d i a r y
(by Alain Platel) ‘Branche d’Olives’
W e d n e s d a y 1 4 t h N o v e m b e r – T h u r s d a y 1 5 t h N o v e m b e r
It would have been the first time that we had gone through customs so quickly at Tel Aviv airport if it had not been for yet another incident. The six of us arrive at 2 am. This time four vsprs dancers have come along (Juliana Neves, Mathieu Desseigne-Ravel, Elie Tass and Quan Bui Ngoc) + Serge Aimé Coulibaly (who I worked with in Wolf). We are feeling a little groggy, get asked all the usual questions (we say we are going to Ramallah and of course they are not pleased to hear this), get the usual stamps in our passports and then we wait for each other next to the carousel. Nevertheless as we prepare to leave Elie is selected from the group… and interrogated for three hours. ‘Elie’ sounds Lebanese, they ask for his grandfather’s name, which he does not know. He is from Ghent, but his father is Lebanese. He has very little contact with his family in Lebanon and he has seen his grandfather only once in his life. They are suspicious and so buy time and harass. They keep asking questions, disappear, three quarters of an hour later someone else appears and starts asking the same questions, this person disappears and then after another three quarters of hour you get the same procedure and so on. At five o’clock Elie is finally released, we drive to Tel Aviv and try to get an hour’s sleep.
In the morning we see that our hotel lies close to the beach. It is still 20 degrees, it is bright and sunny and there are early swimmers.
We are collected early in the afternoon. A small Israeli van – with a Palestinian driver – will take us to Ramallah. By now, I am very familiar with the landscape. Yellowish, undulating, rocky, some green here and there, the white settlements in the hills, clean… until the wall suddenly appears. The wall, which snakes through the hills as far as the eye can see. A sight that is so shocking it takes your breath away. Checkpoint Qualandia: a few years ago it was chaos, masses of yellow taxis unloading people who then had to stand in line, blocks of concrete, lots of soldiers, lots of weapons, and lots of jeeps, tanks, dust, dirt and noise. Today the scene is one of beautiful, reconstructed roads, a roundabout with flowerbeds and a few shelters with Israeli soldiers behind bullet-proof glass; you pull up, join the neat line of cars, there is a brief check and you are in.
The driver takes us to the Popular Art Centre in Al-Ain Street (the only street name I find easy to remember) where Noora and Khaled from El Funoun and Shadi and Jessika from the Palestinian Circus School are waiting for us. We discuss the programme for the days ahead: during the day we will be working at the circus school and in the evening with the El Funoun dancers. Afterwards, we are taken to our host families: Serge Aimé and Elie are staying with Suha, Juliana, Quan and Mathieu with Shadi, and Jessika and I are again staying with the Barghouti family (Omar, his wife Safa and their children Jenna and Nai). Until this summer, Omar was choreographer for the El Funoun dance company. However, after a serious conflict with Khaled he has decided to leave the group. Later in the evening Omar tells me how much he is suffering from this. He was one of the great driving forces behind the group, and it was also he that invited us to come and work with the El Funoun dancers each year. It is a difficult situation because there is now no contact at all between him and El Funoun. In the days that follow it will turn out to be indicative of a situation I am surprised to see frequently in the streets of Ramallah, namely struggles between fellow Palestinians.
F r i d a y 1 6 N o v e m b e r
I wake up to an aroma that I have not smelled for a long time; Safa is preparing small, hot pizzas for breakfast. The whole family is fussing over me and spoiling me. The only real olives in the world, Safa’s mother’s shortbread, tomatoes and cucumber and, especially, delicious Arabian coffee!
It is not long before Omar, Safa and I are deeply involved in a long and intense conversation. There is so much catching up to do. The Palestinian situation has not improved, on the contrary. The wall and all sorts of other measures taken by the Israeli government are keeping the Palestinians in a stranglehold. Gaza is hell on earth. A real life prison where no one is allowed in or out. Everyday people die due to a lack of everything: food, medical supplies and so on. Things are a little better in the West Bank, but 60% of the population is unemployed, there is much and widespread poverty (especially outside the cities), ongoing suppression and pure apartheid. And then there is the wall -- we will hear and see it continuously: the wall, an intolerable and disgraceful structure. It is eight metres high and encircles the whole of the West Bank, broken here and there by gigantic metal gates which may be shut at any given moment. It is an absurdity – beyond comprehension.
