Our organization, Alrowwad, works with the Palestinian youth, and that has been our enduring mandate since we founded it in 1998. People often ask me, why, given the severity of the politics surrounding the Palestinian struggle, would we not aim to tackle other, more pressing, issues – like the economy, human rights, socio-political transformation or even the resistance? Are we, and our organization making the best use of our energy, intellect and resources by focusing on children? The answer probably lies in our name – Alrowwad translates to “pioneers for life” in English; and, being committed to our children’s life is what we’ve chosen as our work. We want our children to know that they are loved, and that we care about them; we want to tell them that they are important, and that they shouldn’t be mere numbers on the lists of martyrs; we don’t want them to be maimed and physically handicapped for the rest of their lives, or perish in Israeli prisons. And, yes, like parents everywhere, we want to see our children grow up, change the world and create miracles; we want them to be proud of what we achieve together, and we want to celebrate their successes and achievements. And, when the time comes, our youth should be walking in our funerals, and not the other way round. It is through our work with our children that we have created hope for Palestine’s future.
By Abdelfattah Abusrour
Growing up under the violence of occupation
It is not easy to be a child in Palestine, and we learn that lesson very early in life. In fact, the experience of my own childhood has determined the choices I’ve made as an adult. I was born in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, in occupied Palestine. The camp hosts about 6000 people on a rented space of about 0.071 km2, and was established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an agency created specifically for Palestinian refugees. After the Zionist invasion of the Palestinian lands in 1948, what we call “Nakba” or “the catastrophe”, refugees from about forty three villages, which were destroyed and occupied, came to Aida. 78% of the historical Palestine was taken over by Zionist groups, uprooting more than five hundred villages, and making 70% of the Palestinian people refugees in their own country or in the neighboring countries, and elsewhere. After living in tents for about six years, shelters of 9 m2 began to be built for the refugee families in 1956-1957, but they had no running water, electricity or sewage services. Nor were there any schools or medical centers in the camp. Slowly, however, people started building and improving their houses on their own. But, that ate up the open spaces between houses, and the children were left with no place to play or hang out. To make matters worse, since 2005 an eight meters high illegal wall of expansion and annexation has surrounded the Aida refugee camp, with snipers and surveillance cameras placed at strategic points, and incursions by the Israeli occupation army becoming increasingly frequent.
Not surprisingly, growing up in Aida, I dreamt of being a freedom fighter. That’s what all other children also wanted to do – resisting the occupation and liberating our homeland. I wanted to make it possible for my family to return to my parents’ village, which was destroyed and occupied in 1948. But, I also dreamt of being a great painter, an inspiring writer, a famous photographer, and an outstanding scientist. So many dreams …… Yet, my parents, like most others in Palestine, were not particularly keen on the armed struggle or the arts as possible career choices for their kids. They wanted them to be educated, and serve their community by becoming doctors, engineers, teachers and so on. Despite the ugliness of the Israeli occupation and its brutal violence, I never heard a word of hatred expressed in my house against the Jews or the people of any other religions. There was, of course, a lot of talk about politics and politicians – and about those who promised to return us to our occupied homes in two weeks!
My parents taught us that people could live together as equals, respecting each other, and certainly not killing each other; that injustice and oppression should not be acceptable against anyone or by anyone. The Israeli occupation, obviously, didn’t care much for that beautiful spirit or its humanity. It crushed all manifestations of Palestinian identity – it was forbidden to listen to patriotic songs, attend plays or organize art exhibitions. We couldn’t tune in to the radio channels broadcasting Palestinian programs from other Arab countries. It was even forbidden for the youth to wear the Palestinian Keffiyeh. I was never personally involved in a political organization or in the armed struggle, focusing instead on arts and culture – writing poems or plays, involved in painting and photography. In fact, some of my paintings were confiscated by the Israeli army from exhibitions in Bethlehem and Birzeit universities. The Palestinian political struggle was intensifying as I started my Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Bethlehem University. Many factions inspired by prominent schools of thought and resistance were vying for the students’ attention and participation. But, I preferred working with everyone without being affiliated to anyone. It’s been my belief that the Palestinian struggle is bigger than political parties or personalities, and my thinking hasn’t changed till this day.
