in creativity workshops and I documented their international youth theater festival. What struck me and what has lingered is how they are both scarred by al-Ehtelal, the Israeli occupation, and also animated to resist it. They call it their “cause” and they wear it and drink it, sleep it and sing it, speak it and shout it, and as young theater artists, they act, embody and transform it.

I landed in Tel Aviv, which is about an hour from Jerusalem, which in turn is about 20 minutes from Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. There is a checkpoint — a short tower, a wall, Israeli soldiers with guns and a big sign in red: “This road leads to ‘Area A’ under the Palestinian Authority, the entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law.” Going into Ramallah, cars are let through easily. Returning to Jerusalem, though, there are long lines. Protests break out here, in which Palestinians sometimes end up being shot.

The landscape is beige and brown valleys, dotted with limestone. The houses are almost uniformly cream or white. Ramallah has some skyscrapers, many grocery stores — one on almost every block — and many coffee shops and shisha bars. Outside the city, you can spot Palestinian villages from a distance because of the black water towers on the roofs; they’re there to prepare for possible water cuts. Israeli settlements are laid out symmetrically with red roofs and encircled by walls, often topped by barbed wire and guard towers. The roads form a maze — some are direct routes specially reserved for settlers, others indirect ones that require Palestinians to go the long way around. There are least five ID cards, including blue Jerusalem cards and green West Bank ones, which give their holders varying degrees of mobility. And there is a wall, between Israel and the West Bank, but also zigzagging through the West Bank itself, dividing some villages and families from arable land and each other.

During my time in Palestine, I stayed in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, went north to the Jenin refugee camp, the Galilee, Haifa, and to Acre, through areas that are Israel and Palestine. While I was there, three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped were found dead; a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed in retaliation. Israel blamed Hamas and began the assault on Gaza; Hamas sent rockets towards Israel. On July 18, when I left, the Palestinian casualties in Gaza were about 150; that number has since soared to 2,090, with the majority being civilians.

Approaching Qalandia checkpoint that separates Ramallah in the West Bank from Jerusalem.
Shebana Coelho

Ashtar Theatre was founded in 1991 by actors Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem. Aoun was raised in Jerusalem where her family has lived for many generations; Muallem, her husband, is from the Galilee. They met while working in the famed El Hakawati (The Storytellers) troupe, which Muallem co-founded. Aoun, whose vision for Ashtar began with children, is short, brown-haired, clear-voiced. “It was at the end of the first intifada,” she says. “There was a generation who had lost their education. The first year, the whole country was paralyzed, no schools, nothing.”

With Muallem, she decided to create a drama-training program in schools “to help the children connect to their feelings and help give them a voice to express themselves,” she explains. “We wanted them to find their identity, and also to find a new horizon, a new possibility.” They began with schools in East Jerusalem and Ramallah; the program eventually expanded into other parts of the West Bank, and, for a few years, between 1992 and 1999, to Gaza.

The group’s small theater and office occupy the ground floor of a Ramallah side street. The students, 15 to 24 years old, congregate there, showing up for trainings, rehearsals or just to visit. They talk fast, smoke fast, laugh like they mean it and speak their mind, in cadences that are easy and animated. Some have virtually grown up on the stage, starting as early as the third grade in the after-school program; others are recent graduates. All have had the opportunity to learn training and expressive techniques, and to write, improvise, perform and assist with plays on a wide range of themes — the occupation certainly, but also historical, civil and social issues such as domestic violence and developmental disabilities. 

The sense of occupation, it’s hard to explain … Like if you want to go to a good hospital, it’s in Jerusalem and you can’t go [without a permit]; if you want to travel to a different country, you can’t if you don't pass the checkpoint.

Émile André

Student at Ashtar Theatre

Rana Burqan, 21, has a shock of curly hair, an easy laugh. “Being a Palestinian … you have to really know politics; you have to understand what’s happening, because,” she pauses, “we have this cause, this cause!”

Burqan is studying journalism in college. She wants to tell every foreigner she meets the whole story about Palestine, from the beginning, from the British Mandate, to the Nakba or Catastrophe, when thousands of Palestinians (more than 700,000, according to some estimates) were expelled as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to the present day. “We can’t rely on international media to tell our story as it truly is,” she adds.