Deep-rooted differences of opinion between Hamas and Fatah sympathisers have deeply divided the Palestinians. Which is a bonus for the Israeli government. Let them slaughter each other. The radicalisation is evident on all levels and perhaps this is having a negative effect on El Funoun’s development. Perhaps this view is too radical, but it is interesting food for thought to take home with me: the company presents itself as a modern Palestinian company that has its roots in traditional Palestinian dance. Decades of isolation prompted it to seek collaboration with European artists. I responded to their invitation six years ago and since then Koen Augustijnen, Christine De Smedt or myself have been coming here each year to work with the dancers. But we are not the only ones; other European choreographers have been coming here as well.
Nevertheless I feel this has resulted in a curious tension. Although the Palestinian dancers are confronted with new ideas, challenging formats and processes, their aim is not just to imitate. For them it is important to preserve their own Palestinian individuality. This in turn has to do with the fact that they crave international recognition of their Palestinian identity. This causes an awkward tension in the young dancers, who, on the one hand, are inspired by new ideas and wish to experiment, and on the other wish to remain true to their heritage and traditions. I once explained to Omar that there was a time when we were not bothered about shamelessly copying American post-modern dance or the German neo-expressionists, because in time this gives rise to new dance forms which have had a growing number of followers in Flanders and elsewhere for over twenty years. But perhaps this had more to do with the fact that in those days we had no complexes about our national identity and, moreover, we did not want to be seen as Flemish or Belgian, but as citizens of the world. In the meantime, following the last national elections and the last six months of ‘negotiating’ to form a new government, our politicians in Belgium have managed to catapult us back fifty years in time! The Flemish and the Walloons are being pitted against each other as if we were all involved in a new Peasants’ Revolt.
Shadi picks me up and takes me and the dancers to the rehearsal room at the circus school. The circus school is quite a recent initiative (a little over a year old) which has been achieved with the help of, among others, Jessika De Vlieghere, a Flemish woman who has been working in Ramallah for the past three years. She is Shadi’s partner. The school is on the top floor of El Kasaba, a building that also houses a cinema and a cafe. It is a relatively small room with lots of materials (trapezes and aerial tissue) scattered about and hanging all over the place and where several children and adults have been able to practice daily. Today is Friday, a free day, so there are plenty of students. Together with some other young people, Shadi’s brother Fadi is one of the regular core members of the circus school. Moreover, many young people from neighbouring refugee camps hang about here, join in a lesson, watch rehearsals, try out things for themselves… but most of all they come here to escape the misery of the refugee camps. Juliana and Mathieu both have circus backgrounds. Juliana worked for the Cirque du Soleil for years and Mathieu was educated in one of those notorious modern circus schools in France. Not only are they able to pass on a great deal of knowledge, but in the days ahead they will prove to be wonderful teachers for both very small children and more advanced performers.
After spending a full day at the circus school we go to El Funoun in the early evening. There are about fifteen young dancers here (many new faces since I was last here). They introduce themselves: the majority are young people of about twenty and most of them are studying ‘accountancy’ (!) or political science at Ramallah’s Birzeit University. After an intensive lesson taught by Quan, I ask them to show each other some dance work. The Palestinians show excerpts from some of their shows (they are all group dances) and the Europeans + Serge Aimé (from Burkina Faso) show us individual improvisations. One of the Palestinian dancers asks me if our dancers could show something collective… the answer to which is inevitable ‘no’. The contrast between Palestinians, who only do group dances and the dancers of Les Ballets only individual pieces will stick in our minds.
S a t u r d a y 1 7 N o v e m b e r
I get picked up early today because Shadi is taking us to Hebron. Once a week the circus school teaches a group of young, inner city children there. In the course of the day it becomes clear to us why it is these children in particular.
