Listening: Soundscapes from Palestine
I SAY YES
It is September of 2012, at a hostel in the center of Medellin, Colombia. I am writing my graduate thesis after a year in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I skype with a colleague who is volunteering for The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine. She is teaching voice for their acting program and mentions that once her time is up, they want to continue to have voice training. “Are you interested in going to Palestine for three months?” My gut says yes. But I know I cannot afford to volunteer. I know little about The Freedom Theatre. Part of my desire to go is precisely that—that I don’t know—that I would learn something new. The Freedom Theatre offers to pay me a stipend equivalent of what Palestinians earn. They offer to pay my travel and housing during my stay as well.
While preparing for the trip I learn that The Freedom Theatre works towards creating an artistic community in the northern part of the West Bank. They offer a space in which children, youth and young adults can act, create and express themselves freely and equally. They offer a chance for young people to imagine new realities, challenge existing social and cultural barriers, and bring positive change to their community. I read about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. I read fiction and nonfiction. I try to prepare myself, but the truth is that even after reading articles, novels and essays, I still don’t really understand what the conflict means.
I am a carrier of stories
The theatre I create has always been informed by the places I’ve lived and traveled. An immigrant born in Montreal, Canada, to Guatemalan parents, I was raised in Montreal, Guatemala and East Los Angeles, California. Traveling provides me with the possibility to grow, to learn and to listen. Ultimately, what excites me is to understand how theatre works in parts of the world completely foreign to me.
MY FATHER’S NAME
I arrive in Tel Aviv on January 2, 2013. I’m nervous. For the first time the usual high when arriving at a new airport is missing. Instead, I am overwhelmed with uncertainty. I observe myself in line at passport control, over-reminding myself to breathe, repeating this mantra: It will all be ok I try to imagine what the passport control officers might ask. Silently, I rehearse my answers. I think about the holy sites I plan to visit, and rehearse how to say what I will say with the perfect amount of naïveté only a true tourist could muster. Some people pass through quickly. Some are held and questioned in front of everyone. I remember a piece of advice: “You might as well smile patiently while they question you.”
I notice each security cubicle is equipped with three bodies. One person sits and the other two stand behind, creating a pyramid of skepticism, ready to tear apart each person in line. This is their job The cubicle directly across from me has three women in it. I imagine them getting ready for work every morning, putting on their make-up to come here and question foreigners all day long. I resent them though I do not know them. I understand nothing.
I once met a filmmaker from Tel Aviv; we were colleagues teaching in Singapore
Before coming to this part of the world it was just a far-away place.
Jerusalem is just a name I remember from my childhood, from going to church with my grandmother
I am called next. I hand over my Canadian passport. Inside me a labyrinth unfolds. The three women smile, a “fucking-with-you” kind of smile. Smile They talk in Hebrew amongst themselves. They talk as my mother would say, “con chinga,” making fun while leafing through my passport. They laugh a high-pitched annoying laugh that girls in a group can do really well, confident. It is clear they have the power and they are “fucking with me.” They laugh some more. I imagine they are auditioning for me—the part of three annoying high school girls, bullies.
The problem is, my name is Sayda. Arabic. I am told I look Arab as well.
Where are you from?
What is your father’s name?
What is your grandfather’s name, your father’s father?
Do you speak Hebrew?
Do you speak Arabic?
Your name is very fitting. What is the story of your name?
How long will you stay?
Will you visit the West Bank? Well, you know what I mean . . . other than Bethlehem?What is your work?
Will you volunteer with a Palestinian organization? Or work with children?
Why were you in Colombia?
So you will just go from hostel to hostel for three months?
What sites do you plan to visit? Name a few.
Who pays for your trip?
How much money do you have in the bank?
I answer all their questions. Some they ask more than once, like my father’s name, which they ask over and over again. I repeat his name out loud.
