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Philip C. Winslow: Cultural Cross-Currents in the West Bank

April 28, 2009

Philip C. Winslow

A couple of worrisome stories out of Jenin in the northern West Bank recently. Not deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers this time, but internal events that threaten progress in a more indirect way.

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A bit of background. Jenin– the town and its gritty, sprawling refugee camp, where from a hilltop you can look across the Green Line at the fields of Israel– has been a hot spot since the Arab revolt of 1936 – 1939. During this decade’s second intifada many Palestinian suicide bombers came from Jenin, and in April 2002 ferocious battles raged in the refugee camp, and the Israeli army flattened part of the camp’s center. Israeli military incursions and arrest raids continue, although with less frequency. Nearly 16,000 refugees, more than 42 percent of them under the age of 15, live in concrete-block buildings in the camp’s winding narrow streets and alleys.

Since the constant reciprocal violence of seven years ago, Jenin has pulled itself up by its bootstraps, with help and encouragement from outside, and has become a vibrant and energetic city. Palestinian police are back on the streets, the anarchic armed militias have been curtailed, some trade with Israel has resumed, and signs of normal life are popping up like tulips. As a friend reminded me, “Jenin is not the Wild West anymore.”

But some deep-rooted and distinctly anti-modern undercurrents run through Jenin camp and other conservative Palestinian towns, as in much of the Arab world. The first of the recent troubling stories was the torching of a non-profit West Bank music-teaching center for children, Al Kamandjati (it means ‘the violinist’ in Arabic), which burned up about $20,000 worth of musical instruments. No one was injured, and no one has admitted responsibility for the arson.

The second incident was a bad-tempered controversy over a concert given by a Jenin camp youth orchestra, the Strings of Freedom, for a group of Holocaust survivors in Holon, Israel. The event was part of an event called Good Deeds Day, sponsored by a wealthy Israeli woman. The Palestinian musicians, aged between 11 and 18, were meticulously trained in Jenin by an Israeli Arab woman, Wafa Younis, who lives in northern Israel.

In Jenin camp afterward, the reaction could have been quiet satisfaction at an hour-long concert that had bridged generations, cultures and war. Instead, Palestinian officials abruptly disbanded the orchestra, barred Younis from the camp and sealed up her studio, charging that she had manipulated the children into a political matter.

“She exploited the children,” said Adnan Hindi, the head of the camp’s Popular Committee. “She will be forbidden from doing any activities… We have to protect our children and our community. The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves,” Hindi said. “We lost our land, and we were forced to flee and we’ve lived in refugee camps for the past 50 years.” Leaflets put about town warned Palestinians not to participate in such events again.

Younis was dumbfounded. “They want to destroy this group,” she said. “It’s a shame, it’s a tragedy. What did these poor, elderly people do wrong? What did these children do wrong?”

Another cause for concern are ongoing protests over the jewel in the crown of Jenin’s cultural renaissance, The Freedom Theatre, a high-voltage drama and multi-media center for Jenin camp young people. The theater rose from the ashes– almost literally– of an earlier school and troupe started by Arna Mer Khamis, an intense and determined Israeli woman, during the first intifada in the late 1980s. Arna died of cancer in 1994, and the theater building was destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002. Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, co-directed, with Danniel Danniel, the riveting 2003 documentary Arna’s Children, and has carried on directing the theatre since then.

A bit of Arna’s Children can be seen in the first part of this sequence about the re-opening of the Freedom Theatre in 2007. This short video shows how drama can unlock children, and reveals the startlingly different outlook of girls and boys in Palestinian society. I’ve listened to the girls in Jenin’s schools and homes; it’s like watching an active volcano in real time, except that the results are creative rather than destructive.

The Freedom Theatre, which is immensely popular in Jenin camp and has attracted outside sponsorship, has drawn protests from close-minded political factions and other ultra-traditional elements, almost always male. A planned production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh was cancelled after vehement objections. The replacement production? George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It ran for a tense two weeks during which someone tried to burn down the theater between performances, and anonymous death threats were made against Mer Khamis.

I see these unhappy events as the canary in the coal mine, an indicator of a suffocating sense of Palestinian victimhood and anti-secularism in some of the hardscrabble towns and camps. Cultural differences can be deep and broad anywhere, as I learned (sometimes the hard way) during my years in the West Bank, but with time the differences can be overcome and buried with honor. Palestinian theater producers, drama coaches and music teachers are pioneers who help dissolve gender and other traditional barriers. This inherently conservative society has been starved of oxygen by more than 40 years of Israel’s occupation, and there is no denying the crushing effects of persistent violence. But that’s only part of the story. “We lack a culture of criticism. We lack a culture of free thinking,” Mer Khamis (Juliano, like his mother, is Israeli, but here he is speaking about Palestinian society, of which he is a part) told a reporter. “One of our roles is to challenge this.”

In my more impatient days, I might have said to Mr. Hindi and a few others who jumped on board after the orchestra was broken up (how can you ban an orchestra anyway?): Mr. Hindi, with respect, you have got it wrong, and Wafa Younis has got it right. The concert in Israel was not political. It was apolitical, and that was the point. It was about peace and reconciliation. Music and drama are not a threat to Palestinian children or society, and do not require immunization. They are the necessary nutrients for healing, growth and freedom.

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One of my enduring memories from the awful April of 2002 is a large magnolia tree in full bloom on the edge of Jenin camp’s pulverized, traumatized center. Some women and children were sitting on plastic chairs under this incongruously magnificent tree, and invited us to stop for tea. It was on what is now called the Street of the Horse, not far from the recently-torched music school, and a few yards from the horse itself, a large construction made from cars and an ambulance destroyed during that year’s fighting. The steel horse has become the camp’s most famous historical monument. As for future monuments, the theater, a cinema, music classes, and Jenin’s children themselves are right behind.

So wish energetic Jenin well. Wish for the rebuilding of Al Kamandjati, and hope Wafa Younis’s young musicians will again be allowed to pick up their violins and ouds. And if you’re planning a holiday in the region, be sure to visit Jenin and take in a performance at The Freedom Theatre. Maybe Animal Farm will have a second run.

This piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside.

Philip C. Winslow is a journalist and foreign correspondent. Over a career that has spanned more than twenty-five years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War All photos in this post are from Philip C. Winslow: Jenin photos.

Copyright 2009 Philip C. Winslow

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