Swimming Through Sewers In Search Of Freedom

By Susanna Bennett, Palestine Monitor — 19 Jan 2010

Keeping culture alive in a conflict zone is a daunting challenge. The Israeli Occupation involves not only the destruction of Palestine as a political entity, but the dissolution of its social and cultural life. Resisting that process and fighting the occupation through creativity is what drives Ahmad al-Bakri and Abdel Merizar, two exceptional and enigmatic young actors from Hebron.

Ahmad and Abdel are infectious. One gregarious, tall and broad the other smaller, more introvert, a thinker and dreamer they fit the ying and yang mould of many famous theatrical duos before them.

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Ahmad pictured left, Abdel right
Photo: Palestine Monitor

Growing up in Hebron, the largest and most volatile town in the West Bank, theatre has given Ahmad and Abdel the means to escape the confines of occupation through their imaginations.

Abdel: “Growing up in Hebron means you live an unusual life. I had to pass through checkpoints to go to school and if the checkpoint was closed I’d risk my life to go round it. Every night I’d hear the sounds of shelling and shooting. While searching for a different way of living I discovered drama and the way of the imagination. On stage I could imagine what it’d be like to go normally to school and hear a jazz song before sleeping. Being on stage became my way of escaping from a violent scary life.”

Swimming in sewers

Ahmad: “As actors our greatest dream has always been to perform on the stage of the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem but because of the occupation we never thought this would be possible.”

Abdel: “One day we saw an advert for a summer school being held there. The auditions were in Jerusalem and we couldn’t get permits to travel so we decided to cross illegally. First we tried to climb over the wall, Ahmad is much taller than me so he was able to get over but I couldn’t make it. There were other Palestinians crossing who do it everyday to work in Jerusalem. When we told them we were going for a theatre audition they thought we were completely crazy risking so much for drama.”

Ahmad: “We knew if we were caught there could be terrible consequences. Either we’d be beaten, permanently banned from Jerusalem or put in prison with a black dot against our records. It was a big risk but we had to do it, to be in our National Theatre receiving professional training was our biggest dream – we had to try.”

Abdel: “A taxi driver took us to a nearby village. He stopped in the middle of the main street, took out a wrench, pulled open a manhole in the road and told us we could crawl through the sewage tunnel to the other side. I never thought that one day I’d be swimming in shit! But it was the only way to get to Jerusalem so I didn’t think of anything except that. It was completely dark and the smell made me walk like a drunk man…”

Ahmad: “Walla it was a great adventure! The adrenalin was rushing through my body. When we got out the other side, we were filthy, our clothes soaked in sewage. We walked to a nearby gas station owned by a man from Hebron and cleaned ourselves as best we could!”

Abdel: “We did the auditions and a few days later got the phone call that we were successful.”

Ahmad: It was amazing news, the best of my life. I cried in that moment!”

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Photo: Palestine Monitor

Jerusalem – the dream for all Palestinians

Abdel: “We were the only actors on the course from the West Bank and for 3 months we got to go to Jerusalem everyday. Neither of us had visited since the last intifada. The first time we went to Al-Aqsa Mosque soldiers stopped us and asked us where we are from, so Ahmad in his loud voice announced ‘We are from Hebron!’ We entered and I wanted to call everyone to tell them that we are there.”

Ahmad:It was really an amazing moment. When we entered illegally we were scared and hiding from the soldiers, but when we had the official permission we were so proud. We actually wanted the soldiers to stop us ask where we are from.”

Abdel: “Jerusalem is the dream that lives in the hearts of every Palestinian. It is our historical capital, a symbol of the most holy place in the three religions. Love of Jerusalem is the one thing that unites all Palestinians.”

Ahmad: “In the West Bank when you drive from Hebron to Ramallah there is a viewpoint from which you can see the dome of the rock shining in the sunshine. Every time we’d pass on the road we’d stop for a minute and say hello to Jerusalem. We couldn’t imagine that one day we’d go and pray in that Mosque.”

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Photo: Palestine Monitor

Touching the waters of Palestine

Abdel: “When I was younger my father used to tell me about the geography of my country. He’d show me maps and tell me stories about our beautiful beaches and sea. One day with our permissions we travelled to Haifa and I stood for the first time in the waters of my country. It was really moving for me. I almost cried. I’ve stood in the sea in Europe but this feeling is not the same. There is something magical about standing in the sea of your own country. To know this is the water of your land.”

Ahmad:I was so impressed with the beauty of these cities, they are really unbelievable but it made me realise that we have nothing left from historical Palestine. The Israelis have taken everything away from us.”

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Photo: Palestine Monitor

The song for Gaza is silent

Abdel: “Theatre shouldn’t be about giving solutions to problems, it’s about moving the dust from questions so that people can think about finding their own answers. I have just finished working on a play about Gaza in which my father is trapped under the ruins of our house and I am trying to get him out. He doesn’t know the whole city is under attack, he thinks its only one bomb that fell on our house and through the play I am trying to protect him from finding out the truth.”

“All the West Bank watched the Gaza war on the TV. At that time Palestine was one, united in our anger and our horror – we were all of us Gaza. One year on that song we sang for Gaza is silent. We haven’t done anything practical to help them, we just forgot or gave up and went back to living our lives drinking coffee, studying doing normal things. This is wrong, this is really wrong. 1,400 of our people were killed in just one week. Theatre is a way to provoke questions and inspire people to take action.”

Theatre is our freedom

Ahmad:Theatre in Palestinian society has changed a lot. 3 or 4 years ago the theatre in Hebron was something sinful and no one would go to see a performance except the open-minded people. Then little by little people’s ideas have changed. Now we start to see girls in plays, it’s being taught in schools and centres.”

Abdel: “Occupation affects every aspect of our lives. It takes away so much of our freedom. I can not move from one town to another without checkpoints, the opportunities I have and what I can do with my life are all restricted by the Israelis, there is so much sadness and violence in all our lives. Theatre is the best way for me to express myself, my life, my culture. I find myself while I am standing on the stage, it gives me the space that everyone is reaching for, the space where I can escape the occupation and be anything I want to be. With theatre anything is possible. My freedom is in the theatre and the Israelis can not take that from me.”

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Published by permission of the Palestine Monitor

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