The Picnic up here (as well as oppression down there) is truly impressive. The grill measures two meters and the long view across the valley has a pleasantly surreal quality.
As we arrive, I see a gender-partition which is still the same in my family: women are busy preparing meat, various vegetables and sauces, the men heat the coal. On a large, colourful landscape of blankets between them the children play.
In cars, taxis and on foot more and more people arrive at our spot, and also on others around us at a suitable distance — a typical friday up here.
Up here is re-conquered land. This hill had been under occupation by settlers until two years previously and there are now only a few signs of settlement left. The settlers have obviously taken all they could away with them, so that if anything is left of a house now it is only the entrance steps, leading up into a strange mixture of trees.
The staff and participants of the cinema course of the Freedom Theatre have invited us, the foreigners, for this picnic, up here. We had been eager to see this legendary place and they are proud to describe once again how a constant stream of fireworks and demonstrations had made living up here too uncomfortable for the Israeli settlers — finally they fled from the pestering protests a few miles north behind their new wall. Which is ugly architecture slicing the fields and groves in the distance down there.
The enormous meal begins to take shape and the house keeper, Um Mohammad, throning in the middle of it all, loads and reloads plates unceasingly, simply by rotating herself on the spot. No one dares to stop her as there are harsh words and biting jokes at the refuser’s expense.
After final capitulation everything we could not muster is thrown away, then coffee, later tea appears from somewhere, nuts and sweets are handed round and shishas lit. People relax in their community routines. The valley gleams brightly from between the straight pine trees, even the clear view of the winding wall does not diminish the general joyous atmosphere anymore. Here the stink of rubbish, which we were enveloped in on the way up, is replaced by the most European breeze I have ever smelt in this land. Jenin means ‘garden’, ‘paradise’ even, and once this city and terrain had been most fertile and green. Now the draconian Israeli water laws have turned it into dry bushland with scarce hardy pine trees dotted about. The people cannot rely on running water, and need to jump through a lot of bureaucracy loops to get their fields watered regularly. That and other provocations incite people daily to seek the other paradise, and it is all part of the occupiers’ plan.
The society suffers inside itself, too. Rawand, one of the theatre’s administrators, settles next to me and smiles her big smile. She had once hinted at the fact that she wants to research and write more about the oppression of women in Palestine. And suddenly we are gripped in a tight conversation, trying, not visibly, to keep the others from really hearing. I cannot gage whether there would be resistance to her work from some of the men I meet as open-minded artists and colleagues, or even the women, or not. It seems more to be a personal choice for Rawand to be quite secretive about it. In this small community gossip travels fast and everything can very easily carelessly passed on and be misinterpreted, which may lead to serious trouble for her.
It is not only the domestic violence, the beatings, forced marriages or the sex and imprisonment during marriage she is interested in — that is all documented in films and books, those are the extreme effects of religious and, more so, traditional fervor in times of crisis as well as the fear of change. But rather she wants to highlight the silent everyday oppression of girls and women that may not be worth reporting on in the news, but which constitutes a huge devaluation of the individuals’ talents, wishes and perspectives in life. In this area most girls are not allowed to choose freely what they want to study, if at all, or where they want to work, if at all. Many of them are not allowed to go out alone, let alone travel, and if they are, they always have to report exactly where they are, with whom and when they will be back. In many cases they are not allowed to marry if they fall in love with someone.
The girls around me, all but one in hijabs, seem very free and seem to fulfill their role in society as (prospective) housewives and mothers happily and without questioning it. The one who does not wear the hijab still seems freer than the others. But there is one element of rebellion they have in common: they tell me about their fiancées and families who constantly threaten to prevent them from coming back to the Freedom theatre. The women wish to do both, but their families have to be persuaded gently.
Meeting Rawand’s family was also a slightly painful pleasure — because aside from the warm and continuously generous welcome, I saw how much her mother expects of her in the house, how much her father regulates her free time and how hawk-like her brother watches her behavior, while flirting freely with me.
