The young men have gathered in Lulu’s room, piling onto the spare bed and offering me a chair with their instantaneous politeness. Munir’s placid face looks out from his poster across his younger brother’s bed and beyond. Lulu’s nickname means “pearls,” recalling the Quran’s celestial simile of serving-boys like protected pearls. Lulu was protected in this world. Although the tank sniper damaged his legs severely, he is still amongst the living to keep his brother Munir in his heart.
A pearl’s miracle is its transformation from gritty irritation to lustrous little orb, courtesy of a boisterous oyster. The irritation of Lulu’s injury becomes an occasion for improvised theatre. We spotlight a foreigner’s visit to the Refugee Camp, and the residents’ quest to determine whether or not they can trust him. The role of the foreigner goes to a young man who has told me he is illiterate, but in fact has very good English. He becomes the English-speaking Dr. David and I become his translator.
He plunges into the part. When one of his friends aims a question in Arabic like a projectile, he turns to me and asks quizzically, “What is he saying?” They ask Dr. David why he has come to Jenin Refugee Camp from America, and he explains sincerely that he wants to see the situation for himself. Their cascading doubts are so convincing that I finally break character and say, “He is like me!” Their rejoinder is, “No, you came here to help us. What has he done?” Dr. David, still in character, protests that he just arrived a few hours ago.
The questions are animated, but the greatest dramatic tension comes when several friends enter the hospital room to announce that Dr. David’s real family thinks he has been martyred, and grieving neighbors are gathering at the house. When they tell him the bitter coffee is on the boil, he realizes they are serious and exits the stage. Not long afterwards he reappears, having reassured the mourners that he is still amongst the living. Stepping back into his role, he draws subsequent unsuspecting visitors into the play, asking me, “Who is this?” as they come in. In the end, his real life friends decide that his persona must be a spy. I wish they had given him more of a chance. Since all of us were actors, our audience of one, Lulu, applauds our efforts.
Lulu’s personal drama includes his mother’s death, shortly after his brother’s, during the April Invasion. She was kneading bread dough when a sniper targeted her, and Lulu stayed by her side for three long days. She could have been saved, but the mighty Israeli Army prevented all attempts to evacuate this housewife to an ambulance. Perhaps Sharon and his Defense Minister Mofaz applauded the scene. They took their strategic places at the top of Jenin Refugee Camp’s hill, making a spectator sport of their soldiers’ grisly carnage below, not unlike Roman emperors who gorged themselves on meals peppered by the sound of Christians being martyred in the arena. They brought a literal dimension to World War Two vocabulary delimiting theatres of war.
Another day at the hospital, I stop to chat with the crew that does the cleaning, one of the few steady jobs to be found. In my constant quest to encourage new ways of listening, I suggest another theatre game. The obvious characters are an Army officer and a Palestinian youth/shabb. We begin with a question and answer session. The actors are remarkably adept at barking questions, as well as at answering rapidly and sometimes apprehensively, and they include their four-part name as the Army demands. Then we switch the order of the dialogue so the answer precedes the question. This is more difficult:
Ahmad Fawzi Khalid Abu-Hasan!
What’s your name?
Jenin Refugee Camp!
Where do you live?
I’m a cleaner at Jenin Hospital.
What’s your work?
I don’t know!
Where are the terrorists?
They stumble over the order repeatedly as I try to get them to do it flawlessly. Another day when I try it, I cannot. Today the top thespian is Hani, with whom I had a heated argument the night before about the Quran’s view of Jewish and Christian worship. I battled his strident stance until an older man mediated with more modulated interpretations. The sensitive issue concerned who is a legitimate target in context of the Israeli Army’s continual attacks on weak and innocent members of Palestinian communities. Hani concluded by saying that Muslims are forbidden to kill children and old people, and I concluded by ordering him to “Think about that! Think about that!”
But with typical Palestinian forgiveness, he greeted me the next day with a smile and agreed that we were still friends. Now in our soldier-meets-youth scene, I gained a new respect for his capacities to listen and respond with greater flexibility than any of us. I felt this could be applied to larger spheres than our coffee-break theatre.
