April 4, 2010

Palestine

One day I will put a piece of this wall on the shelf in my living room

-Graffiti on the Wall.

We’re in Ayda, a refugee camp in Bethlehem, and none of us is saying a word. We’re just looking: looking at the Wall in front of us, huge and grey, covered in graffiti that calls for freedom, rebellion, humanity, justice; at the cramped houses that make up the camp, wondering what it means to live in the shadow of those watchtowers, this Wall, and why so many of the windows round here are bricked up when the houses are so obviously inhabited.

“A little boy was shot through the stomach recently”

– it’s Baha that breaks the silence-

“through his bedroom window. He was playing with his sister.”

* * *

We leave the Wall and walk through Ayda, past a group of young men who sit on a step. They tell us Welcome, and laugh amongst themselves. They’re surprised when Baha replies in Arabic.

“We thought you were a foreigner”, they say.

It’s true Baha doesn’t look like most Palestinian men- his jeans are scuffed and loose, his T-shirt’s baggy. But his world is Palestine, and he brims with its stories. He points out to us the orchards which blanket the far hills, owned by Palestinians who can’t reach them. He tells us of his own brother, Rami, who was arrested for throwing stones at the age of 15 and spent the next 3 years of his life in and out of Israeli prisons. He shows us –from a distance- a community enclosed by the Wall, unable to go anywhere but the nearest small town and back again, nobody allowed to visit. We stand on his Beit Sahour rooftop and turn full circle, seeing fences and settlements wherever we look. That settlement there was built on a nature reserve; that one there sits on a Muslim cemetery.

…everyone laughs in the same language…

…know Jesus, know peace…

…Cool and calm…

By the end of the day we’re exhausted, and we’re glad to sit around the fire at his friend’s farm, eating couscous and singing old songs.

*            *            *

The next day we take a shared taxi to Ramallah. The journey used to be a short one, through Jerusalem and out the other side, but because of the Wall it’s an hour-long drive these days. We wind out of Beit Sahour, through Fire Valley, past more settlements and into sprawling residential areas, which used to be suburbs of Jerusalem and are now cut off from the city. Baha talks all the way, a story for every place we pass, building a picture before which we can only nod, stunned.

Arriving in Ramallah, there’s a big-city bustle. Men smoke shisha on the pavements, butchers sell meat, people of all sizes cross busy roads and ‘Osama’s Pizzeria’ competes with ‘Fish and Chips’ for custom.

There’s a billboard across the street from where we sit drinking tea. It carries a picture of a young man with a rifle.

“Who’s that?” we ask.

“A martyr”, Baha replies.

“He was killed in that spot”.

Every inch of soil has blood in its history.

We find our way to the venue where we’re to be performing The Rebel Cell in a few hours. It’s unexpected, straight out of Brighton- minimal sofas here and there and MF Doom playing on the sound system. A long room, with a bar at one end. We wonder how on earth a theatre piece is going to go down here.

The crowd that eventually comes to fill the space is young and 50% foreign (Ramallah’s foreigners; aid workers and journalists). Tom’s a writer for Reuters, Carlo teaches music in schools and Kara works for Oxfam. After a hiphop set from Boykutt, a local MC, we arrange chairs in a theatre-like formation in the hope it’ll create an atmosphere of listening, and launch in.

To our surprise, the people are mostly attentive as we manoeuvre through the play, yell our slogans and discuss our notions. There’s even a small cheer at the end. We take a beer break and then launch into a full hiphop set, high volume and energy. Now, the crowd properly comes alive- this is what they’re out for on a Saturday night. Arms in the air, smoke in the light, sweat in the T-shirts. We invite Boykutt up on stage with us and a cipher is born, freestyles in 2 languages with Carlo producing a trombone to blow somewhere between.

“Haaa!”,

A man shouts afterwards, grabbing my sleeve.

“Wanderful!”

His name is Ahmed, and he enjoyed the set with a wild, drunk abandon.

“Waaanderful!”

Ahmed speaks a unique form of English, with almost no knowledge of grammar but a heightened sense of poetry. He tells me there is poetry in the child confronting a tank with a stone, it is Madosophy, insane thinking that somehow makes sense. I have to agree. He is from Gaza; he managed to leave a year ago and make his way here to the West Bank, but now he’s stuck. If he tries to travel he’ll have to pass checkpoints and show his Gaza I.D, which will get him sent straight back to that danger. He hasn’t left this town at all for a year. We talk animatedly for an hour; Ahmed buys a round of beers. He misses his family. I buy a round of shots. We become friends.

When the bar closes, Ahmed and I say farewell, and Baba leaves too, off on a night-mission back to Tel Aviv to catch his morning flight to Cairo. A rag-tag group of us make our way to Kara’s flat, where we eat pasta on the roof and talk more. Ramallah’s jumble is spread out below us, and the brighter lights of Jerusalem cast a glow from behind the hill.

Baha has to go- he’s got a meeting in the morning. Our goodbyes are tearful, and we feel deflated and finally tired, sitting there. We head back to his brother’s flat where there are blankets and bedding, and crash hard and completely.

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