One of the instructors of the cinema course made a film (HONOUR) which features newsworthy violent oppression as well as these low-key everyday issues. Remarkably he used his own experiences for that: on the outside an independent, Western-orientated film artist, he never questioned inside his home that his sister had to behave in a certain way in order ‘to preserve his honour’ and frequently hit her when she did not seem to do that. Only through his work at the theatre he realized that he was following an ancient pattern of satisfying the male ego. Which he normally abhorred in other aspects of life. At home it somehow had not been the same thing for him until that moment of realisation. Meeting Mustafa as a very bubbly and openly speaking Muslim man, who wears long curls and does not practice his religion, I thought he would be the last person to believe in this doctrine of honour. I can see from the way he now responds to my questions that he is still feeling the shock. In our conversations he often reiterates the apology to his sister he made public in the film. I met her, too, when her family opened their house for an evening of shisha and music. She seems truly happy about what he did; there was a quiet pride in her knowing that all these people who came to the house had seen the film.
Even Rawand is happy about the film, ‘this ONE film!’ she says, but with a melancholic smile, as usual, she adds that this is absolutely the exception. Her work and the theatre are seeking to strengthen the Palestinian culture, yes, but more immediately they want to help families release themselves from the grip of tradition and religion, and open their mind and curiosity for art. It is a difficult process for a society under such prolonged occupation and recurring violent attacks. In this climate of absolute uncertainty many people feel that the only thing is to stick together and to portray a strong identity by keeping to old, well known practices of life. There can hardly be the courage for progress, let alone the means. But, according to Rawand, people are not trying hard enough.
Repeatedly there are verbal attacks against the theatre as a place, where, they say, boys and girls are getting too close, where something somehow unholy and uncouth is happening. Once, two years ago now, the theatre was set on fire by the locals, when Israeli and Palestinian children played music together.
That had been a one-off, extraordinary experiment in Jenin, and was only possible with children. Otherwise cultural collaboration with Israel is boycotted completely. Practically it is not possible, because neither Israelis get permission, would be welcome or want to enter the West Bank nor Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza get permission to work in Israel. And as long as there is no eye-level relationship in every respect, for the Palestinian artists there is no point for an artistic collaboration either. But in any case the people working in the theatre will continue to advocate to their own city first: dialogue, the vital need of cultural development and artistic expression that will lead to a stronger Palestinian society. Our presence here is a mixed blessing — we nurture the work by teaching new material, from our longer and more diverse theatre tradition we inspire authorship and independent creation. However, we should not import or indoctrinate any of our methods as such; soft (as well as hard) diplomacy has too long a mournful history here. It stifles the real growth and raises the suspicion of the village people.
That was also the conviction of Juliano Mer Khamis, who refounded the theatre following the second Intifada after it had been founded by his mother in the 80ies and destroyed over and over again until her death, and whose assistant Rawand used to be. His murder in April 2011 has impacted the theatres work like nothing else could. To this day it is not known for certain whether the killer came from Israel or Palestine itself. Juliano had his origins in both sides and was equally uncomfortable to them. The theatre was effectively thrown back to its beginning bar the people who fought to keep it going in the last 4 years. However, fighting is the right word as after the time of mourning there are diverse opinions as to how to keep it going and it had been Juliano who was able to unite them. But now production continues: the next generation of theatre students is being taught in class, plays are put on for the local audience and in international collaborations productions for touring abroad. Step by step by the motivation, which each act of violence gives them, the full power of the cultural institution is reinstated. Unfortunately they do not continue as courageously as Juliano. His conviction had been to concentrate on content rather than on artistic experiment and excellence. The narrative of the Palestinians as victims is too often present in the pieces. It is a narrative that does not aid them in reaching an eye-level status with their declared enemies on the world stage. Critical artistic dialogue would do that.