The ever-smiling Zayd tells me of the time he surrendered himself during the April invasion when the Army was using loudspeakers to summon all men from age fourteen to fifty. He fell at the youngest end of the spectrum and, as is typical, they blindfolded him with a black and white strip that looks like a piece of a Palestinian headdress/kafiyya, and manacled him. They herded the men to a big sand pile at a building-block factory in the Camp. When they began to beat him with a rifle butt, he laughed. The soldier shouted, “Aren’t you afraid?” “Yes,” said Zayd, partially in Hebrew and still laughing, “I am afraid!” Which one played his role most believably?
I was first impressed by the theatrical quality of the Israeli Army when I joined the International Solidarity Movement in a violence-prevention mission in June 2002. The Army had emptied Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus of its able-bodied and handicapped men, and were hacking holes in the walls of homes. The imbalance of material power was palpable, a community of unarmed women, children, and old men facing tanks, helicopter gunships, and aggressive armed soldiers invading their homes. If a suburban American could envision waking up to this one morning, would she approve this allocation of her taxes?
In any case, the Army must have its headgear! In the morning, they went about their destructions wearing traditional kettle-shaped helmets. After their lunch break, they reappeared like a line of termites from a hole in a home’s wall, this time wearing floppy squashed-muffin hats adorned with camouflage leaves. Had the terrain changed? Were they now undertaking jungle warfare amidst the furniture, bedclothes, and chunks of plaster as they made a path through the houses? No. This was merely a costume change. Was it for their personal amusement or was it to impress their audience? There was no applause.
“The men are dead! Why do they need to dig up their corpses and shoot them again?” asked a Balata Camp resident of the soldiers’ macabre practice. It serves no practical purpose for the Army or the nation they are defending, so they hide these deeds from their own nationals. And they target their audience. They design these dramatic enactments of their attitudes and armed abilities to create an atmosphere of terror for their chosen audience.
“Terrorism is theatre” concludes an article on the topic.*
Back in Jenin, one night there is no room at the Internet Cafe because so many boys are playing computer shooting games. I stop at the Taxi office next door and inquire about the bullet holes in the front window. Did the international press or the Israeli populace hear about this attack on a business? The tanks targeted their usual audience, the Palestinian populace, especially those working, and more especially those employed in transportation.
Did the soldiers charging forth in their tanks intend to make the Quran a witness to their violence? Bullet holes mar the holy verses in three different frames, two of which are from the Throne verse/Ayat al-Kursi, whose words many people wear on a necklace for protection. The Army snipers shot a bullet hole next to the words, “Who is it that intercedes except by His permission?” and where it says that God is “the Self-sustaining.” The taxi drivers in the office were protected that day.
Tonight they are ready for some fresh views, and take roles for impromptu theatre, depicting the local situation as they see it currently. The Director arranges each symbolic person in his place after much discussion from the group. One burly driver barges into the middle of the stage because he does not like his colleague’s interpretation and wants “to do it right!” I suggest there may be a variety of views, and assure him he can have a turn as Director afterwards.
The drama really begins when the Director changes the people’s positions according to how he would like to see them. He shows UNRWA closed because the people are relying on themselves, and the Palestinian refugee watching as the Israeli soldier and the foreigner engage in discussion. This causes a mild uproar, so he rearranges to have the Palestinian refugee and the Israeli soldier discussing together directly, much as the youth at the hospital had done on a previous occasion with a similar scene. Our taxi driver-Director’s vision elicits a vociferous expression of opinions. I applaud this healthy exchange of ideas in the guise of dramatic art!
Walking home from town one day, I am hailed by a taxi. I inquire about the bullet hole in the windshield at the driver’s eye level. It is from when an Israeli sniper killed a taxi driver several months ago in one of the incidents that welcomed me back to Jenin. This violence sends a vivid message of horror to the population it wants to impress. The identity of its victim is inconsequential - Israel had nothing against that taxi driver. More important is the emotional impact on the community of survivors. Does this incident make them afraid to travel?
“It’s not like seeing it on television,” says Allam of being near a home demolition. That is an understatement! You witness by hearing and feeling the explosion in your very being. How would the suburban voting American define it if her next door neighbor’s house were exploded? As a reasonable security measure?
After a pre-dawn raid of home invasions in the Camp, the housewives compare notes on the Israeli soldiers’ makeup. “Their faces were painted black, with yellow and red stripes.” “Ours were yellow with red markings.” Warpaint is terror’s greasepaint.
Terrorism is theatre.
* from “Where I draw the line” by Brian Michael Jenkins, in Perspectives on Terrorism, The Christian Science Monitor.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic issues and is conducting research in Occupied Palestine.