June/July 2005


The Children of the Camps and the Spirit of Return

The young actors, dancers and singers of Al-Rowwad Palestinian Children's Theater visited New Jersey and New York between June 17-22, as part of their U.S. tour that also includes stops in Connecticut, Vermont and Louisville, Kentucky. Al-Rowwad center in Aida camp was founded and is directed by Dr. Abdel Fattah Abu Srour, and consists of an artistic, theater and cultural center for children; it also houses a computer center and a library. Abu Srour, a member of the board of directors of BADIL Refugee Rights Association and a speaker at the 2004 Al-Awda convention in New York City, wrote and directed "We are the Children of the Camps," the play performed by the children of Al-Rowwad during their tour.

Al-Rowwad performs in New Jersey on June 18
Al-Rowwad were met with great enthusiasm at all four of their area performances. Beginning with their opening performance, on Saturday, June 18, at the Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, New Jersey, at a show sponsored by New Jersey Solidarity Activists for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian American Congress New Jersey Chapter, the children of Al-Rowwad delighted and inspired their audience. The Saturday evening show was attended mostly by the local Palestinian and Arab community, including many children; the audience cheered and clapped throughout the performance, at images of resistance and the young actors' portrayal of Palestinian courage, strength and dedication to return. Linking Palestinians in exile in the United States with Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, the Al-Rowwad actors' theme of return and liberation was met warmly by the community, who responded generously to the appeal for funds for Al-Rowwad's center delivered by Dr. Abu Srour.

The play itself, "We are the Children of the Camps," is a 75-minute tale of dispossession and resistance. Brought to beautiful and human life by the young actors, the play begins with them as children, playing and living amid the environment of Aida, Palestinian children in forced exile from their home villages. Performed in Arabic, an English translation of the play is projected on a screen near the actors for their U.S. performances. The innocent play of Palestinian children, however, is soon disrupted by a voiceover of the Balfour Declaration and the beginning of the time of exile, as the actors walk in circles through the seasons of exile, old, young and newborn children, until settling in Aida camp. A video montage highlights the story of al-Nakba, as scenes of Palestinians driven from their homes and lands accompany scenes of Palestinians resisting their dispossession. During the video montage, an original song, "1948," plays, illustrating musically the images on screen: "You have seen what happened/The country is swallowed by destruction/The tents filled the country/Time shall take revenge from the occupier/No right shall be lost/As long as there is resistance and there are demanders." One by one, the actors come forward to state their original villages and towns in occupied Palestine, recounting the settlements, invasions and massacres, until all 11 actors stand across the stage, speaking in unison, recounting the stories of village after village and reiterating their commitment to return to their homes before singing their story: "We are the children of the camp /We are the sons of refuge/We are the children of exile /We are the lovers of resistance."

We follow the children of Aida through the stories of their lives as children and the story of Palestine; they depict children again at play one moment, while discussing conditions in the camp; in the next moment they become the generation of the Intifada, courageously resisting the occupier, demonstrating and throwing stones until most of them are martyred. Nonetheless, a few survive, and help the others to rise and stand tall once again, speaking of their commitment and ties to the land of Palestine that have not been broken by exile, oppression or death. Another film montage, this one focusing on scenes of the Intifada and resistance, closes with a fluttering Palestinian flag, an image of a key, and, in English and Arabic, the words "We will return." Al-Rowwad's actors then cast a critical and humorous eye on the news, interspersing headlines of alleged breakthroughs in the "peace process" with continuing tales of occupation and promotions of products even Coca-Cola, and call for news that reflects the truths of their lives. One of those truths is illustrated in the scene that follows, as the actors queue up for a checkpoint manned by sadistic guards who steal a woman's glasses, beat a man trying to cross the checkpoint, and humiliate others, before their practices cause the death of a Palestinian baby, born at the checkpoint after they refused to allow his mother and father to pass. Four women then emerge, speaking as the sisters, wives, daughters and mothers of prisoners, exiles, martyrs and fighters, declaring "La salam" (No peace) until there is justice for the refugees, the prisoners and the martyred as they represent the strength and endurance of Palestinian women.

The performance reaches its climax with a powerful debkeh scene, as each actor performs, dancing to a song that celebrates the continuing struggle for return: "The raven flies, the raven flies/they brought destruction to our country/Open a window, remove a door/The state of injustice is a mirage/The partridge fly, the partridge fly/Sing my country's traditional zajal/ Every exiled, every prisoner/Shall return home immediately" The performance closes with a satirical commentary on the so-called "peace process", contrasting the promises of peace with the reality of continued occupation, and the actors of Al-Rowwad again return to their lives as Palestinian children of Aida camp, playing, living, and struggling for return. The show closes with a beautiful debkeh performance as the actors, in traditional Palestinian dress, dance, as the young woman at the center holds aloft a Palestinian flag.

The warm reception for Al-Rowwad's performance continued on Monday night, June 20, at the Barrow Street Theater in New York's Greenwich Village, as theater-goers welcomed the performance and again generously supported Al-Rowwad's fundraising efforts. The following night, Tuesday, June 21, saw a sold-out performance at the CUNY Graduate Center's intimate Martin E. Segal Theater, before their final performance, on Wednesday, June 22, sponsored by Al-Awda New York, brought Al-Rowwad to Brooklyn's Al-Noor School. The evening performance was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd in the Islamic school's auditorium, who again contributed generously to Al-Rowwad's fundraising to expand their center in Aida camp.

Al-Rowwad's time in New York City was arranged by an ad hoc committee of theater activists from Theaters Against War and Nibras, an Arab American theater group, Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists, from a variety of organizations, who came together to fundraise for Al-Rowwad's visit to the New York/New Jersey area and plan housing, meals and activities for the actors and staff of Al-Rowwad during their visit. Activities Coordinator Ibrahim Abu Srour and Stage Manager Amal Asad, a graduate of the Al-Rowwad program, along with Dr. Abu Srour, accompanied the Al-Rowwad cast, eleven boys and girls of the dozens who work on art, theater and dance at the Al-Rowwad center. Husam Alazza, Ribal Kordi, Hammad Anwar, Rawa Abu-Srour, Salam Alazza, Hamada Alkurdi, Woud Darkhawaja, Ikhlas Abu-Srour, Ahmad Alajarma, Jehad Alajarma, and Hanin Alaarj made up the cast who traveled to the U.S. While in New York and New Jersey, the Al-Rowwad performers went to Coney Island, a Broadway show and the Empire State Building, stayed in the homes of committee members, and ate meals, many of which were donated by supportive local restaurants and community members. Thousands of dollars were raised for Al-Rowwad during their New York/New Jersey tour, and their success promises to continue in Connecticut, Vermont and Kentucky; plans for Al-Rowwad to return to the U.S. next summer for another tour are already being discussed.

For more information on Al-Rowwad, please see http://alrowwad.virtualactivism.net/.

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