The atmosphere is high-spirited and giggly when we leave, but gradually the noise in the van subsides. The confrontation with the landscape outside becomes more difficult by the minute. The wall is very difficult to deal with. But there is a solution. Landscape architects have been appointed to hide the wall on the Israeli side. They are creating dunes and planting trees to hide the wall. In other places where this is not possible it is being ‘embellished’ with mosaic tiles, so it is starting to look like the noise barriers we have on European motorways. The checkpoints remind us of our toll roads as the road fans out into several lanes that pass through designer checkpoints with designer awnings. The few entrances to Palestinian villages and towns behind the wall are no longer signposted. So you simply miss them if you don’t know where they are.
When we arrive at a cultural centre in Hebron, an enthusiastic group of children is waiting for us. Eagerly and impatiently they carry in crates filled with materials and they show us circus gear they have made at home with recycled materials during the past week. In the room the boys and girls are separated (the community here is more religiously conservative than in Ramallah) and they are taught separately too. Acrobatics in front of the curtain, balancing and juggling behind the curtain. The male teachers are not allowed to physically touch the girls during the lesson. Which is very difficult when you are teaching someone acrobatics. Every spot in the building is occupied. I see a few boys training on unicycles against the walls in the corridors. I share a joke with a frail girl wearing a T-shirt inscribed with the word ‘ROUGH’. I see small boys who have been practicing backflips at home or who demonstrate how supple they are. The hours fly past and all the dancers are intensely emotional about the enthusiasm and the children’s immediate affection. After classes the children get onto a bus, some call out ‘Juliana … I love you!’ and then they are taken back to the inner city.
Shadi wants to take us there too. Hebron is quite a large city and the centre is completely barricaded. Inside, apart from the large Palestinian community, there are groups of extremely orthodox Jews. They have simply moved into Arab houses and in some areas actually live above the Palestinians. It is from here that we see the images of streets covered with nets because the Jews throw out their garbage and waste from their windows onto the Palestinians. In some parts of the city Palestinians are banned, in the centre itself there are scores of checkpoints where Palestinians are constantly and roughly checked (we saw it with our own eyes and of course we could not interfere in case we endangered the Palestinians even further) and groups of orthodox Jews wandering around are allowed to jeer and spit at Palestinians, push them over or even attack them physically, whenever they please. The countless number of Israeli soldiers hardly ever intervene when this happens or, in some cases, even openly support the Jews. It is truly unbelievable. But this is real and it happens every day. The circus school considers this project in Hebron to be of paramount importance, as they take the children – who experience these things daily – away from this environment at least once a week. We visit Abraham’s Mosque. At the beginning of the nineties a Jewish extremist stormed into the mosque and emptied his automatic gun at the praying Palestinians, killing 48 people. The bullet holes are still there for all to see.
The inner city makes a profound impression on us. It is quiet in the car. Shadi takes us to an Arabian restaurant. A large space, crowds of people and lots of good food. We slowly recover. I receive a phone call from The Hague: our documentary ‘de balletten en ci en là’ has won first prize at the Dance Screen Festival. Can I come and receive it at the award ceremony tonight? A surreal feeling.
The evening is spent at El Funoun. Serge-Aimé is teaching. Once more all the dancers show enormous commitment. Afterwards there is a collective improvisation session. It is wonderful to see how El Funoun and Les Ballets inspire each other. Talking to the dancers afterwards, I hear how eager they are for this kind of simple exercise. They mainly rehearse their repertoire and rarely do they take time to get new ideas through improvisation.
After the lesson we go out for a bite to eat and bump into Simon Rowe on the way. I worked with Simon on the production of Wolf and in 2004 asked him to come to Ramallah. He has been back here several times since and now he has been invited by the Ashtar theatre company to be guest director. The production will be invited to a festival in the Netherlands in December, but there are difficulties as there are also Israeli companies taking part in the festival. The Palestinians refuse to take part in the festival unless the festival directors and the Israeli companies openly declare they are against the Israeli occupation and that the festival does not support normalisation (‘normalisation’ means initiatives where Israelis and Palestinians are brought together in activities – discussions, workshops, artistic initiatives – and thus creating the impression that the situation is ‘normalised’, that the relationship of suppressor - suppressed has suddenly been abolished or is non-existent).
S u n d a y 1 8 t h N o v e m b e r
Today we worked all day at the circus school. Juliana has brought her own aerial tissue which she will present to the school. She is convinced that some of the pupils have real talent. One of them is a very young frail girl in a pink outfit. You wouldn’t expect it of her but she works really hard and despite the huge physical effort it requires she just keeps going and never gives up. This is also true of the other acrobatic students who work with Mathieu.
