PRESENTATION: Art in a Time of Conflict: Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine
John O'Donoghue reflects on the Creative Case in the context of conflict at this very special decibel forum event
Decibel this year has seen artists from all over the world come to Manchester to be part of the Performing Arts Showcase. Delegates have flown in from India, Australia, America and other parts of the globe to network, see shows, perform, and take part in discussions.
One artist in this firmament of talent has for me shone brighter than all the rest. This is Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine. On Wednesday morning she was introduced by Peter Jenkinson, a member of Derry’s successful bid team for the UK City of Culture 2013.
The theme of the forum was Art In A Time Of Conflict and Jenkinson threw out a range of interesting questions to start the forum:
• How can art challenge cycles of conflict?
• Can art play a part in preventing, managing, resolving conflict?
• Can art play a negative role in conflict situations?
• Is there something specific about the nature of what art does and can do in a time of conflict?
• Is too much expected of artists?
• Should art take sides?
• What about art post-conflict?
• And should artists have greater representation at the tables of the power-brokers?
Jenkinson then played a short film featuring the work of the Freedom Theatre. Against a backdrop of tanks rolling down dusty streets, young men with guns ducking around corners, and blasted buildings, the Freedom Theatre does its work. The theatre offers the young people of Jenin Refugee Camp a safe space where they can express themselves, explore their creativity, and their emotions, through art. The theatre has been running since 2006 and seeks to empower the traumatised young people of the area who live under siege by the Israeli military.
Death was a common preoccupation of the young people shown on the film. One boy said that his brother had become a ‘martyr’; another that because of theatre he now thinks there is an alternative to martyrdom. That he may die a natural death. He was about 14.
But the work of the theatre doesn’t just face oppression from the Occupation. The girls also face opposition from within their own families for taking part in the work of the theatre – so the Freedom Theatre campaigns on two fronts: against the soldiers and against the conservative culture that persists in Jenin.
Rawana Arqawi then spoke about life in Jenin and the work of the theatre. She told delegates that the Freedom Theatre builds on the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a Jewish woman who founded the Stone Theatre in Jenin during the first Intifada (1987 – 1993).
Arna's project challenged young people to create an alternative reality to their existence in Jenin. Arqawi said that in the Camp ‘life is blood’. When Khamis’s son, Juliano, the Director of the Freedom Theatre, was killed in March this year, more blood was shed.
We never did get around to discussing Jenkinson’s questions. We just let Arqawi tell her story. As the voices of Manchester schoolchildren walking past the Town Hall singing ‘Hey Jude’ floated up to us from Albert Square below, I thought of Jenin and the work of this tiny, extraordinary woman standing before us.
Like all of the delegates in the room, I found her story incredibly moving. And perhaps in a way Rawand Arqawi answered the questions posed by Peter Jenkinson at the beginning of the forum. Where life is blood, the Freedom Theatre continues to do its work. And unusually perhaps in the context of a forum and debate, as the session ended, we all stood and applauded the spirit of Rawan Arqawi and of the Freedom Theatre.