ADAPTED from South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed under apartheid, to an Israeli prison cell, Athol Fugard’s play “The Island” has opened to packed audiences in the Jenin refugee camp on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Confined to a concrete floor set in a sea of sand, two cellmates keep up their morale by rehearsing a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, in which a woman chooses to die rather than obey the king’s decree not to bury her brother, a political dissident. “You won’t sleep peacefully,” Antigone tells the king when he condemns her to death.
Despite its transposed setting, the play retains its poignancy. Almost every Palestinian on the West Bank has a brother, father or husband whom the Israeli authorities have, at one time or another, locked away. At present, 4,500 are behind bars. Jenin may have the highest rate of any town. Imprisonment has become a male rite of passage, as well as a place of higher education: many opt for distance learning at Israeli universities.
Ahmad Rokh, one of the actors in “The Island”, who has served four prison terms, was first put inside at the age of 14. The refugee camp in Jenin was a prime source of suicide-bombers during the second intifada (uprising) that lasted from 2000 to around 2005. Nearly a decade on, it has recovered a sense of humour. The audience laughs at the prisoners dressed in drag.
The theatre has had to overcome a troubled phase. Two years ago its founder, Juliano Khemis, a half-Palestinian, half-Jewish actor, was killed in circumstances that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities have explained. The Freedom Theatre has reopened its drama school after a hiatus of more than a year.
Though the number of Palestinian political prisoners has halved since the height of the second (and most recent) intifada, it is still twice as high as it was a dozen years ago. Those behind bars include hundreds of stone-throwers, 15 members of the Palestinian parliament and 170 people held without trial under “administrative detention”. The Palestinian Authority also runs its own prisons, where scores of leading members of Hamas, the Islamist group that rejects Israel’s existence, have been locked up.
When an Israeli production of the same play was performed at the Hasimta Theatre in Jaffa three years ago, the director, Alon Tiran, observed members of the audience leaving “in a different mindset from when they arrived”. He could not ask for more than that, he said. In Jenin, reactions have been more pronounced. “We are all Antigone,” says Ahmad Jbarah, better known by his nom-de-guerre, Abu Sukar, who attended the play’s opening. “The more the oppressor condemns us as criminals, the more heroic we are,” he says. Mr Sukar was in prison for 27 years for his part in a bombing in Jerusalem in 1975 that caused 15 civilian deaths.
This article appeared here
By Denise Marray
When ordinary household objects are taken out of context and displayed under glass as exhibits in an art gallery, they look alien and misplaced. But each of these simple utensils has a history and when the history is told they acquire a quite unexpected poignancy.
Bisan Abu Eisheh is the young Palestinian artist who made it his business to collect the objects from the rubble of houses bulldozed by the Israeli authorities as illegal structures built without planning permission. So the objects taken from demolished houses are symbolic of shattered family homes and who knows what heartbreak, anger and despair they represent.
“The house demolitions are part of an Israeli government plan to minimise the percentage of Arabs who live in the city of Jerusalem and accommodate the settlements which are expanding,” he explains.
Bisan is a Palestinian conceptual artist who is the first recipient of a scholarship awarded by the Caspian Arts Foundation. The foundation is a not-for-profit organisation set up to provide scholarships for students from the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) region who wish to pursue their post-graduate studies in Fine Arts, Film Photography or Fashion at one of the leading colleges that comprise the University of the Arts London.
Bisan is now undertaking a two year MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. He recalled the moment when he was told he had been awarded the scholarship. “It was a real pleasure and honour for me,” he says.
On arriving at St Martins he became even more appreciative of the excellent grounding in the arts he had received at the International Academy of Art in Palestine. “It was a very good four years preparation for me and I was very proud of my background because it was very diverse and we were introduced to lots of concepts and ideas and received many tutorials from visiting artists,” he explains.
At St Martins he appreciates the vast resources and opportunities for attending workshops in many subjects including video, sound recording, woodwork and metalwork. He also finds London inspiring. “London is an MA in itself with all its rich cultural and historical resources and archives,” he says.
However, studying at St Martins as one of a 4,500 strong student body representing top talent from around the world makes him aware that to succeed as an artist requires many skills including how to manage your time and career. “It’s a great challenge; you need to fight for your tutorials. You are not that spoiled. It prepares you well for the art world because it’s a tough environment – it’s an ocean – you can’t take a break,” he says.