During the break Shadi takes us to the muqata: the spot in Ramallah where Arafat spent his last days. Last time we were here it was beleaguered ruin which had been destroyed by heavy firing. From here the critically ill Arafat was flown to Paris where he died. His tomb now stands here, a modern monument guarded by two soldiers. Surrounded by a garden and with a new mosque close by. On top of the mosque is a laser beam that is visible even from Jerusalem. There are some who still honour Arafat here. On our way there we pass Manara Square (Lion Square) which television has made the most famous spot in Ramallah. It from here that all Protest Marches start out. Until recently it was also a square where pedestrians and traffic chaotically intermingled. Nowadays barriers have been placed along the footpaths to force pedestrians to stick to them and only allow them to cross the road at fixed points. For weeks now there have been policemen everywhere to steer pedestrians who stubbornly continue the tradition of walking in the middle of the road into the proper lanes. It is amusing to watch as many have no intention of giving up their old habits and conforming to the European model of only crossing the street at zebra crossings.
In the afternoon we watch a video recording of one of the school’s first performances: Circus behind the wall. The acrobats use their acts to comment on their situation. A naive yet hopeful message about peace and a better future. The circus school has already been invited to perform in France and in February 2008 it will also appear in a number of Belgian cities (for more information see: email@example.com
). Shadi asks us to voice any criticism we might have openly and honestly. The students listen attentively and take notes. During the evening meal we continue to brainstorm about possible new approaches for their show.
M o n d a y 1 9 t h N o v e m b e r
I am allowed to sleep on and am all alone in the house. Through Les Ballets I hear that Lieven Thyrion and Herwig Onghena are undergoing the same emotional experience in Soweto, where they are prospecting for their project One Day for Another World, an annual event at the Ghent Festivities that benefits Oxfam. I go to the city on foot as it is an enjoyable 45-minute walk.
At the circus school Juliana works on building human pyramids. Very impressive. During one of our chats she tells me she firmly believes the circus is a good medium here. It gives the children and young people the self-confidence they need. In the evening she also does the warming up and a lesson for the El Funoun dancers. This is followed by learning a bit of the ‘Dabke’, a very lively traditional Palestinian folk dance. The dancers of Les Ballets are then asked to add something of their own interpretation and then teach it to the El Funoun dancers. The result is truly beautiful, surprising and wonderful to perform and watch. Once again there is not enough time to take it further but here we have an interesting idea for rounding off a performance. It is also amusing to see how much the Les Ballets dancers enjoy dancing the ‘Dabke’!
T u e s d a y 2 0 t h N o v e m b e r
Omar, who has just spent a few days in London, is back. Among other things he also met the artistic director of the Rambert dance company, who invited him to create a guest choreography for the company. It will be a great challenge for him to spend time working with a group of highly trained dancers. But at the same time I am aware of his hesitation.
A day off and a visit to Jerusalem. Shadi is our guide. This man is so generous and does so much for us! The road from Ramallah to Jerusalem can be travelled in two ways, depending on which passport the Palestinians have. Some of them never leave the area (one of the dancers, Hussein, hasn’t been to Jerusalem for 20 years, even though he was born there and still has family living there: he simply does not have the right identity card). Some can only exit through checkpoint Qualandia, but here the queues are long and slow, others can take a detour to a less congested checkpoint because they have a Jerusalem ID. Shadi has the latter.
Whenever we are asked to show our passports I see the surprised look on the soldiers’ faces: so many different nationalities in one van (Brazil, Burkina Faso, Vietnam, France, Belgium, etc.). There is great hilarity when a female Israeli soldier who is checking our passports says to Mathieu: ‘Beautiful you are!’. It becomes the slogan for the rest of our stay!