I have not had to say his name much in my life. I don’t know my father’s father’s name. So when they ask, I can’t tell them, but they don’t believe me. I feel so far away Saying my father’s name out loud makes me feel even farther away. They ask why I have an Arabic name. I tell them the story I’ve always known: I was born in Montreal and my parents had friends from the Middle East, my father liked the name. That’s all. Never did my father imagine I’d be harassed at the airport in Tel Aviv, thirty-six years later, for giving me this name.
Eventually, I am given a three-month visa. When I step out of the airport I want to cry. I arrive at my hotel in Jerusalem. I call my sister and I cry and laugh as I describe the view of the Old City from my hotel window, and what it felt like to say my father’s name over and over again.
CLOUDS AND CLOUDS OF SMOKE
I’ve been in Jenin one week. I attend my first rehearsal for the remounting of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. It is a line-through . . . in Arabic. I do not speak Arabic. I enter a small conference room and clouds of smoke swarm the space. I’m enlivened by the actors and their robust voices. Teeny tiny Arabic cups of coffee are filled over and over again during the course of the line-through . . . and cigarettes, oh my God! Cigarettes are lit and inhaled at what feels like an overwhelming rate! I feel like I am suddenly in another time, a time I’ve only heard of, like the seventies when everyone smoked inside. This is so bizarre These are their voices, years and years of smoking. Smoking is part of their creative process. Smoking is part of their joy and passion. Smoking is a refuge. I’m in awe of all that is taking place simultaneously. The actors speak, they smoke, they listen, they provoke, they surprise each other, they stop, they continue, they laugh, they call “line.” They use all of themselves, as if for the first time, discovering new things in their breath and their actions. I know the play, and am trying to follow, but I mostly watch them like a Ping-Pong match.
IT’S NOT FAIR
Fidaa is a storyteller. Fidaa is tall. Stunning, beautiful. A member of The Freedom Theatre, we share the theatre’s guesthouse. We talk during our evenings, while we prepare meals. We dream and plan workshops to teach children all over the West Bank. She knows everyone and makes it all happen. She teaches me Arabic. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair,” she cried once after dinner. Her nose got red and her eyes full. She told me stories about her family being forced to leave their home in 1948. She told me about her friend, a young man who’d been in prison for no reason and without fair trial. Fidaa is strong. She radiates love and light. Underneath her strength is a river of pain. Her bones saturated with the injustice of this occupation. This river has not darkened her soul, or made her bitter. “It is the reality,” she says once her tears pass.
ALL I HEAR
After a week of rehearsals the cast and crew of The Caretaker travel to Ramallah. Arabic music plays. I look out the window at the mountains with all the little stones tidily arranged from top to bottom. It is the most beautiful sight yet. The road is narrow and curvy. I get carsick. We stop for falafel. The next morning we move into the Al-Kasaba Theatre, in the center of Ramallah. I work with the actors on vocally adjusting to the space, resonance, grounded-ness. I am the only woman in the theatre. All I hear is Arabic. I think about things I never think about back home: like gender roles.I notice the ease and comfort with which men move about.A power and privilege they seem to carry.They are sweet, attentive, but I miss relating to men as equals. The women are a mystery to me I think about the stories we tell without words. I rely on the sound—quality, pitch, rhythm—and body gestures to complete my understanding of what’s happening. Arabic makes no sense to me Tonight the theatre is full. The scene is familiar, especially the chitchat that happens preshow, greetings and laughter. Lights out. The Caretaker begins. I watch my first production with more than just my eyes and my ears. It’s simple and clear at times. But most of the time my mind is inundated with new sounds, guttural exhales and inhales, sounds that give me images of punches and clouds and loss, and misunderstanding.