Up on the hill the dusk is falling. Young men arrive in their cars, some of them big and expensive. On a small, cemented patch near the edge of the hill they try to spin in circles. Of course this doesn’t work with the bigger cars; that is why they are expensive. So the small colourful vehicles triumph, which transports me back to the east German village of my early youth. Here, however, this trivial amusement is slightly reassuring because not long ago many of these boys took all their time training in street fighting with the guerilla groups in order to earn their place next to the many pictures of martyrs throughout the camp. But their youthful energy is wasting away by waiting, as there are not places in universities or apprenticeships.
The picnic mood is waning, the air gets chilly and Rawand smiles her broad melancholic smile on it all. And if there are no places for them there are even less for the girls, she explains, while we gather rubbish. Recycling? Rawand laughs, ‘yes, I saw it in Germany! — One day we will do it here, once when life is life and rubbish is rubbish…!’
My friends turn it like a wheel of fortune. Like the one I was obsessed with in the early nineties, when the newly discovered capitalist TV exercised its weird power on me. But in contrast to the smooth turns of the Western promise of wealth and happiness, this old wooden propeller does not go round well at all. There are no winning fields, there is only history. It keeps hitting the relief inscription dedicated to the 11 German aviators who died or went missing here in 1917 and 1918. When they turn the propeller the other way, it first hits the Arabic version of the inscription.
The boys from Jenin don’t know if this is memorial should mean anything to them, whether they need to be grateful to anyone or show respect or be angry that this thing is here at all. They just realize it has something to do with me as a German and make fun of it in my honour. It becomes a vehicle of their hospitality.
They are overly conscious of what they can’t offer me — a bar, alcohol, dancing etc, all of which they do when they go to Ramallah — and so they lovingly ditch the only café/bakery/restaurant we can meet in and speak. It does have an impressive Patisserie and good meats. Tea and coffee can be very good — as long as one stays away from Nescafé and the cheap English teabags. They seem to be twisted and outdated symbols of progress and a kind of emancipation from local tradition.
Even here, as in Europe, the opinion about the spineless British occupiers of the past is nebulous. It was great that they just left, they say, but what happened directly after that between the queen and the Zionist leaders — and more importantly what did not happen — has been successfully blurred by the mechanics of non-education. And what Nestlé is doing in these parts of the world can only happen because the people really have other things to worry about. The boys see these products now as a lazy compromise and resort to the Arabic coffee and tea with a shy pride.
I was not able to find out why the war memorial is here, what these 11 German pilots had been doing here exactly and who erected the monument for them. The people I spoke to speculated that they might have been part of a battle with Turkey. It was also not discernible if they were liked here or not. It was simply something of the old times, when things were somehow different and presumably better. It was the time when the foundations were laid by the international forces for the collective present nightmare.
Of course Hitler’s name has an idiosyncratic ring in these rural parts of Palestine. As a German, steeped and rolled in this historical debate since childhood, one might expect admiration for his unimaginable plans or blame for not fulfilling them. Or, on the contrary, one might expect wishes that he had never started and therefore not strengthened the Zionist enterprise in this part of the world. But there is nothing to that effect — people don’t seem to compare their own fate with the earlier tragedy of the Jews and any link between the two catastrophes doesn’t seem to be present in their minds. Not here anyway. Of course there are all versions debated in the various prolific fora.
On the whole, and this is a common experience throughout the Arabic countries, people who do think about Hitler just believe that he was a strong leader, which, by default, seems to be a good thing. They say that ‘at least he got things done, and then got the whole country to get things done, too’ or something to that effect. In comparison to their own current administrations this seems to be a blessing. So very little is being done to move life forward in any way.
People here just suffer. And it takes all their strength to lift their eyelids to any new peace-talks or to any civil or artistic movement in their own midst — such as the endeavor of the local Freedom Theatre to strengthen the national and cultural identity with arts as an alternative to the so obviously futile armed struggle against the overpowering occupation.
Similarly the boys from the Freedom Theatre focus on their own personal stories and immediate environments. There is so much to cope with everyday, so much family to serve, so much youthful energy to channel, so much creativity to understand and so much negotiations and building of opinions to do. Larger-scale discussions are brief, they know a lot about international politics, but come to it from a very clear perspective. Other points of view interest them, but yes, briefly. And they, too, simply admire Germany. The cars and the football. So regardless of whether this is a monument for enemies or to glorify their own deeds and deaths, or an expression of thanks by the last generations to their allies, this creaking wheel of fortune manifests that history may change again.