East Jerusalem is peaceful and calm. The entrance to the old city, the Damascus Gate, seems almost deserted. Long ago it was very crowded and dozens of farmers would come here to sell their produce. Apparently this is no longer allowed. The old city continues to be one of the most beautiful urban districts in the world. We visit typical sites like the church with Christ’s tomb and we climb the tower of a small nearby church. From here you have a clear view of the city and where the Palestinians live and where the Jewish section has developed. In the distance is the wall again, splitting the landscape in two. We walk under Sharon’s house, which is situated in the middle of the Palestinian area. Nobody seems to really know how Sharon is faring these days. Rumour has it he is still in coma. We pass through a checkpoint and walk to the Wailing Wall where large groups of Jewish believers whisper their weekly complaints. I have never been so close to it. I find it impressive and emotional. We stroll down the narrow streets of the souks, eat the best hummus at Lina’s and have a coffee on the terrace of the Jerusalem Hotel, where I once stayed for a few days during my first visit (2001) to the occupied areas after fleeing from Ramallah (there were serious attacks on Jerusalem, and the Belgian Consul in Ramallah came and fetched us). It is always such a pleasure to be in Jerusalem. The city radiates so much charged energy. It feels like the very centre of the history of man and it is hard to believe that here a human, religious and political drama of such proportions is taking place that it has for centuries paralysed the world, or if you prefer, helped shape it.
Shadi would like to leave Jerusalem earlier as he wants to take us to another spot, namely Bethlehem. After visiting the place where Jesus died we shall go where he was born. I barely recognise the surroundings (I also visited here a few years ago). The wall has changed the whole character of the area. Once again, to get to the entrance we have to pass through a military checkpoint, a large sliding metal gate which can simply be closed and thereby completely isolate the city. We first visit the church of the nativity. It used to be a very popular site, with crowds of tourists being ferried to and fro. However, after the terrifying images in 2002 in which the whole world could see how Palestinian resistance fighters entrenched themselves in the church, and the building of the wall around the city, very few tourists come here today. Shadi also drives along the wall so we can see how close to the houses it has been built. Formerly some of the inhabitants had a view of the undulating landscape and their olive groves from their windows. Now they see only a wall, eight metres high, and the olive groves are no longer their property, or else the olive trees, some of them hundreds of years old, have been destroyed. In one place they even built the wall across the middle of a school playground. Children who used to live right opposite the school now have to walk for kilometres and pass through a checkpoint to get to their school. Shadi drives along the wall which seems to go on forever. Everyone in the van is visibly shocked.
It is rather quiet in the car as we drive back to Ramallah. Shadi and Jessika have invited us to Shadi’s sister’s birthday party celebration at their home. Their warmth and hospitality is enormous. We have a good time.
W e d n e s d a y 2 1 s t N o v e m b e r
Walking to the city I think about what is happening in Belgium at present. For six months now various political parties have been negotiating to form a new government. The rift between Flanders and the Walloon provinces hasn’t been so wide for a long time. In less than five months they have succeeded in transforming the delicate balance between and the moderate appreciation of two population groups for one another into a mistrust of, contempt and in some cases, even hatred for one another. A few years ago people here often asked me to explain the Belgian system to them. Many Palestinians saw it as example of how very different communities could get along together through compromise. Now they tend to smirk about it. From here it is even considered plausible that political statements set two population groups against one another in such a way that it leads to violence. I am sick to my stomach when I picture certain politicians. I wish they could be brought here for a week just so they can see the consequences their attitude could have. One week along the wall, the checkpoints, the inner city of Hebron and a short visit to Gaza. A school trip as it were.
Over the past few days temperatures have suddenly dropped in the region. There is also a lot of rain. I take shelter in a coffee bar and watch life on the street through the window. Things have changed a great deal here in recent years. There are a lot of policemen on the street. Young people from Gaza I am told. Nevertheless the situation has not calmed down at all. There are constant disturbances, rival groups (Hamas – Fatah) who beat each other up in the street. Despite the frequency with which we are told about how much poverty there is, I see a remarkable number of 4 x 4’s being driven around. It sometimes makes me think of Moscow, where we performed vsprs a few months ago. A mafioso atmosphere in which a few are able to become extremely rich. I also hear more English being spoken than before. Just about everyone in the city can make themselves understood in the language.