MY OWN OCEAN
I meet Qais, a graduate of the very first class in the three-year theatre course led by Juliano Mer Khamis at The Freedom Theatre. The theatre continues to support his creativity and self-motivation. Qais has written a play titled Stolen Dreams, which he is taking to a festival in Belgium. He has asked me to work with the ensemble on voice and movement. The play is about the Palestinian experience. It is about “how any dream that we have cannot be achieved,” says Qais. “It is about the checkpoints and religion and how it isn’t even possible to love, and about never having been to our own sea.” “It is about Juliano,” he says. “There is a character in the play, a masked man, and we don’t know who he is, but he kills people, and he killed Juliano. We don’t know if he is Israeli or if he is Palestinian.” I work with them on a monologue about going to the sea. Qais is translating for me at this rehearsal because he is the only one who speaks any English in the ensemble. Kamal, the actor, speaks the monologue. I listen and I watch. I focus on the meaning of words and body language. When he finishes I ask him what he is trying to convey. Kamal cries out, “I’m a 24-year-old man who has never seen the sea, never seen my own ocean, and I want to cry!” I hear grief in the sound of his words, but it’s not until Qais translates this into English that I feel the weight. I don’t have words I don’t have Arabic words to say anything. I think about my purpose and role as a voice coach—I think about the power of theatre and the importance of telling our stories, tragic or comic—I think about the meaning of his monologue on stage and in life. I recognize the power of taking refuge in the theatre.
In a village in the South Hebron Hills, the residents apply for a permit to build a mosque to serve approximately ten small villages. The permit is denied multiple times. So the community organizes and they begin to build during the night. They meet night after night to build this mosque. We gather around the debris left from the two times that Israeli forces demolished the mosque, and in silence hear this story. I’m traveling through the West Bank with the March Freedom Ride, which is part of the Freedom Bus Initiative, founded by Ben Rivers. We are students, artists and activists from different corners of the world, including Finland, France, the UK, the US, Australia and Italy, who have traveled to Palestine to join Palestinians at risk of forced expulsion from their ancestral homelands. During these thirteen days of journeying through Area C of the West Bank, we help with building and reconstruction. We learn about protective presence activity and go on guided walks with community leaders. We also take part in interactive workshops, political actions and cultural events. The most impactful part of this ride is witnessing the effects of Playback Theatre in the Jordan Valley and South Hebron Hills. Here the residents share personal accounts about the realities of life and their struggles under settler colonialism, military occupation and structural apartheid. In the evening the communities gather, and the playback troupe—a group of six Palestinian actors and musicians—improvises a piece of theatre based on the stories that the audience members share. The stories I hear over and over again are delivered in a simple, honest and unaffected manner. I was walking, grazing my sheep, when the army came and shot my sheep. They came and arrested my father and tortured him and killed him. That’s the mosque that we built during the night I witness how theatre provides relief, healing and the possibility for dialogue. I witness how the telling of our experiences and being heard has the power to transform and empower us. All performances are outdoors. Every day before the shows I work with the actors and their voices. Their performance is dependent on their ability to listen and receive the stories they hear. I lead a physical warm-up that prepares their bodies to be open and receptive, to speak fully and freely. I think about an umbrella and how this occupation is the umbrella under which all the injustices take place, under which these theatrical encounters are taking place. The more I see and hear, the more inconceivable it is to comprehend why. Living under occupation is a daily, humiliating struggle. Yet the people here are alive, awake, spirited. How do Palestinians still smile and stand strong? A well of generosity, joy, laughter fills their life.
How is this possible?
They say it is God, Allah, God’s will.
How is the human body capable of holding all pain and all joy at the same time?
