A mural in the Aida refugee camp, the West Bank. / Robin D. G. Kelley
I arrived on my first trip to Ramallah well prepared. The checkpoints; the separation wall; the crumbling, half-constructed buildings; the fatigue-clad and heavily armed kids checking IDs; the freshly paved settler roads; the ever-expanding Jewish settlements rising from hilltops laying siege to Palestinian villages below—I’d seen it all before in books, articles, on YouTube, though now it was real, tangible, elbowing my heart, burning my eyes.
I was staying at the Palestinian-owned Jerusalem Hotel, just a few blocks from the Old City and the hub of the Palestinian commercial district. The area is run-down and heavily policed. Most everything closes after sundown, leaving huge strips of the district dark and desolate. One very cold night, I wandered past the Old City, past a line of cop cars streaming into the Arab Quarter, up the hill to a pristine, well-lit street paved with granite—Jaffa Road.
Ten minutes from the dilapidated Arab quarter, the street was teeming with shoppers and restaurant-goers, mainly Jewish Israelis and tourists. The only vehicles allowed on Jaffa Road are the cars of the illegally built Jerusalem Light Rail system. In the heart of occupied East Jerusalem are Coffee Bean, Yogurtland, and a slew of high-end restaurants. It was the first time during my two-week visit that I felt afraid. The surveillance cameras, the armed military personnel, the apparent obliviousness to the world just blocks away overwhelmed me. I suddenly understood Israel’s strategy to “normalize” the occupation. This glittering island of modern consumerism is its ugly face.
Three days earlier, I had visited the Aida refugee camp, sandwiched between the opulent Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel, the notorious Bethlehem checkpoint, and the expanding Israeli settlement of Gilo. Overhanging the camp’s entrance is a giant key, representing all of the homes lost in 1948 when Israeli forces drove some 700,000 Palestinians from their land.
The Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society, based in the camp, exemplifies a cultural revolution taking place in Palestine today. Created in 1998, it is a genuine community center, offering computer training, a library, photography and video editing, music and visual arts education, and a gym for residents of all ages. But its core project is its youth theater. Founding director, poet, playwright, and educator Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour sees theater as a “nonviolent way of saying we are human beings, we are not born with genes of hatred and violence, we do not conform to the stereotype of Palestinians only capable of throwing stones or burning tires.” Born and raised in Aida, Abusrour knows occupation firsthand. He took refuge in scholarship, earning a doctorate in biological and medical engineering, but gave up a promising career in science to devote his life to creating a “beautiful theater of resistance” that would unleash the creative capacity of young people to tell their stories. He is not interested in building Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, or other such liberal projects that he believes ultimately contribute to Israel’s normalization, the effort to keep Palestinians and their life conditions separate, contained.
Alrowwad’s best-known production, “We Are Children of the Camp,” is a collaborative venture, incorporating kids’ stories into a sweeping narrative about Palestine since 1948. They speak from personal experience about Israeli soldiers invading the camps, shooting parents, and denying them access to hospitals on the other side of the wall. The children long for human rights, a clean environment, freedom, the right to return to their land, and the right to know and own their history. They encapsulate this history in the play’s title song, in which they sing of being made refugees in their own land, colonies built, and villages demolished. “They put us in labyrinths,” they sing, “They planted hatred in us / They considered us as insects.” And yet, the children on stage—like their brothers and sisters and friends whom I met laughing, riding their battered bikes along the narrow camp streets, kicking around a scraped-up soccer ball, or querying me about America—refuse annihilation and hatred. “We may have a spring,” the song continues.
Seeing the joy and confidence expressed by the children at the Aida Camp, the hope tempered by discipline, it occurred to me that what Alrowwad is doing is nothing less than nourishing a Palestinian renaissance and prefiguring a post-Zionist society.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author most recently of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times.