The university education steadily broadened my horizons, and I soon developed an interest in the French language. After I finished my third year, and when I had gained certain proficiency in the language, I was awarded a scholarship to go to France for further studies. In those days it was enormously difficult to get a permit from the Israeli occupation to leave the country or an Israeli travel document as a Palestinian student (since there were no Palestinian passports at that time, and I didn’t have any other travel document). My application was rejected multiple times by the Israeli military authorities, and it was only on my seventh attempt, one year later, that I managed to get the permit to travel to France. While my academic pursuit was masters and PhD in Biological and Medical Engineering, France also opened up exciting new opportunities in theatre, painting and photography, and I devoted almost all my free time to my passion.
Returning home, exploring possibilities beyond violence
After nine years in France, I returned home thinking that Palestine had only been waiting for me to save it! While I began earning my living using my degree in Biology, I also started volunteering to train the youth in theatre. In my interactions with these young people I detected the same restless alienation, which had marked my own youth. Their hopes and dreams were fixated on the idea of dying for their country, which reminded me of our times when we also dreamt of being feda’eeyin (freedom fighters). But, life had allowed me the opportunity to live other possibilities and adopt other ways of thinking, and I wanted to tell our youth that if people think the only way to change anything is to carry a gun and kill each other, then we all lose a part of our humanity. It was then, in 1998, that I founded Alrowwad theatre with a group of friends, centered on the philosophy I call “Beautiful Resistance”.
We were inspired by international movements of resistance, which had shaped the world – images of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and many others fired up our political consciousness. The stories of the Vietnamese resistance against French colonization and the subsequent American invasion, and the South African resistance against the apartheid regime gave us hope. Religiously speaking, I was also inspired by prophets who resisted dictatorships and oppressors, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad (peace be upon them). Most Palestinians practiced non-armed struggle against the Israeli occupation. Peaceful resistance as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King also had enormous following. I’ve always found it quite illogical and inconsistent when people characterize armed struggle as “violence”. In my opinion, resistance against oppression, occupation and injustice is permitted by all means, and legitimate resistance, even armed struggle cannot qualify as violence. So, that’s why I use the term “non-armed struggle” instead of non-violence.
I consider every legal act of resistance against injustice or occupation or dictatorship as a beautiful act of humanity, and that’s why I have envisioned the concept and philosophy of “Beautiful Resistance” against the ugliness of occupation and its violence. I chose resistance through arts, culture and education; advancing creativity to promote life, and inspire hope. I want to give children and others opportunities to express themselves in peaceful, beautiful and creative ways, and to cherish living, rather than dying, for their country or whatever other cause they are defending. I would like to pave the path to build peace within individuals, who could then become peace builders in their communities and in the world. My own choice of peaceful and creative ways of resistance doesn’t at all mean that I condemn legitimate armed struggle for people who are oppressed or those who are under occupation, and that’s why I make the distinction between legitimate and lawful armed struggle in contrast to terrorism and violence against innocent people.
Palestinian youth: Is there a future without violence?
Beautiful Resistance is an honest attempt at building a credible, new future for the Palestinian youth, but its precepts can also apply to oppressed people in other parts of the world. The Israeli occupation and its violence affect our children the most – their willingness to die signifies the absence of a tangible future in their minds and, obviously, the lack of any life under occupation. I started with our children because I couldn’t escape the feeling that we adults have failed them on every level. If a child thinks that he/she better die than live, then all that adults have offered them is hopelessness and despair. Beautiful Resistance is about promoting life and inspiring hope, about offering possibilities through performing and visual arts, culture and education. I started with theatre, because I believe it is one of the most amazing and powerful ways of expression, which allows individuals to tell their stories and narrate their history. Moreover, the intimate and intense process of expressing oneself also expels anger, stress, pressure and frustration from within the body and the mind, ultimately freeing up the space needed for peace to unfold and blossom. I wanted the children to be on stage as actors, to say what they wanted to say, and shout as loud as they wanted. They were the stars being applauded and admired for their talent and creativity … a new connection was created between these children and the Palestinian audience, which touched everyone at a personal, human level with positive energy. Later, a larger international audience also embraced the honest hope behind our effort.