Complete surrender and strength, soft and hard, extreme opposites back to back, beside, all the time. I had not seen this before, not like this. What was only a concept before—an intellectual understanding of extreme feelings, emotions and circumstances—or something I explored through characters in plays—or a metaphor—here in Palestine is simply the reality of every moment. It is not elevated. It is not even tragic. It is the reality
Aside from teaching voice to the third-year acting students and traveling through the West Bank with the Freedom Ride, I also work with three new students at The Freedom Theatre. They are accepted into the program based solely on their interest and curiosity. They have no previous theatre experience. Their first three months are used as a kind of audition to observe and determine whether they are suited for performance or for other areas of the theatre, such as technical work or design. The whole time I work with a translator in the room. This is challenging I propose to work with each of them on creating an autobiographical three-minute piece. My hope is that the process of creating a piece about what they know will be an opportunity to introduce the fundamentals of acting while at the same time allow the space for them to reveal something about themselves. Life in three minutes We begin. We meet three or four times a week for eight weeks. Every session I give a new exercise in which they create a little bit of the three minutes. Create a sound landscape of a moment in your life Create five movements that represent five important moments that changed you Create five tableaus of an important relationship in your life First memory Use an object in the room as a main character Amir writes, “Being fifteen years old in Palestine is like being forty years old.” In his piece he translates his experiences into theatrical language using a black box that becomes his backpack, his river, his pillow and his father. Yousef's three minutes are about escaping via his headphones, which he transforms into a tightrope that he walks on. He then sits completely still to do his homework with headphones on, a notebook and pen in hand, and vocally recreates the soundscape of his home: his physical home and Palestine—parents fighting, shooting sounds and sounds of the army raiding his home. Ageed writes a piece in which he confronts an abusive father. He uses a ladder and words pour out of him like a waterfall. I am terrified Their stories are raw, honest, and full of poetic and tragic imagery. I don’t know if I can hold them. How can I help shape their stories into a piece of theatre that will honor their truth? Drawing from personal stories requires distance. For my students here in Palestine this is challenging. Their stories are directly connected to the occupation, and the conflict in their pieces is not something they can walk away from when we finish class. What unfolds in these eight weeks is exceptionally bold. We build trust and the vocabulary to shape our truths on stage: with stillness, with sounds, with movement, with objects and with hope.
Multiple times a day we drink tea. We drink coffee. We smoke cigarettes! We exchange greetings.
The days are filled with these expressions that were only gibberish four months ago. No longer foreign to me. At an early age, theatre changed my life. I found a home, a family, a space to express myself. I learned to listen, to work in a team, to take risks, and not to be afraid to be afraid. Through play I gained the courage to face what comes. Living in Palestine for four months, stretching the possibilities of what theatre can do, has transformed me yet again. Juliano Mer Khamis said, “We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras and magazines.” I have gotten a taste of this—witnessing how Palestinians resist peacefully, creatively, courageously every day. I have now more stories inside of me. I will carry them. Inshallah!
 For more information about The Freedom Theatre, visit http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org.
 Juliano Mer-Khamis was an Israeli/Palestinian actor, director, filmmaker, and political activist of Jewish and native Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian parentage. On 4 April 2011, he was assassinated by a masked gunman in the Palestinian city of Jenin, where he established The Freedom Theatre. (Quoted directly from “Juliano Mer-Khamis,” Wikipedia, last modified February 15, 2013, accessed November 18, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juliano_Mer-Khamis.)
 Ben Rivers is a British-Australian educator and Registered Drama Therapist specializing in the use of Psychodrama and Playback Theatre for trauma response and sociopolitical change, and is on the staff of The Freedom Theatre.
 Some 60 percent of West Bank lands have been classified as “Area C” and are under full and exclusive Israeli control. Area C is home to an estimated 180,000 Palestinians and includes the major residential and development land reserves for the entire West Bank. Israel prohibits Palestinian construction and development on some 70 percent of Area C territory, arguing various rationales, such as being “state lands” or “firing zones.” (Quoted directly from “Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, the West Bank; Report Summary, June 2013,” B’Tselem’s website, accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.btselem.org/publications/201306_area_c; full report written by Noga Kadman and translated into English by Deb Reich, same site and access date, http://www.btselem.org/download/201306_area_c_report_eng.pdf.)
 Playback Theatre is an original form of improvisational theatre in which audience or group members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. The first Playback Theatre company was founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. (Quoted directly from “Playback Theatre,” Wikipedia, last modified August 17, 2013, accessed on November 18, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playback_Theatre.)
 “The Freedom Theatre, Jenin, West Bank, Palestine,” YouTube video, 5:54, created at The Freedom Theatre in 2008, posted by Ben Aylsworth, October 10, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaSvnkRFRic.