Between Thorns and Thistles in Bil’in

14 May, 2021

The Israel separation wall at Bil'in, where a Palestinian protester plants a flag, the settlement of Modi'in Illit in the background (photo courtesy Oren Ziv, the  GroundTruth Project ).

The Israel sep­a­ra­tion wall at Bil’in, where a Pales­tin­ian pro­test­er plants a flag, the set­tle­ment of Mod­i’in Illit in the back­ground (pho­to cour­tesy Oren Ziv, the GroundTruth Project).

Bil’in, a vil­lage in the occu­pied West Bank of Pales­tine, is known for its cre­ative resis­tance against the Israeli sep­a­ra­tion bar­ri­er that zigza­gs into occu­pied Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ry. For 15 years it has been doc­u­ment­ed through arti­cles, radio sto­ries and doc­u­men­taries. Five Bro­ken Cam­eras, a doc­u­men­tary film that attests to the strug­gle of Bil’in, earned its direc­tors, Pales­tin­ian Emad Bur­nat and Israeli Guy Davi­di, an Oscar nom­i­na­tion for Best Doc­u­men­tary. Bil’in remains on the fore­front of anti-Occu­pa­tion activism.

Francisco Letelier 

I am invit­ed to join a del­e­ga­tion of artists that will trav­el to Bil’in by Hec­tor Aris­ti­z­a­bal, a Colom­bian the­atre artist and pio­neer­ing psy­chol­o­gist who sur­vived civ­il war, arrest and tor­ture in Medellin. 

I antic­i­pate that it may get com­pli­cat­ed, for we will be cre­at­ing an arts res­i­den­cy amidst week­ly protests that have result­ed in count­less injuries and the deaths of two protesters. 

I arrive in Israel wear­ing a cru­ci­fix and when inter­viewed at the air­port about the pur­pose of my vis­it, I show excite­ment about vis­it­ing the Holy Land. A life-long friend, sta­tioned in Jerusalem at the time, gives me a place to land. Oth­er par­tic­i­pants do not have an easy entrance, and are detained and ques­tioned for hours. 

The next day, get­ting out of the Holy City and into the West Bank is com­pli­cat­ed and nerve-wrack­ing. Liv­ing under occu­pa­tion is a per­ma­nent state of siege; sol­diers and guns are every­where. After nav­i­gat­ing check­points and block­ades, the taxi I have tak­en with oth­er del­e­gates makes its way down into the vil­lage. The set­ting is post-apoc­a­lyp­tic. The sur­round­ing bar­ri­er wall that keeps Pales­tini­ans from enter­ing present day Israel appears in our sights. It defies exag­ger­at­ed expec­ta­tions; topped with con­certi­na wire, the bar­ri­er has made pos­si­ble the annex­a­tion of 600 acres — over 50% of the land belong­ing to the village. 

Letelier, second from right, works with the Bil'in community.

Lete­lier, sec­ond from right, works with the Bil’in community.

Bil’in is clear­ly an open-air prison. Noth­ing pre­pares first-time vis­i­tors for the act of vio­lence that is the wall. The spire of the mosque ris­es in the shim­mer­ing heat. Beyond the vil­lage, on the oth­er side of the bar­ri­er, glit­ter­ing with moder­ni­ty, the Israeli set­tle­ment of Mod­i’in Illit, sits on land tak­en from five vil­lages — Nil’in, Khar­ba­ta, Saf­fa, Dir Qadis and Bil’in. We arrive for the annu­al olive har­vest, yet half the groves and cen­turies-old trees now lie beyond the wall. 

My work as a pub­lic visu­al artist stress­es col­lec­tive action and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry activ­i­ty while for many years Hec­tor Ariz­ti­z­a­bal has been using The­ater of the Oppressed and oth­er method­olo­gies to col­lab­o­rate with a glob­al com­mu­ni­ty of orga­niz­ers, edu­ca­tors, ther­a­pists and activists engag­ing social prob­lems, acti­vat­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and exper­i­ment­ing with new social and polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. Hec­tor has been to Pales­tine before, work­ing with the Free­dom The­ater based in Jenin Refugee Camp.  The Free­dom The­ater stress­es pop­u­lar cul­ture through art for social change and cul­tur­al resis­tance, empow­er­ing peo­ple of all ages to express them­selves through art. 

I want to help cre­ate par­tic­i­pa­to­ry murals and to get as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble involved.

Murals cre­at­ed in this way are more like a barn rais­ing, a quilt­ing cir­cle, a mil­pa, or an olive har­vest, rather than what most peo­ple imag­ine com­pris­es an artis­tic enter­prise.  The con­text and inten­tions of pop­u­lar cul­ture can become elu­sive when most every­thing we see and hear con­cern­ing ‘art’ rein­forces hege­mon­ic ideas about fame and tal­ent. The cult of indi­vid­ual genius is alive and well. 

As a result, col­lec­tiv­i­ty is rarely an art world dar­ling, no mat­ter how rev­o­lu­tion­ary the idea con­veyed.  The art world is more than capa­ble of co-opt­ing and com­mod­i­fy­ing ideas, ges­tures, objects and clever graf­fi­ti and almost always does. It’s dif­fi­cult, how­ev­er, to exploit forms that belong to no one and can best be accessed through par­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s easy to for­get that art is not only a pageant of spec­ta­cle for spec­ta­tors; it can also be a process of expe­ri­ences that authen­ti­cal­ly build pow­er­ful human connection.

Theatre artist Hector Aristizabal in Bil'in.

The­atre artist Hec­tor Aris­ti­z­a­bal in Bil’in.

The Pop­u­lar Strug­gle Com­mit­tee of Bil’in wants murals that chron­i­cle their hero­ic strug­gle, but a nar­ra­tive mur­al that tells a sto­ry of a peo­ple can’t be made quick­ly, and can take years or a life­time. It can be hard to con­vince a room full of peo­ple that they them­selves can come up with impor­tant, prob­lem-solv­ing expres­sions of think­ing, imag­i­na­tion and cre­ative expression. 

Our mur­al team is com­prised of indi­vid­u­als that live in the vil­lage, a few inter­na­tion­al del­e­gates and 10 stu­dents from The Inter­na­tion­al Acad­e­my of Art in Ramal­lah. There are obvi­ous dif­fer­ences between all of us, but sur­pris­ing­ly, the dis­tances between some art stu­dents and vil­lagers, all Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in the West Bank, are the most challenging. 

The stu­dent artists, like young peo­ple in most places, are attached to cell phones and social media. They are from city fam­i­lies, wear nice clothes, speak some Eng­lish and lead sec­u­lar lives. A few are not clear­ly enrolled in either the polit­i­cal direc­tion of our Host com­mit­tee, or in the task of cre­at­ing art with peo­ple and for peo­ple. Each stu­dent wants to make their own mur­al, an assign­ment appar­ent­ly giv­en to them by their teach­ers at the Acad­e­my.  One of the senior stu­dents from the group, Alaa Aba­ba, has paint­ed sev­er­al murals in Ramal­lah; his expe­ri­ence and lead­er­ship will hold our group togeth­er. Emma Elliot Walk­er, a Scot­tish fel­low artist on our del­e­ga­tion, pos­sess­es social and com­mu­nica­tive tools and sol­id artis­tic skills. 

Some of the Ramal­lah stu­dents con­fide they do not believe the protests in Bil’in are effec­tive. Over the next few days, through their close con­tact with the peo­ple in the vil­lage and the group of inter­na­tion­al del­e­gates, these ideas will under­go a shift.

Olive branches, a donkey and two boys of Bil'in.

Olive branch­es, a don­key and two boys of Bil’in.

We work as a team on an ini­tial sim­ple design of olive branch­es on a wall along the main road. By the end of the first day, we have com­plet­ed a 60-foot stretch of wall and our group of strangers is coa­lesc­ing into a team. The styl­ized branch­es we paint are not mas­ter­pieces but they have an imme­di­ate visu­al impact. We decide to paint as many walls as we can and I agree to help them with their indi­vid­ual designs and ideas. We have lim­it­ed sup­plies; mix­ing pig­ments into white paint we obtain some brighter col­ors, but we are most­ly lim­it­ed to black and white.

It’s impos­si­ble to paint on the actu­al bar­ri­er around Bil’in. The Israeli Defense Forces patrol the wall, and those who approach through the olive groves are repelled with force. Our del­e­ga­tion is briefed on the weapons and pro­jec­tiles we might encounter as we pre­pare to join vil­lagers and sup­port­ers who arrive from many loca­tions to join in the week­ly Fri­day protest.

The goal of the week­ly march and protest is to reach the wall, but long before we reach it, patrol vehi­cles swarm out from the wall and we are encir­cled. Our del­e­ga­tion stays back from the front lines — our role is to work with those who live in Bil’in, not to con­front the Israeli forces. Although these protests are often described as peace­ful and non­vi­o­lent, young men with slings and face cov­er­ings make their way to the front of the col­umn, while locals and our del­e­ga­tion take up the mid­dle, and oth­er vis­i­tors fall safe­ly behind, hop­ing for pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ties.  Yet the geog­ra­phy and place­ment of troops allow tear gas can­is­ters to reach the whole col­umn of marchers; young men, moth­ers and chil­dren, reli­gious and civ­il lead­ers, artists and protest tourists are even­tu­al­ly all engulfed in nox­ious fumes. 

We assumed there would be a retreat, but are now sur­round­ed inside a geo­graph­ic bowl. A broth­er and sis­ter from Bil’in have already lost their lives nav­i­gat­ing the winds and gas from this spot in order to approach the wall. Both were shot in the chest with tear gas can­is­ters; at close range they are pro­jec­tile weapons.  At least 18 more have been killed protest­ing the wall in sur­round­ing vil­lages and towns. 

The thistle painters.

The this­tle painters.

Dur­ing our ini­tial work­shops with the Bil’in com­mu­ni­ty, some art stu­dents are unim­pressed with ideas from vil­lage com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. They are dis­ap­point­ed that peo­ple want to only paint bar­ri­er walls, demon­stra­tions, and offer up ideas that to the stu­dents seem like clichés. My col­lab­o­ra­tors from Ramal­lah have nev­er made this kind of com­mu­ni­ty-based art, and they are find­ing them­selves not only with­in the social divi­sions that exist between those who live in the city and those who live in Bil’in, but also between those who call them­selves artists and all oth­ers. For the first two days we brain­storm and make draw­ings, there is lit­tle direc­tion, and I trust the process as we devel­op indi­vid­ual and group ideas.

One morn­ing, as the ris­ing sun warms the white walls along the main road, we paint mon­u­men­tal this­tles. We are a vibrant mix of col­lab­o­ra­tors, men, women and chil­dren of all ages. I am wear­ing work clothes, the women from the vil­lage how­ev­er, are impec­ca­bly dressed with long skirts and head cov­er­ings. Each man­ages to work with­out drip­ping paint on her clothes. As the images appear on the walls, cars slow down and there is the con­stant drone of horns. Lat­er a local tells me the this­tle is used in the Jor­dan Riv­er Val­ley as a sym­bol of resis­tance to the occu­pa­tion. He shows me a leaflet with an image of a this­tle with the slo­gan, “To exist is to resist.” Yet many are not famil­iar with its sym­bol­ic use and when an old­er man on a white don­key ambles by, he engages me in con­ver­sa­tion. “What is mean­ing?” he asks in bro­ken but plain Eng­lish. I point at the plant and pan­tomime kick­ing it and dig­ging it up and make ges­tures that show it comes back, blooms again. He nods his head, yes, yes.

“Even fire, always life. Thank you.”

The plant is vir­u­lent and fire-resis­tant; it has love­ly thorns and needs lit­tle water. On the wall we write the word PERSIST. 

In the rugged hills and lands sur­round­ing Bil’in, the flower heads of the stout prick­ly this­tle known in Ara­bic as ‘Akkub or Gun­delia are reput­ed to be a del­i­ca­cy, a cross between aspara­gus and arti­choke worth the trou­ble of gath­er­ing and preparation. 

The tale of the ‘Akkub (Hathi haddoutet el ‘Akkub):

Found east of the Mediterranean, the perennial ‘Akkoub (عكوب‎) in Arabic is called silifa in Greek, Akuvit ha-Galgal (עַכּוּבִית הַגַּלְגַּל‎) in Hebrew, Kangar (կանկառ) in Armenian and Persian (كنگر‎), Kenger in Turkish and Kereng in Kurdish.

Found east of the Mediter­ranean, the peren­ni­al ‘Akkoub (عكوب‎) in Ara­bic is called sil­i­fa in Greek, Aku­vit ha-Gal­gal (עַכּוּבִית הַגַּלְגַּל‎) in Hebrew, Kan­gar (կանկառ) in Armen­ian and Per­sian (كنگر‎), Kenger in Turk­ish and Kereng in Kurdish.

(col­lect­ed by the Cen­ter of Folk­tales and Folk­lore in Haifa, Israel): 

There was once a mer­chant who was trav­el­ing through the wilder­ness with a stranger, and he mur­dered the stranger for the sake of his rich­es. As the wound­ed man fell he grasped at an ‘Akkub plant that grew by his hand and cried out with his last breath, “This ‘Akkub is my wit­ness that you have mur­dered me.” 

But the mer­chant thought noth­ing of it and went away with the stranger’s possessions.

Years passed and he trav­eled again through the wilder­ness and passed that place this time with his friend and part­ner. The ‘Akkub was dead and dry and was whirling about, danc­ing in the wind. The mer­chant smiled as he saw it and his friend said, “Why do you smile?”

At first he would not say why, but the friend com­pelled him. Then he said, “I smile, because here I once slew a stranger, and before he died he cried, ‘This ‘Akkub is my wit­ness that you killed me,’ and now the ‘Akkub is dead and dances in the wind.”

More years passed and one day the mer­chant quar­reled with his friend and struck him. The friend in anger cried out, “Will you slay me as you slew the stranger?” so loud that the neigh­bors heard. An inquiry was made and at last the mer­chant was brought to jus­tice. The ‘Akkub was indeed the witness.

This sto­ry is used prover­bial­ly to this day.  Vil­lagers will say “The ‘Akkub is the witness.”

 ——— • ———

At a cross­roads, based on draw­ings cre­at­ed by a vil­lage par­tic­i­pant, we paint a styl­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jerusalem sur­round­ed by lit­tle hous­es. It is a sacred city to those who live in Bil’in, but they are not allowed to trav­el there.  We paint hun­dreds of small hous­es on the white walls that sur­round the road, rep­re­sent­ing those who can­not trav­el, have no pass­ports and live in the shad­ow of walls. Home­own­ers come out to the street, cof­fee is shared, while chil­dren and oth­ers join in.

Up the road I help anoth­er team paint large, styl­ized keys rep­re­sent­ing the homes left behind dur­ing the 1948 Pales­tin­ian cat­a­stro­phe and exo­dus, or Nak­ba.  As we progress, the walls and streets of the vil­lage come to life with crews of painters and sym­bols of resis­tance and memory. 

Bil'in kids on their way to school pass the murals each day.

Bil’in kids on their way to school pass the murals each day.

The own­er of the main store in town lets us know he would like us to paint his walls. A team of young men arrives to help, as we clear knee-high piles of plas­tic and trash before we begin.  We devise a method to scrape the rough walls and then paint sil­hou­ettes of peo­ple fly­ing kites that turn into birds fly­ing past the bar­ri­er wall. It’s a pow­er­ful day of cama­raderie, col­lab­o­ra­tion and under­stand­ing. The wall can be seen from a great dis­tance. Those who dri­ve, walk or ride into town feel the impact of the paint­ed walls. 

I wake up to the grainy ampli­fied sounds of the adhan — the muezzin’s first call (fajr) to prayer

at first light — and work until the sun’s light turns gold­en. The essen­tial tasks of paint­ing walls are not glam­orous. I wash brush­es, mix paint, and car­ry heavy buck­ets of water up and down the long hill that goes into the cen­ter of town. I put paint­brush­es and paint into peo­ple’s hands. I sense that our group is begin­ning to under­stand that we are cre­at­ing mon­u­ments to cul­tur­al mem­o­ry.  Our under­stand­ings are greater than our works of art. As often is the case with peo­ple-cen­tered and com­mu­ni­ty-dri­ven cul­ture, our work is like an ice­berg, only par­tial­ly seen. The sim­ple murals lin­ing the walls of the vil­lage, can­not be ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed with­out know­ing the human inter­ac­tions and under­stand­ings that have gone into their creation. 

We are housed in the Bil’in Sports and Youth Club, fund­ed through the Repub­lic of Ger­many and UN Devel­op­ment Pro­gram for Pales­tine. Late at night, ten days into the res­i­den­cy, we hear explo­sions. The doors and shut­ters are bolt­ed tight, as we hear vehi­cles and the sounds of peo­ple shouting. 

A series of stun grenades hits our build­ing, shot by Israeli troops from the street gate.

Also known as flash grenades, flash­bang, thun­der­flash or sound bombs, they are a less-lethal explo­sive device used to dis­ori­ent an ene­my’s sens­es. They emit a blind­ing flash of light of around 7 mega­can­dela and an intense­ly loud BANG of greater than 170 decibels.

The flash acti­vates pho­tore­cep­tor cells in the eye, blind­ing it for five sec­onds. After­ward, vic­tims per­ceive an after­im­age that con­tin­ues to impair their vision. The vol­ume of the det­o­na­tion also caus­es tem­po­rary deaf­ness and dis­turbs the flu­id in the ear, caus­ing ring­ing and a loss of bal­ance. The con­cus­sive blast has the abil­i­ty to cause oth­er injuries, and the heat may ignite flam­ma­ble materials. 

In the background a mural conceived by Alaa Albaba, one of the members of the mural brigade created during the residency. We based this wall on the work of Mustafa al-Hallaj (1938-2003) who was a Palestinian artist, a pioneer of Arab contemporary art, and a true icon when it comes to graphic arts in general. After the 1948 war, Hallaj's family moved to Damascus, and he spent most of his life in between Syria and Lebanon. He lost 25,000 of his prints in Israeli attacks on Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon war but managed to save the wood and masonry cuts he used to make them. In 2003, Al-Hallaj successfully rescued his famous work

In the back­ground a mur­al con­ceived by Alaa Alba­ba, one of the mem­bers of the mur­al brigade cre­at­ed dur­ing the res­i­den­cy. We based this wall on the work of Mustafa al-Hal­laj (1938–2003) who was a Pales­tin­ian artist, a pio­neer of Arab con­tem­po­rary art, and a true icon when it comes to graph­ic arts in gen­er­al. After the 1948 war, Hal­la­j’s fam­i­ly moved to Dam­as­cus, and he spent most of his life in between Syr­ia and Lebanon. He lost 25,000 of his prints in Israeli attacks on Beirut dur­ing the 1982 Lebanon war but man­aged to save the wood and mason­ry cuts he used to make them. In 2003, Al-Hal­laj suc­cess­ful­ly res­cued his famous work “Self-por­trait as Man, God, the Dev­il” from an elec­tri­cal fire in his home stu­dio, but died after run­ning in to save oth­er works. He was buried in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

As I lie on a foam mat­tress on the tiled floor, I hear the explo­sions and yells of del­e­gates who are sleep­ing on the roof. The smell and effects of tear gas waft through the build­ing. After the sol­diers depart, we cau­tious­ly go out to the street and learn that they are look­ing for a young boy. The sol­diers can’t find him and so they arrived to take anoth­er boy, known to be his friend, into cus­tody. That boy lives just next door to where our del­e­ga­tion is housed. The fam­i­ly resists the sol­diers, the tear­gas and stun grenades and phys­i­cal­ly yank the boy away from the squad of sol­diers.  Just 24 hours lat­er, in the neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Beit Laqiya, 13-year-old, Bahaa Samir Badir is shot in the chest and killed, in a sim­i­lar raid by the IDF.

We care for our­selves and oth­er mem­bers of our del­e­ga­tion. Many expe­ri­ence the shat­ter­ing of pre-con­ceived notions con­cern­ing legal struc­tures, safe­ty, and human rights. Some have stepped off the edge of their known world, into a place where arbi­trary vio­lence is not only pos­si­ble but actu­al fact. Becom­ing wit­ness is an intense and trans­for­ma­tion­al process.

We find our­selves among sur­vivors.  In oth­er places the sur­vivor is urged to “heal” from expe­ri­ence, but here heal­ing has a dif­fer­ent face. The sur­vivor must con­tin­ue to elude dan­ger, con­tin­ue to sur­vive in the face of per­sis­tent threat. In oth­er places “heal­ing” is con­nect­ed to for­get­ting, trau­ma is some­thing that must be mas­saged and med­i­tat­ed away, allowed to scar, best not trig­gered, trans­formed into some­thing else.  Here, for­get­ting is not an option, quick wits and body mem­o­ry, knowl­edge of the wind and the actions of author­i­ty allow sur­vival to con­tin­ue. No one gets away. 

Dur­ing our ini­tial work­shops with the women of Bil’in, we are in unfa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ry when I (a for­eign­er and stranger) pose ques­tions about dai­ly life.  I reveal details of my own per­son­al his­to­ry, about expe­ri­enc­ing the loss of loved ones through state vio­lence, vis­its to con­cen­tra­tion camps and work­ing in pris­ons. In this way we cre­ate a place of safe­ty where women and oth­ers talk about incar­cer­at­ed chil­dren and men, vio­lence, fear and hope.

 The lives of the peo­ple in the vil­lage are sim­i­lar to the lives I have known since I was a child, as are the con­di­tions of threat and the respons­es to vio­lence. When at work on the street I feel at home. 

The man­ner in which we incor­po­rate oth­ers and cre­ate con­ver­sa­tions, dia­logues and col­lab­o­ra­tions makes it pos­si­ble for peo­ple to trust what we are doing. Peo­ple take own­er­ship of both the process and the outcome.

Fidaa Ataya, coordinator of Jenin's Freedom Theatre, before she is wounded by Israeli troops.

Fidaa Ataya, coor­di­na­tor of Jen­in’s Free­dom The­atre, before she is wound­ed by Israeli troops.

 We trav­el as a del­e­ga­tion to a neigh­bor­ing town where Hec­tor, res­i­den­cy par­tic­i­pants and Bil’in res­i­dents will per­form a work of forum the­ater. The town is in ruins and we hear the sounds of gun­fire and explo­sions from a near­by Israeli fir­ing range. This kind of the­ater asks for audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion and there are sev­er­al peo­ple from the town on stage when gun­fire erupts from the street and we are engulfed in tear gas. Armed sol­diers enter the court­yard of the UN-des­ig­nat­ed build­ing where we are con­gre­gat­ed, claim­ing a child has thrown rocks at a pass­ing con­voy. They pass through the crowd point­ing their weapons, and then leave abruptly.

On the fol­low­ing Fri­day, our del­e­ga­tion has made huge props and pup­pets for the demon­stra­tion that coin­cides with the annu­al olive har­vest. We have tak­en a break from paint­ing and vis­it­ed groves to help with the har­vest and par­tic­i­pat­ed in adding the last touch­es to crowns and plac­ards that we will wear and car­ry to cel­e­brate har­vest dur­ing the Fri­day protests. 

 There are many more of us gath­ered than in the pre­vi­ous week. It’s a pre­dictable script. Depart­ing from the cen­ter of town towards the wall, we are met by IDF jeeps on the route. While oth­er vehi­cles take strate­gic posi­tions, a hail of tear gas ensues, but winds are favor­able and blow the fumes most­ly away from us. Embold­ened by the weath­er, we con­tin­ue our route. I count a dozen or more plumes of gas, caus­ing many marchers to fall behind. As I lend a hand car­ry­ing a huge card­board tree, I look over to the oth­er side of the road and see Fidaa Ataya, a young Pales­tin­ian woman, march­ing abreast with the few remain­ing from our con­tin­gent. She is the coor­di­na­tor of the Free­dom The­ater from the Jenin Refugee Camp and one of our part­ners in cre­at­ing the residency. 

On the final approach, sol­diers emerge on foot from the gate. Even­ly placed every two meters, they no longer shoot tear gas can­is­ters into the air, instead, they shoot direct­ly at us. As the sol­dier in front of me lev­els his rifle, I stum­ble up a hill blind­ed by flash grenades and tear­gas, bare­ly step over smok­ing can­is­ters and lines of con­certi­na wire laid on the ground to trip up peo­ple exact­ly in my predicament.

The Warda (Flower) Brigade continues to be a creative force for anti-Occupation protest in Bil'in.

The War­da (Flower) Brigade con­tin­ues to be a cre­ative force for anti-Occu­pa­tion protest in Bil’in.

I reach the top and after a while I am able to stop cry­ing, gag­ging and cough­ing. The wind is to my advan­tage so I take a breath and make my way down again. Fidaa has been shot. She is in a stretch­er and I grab her hand as she is car­ried back to an ambu­lance that slow­ly makes it way towards us. A can­is­ter has grazed her leg. The bleed­ing has stopped. 

That evening I show slides of past work to mem­bers of our con­tin­gent and my younger Pales­tin­ian col­lab­o­ra­tors.  They see pho­tos of me when I was their age, as mem­ber of a mural­ist brigade in Nicaragua dur­ing the 1979 San­din­ista Lit­er­a­cy cam­paign. I show them images of murals paint­ed in oth­er loca­tions where vio­lence, pover­ty and strug­gles for cul­tur­al sur­vival also coincide.

‘Akkub is the wit­ness: our murals are part of ongo­ing cre­ative efforts to use non-vio­lent direct action in Bil’in. Cul­tur­al activism helps us have the con­ver­sa­tions that must occur, helps us cre­ate com­mon goals while we strive to co-exist with the painful mem­o­ries and pow­er­ful cul­tures that exist on both sides. 

As we approach our day of depar­ture, my Pales­tin­ian col­lab­o­ra­tors tell me they want to form a mural­ist brigade and con­tin­ue the kind of work we have car­ried out in Bil’in. They decide the name should be War­da or Flower Brigade. War­da is also a wom­an’s name mean­ing guardian or protector. 

Our murals may remain or dis­ap­pear, the words paint­ed on the walls, CLIMB, RETURN and SUMUD صمود (per­sist)  will cer­tain­ly fade, but our actions will cat­alyze the future actions of oth­ers as they build on the pos­si­bil­i­ties we have plant­ed. Sumud.

——— • ———

Every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son. After two weeks of a cre­ative artis­tic work­shop in the streets of Bil’in, we dis­cov­ered that the rea­son of our meet­ing was to share knowl­edge and pas­sion and explode our ener­gy in arts as Pales­tin­ian artis­tic youth. We learned the spir­it of team­work, help­ing and shar­ing our thoughts, dreams and per­son­al­i­ties. To be hon­est, it was hard to see you leav­ing and pack­ing your stuff head­ing home. You gave us the best you have and we too gave the best we have. We wish to see you again and share new things with you and to see more smil­ing faces, the same as those we left in Bil’in. Wel­come to Pales­tine, with all LOVE. War­da Brigade. 

—Aram Shbib, Ramallah


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