Bisan admits that his experience of growing up in Palestine has strongly influenced his work. “I like art that has a message. Maybe I am very much affected by my background and feel responsible to say something,” he reflects. His father, a theatre playwright, TV presenter and director was imprisoned from 1980 to 1983 for his role in fighting against the occupation.
Bisan’s wearying experience of crossing checkpoints as part of his daily routine in Jerusalem has left its mark. But he has taken this exasperation and tried to shape it into something transforming through his art. So it was that visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London recently had the experience of going through ‘border controls’ to enter the Middle Eastern section which was cordoned off by volunteers for the purpose.
They found themselves participating in one of Bisan’s performance art concepts which afforded a completely new interpretation of the usual process of applying for and being granted access through the issuing of permits. Instead of being asked to fill in a form under the usual categories, visitors were asked to describe themselves as they wished. They were given access on the basis of how they represented themselves as individuals.
“I guaranteed them access according to what they wanted and their understanding of their selves; not according to how I wanted to see them,” Bisan explains.
He is also working on a project undertaken jointly by Art School Palestine, the Delphina Foundation and the British Council, which will be exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in June. The basis for the project is a Travel Guide on Jerusalem, published by Eyewitness, which Bisan in conjunction with others is ‘editing’ in order to give a more accurate impression of the city.
“I bought the Travel Guide here in England and it almost totally ignores any Palestinian existence or narrative. I used ‘post-it’ notes and transparencies overlaid over maps to fill in the missing information,” Bisan says.
He then sent the book to Ramallah and asked people to interact with it and add their own contributions. When it is returned to him he will transform it into another art medium, possibly using video.
Clearly there is a political dimension to his work; his frustration with the guidebook is evident.
“This book is 90% guiding you to Israel – it’s a totally Israeli narrative. Even when describing the souk in the old city of Jerusalem it says that if you are interested in buying things the modern malls in the West side of the city have more to offer. It’s like they are saying: ‘You can go and look but we don’t really advise you to buy anything or spend money over there’,” he comments.
Nina Mahdavi, Founder and Chair Trustee of the Caspian Arts Foundation, is motivated to assist talented artists from the Mena region to reach their full potential.
She was born in Iran but her family left during the revolution and she was educated in Europe and the US. Her career background is in property investments and she describes art as “my personal passion”.
She is impressed with the talent and creativity in the Mena region, and through fund raising and corporate sponsorship intends to expand the scholarship programme, which is open to all regardless of nationality or religious background. She aims to offer practical support for students after they graduate and have to find their feet in the intensely competitive art world.
“We’re trying to partner with different institutions to give a platform to students after they graduate through residencies or internships or participation in exhibitions,” she says. She also emphasises the importance for students to understand the commercial aspect of their careers which can be very challenging.
Partners include Christie’s, the Delphina Foundation, Sotheby’s, the Lahd Gallery and the University of the Arts London which includes Central Saint Martins, the London College of Fashion, Camberwell College of Arts, Wimbledon College of Art, London College of Communication and Chelsea College of Art and Design.
This article appeared here
By DIAA HADID Associated Press
NUS JUBAIL, West Bank—The Palestinian olive harvest, an ancient autumn ritual in the West Bank, is going upscale.
In an emerging back-to-the-land movement, Palestinian farmers are turning the rocky hills of the West Bank into organic olive groves, selling their oil to high-end grocers in the U.S. and Europe.
The move is a reflection of the growing global demand for natural, sustainable and fairly traded products, albeit with a distinct Palestinian twist. The hardships faced by local farmers, ranging from a lack of rainfall to Israeli trade obstacles, mean that organic growing is one of the few ways Palestinians have to compete in outside markets.
“The Palestinian future is in the land,” said farmer Khader Khader, 31, as he stood among his organic olives in the northern West Bank village of Nus Jubail.
Organic farming has grown into a thriving business, by Palestinian standards, since it first was introduced in the West Bank in 2004. Now, at least $5 million worth of organic olive oil is exported annually—about half of all Palestinian commercial oil exports, said Nasser Abu Farha of the Canaan Fair Trade Association, one of the companies that sells high-end organic olive oil to distributors abroad.
The West Bank-based company purchases the oil at above market prices and pays what’s called a “social premium”—extra money to farming cooperatives to improve their communities.
About 930 farmers have fair-trade and organic certification, while another 140 are “converting” their land—a two- to three-year process during which they stop using chemical fertilizers and pest controls while monitors from Canaan and the Palestine Fair Trade Association provide training and check soil for chemical levels.