Within a couple of years of having launched Alrowwad, the second intifada started in 2000. Curfews and incursions multiplied, and the schools were frequently shut down, putting immense stress and pressure on the children. We responded with adding more activities to our program – Dabka (Palestinian folk dance), music, photography, video, library and a computer center. Teachers volunteered to offer classes for children with learning disabilities and for those suffering from trauma. We also created space for the parents’ participation in our programs, especially the mothers, because I believe women are the real change-makers in society. All our efforts were aimed at creating the possibility of peace and calm within individuals so that they could go on to become peace builders in their own communities and beyond.
When I founded Alrowwad, I had said, “ With or without money we do it”. I wanted people who came forward to support us to understand that we were more a political cause than a mere humanitarian one. We were a unique response to the theft of our lands, colonial occupation, oppression, and our continuing dehumanization, and, in fact, through our work we were vigorously reclaiming our culture, art, food, embroidery and history. I wanted our supporters to understand us and to consult with us, and respond to our needs and priorities with care and foresight. I wanted them to be proud of what we could achieve together as partners, not as mere benefactors in the most passive and humiliating form of charity. I didn’t want them to throw some crumbs on the table, and derive satisfaction from keeping the needy eternally deprived and destitute. That’s also the reason I wanted Alrowwad to be independent, not under the umbrella of any political party but to be able to collaborate with everybody for the best interests of the Palestinian refugees, the community in Aida refugee camp, and Palestinians in general.
As one would expect, the public response to “Alrowwad” and “Beautiful Resistance” was quite varied and sometimes conflicting, and we had to be alert to divergent needs and attitudes. Families were happy to see their children use their time in a positive and productive way. Some parents sent their children for education and supplementary programs, while others were happy about the opportunities to play and relax. Some were interested in the arts, and were delighted to discover the hidden talents of their children. A few of them wanted girls separated from boys for the programs they were involved in, so we had to adjust some of the programs to respond to that request. Some people looked at Beautiful Resistance with suspicion – does Alrowwad consider other forms of resistance ugly? Is there a political agenda behind the initiative? Is it just a ploy to satisfy the Europeans and the Americans? Some requested more information about the meaning of Beautiful Resistance, and others flung accusations without ever being curious to learn more about the organization.
Right from the beginning, I have been quite clear about the vision of “Beautiful Resistance”: Resistance against oppression, occupation, dictatorship and injustice is a beautiful act of humanity, whether it is armed or un-armed. There is no ugly resistance. The majority of people all over the world, including in Palestine, believe in peaceful resistance, much more so than in an armed struggle. We may agree or disagree with others’ choices and their practice of resistance, but it is lawful to resist oppression by all means according to every law in the world. In addition, Beautiful Resistance does not compromise on the rights, values, needs and priorities of people. Instead of responding to the agendas of the political parties or the donors, Alrowwad focuses on the needs and priorities of the Palestinian people. We refuse conditional funding, or funding which does not take into account the needs of the community, or which does not respect the dignity of the beneficiaries.
The children we started with have now become adults. Some of them continue to share our vision, and some don’t. But, most of them are committed to art, theatre or dance. Some are independent, and some are affiliated to a political party, but we continue to be open to everyone, and work with everyone if that serves our people, and the effort is true to our values and cause. Beautiful Resistance has its supporters at, both, local and international levels. In theory, the Palestinian political leadership supports the vision and work of Alrowwad, and they partner with us in some of the programs. But, mostly, their support is moral and in rare cases, financial. Arts and culture don’t seem to be a priority in funding, and, consequently, many cultural and artistic institutions face huge challenges. We, however, continue to plug away and focus on our work. When we have money, we expand our activities; when the money is short, our options get cramped but the work still goes on.
Political Challenges: Understanding the context
Alrowwad’s political stance has challenged the established forms of socio-cultural engagements in Palestine, and that has had its financial consequences for us as an organization. Substantial amount of funding has been available for what could be called “normalization projects” involving Palestinian and Israeli partners, and possibly other associates. Alrowwad doesn’t believe in “normalization”, and has not partnered with Israeli groups, because we believe that the Palestinian struggle is a political cause and not a “conflict” between people. Our struggle is against an illegal military and colonial occupation. While it’s possible that some Israelis may want to engage with Palestinians, in my opinion their role at this stage is not next to me. Israelis and Palestinians coming together creates a false impression of a democratic engagement on part of an occupying regime. It is a deceptive attempt at solving a problem, which doesn’t exist, a problem of antipathy between individuals, which in itself is a false premise.
