Part 2 of a Trip To Israel, the West Bank, and Almost Gaza
Our trip to was to be a research expedition, but also a shared voyage, Serge making the journey to Israel for a first time and I sharing much of what was important to me about Israeli theater to Serge on this, my 20th (or maybe 25th) trip. We would achieve our objectives principally through two plays and two playwrights; working with designer Frida Shoham on preparations for our production of Gilad Evron's ULYSSES ON BOTTLES and catching up on a seminal production foregrounding the creation of Mosaic Theater Company, attending a preview of Motti Lerner's THE ADMISSION before its critics' openings on October 27 & 28.
Gilad's play compels us to experience both sides of Israel, as well as lives on both sides of Israel's borders. It explores the gaping divides between a privileged class living in an affluent Israeli suburb, the meager portion of a Palestinian-Israeli teacher living under the country's jurisdiction, and the desperately cramped and largely under-nourished populace of 1.8 million living in Gaza. Two characters bridge the divide; the school teacher, now imprisoned for trying to smuggle books of Russian literature into a Gaza, and the defense attorney assigned to represent him. While the teacher is Palestinian, he might just as easily be an Israeli left-wing activist arrested for trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The attorney is Israeli but no activist, very much pulled in his allegiances between family, state, an intelligence officer who briefs him about the dangers and realities of Gaza, and his increasing empathy for the prisoner and nameless Gazans whose lives hang in the balance.
So this plot sends us in multiple directions, as we provide Serge with a glimpse of what these different worlds might look and feel like. Before launching on our journey to see where the teacher, Ulysses, might hale from, we enjoy shabbat dinners with different families. Serge goes with Frida to celebrate with her daughters and their partners; I go to Beit Yitzchak to celebrate with my relatives. Both evenings involve singing, guitar playing, wonderful meals. Here's a glimpse of the joy at Frida's (photo actually taken the next night, in Holon, at Frida's daughter's apartment):
Actually here's an even better pic of the Frida's amazing, modern Israeli family.
(with Maya Shoham, Yankalle Filtser, Frida Shoham, Natan Ngemba, Nathan Ngemba and Gonny Ngemba.)
And then a glimpse of the scene at one of my favorite spots, a moshav outside Natanya, with one of my favorite families.
The next day we're off to visit Mosaic summer intern and New Story Leadership fellow, Mustafa Sharia, who invites us to his home outside Bethlehem, with a tour of the ancient city to get us launched. We see the sites; Jesus' birthplace. I don't need to share all that, do I? We tour the old markets. It's our 3rd outdoor market in 3 days; Akko, Jaffa, and now Bethlehem. They are all rich and sumptuous and no longer really ancient in their own distinctive ways.
We move from being tourists to being invited into the home of a warm and successful family, as Mustafa introduces us to his parents; the mother, a successful school principal; and the father, a successful appliance salesman for 30 years. Mustafa is the second oldest of 4 children. We all eat together, save for the father who's tending to repairs on the roof with a contractor. Their home is immaculate, sturdy and two stories tall. The surprise is that it is at the top of the hill of the Dheisha Refugee camp outside Bethlehem, a camp where the Sharia family has lived for over half a century. We hear stories from the youngest son, of going to Tel Aviv and the offices of Facebook to interact with Israeli teenagers as part of youth entrepreneurship program called "Meet."
But then we hear more severe stories of 15 year old friends shot in the legs, languishing in hospitals. We hear of another friend who lost his life, caught in the crossfire. I don't press for details. But the family is very close to terrible loss and has been living with a legacy of dispossession for decades. They ask me if it's my first trip to Bethlehem, and I say yes, but that I've been to Israel many times before. The mother corrects me and says, "We don't say Israel. We call it Palestine."
When we walk throughout the refugee camp after lunch, it is clear that we are witnessing a culture of martyrology, and one of fierce resistance to Israeli domination; a resistance that leads to portraits and fantasies of erasing the Occupier from the very face of the map. Here we see the signs of people who have died, waging resistance - they are remembered as martyrs.
The graffiti on the walls tells a story that needs no translation.
We are struck by the starkness of life in the camps. And the profusion of garbage in so many piles block after block, but rarely at the doorstep of homes which are well tended to. Away from the door, where it's someone else's responsibility to clean, and there is no one else responsible minding the wellbeing of the block, of the neighborhood, of the the refugee village that has been constructed, alley upon alley, cement houses piled one atop the other; then the garbage runs amok in a town with no design; no addresses; no mail service; running water available only through garden hoses strung up from house to house drawing from a main cistern. There is no governing body overseeing Dheisha Refugee camp, save the United Nations who do the bare minimum, because this is a refugee camp; not a municipality. It is ungoverned and radically under-served. And it is striking to us, who don't quite know what to say or do, in the face of imagery like this:
We understand that the construction of a Palestinian identity is a complex business. We know that Mustafa is studying to be an architect at Bir Zeit University; that he will travel to the United States every summer to continue developing his trade and his experience, working with his cousin in his architectural firm in Minnesota. Mustafa wants to improve the quality of individual residences in his community. He wants to lift up the families of Dheisha. He is seeing all that the world has to offer and he wants to bring it to Bethlehem and beyond. We don't talk about resistance. We don't talk about a shared future between Israelis and Palestinians. We will be coming to that in our next meeting. In this 4 and half hour visit, we learn about the richness of Palestinian family life, and the embittered nature of an existence under Occupation and the seeming futility of anyway out; of any negotiation forward.
We leave the refugee camp and our gracious hosts on the walking tour a little unnerved, Serge and I in different places of despondency, or anger, at what we've witnessed; or what we've taken in; and what it all adds up to. We leave with two last images - an overview - and an appreciation of humanity; of friendship; of handsome young men getting haircuts; looking out on a future.