And from now on, every time they try to turn their luck here, they will think of me and my complicated German questions.
Jenin City / Camp
Jenin Camp was born next to Jenin city in 1948. Many people fled east when Israel was forcefully founded. Today it exists between periodical destruction by the Israeli army and slow but determined rebuilding by its inhabitants. This is one of the Israeli army’s playgrounds, here they test which tank can drive right through which kind of wall. Sometimes it works clean, sometimes its very messy. Like the buildings, the people gather more and more scars. Like the buildings the people have a shifting base and thin walls. Every funeral, and there are many, literally roots them more to the spot of exile. Their status is permanently that of waiting nomads about to find the greener fields of existence.
Between the city and the camp there is a field where little boys burn something every night, tires mostly, with various fillings. Presumably destruction is such a regular part of their parents’ lives that they want some of their own. And clearly their budding sense of rebellion is coming through, which I take to be the motivation for throwing stones at strangers like me. I am impressed that they hit my leg over such a long distance, and my initial anger vanishes as quickly as they run away when I take a step towards them. It is funny and I respect them. But more so I want to tell them who I am.
In the middle of that field, right next to the street, there is a lump. It rises gently from the ground keeping the same colour in a loose structure of big pieces of discarded materials — largely browns, largely cardboardy. The first time I walk past I am amazed at the sudden bright colours inside the lump — greens and yellows illuminated — and then I jump as an old man’s shape becomes visible sitting in one corner. An old, exhausted face carved by choiceless patience and waiting.
Like the melon stand seems to have grown out of its surroundings, the age-less man seems to be rooted absolutely to his chair, and indeed, every time I walk past, at all times of day and night, he is in the same position. And still the melons are always perfectly piled, the green watermelons on the left, the yellow honey melons on the right. So sometimes he must move. That he is alive I only notice when he mumbles a reply to my formal greeting. For some reason I never bought a melon.
Of course, the watermelon became a symbol of Palestine in the second Intifada — it shares its colours with the Palestinian flag — and people speak proudly about a boy who threw a fat water melon during the last invasion and it ‘exploded’ between two Israeli tanks. What difference in weaponry! As a result one traffic round-about in Jenin is adorned with an enormous plastic water melon.
Street building is something that seems to function a bit better in Palestine — maybe enough people share the need and thus agree on the importance of spending the little money they have on streets. Apparently always inside the budgets is the effort of decorating the round-abouts, the strangest things can be found on them, and even flowers. Now the large plastic melon testifies terribly as the years of fruitless efforts for peace have bleached its colours off almost completely.
This old man was certainly not born here. But now he is a fixture on the line between the camp and the city. As much as he himself now embodies the impossibility of relocating anywhere else, he is not able to arrive and belong fully. One eternal refugee in his tent of cardboard, like so many here: who cannot prevent their possessions from forming bonds with the surroundings but who are also unable to create a real home. The provisional nature of everything is heartbreaking in its imposed permanence. In the long years of hoping to return to where he was exiled from, his provisional abode has grown around him by itself, sheltering his seemingly loveless frail new roots.
Mid-evening the brightness of the fruit is slowly swallowed up by the dark background — several hanging cloths conceal the entrances to the lowering cave beyond. The picture is completed by the old man’s only company — the constant news on his TV. Several echoing TV channels running on the futility of it all. For the latest clashes in the camp he doesn’t have to leave his tent, their momentary sensational value is broadcast into his tent and produces the same reaction as all over the rest of the world — a shrug of the shoulders.
The electricity is a mystery — he is far away from any other building, but as I keep seeing, these masters of adaption here make anything work in the circumstances. So often friends and strangers solve seemingly impossible repairs or electric issues with ingenuity and calm — worse things can happen, because worse things have happened.