Recent history clearly shows that negotiations for peace or joint projects between Palestinians and Israelis haven’t really been successful or led to any political change. Occupation is based essentially on segregation: colonies continue to be built on Palestinian lands; illegal walls destroying village economies continue to be erected; ethnic cleansing has not stopped; illegal administrative detention of innocent people, including children, happens regularly; and all other forms of violations of Palestinian human rights and international law continue unabated. In Israel itself, Palestinians, who constitute 20% of the population, are treated as second-class citizens. So, I would suggest that Israelis should first start by establishing justice and equality among themselves, and guarantee equal rights and opportunities to the Palestinians who have Israeli nationality, or live under Israeli occupied areas like Jerusalem. They should stop the process of colonization and dismantle the illegal wall as well as their apartheid laws before coming to the other side of the wall with false pretense. As long as we are not on equal grounds working together is not an option even though this will keep the funding streams dry for organizations like Alrowwad.
Children inspire us to question violence and oppression
Despite these heavy odds, our “Beautiful Resistance” continues. With its special engagement with the Palestinian children, youth and women, Beautiful Resistance is making a sincere attempt at helping them create a new future for themselves and their country. The conventional wisdom is that things need to be explained to children, that we need to go down to their level for them to make sense of a subject matter. We have turned that idea on its head. Our experience tells us that children are full of creative imagination, much more than adults. Children can create worlds that no adult can imagine or understand. They can conceive of and organize games that no adult can think of. Children can derive fun out of the simplest things, and can interpret what they see or listen to in ways unthinkable for adults. So, Beautiful Resistance has worked to go up to the level of children, and not down. We’ve tried to harness their creativity and provide them with new tools for their imagination so that they can express themselves through performing and visual arts.
Children are also immensely sensitive to oppression, wherever it may be. When we toured with our shows in Europe or the USA, and when they saw injustice, they could identify and point it out easily. In 2005, we toured the United States and spent a week in Louisville, Kentucky. Apart from our own performances, we also held joint workshops with African American children, and after a few days, seeing their life conditions and daily struggles, some of our children reflected, “they have the same challenges as us”, and “they are even poorer than us”. Oppression is everywhere, and has many faces, even in the richest country of the world. Our relationship with Palestinian children is built on a free exchange of ideas, and what we learn from them is much more than what we can teach them. These international tours allowed our children to get out of the refugee camp and their life under occupation, and spend some time in free countries. They could discover that we share a lot of things as human beings, and these similarities should bring us closer to each other. They also experienced differences, and realized that differences were great gifts, which should enrich us and not make us afraid of each other. They recognized that we as human beings share and defend these values that we call freedom, peace, justice, equality and love regardless of our color or religion.
It has been more than two decades since we founded Alrowwad. While the political situation in Palestine has become more complex and challenging, our work continues. Most importantly, despite all the stresses of managing a small non-profit organization, we have remained independent, unwilling to advance dubious agendas for the sake of funding. Our commitment to community needs and people’s priorities has not altered whatever be the status of our funding, and that shows in the consistency of our work. We’re quite proud of our achievements – the first professionally trained children’s theatre group in southern Palestine, the first professional training program in photography and video production, the first outdoor film festival with projection on the illegal wall of expansion and annexation, the first Palestinian folktales festival, the first “supportive education program” for children with trauma and learning difficulties. And, our work has been recognized domestically as well as internationally. But, the most fulfilling feature of our work has been the integration of art and culture into the lives of young people enveloped in oppression and violence. They have found a way out of their despairing reality through creative expression, and I know one day they will free their land from oppression itself. They will show the way using Beautiful Resistance.
Abdelfattah Abusrour is the founder of “Beautiful Resistance”.
Some photographs used in the article have been taken from open sources on the internet.
Last year, the author had presented a webinar on Alrowwad’s work with our sister organization, The Global Tapestry of Alternatives. Here is the link to it: https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/webinars:2021:05