Playback and protest: The Freedom Bus hits the road

Women in black gesture towards audience in outdoor setting

The Freedom Bus ensemble perform in al-Hadidiya village in the Jordan Valley, November 2012.

Ahmad Al-Bazz ActiveStills

For 13 days in March, the Freedom Bus Tour, coordinated by the Jenin Freedom Theatre, traveled through the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. Combining improvised theater, folkloric arts, information seminars and volunteer work, the tour was meant to bring international attention to some of the most contentious areas of the occupied West Bank.

The events and excursions were met with sometimes violent opposition from the Israeli forces, who arrested and deported one of the Freedom Bus Tour participants.

The tour kicked off in Jenin, where locals and international visitors gathered to watch the Freedom Theatre’s signature “playback theater.” Participants told stories of their lives under occupation or abroad, and the troupe of four actors, all from Palestine or present-day Israel, acted the events out in impressive theatrics — sometimes sad and sometimes hilarious.

The actors portrayed a woman’s story of growing up in Arroub refugee camp, when she was caught wearing a Palestinian flag on her necklace during the time when display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden by Israel. She was chased by the soldiers and was forced to hide her flag, but resolved that it still remained inside her heart.

After each story and performance, local Palestinian poet Abu Naji walked onto the stage singing zajaal, a form of traditional improvised poetry that retold the scene just performed in prose.

Denied entry

From the energetic first night, the audience may not have guessed that five artists who hoped to come to the tour were denied entry into Israel. Ahmed Galai Ezzar and Zeid Khemiri, two rappers from the Tunisian hip-hop group Armada Bizerta; Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist from Sudan; Sondos Shabayek and Mona El-Shimi, two Egyptian theater makers, all applied for entry first through the Palestinian Authority’s ministry of civil affairs.

This ministry in turn had to get permission from the Israeli Civil Administration, the military body overseeing the occupation of the West Bank. All visas that were applied for in this way were denied.

“I was going to illustrate a series of images to document the events [of the bus tour] to later be published,” explained cartoonist Khalid Albaih on his reason for applying for the visa. “It was the second time I applied; the first time they said I was not going to get the visa on time.” Albaih also applied for entry for the last Freedom Bus Tour in 2012.

From Jenin, the group of actors and their entourage traveled by bus to villages in the Jordan Valley. Ben Rivers, an organizer of the tour, said, “We based ourselves in communities for several days in a row which allowed us to engage in volunteer work. In the Jordan Valley, in Kherbit Samra, for example, where we helped to build a school made of mud bricks.”

Stories as a “political act”

All of the communities visited were in Area C, a zone comprising 60 perecent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. In this area, Palestinian communities suffer from unequal access to water resources, violence from settlers, and frequent harassment from the Israeli army.

“Our focus from the beginning has been largely political,” said Rivers. “We see playback theater as a way for people across the West Bank to have their voices heard, and through playback theater to have their stories amplified and transmitted to a larger audience. And the communities that we are working with are acutely aware of this. They really see the act of telling their story as a political act.”

Two other intentions of the activities are to help build a sense of community and offer a form of artistic therapy. “We work mostly in communities that experience high levels of violence, and in many cases people choose to tell their story as a way of experiencing some kind of relief and support … But even that we see as having a political focus. Because people say that by having some opportunity to process the trauma associated with political violence actually empowers them to continue in their struggle.”

On World Water Day, 22 March, the Freedom Bus teamed up with Thirsting for Justice and the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign in a 200-person solidarity walk between Palestinian communities with an inadequate access to water. Throughout the day the group stopped in villages and visited sites of vulnerable water resources, such as wells that have been co-opted by settlements. In the evening, the group held a concert in the small village of Fasayil al-Fauqa, north of Jericho, that featured Palestinian musical groups including the hip-hop trio DAM.

From the Jordan Valley, the tour moved to another imperiled part of Area C, the South Hebron Hills.

In the village of al-Tuwani, participants helped begin to build a shelter for children who have to wait for an Israeli military escort to take them to school every day, as protection from settler attacks. The escort is often late, so the children are forced to wait in the sun or rain. The structure remained unfinished, however.

Rivers said, “The army turned up every day and interfered with the construction … Only weeks earlier, the army had demolished and confiscated a tent that had been built by the community for the same purpose.”


Woman attempts to stop a soldier from arresting man

An Israeli soldier tries to arrest activists during the solidarity march in the South Hebron Hills.

Keren Manor ActiveStills

On the last day of the Freedom Bus Tour, the participants undertook another solidarity walk through communities in the South Hebron Hills. The march was held partly to mark Land Day — which commemorates a 1976 massacre of Palestinians in Israel — but also to bring attention to the eviction orders that have been issued to more than 1,000 people living in the in the South Hebron Hills.

The walk, organized in partnership with the South Hebron Hills Popular Struggle Committee, began in al-Tuwani and aimed to reach five communities. It was stopped shortly after it began.

Just after reaching the top of the first hill, the army arrived and blocked the road on which the marchers walked. “Even according to their own logic there was no reason to stop us there,” said Rivers. “We were close to a settlement, but if they were going to use the excuse of protecting the settlement they would have blocked the road to the settlement, but they didn’t. They were obviously trying to stop the walk.”

The army began to single out participants who they believed to be leaders of the group. They arrested popular struggle organizer Abu Mosa, who subsequently fainted while being detained. He recovered under medical treatment.

Participants in the walk began to make human barriers around each other in attempts to prevent more arrests, at which point the army began to use force. Sonja de Vries, a poetry therapist from Louisville, Kentucky, was injured along with Freedom Theatre organizer Alia Alrosan while they tried to stop the arrest of Luke Nephew. Nephew is a poet, educator and hip-hop artist from the Bronx in New York.

De Vries said that while attempting to hold onto Nephew as he was being arrested, “they threw us all to the ground, continuing their abuses, threatening to pepper spray our eyes … It was during these moments that they twisted Alia’s arm and one soldier deliberately twisted my leg by yanking it below the knee. I now have a torn meniscus and it will take about six months to heal, according to my doctor.”

Nephew was eventually arrested and taken to the police station inside the Kiryat Arba settlement in Hebron. In court, he was issued a deportation order and a ten-year travel ban to Israel.

Despite the continued confrontation from Israeli forces that the Freedom Bus Tour faced throughout its journey, the group will continue its efforts. “The communities we’ve gone to have clearly requested that we do this again and again,” said Rivers. “So there will be another ride in September of this year.”

Daryl Meador is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who recently lived and volunteered in Nablus.