Sometimes I think there is a gradual shift taking place here. No strong-arm methods any more; no military raids in the city, no houses being blown up, people being picked up or shot at random, just a wall around the city, financial aid for moderate leaders who are willing to ‘negotiate’. In the meantime a conspicuous embellishment of the city (better roads, billboards advertising daily good fortune, more street lighting in the evenings and so on) and providing just enough financial support so there is not too much complaining. But at the same time keeping everyone in line by means of checks, passports and segregation laws. Regularly giving permission to build new settlements in Palestinian areas just to show who is still the boss here. And so they hope that the Palestinians will accept the situation. The sixtieth anniversary of the state of Israel will be celebrated soon. Sixty years of intense occupation, suppression and apartheid… it would take less to break your spirit.
This is the last day we shall be working together with the circus school and El Funoun. Intense and moving moments for both the Palestinians and us. We got along really well all week and we all worked hard. Mathieu and Juliana have definitely left their mark on the circus school.
The El Funoun students tell us that the Birzeit University has been closed for a few days now. A battle between Hamas and Fatah supporters left many wounded and the authorities decided to close down the university until the students could guarantee there would be no more feuds on campus. A strange story.
During the last lesson there is suddenly a power failure. It has affected a large section of the city. At home we would probably suspend class but here several students turn on their mobile phone lights, place the apparatus above the mirror and simply continue to work in the dim light. Soon the power is back. Everyone continues to work intensively on the interesting mixture of El Funoun and Les Ballets. Everyone is sweating and the mirrors and windows are all steamed up. Saying farewell at the end of the lesson is hard for everyone. We all promise to return soon.
Omar and Safa have invited the dancers from Les Ballets and Jessika, Shadi and Fadi to a farewell dinner. We are warmly welcomed to a table creaking with all our favourite dishes. All the hustle and bustle is very pleasant. For Omar and Safa this is an opportunity to get to know the people of the circus school better and vice versa. Omar and Safa’s children play a few musical numbers on violin and flute. Everyone has a lump in their throats.
We stay behind talking about everything for a long time and Omar is especially interested in what Serge Aimé thinks of Palestine. Serge talks about the extreme poverty in his own country and how familiar the involvement of artists in difficult regions is to him. Everyone laughs hysterically at Omar’s stories about how he deals with the checks at Tel Aviv airport. Probably with a touch of British humour.
T h u r s d a y 2 2 n d N o v e m b e r
I get up extra early to take leave of Omar, who has to go to work. I feel very much at home with him, Safa and their children. I didn’t see all that much of them this time but it is a warm place where I am spoiled rotten.
Saying goodbye to the El Funoun building. The van that brought us here takes us back to Tel Aviv. The driver asks us to say that we have come from Jerusalem when they stop us at the airport checkpoint. This will save us a huge amount of checking time he says. Nevertheless there is a little tension in the air when we see the soldier hesitate at our answer. I know for sure we will be in hot water if he asks us to open our suitcases. Everyone has enough clues pointing to our stay in Ramallah.
In the airport itself, however, we truthfully state where we have come from. In the past, people who came from the Occupied Areas got a fluorescent red sticker on their luggage and were accompanied by a personal supervisor right to the plane entrance. Now the coloured stickers have been replaced with labels bearing a number which is less noticeable. The suitcases are double checked though (some more thoroughly than others) but after this you are ‘free’ to walk around. I receive a call from a Belgian newspaper asking me whether I would like to comment on the death of Maurice Béjart…
Once again I feel a great weight of tension lift from my shoulders as the plane takes off. It was a good week with a very good group of dancers who supported and questioned one another.
Back home I turn on the news. Day 165 of the negotiations for a new government. Leterme has arranged a meeting in a restaurant near Brussels called ‘La Branche d’Olives’ (I feel a shiver down my spine). Good food but no result.
December 2007 Although I know that a cultural boycott of Israel by Les Ballets is a symbolic act that has little effect in the field (but has stirred up bad feelings amongst the supporters of ‘normalisation’) after this fifth trip to the Occupied Territories, I still support it. The situation in the region offers the Palestinians little hope of improving their situation. The wall is a fact, illegal settlements continue to grow, and the occupation, oppression of and discrimination against the Palestinians is an everyday reality. Nevertheless it does not stop us from continuing the dialogue and the collaboration with Jewish and Israeli artists here (which has been taking place and has been an everyday reality in the company for more than ten years).