Their work is overseen by the Swiss-based Institute for Market Ecology, which is accredited to certify organic products for the U.S., E.U., and Japan. Hundreds more farmers are simply certified as fair-trade, where they and their workers are paid decent wages for their work and produce.
The trade is tiny when compared to major olive growers like Spain, Italy and Greece. But it’s significant for Palestinians, for whom harvesting olives is a cultural tradition that gathers even the most urbanized families.
An average of 17,000 tons of olive oil is produced in the West Bank every year by thousands of farmers, according to aid group Oxfam, which works on the olive industry. Most is for local or personal use, and only about 1,000 tons is exported a year, though that number is likely higher since many farmers sell oil informally through relatives abroad, Abu Farha said.
Organic farmers hope the high-end trade will keep them on their lands, despite difficult odds and high overhead costs.
Palestinians seek the West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state. Most of the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under a semi-autonomous government. But Israel, which captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, wields overall control. Roughly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and neighboring east Jerusalem, taking away resources.
More than 120 Jewish settlements dot the West Bank, often encroaching on Palestinian farmlands or preventing farmers from reaching their land. Israel’s separation barrier, built to prevent militants from entering Israel, has swallowed nearly 10 percent of Palestinian farmland, according to U.N. estimates, limiting access and lowering yields.
Israel also controls more than 80 percent of the West Bank’s water in lopsided sharing agreements, said Palestinian water official Ribhi al-Sheik. In other areas dilapidated water pipes have wasteful leaks. Most farmers depend on rain and unlicensed wells, depleting already-stressed aquifers. In some parts, Israeli military authorities also ban rain-collecting cisterns. Badly planned Palestinian towns have paved over fertile lands.
Outside markets for fresh produce aren’t profitable. Goods must cross through Israeli-controlled export crossings, causing delays and lowering quality through exposure to sunlight and constant reloading from one truck to another.
Israeli military spokesman Guy Inbar said the long export process was solely for security reasons and “not intended to harm” exports, noting that Palestinians export some 100,000 tons of fresh produce a year. He said Palestinians access more water than what is allowed for under sharing agreements and that farmers with permits are able to reach land on the other side of the separation barrier.
The challenges sparked a new way of thinking: Palestinians had to make finished goods that could survive the rough growing conditions and lengthy journey to outside markets.
Fair-trade, organic products that can be rain-fed, particularly olives, were the perfect solution.
“It’s the future of Palestinian exports. The future is in added value, through environmental and social accountability,” said Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade. “People want to know: “Where is this oil coming from? Whose life is it changing?”
The changes are visible in Nus Jubail, a village crowded with olives and pines, its 400 residents in houses with blue doors and rooftops sheltered by grape arbors. A decade ago, most residents pressed their oil for personal use. Little was sold commercially and prices were low, said Khader, the farmer.
Around 2004, agricultural activists formed the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, seeking out farmers across the West Bank. They persuaded Khader to establish an organic cooperative of five farmers, allowing them to collectively press their olives and sell better-priced oil.
During the three-year conversion process, Khader and his colleagues were taught to grow olives without chemicals, pruning and plowing instead of using herbicides and fermenting sheep droppings into fertilizer. Once certified, Khader and his partners sold their oil above market prices, attracting other recruits. Now 18 of the village’s 30 farmers are organic.
This year, organic oil is selling for about $5.40 a liter—a dollar higher than conventional oil, said Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade, which purchases much of the oil. Other independent farmers are selling directly to consumers for $9 a liter, far above market price.
Farmers are going organic on other products, such as maftoul, a chewy sun-dried staple resembling couscous, as well as dried almonds and a spicy herb mix called hyssop.
But high-end oil is key.
In Whole Foods supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, it’s sold under the “Alter Eco” brand, Abu Farha said. It’s in Sainsbury’s in Britain, and in boutique shops globally through Canaan and other distributers. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a popular organic, fair traded vegan soap, sources 95 percent of its oil—some 165 tons—from Palestinian growers, the soap company said.
Even so, challenges abound. Palestinian oil production is irregular because they can’t irrigate their crops and export costs are still high. Abu Farha of Canaan said some farmers have cheated by mixing conventional oil into their products.
Still, the move toward organic, sustainable farming is an important, elegant fight.
“I don’t throw rocks,” said farmer Khader, referring to young men who frequently hurl stones during demonstrations. He pointed to his rock-built terraces. “I use them to build our future.”
This article appeared in http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_21962774/palestinian-farmers-turn-organic-farming