“But I don’t know what my parent’s village looks like,” said Hammad, a young, energetic Palestinian boy who lives in Al Fawwar Refugee camp located near Hebron.
I came to the camp at the invitation of a friend from The British Council to do a workshop on playwriting. Hammad along with 17 other young boys gathered at the cultural center to participate.
I told the children about my own exposure to theatre and the power of it. Especially, protest theatre. Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I could never go to the White areas to see productions. However, a man who performed all over the Cape Province, in various townships and squatter camps happened to be in our township.
The theatre that he performed in wasn’t a theatre at all; three long folding tables served as the stage. Several paraffin lamps lit the stage and a single chair served as the prop. But it would be all he needed. I sat amazed as he made various characters come to life by contorting his face, or changing his voice.
Afterwards, I approached him, along with my sister. I waited for him to receive the well-earned thanks that he earned. He looked down at me, sweat pouring off his face, “Excuse me sir,” I said softly. “How were you able to do all the things you just did?” He looked on at me with a huge grin. Pointing to his head he spoke, “Up here I can create whatever I want. Any character, any world, the sky is the limit!”
I never forgot that.
So here I stood in front of 17 eager boys wanting to know how they would be able to write, produce and perform a play in less than two hours.
“Mish mumken!” (“Impossible”) cried one of the boys in the group, “How can we do all that in such a short time?”
I reassured him that it would be more than possible and that I had every faith they could do it.
After going over story basics of plot, conflict, resolution, etc, I divided the boys into two groups. For props they were supplied with boxes of different sizes, paper, pens, and colored pencils.
Because it would take forever to decide on a story that they could all agree upon, I offered up some ideas (This is where Hammad’s question came in.) The first idea centered on life in the camp and the second involved the villages where their parents had come from.
Sadly, for me, both ideas didn’t receive a strong response. I asked them if they had ideas of their own. Both groups, separately, huddled together to decide. After a few moments, they both stated they had their story idea and went about creating the play.
The room buzzed with excited voices and animated action. All the boys seemed to be completely absorbed in the process. Finally, they were ready to present their plays. Ironically, both groups talked about hardships at checkpoints. Although I wasn’t sure what would be the result of their work after such a short time, I stood and watched enraptured just as I had been when I watched the actor who performed in my township so many years ago.
The boys brought to vivid life the degrading treatment that their friends and family suffer at the hands of the Israeli Army.
Shakespeare would have been proud.
After the conclusion of the workshop, Hammad walked up to me.
“Thank you for coming to teach us,” he said.
“No,” I replied, “I didnï¿½t teach you anything. You already are a playwright. I just brought it out.”
We both looked on at the boys busying themselves with cleaning up the “Theatre” after the productions.
“I hope you can see your parents village one day,” I said.
“In’shallah” (“God willing”) he replied, “Have you ever seen your familyï¿½s village in South Africa?” he inquired.
“Once. But that was a long time ago.”
As Hammad moved off I called out to him. He came back and I told him about something else the actor had told me. He said; “No matter what the Whites do; they can take your land, home, even your life, but they can never take away your mind.”
For some reason, I looked on very serious at Hammad as if to emphasize the point.
“Remember, Hammad they can never take that away from you.”
“I know they can’t. Thank you for coming to show us this.”
As he went off to help his friends clean up, I looked on and whispered underneath my voice; “No Hammad thank you.”
Chris Brown is a 41-year-old award winning filmmaker, playwright, and grassroots journalist currently residing in Tucson, Arizona. The product of an African American mother and South African father, Brown spent his childhood under apartheid South Africa before his family fled to the United States. In 1990, Brown returned to South Africa to reclaim his family’s land and was placed in “detention without trail” for nearly two years, where he was tortured before being released in 1992. From 2002 through 2004, Brown lived and worked in Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams and was attacked by radical settlers from Ma’on Ranch near the Palestinian village of at-Tuwani while escorting Palestinian children to school. Brown plans on returning to Palestine in December 2006.