“The sense of occupation,” 24-year-old Émile André says while taking a drag on a cigarette, “it’s hard to explain. For example, here in Ramallah, you don't encounter Israeli soldiers coming in every day.” But overnight inevitably someone is shot or arrested, he says. “And you can’t leave the city without having a permit … Like if you want to go to a good hospital, it’s in Jerusalem and you can’t go [without a permit]; if you want to travel to a different country, you can’t if you don't pass the checkpoint, or you don't get a permit to travel; if you want to visit a relative who is living in a different city, you can’t, easily. It’s very difficult for an outsider to understand.”

And that’s why Ashtar organized the youth festival: “to bring the outside in,” says Aoun, “and break the isolation of our students. We wanted to continue connecting them with mentors and peers.”

When I attended, the festival participants included Palestinian students from the West Bank, a group of 12th-graders from Tromsø, Norway, actors from the UK, and trainers from Germany, Egypt and Romania who gave workshops in dance, drama, comedy and performance art. The final group performance included a movement piece reflecting the dynamics of street protest, a sketch about Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons, Commedia dell’Arte scenes and monologues about self-image and harassment.

It was during the youth festival, on a daytrip to Jenin refugee camp organized by Ashtar, that I first saw Handala. He is a cartoon of a barefoot refugee child created by the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali but used universally as a symbol of resistance and the fight for self-determination. I saw him drawn on walls and pavements, printed on T-shirts in Old Jerusalem and etched onto key chains in Ramallah.

Like Handala, Ali was a refugee child; he lived in Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon after his village was destroyed in the Nakba. “His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection,” Ali wrote of his character, “at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way.”

More than 750,000 registered refugees live in the West Bank, a quarter of them in 19 camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

“Why don’t they integrate into the West Bank?” I asked Aoun as a big bus drove us all towards the north. “Why keep their refugee status?”

“Because,” she replied, “by maintaining their status as refugees, they maintain their inalienable right to return to their villages …”

“… that no longer exist,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “that no longer exist.”

The Jenin camp is widely known for its militant resistance to the occupation. By the entrance, one of the first sights is the cemetery where, one of the students said, shahids, or martyrs, form the majority of the dead. It was as we were leaving that I saw Handala standing beside a tire filled with mud from which a single flower grew, sketched in soft dark lines on a wall.

Ali was 10 — the same age as Handala — when he left Palestine. More than 20 years later, in 1969, he presented the iconic cartoon in a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Siyassa. He described Handala as rough and true; a child named for bitterness, frozen in age, who would only grow up when “things will become normal again, when the homeland returns.” Handala’s creator never returned to the homeland; he was assassinated in London in 1987.

As we drove back toward Ramallah that evening, we passed a checkpoint near an Israeli settlement without being stopped. “Amazing,” said one of the organizers and blessed the row of fair Norwegian faces against the windows that the soldiers must have seen. But a few minutes later, conversations stopped and a tense silence descended as soldiers on the side of the road flagged the bus down.

It had grown dark by then. Two Israeli soldiers walked onto the bus, guns pointed at passengers. Casually, they asked, “Marijuana, Hamas, Fatah, terrorist?” as if someone was going to raise her hand and confess. When no one did, they got off. As the doors closed, one of the Ashtar students stood and said to us, the internationals, “Do you see, do you see how they treat us?” He spoke loudly, and his friends shushed him fiercely, afraid the soldiers would come back. He was a young man from Hebron, near where the Israeli teenagers had gone missing. At the time, Hebron was closed off, and his ID card would have been enough to detain him. (In Palestine, you can be jailed without reason, without a trial, for six months as a special “administrative detainee.” Of the almost 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisonsprisons, about 200 are administrative detainees.)

The bus drove on, and everyone sighed in relief.

Excerpt from Ashtar Theatre's The Gaza Mono-Logues featuring Émile André, Rana Burqan, Jenin Mer’I and Uday Ju’beh, directed by Mohammad Eid.
Shebana Coelho

“Every generation,” André, the Ashtar student, says on another occasion, “has had its war …

“Yes,” adds 23-year-old Lamis Shalaldeh, her voice taut, “we have to grow up fast here — and we are born into politics.”

“And there is a dilemma between living your age and being a spokesperson helping the cause.” André shrugs. “If you want to listen to music? No … If you want to go to watch cinema? No, it’s not the right time. At the same time, I have to live my own life.”

