‘What do you actually do?’ I get a lot. “It’s not a proper subject’ ‘What’s the point?’. Which is a valid point when you’re talking about the arts.
Beyond your basic argument of the value of escapism, imagination and ‘human expression as food for the soul!’ (blah) what purpose can you derive from what is essentially individual expression?
This type of question occupies my mind a lot and so when, this summer my family took a trip to Palestine to visit the ‘Bet Lahem Live’ festival and refugee camps local to the Bethlehem area, I found myself thinking about this even more.
Just to side track here with an interesting point of reference about the situation in Palestine at the moment; whether you’re religious or not we can all agree that Bethlehem should be one of the most active and prosperous tourist sites in the world, right?
It’s possibly the greatest physical cultural landmark of our own western culture, whether you’re the Pope in Rome or just in a school nativity, Bethlehem is an important place and you’d think it’d be busy. But there’s no one there!
Lines of shops and restaurants and hotels are closed and run down because they have no one visiting them. No tourists. Even the pilgrims, brave enough to be shepherded in to visit the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, are told to stick together because it’s a ‘dangerous area’, so they’re in and out without giving anything to the locals to help support the town that’s so important to them.
And why do people have this idea that the town’s not safe? Because that’s what we’re being told to think by the people who are trying, and succeeding, to starve the locals of funds and repress their heritage.
The truth is, apart from some of the boy racers who like to whizz around the roads in the center of town at brake-neck speeds, I felt more comfortable wandering around the beautiful cobbled city at night than I do going into town on a lunchtime.
It can’t be overstated that it is a really beautiful place, and what the annual festival there is trying to accomplish is bring a little bit of music, culture and trade back to this town that should be one of our cultural capitals.
Anyway. Back on track…
We visited two refugee camps whilst we where there. We stayed several nights in Arroub camp (on the main Bethlehem – Hebron Road) but the other camp we visited was called Aida camp. The most poignant thing you notice about Aida is the giant blocks of concrete wall that run right through the middle of the camp. Not far from the wall is the home of Alrowaad theatre company. Alrowaad was formed under the mantel of ‘Beautiful Resistance’. The idea behind this is to show resistance to the occupation in a non-violent and inspiring way. Allowing young people a way to channel their energies into a positive art form. Encouraging the young people to live for their country rather than die for it.
I was lucky that shortly after we returned to England Alrowaad was taking part in a national tour of the UK. Although it wasn’t certain till the day before that they would be allowed to leave the country, Alrowaad was able to take a group of young people to UK to show excerpts of their show ‘Children of the camp’.
I offered to help out at the groups Edinburgh show, running errands and flyers in the city for the group for the week that they were there.
I got to see the show several times and I really got to thinking about the role that art has in the world. Abdel Fattah, the director of Alrowaad, describes Theater as the most powerful and expressive tool we have.
There is a lot of talk about theatre and art as an extremely liberal and left wing movement and this is often talked about in a negative way. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that art is constantly trying to mirror life and to create pathos and catharsis in its audience, but when there isn’t a strong reason or voice behind it then it comes across as distant and pretentious. One thing I saw a lot of, in the crowds that came to see Alrowaad perform, was people who wanted to aggressively support them.
People with T-shirts proclaiming ‘Free Palestine!’ in angry red font attempting to bring down the Israeli army with a weaponized jumble sale.
And I don’t think they got the message the company was trying to give out, that anger and aggression doesn’t lead to change.
A lot of people want to be angry, and righteously angry and so they jump on issues like the Arab-Israeli–conflict, Racism, Feminism and politics in order to give them something to vent. I think this is where a lot of this distant and unrelatable art comes from, that can often have a damaging effect.
I realize that I may have led you rather merry dance here but I’ll try and make a point.
So to summarize, what do I want to be taken away from this?
Well for one thing that there is a lot of injustice that we aren’t being told about and our governments are too busy fighting their own little battles to bother about.
Secondly, theatre, and art in general, has a hugely important part in representing the plight of this injustice.
Thanks to my time with Alrowaad I have come to think more about how I view the creative arts and how my writing, reading, performing and viewing could be used.
Another place we visited whist on our trip was a place called ‘The tent of Nations’. A Palestinian farm located in a valley surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements, we had to climb over a boulder to reach (placed in the road to stop the produce of the farm being driven to market). The farm owners can’t be evicted, because they have the deeds to the land going back decades, and as a result the farm is under constant threat of sabotage or illegal demolition by the Israeli settlers. The farm has become internationally famous as an example of resourceful and eco-friendly farming in the face of constant aggression and on a sign outside the gates is written, in several languages, ‘We refuse to be enemies.’
So when I’m asked ‘What do you actually do?’ ‘What’s the point?’. I turn to this mantra which I think sums up the idea is proof that human beings have the capacity to move beyond shows of strength and power, and to enable understanding through the use of imagination.
But again that’s just my opinion.