“Which is why,” explains 20-year-old Noor Bosheh on Facebook chat, “we use theater!” Slim and dark-haired, Noor is a beautiful singer who often gets the shebab, the guys, going in song. “This cause has unfolded all that is featureless within myself, it made me become more responsible to DO something!”

“For me,” says 17-year-old Uday Jubeh, who has been known to croon Sinatra, “theater was a way to find myself for the first time. By playing different characters, I discovered who I truly am.”

Before the war, I was a child … But after the war, I discovered I’m not a child anymore, and that Gaza, unlike all cities of the world, doesn’t have children in it.

The Gaza Mono-Logues

They all speak with reverence of The Gaza Mono-Logues, a play they have been performing since 2010. It recounts the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-09 bombing of Gaza, in which 1,380 Palestinians died, 431 of them children. Each monologue was written by a Gazan teenager as part of a four-month project of healing and creativity organized by Ashtar “because the sound of life is louder than the roar of bombing,” writes Aoun in the play’s introduction. The monologues, she continues, “are a living expression of hope in the face of pain.”

When the play was completed, its teenage playwrights performed it in Gaza. But since the region was under blockade in 2010, they couldn't leave to perform it elsewhere. But they found a way to connect: On the morning of October 17 that year, the writers gathered on the beach in Gaza. They recited their monologues and sent small paper boats onto the waves and out into the world. Afterward, the play’s 33 monologues were performed on the same day by more than 1,500 young people in more than 50 cities in 36 different countries. The following month, there was a performance at the United Nations featuring Bosheh and Jubeh from Ashtar’s Ramallah ensemble along with 20 other international actors.

The Ramallah students have only seen the Gazan writers on Skype and Facebook.

“Whether we are from Gaza or Jaffa, we are all Palestinians,” says Burqan, the journalism student, “but we don't get to meet them.”

Jubeh, Bosheh, André and Ashtar graduate Jenin Mer’I performed excerpts of the play during the youth theater festival. They moved around a dark stage with shifting lights, using a wide strip of cloth that bound them and freed them; it was by turns a stretcher, a shroud, a coffin, a sheet in the wind.

“Gaza is a matchbox … and we’re the matches inside it.”

“The crisis is the whole world is watching us as if there’s nothing going on and they’re still making speeches.”

I feel like running, running, running in the streets till my headscarf flies in the sky and I fly after it.”

“Before the war, I was a child … But after the war, I discovered I’m not a child anymore, and that Gaza, unlike all cities of the world, doesn’t have children in it.”

Bosheh, one of the two Ramallah actors who performed the play at the United Nations, says she “had such hopes” after presenting it there. “It was improbable, I know, but I thought those monologues will release Gaza and end the occupation on the Strip.”

Sending the monologues out from Gaza and into the world, October 17, 2010.
Photo courtesy of Ashtar Theatre

In a YouTube campaign called Words for Gaza that Ashtar Theatre launched soon after the bombing began, Aoun recorded a video in which she tapes her mouth, and screams silently at the camera.

Speaking with me, she shakes her head. “To see what is recurring in Gaza, I had words before but now, I have nothing.”

In another video, Burqan, who lives in Ramallah, apologizes. “I am sorry,” she says to her counterparts under attack, sorry for her distance, her safety, their loss, their destruction. I ask if she has heard from the Gaza teenagers recently. “The ones that I am friends with on Facebook, up till now they are OK, thank God,” she says. “As long as I see them posting things on Facebook, I think … no need to ask them how things are because we know that things are really bad.”

I have seen them on Facebook, too, posting images and notes, the before and the after. Before the attacks, 18-year-old Ahmed Taha stared out to sea in a profile photo; a few weeks ago, after a surge of Israeli bombs, he sat on a sofa on the rubble of his destroyed house, and wrote of ashes, life and dreams. Before, 19-year-old Mahmoud al-Turk posed with friends, wearing a hat cocked to one side; after, he stood in a devastated broken landscape in al-Shujaiya neighborhood, his green Mickey Mouse shirt the lone blot of color.

“O Lord,” Turk wrote a few weeks ago as Gaza alternated between bombs and cease-fires, “this dream to live safely. We hate wars. I am suffocating. There are wild birds, aircraft above us and the sky is full of black, toxic smoke.”

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