Just like “Magic”

Edward Saïd Study Week, 2013

I was born in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem as the youngest of 14 siblings. I was born during the First Palestinian Intifada and I grew up witnessing the everyday conflict in my country. My first memories as a child included watching my brothers as they get arrested by the Israeli army and disappear for years in Israeli prisons. Certain books such as those discussing history, philosophy and literature were banned by the Israeli occupation. My school, less than 50 meters from my house, was unreachable because of curfews and demonstrations. Yet, my parents were determined to look after my siblings to their best capacity. All what my family has gone through, made us more determined to “survive”. I realized too early in my life that being a Palestinian was different but what I went through was the same as many children my age experienced. I thought I was blessed that even though my brothers were in prison, my father returned home every evening. I thought I was lucky because even though there were many bullet holes decorating the doors and walls of my UNRWA school, it was standing still and that every morning my mother would wake me up to go to school unlike many other children who lost their mothers and their schools. I was always thankful that I was healthy and strong. Therefore, I tried to find “magic” within every little thing in my life.

It was very early in my life that I discovered the power of “magic”. As a child, magic was normally linked to legendary practices in story books. It was what turned the poor Cinderella into a beautiful princess and what made Hassan- in my grandmother’s traditional Palestinians story- into a strong man that defeated the monster, saved the villagers, and married the beautiful daughter of the king. But as a child, I was introduced to a different form of “magic”. I was told as a child that this magic can make you successful. It can make you strong and clever. This magic can make you free; free of oppression and free of ignorance. That “magic” was education.

Both my parents grew up in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and witnessed the very first days of the camp. In 1948 my father who was ten years old and my mother who was seven years old ran barefoot from our original village, Ajjur, to Bethlehem when our village was attacked. They slept under the sky and walked under the burning sun of May. When Aida Camp was established in the early 1950s, my parents witnessed the camp’s history day by day and hour by hour. My father studied only until the fourth grade. Not because he was a “bad” student but because of two reasons. The first was because there were no schools in the camp when it was established. My father, my mother and all the children in the camp in the early 1950s would crumble in a small tent they called “classroom” which was surrounded by hundreds of tents where refugees lived four seasons a year, day and night for about three year until the UNRWA helped them to build small houses. The second reason for quitting school for my father was the fact that he had to work to support his father, mother, and four

younger siblings. My father never regretted the fact that he sacrificed his education for the sake of his family but he does feel sad that he couldn’t continue with his “formal” education.

Even though both my parents could not continue with formal education, both my parents have a great amount of knowledge. My father would say, “life is the biggest school.” Nevertheless, he insisted that all his children should be formally educated. My father would say in his many comments when he didn’t see me with a book in my hands, “you know it’s your life. But you know you have the choice to be successful or not to be! To be successful and strong you need to “know”; you need to “learn”; and educated person is a strong person because she knows her rights and knows how to defend them.”

It was tiring trying to read and study all the time; but my parents saw that as my “duty”. They thought that education is the one thing that no one can take from me. My parents thought that one’s freedom, children, or money… they all can be taken away; but no one can take one’s knowledge. I believed my parents when they said that. Thinking of my parents words, I imagined education to have super powers. I thought education can transform things and create a better and brighter life. That was another reason why education was a magical thing.

It did not take me long after hearing my father’s words to realize that education can open doors for me. Education was not limited to what I learnt at school. It was acceptable for my parents to see me with a book in my hands, any book not necessarily school books. Novels, short stories, poetry selections were all educational materials. I used to go to a small library in the camp that had a few hundred books and read as much as I can. I read all kinds of literature and poetry: it was “magic”. These books took me to another world, one that is different to our lives in the camp. From these books I learned that there were other people under oppression, that many countries were colonized and that people everywhere strive for peace, justice, and freedom. I also saw that many writers, artists and poets used their education to teach people about their lives and about their countries. I always followed the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Ibraheem Tuqan, Mahmoud Darwish, Naji Al-Ali, Edward Said and many others. Each of the works of these people took me to magical lands and made me realize the importance of art and the importance of education.

When I was 14 years old I decided not to limit myself to the world of books neither to “formal” education. There was a whole world out there that my parents learned from: Real life. Therefore I decided to expand my knowledge by volunteering in several local organizations. My parents were not in favor of the idea at the time. They thought I was too young and that volunteering might affect my academic achievements. However, as soon as I explained to my parents that through voluntary work I would learn new things, meet interesting people and develop my skills, the answer was “OK!”

My first photography project was with a group of Belgian photographers who came to Aida Camp with the intention of running a photography project for two weeks with Palestinian

children. This was my first experience with international visitors in Palestine as well as my first experience with photography. A group of Palestinian kids and I were taught how to use the cameras to take photographs. I enjoyed taking photography a lot. I liked how one image can reflect a lot of ideas and how a photograph can freeze time and place into a small frame. The camera, was a magical machine, I thought. However, the magic of my first photography course did not last for long. After two weeks of working with the international volunteers, the course finished. The international photographers took their cameras and left Palestine. I never heard about them or saw the photographers my friends and I produced ever again. It took me four years to start taking photographs for a second time.

I learned from that very first course in photography that those international photographers came to Palestine “to give Palestinian children a voice!”, that was how they expressed the goal of their photography project. However, we- Palestinians- do have a voice. What we might not have is the means and the tools to raise our voice and make it reach the rest of the world. If we want our voice to fly and reach the skies, we need to do it ourselves. About ten years after my first photography project in the camp, in November 2010, I had my first solo photography exhibition in France. There, I met a French lady who showed me a small photography collection that she bought years back about Bethlehem. To my surprise, these photos were the ones my friends and I took when we were children. I found out that our narrative was being produced by others whilst no one can tell our narratives and understand our stories as well as we can. I realized then that I made the right choice of working at the grassroots level in Palestine with youth and children to tell our stories from within. Art, like film and photography can help Palestinians narrate their stories as insiders who lived and experienced the life in Palestine. Most of these stories are stories that one would never see on TV as they were not of a big interest for mass media. Palestine is one of the most photographed and news covered areas in the world yet young Palestinians rarely had the opportunity to express themselves through photography and their stories are uncommonly covered by news. Therefore, my work aimed at exploring how Palestine is presented through the lens of a camera to distant audiences in the West and working towards producing photographic projects and films that deconstruct the image of Palestine and Palestinians to the outside world. Film and photography inhabit the ability to create knowledge. Therefore, I worked with young Palestinian youth and children to produce films that tell their stories. These stories varied from daily struggle to survive under occupation to future dreams, hobbies, and family. Both boys and girls worked together to produce these films and break the streyotypes about Palestinains, refugees, men and women among others.

Steryotypes on Palestinians, most often women –not only Palestinian but Middle Eastern in general- are portrayed in the West as “passive,” “uneducated,” or “ignorant”. However, these images can be deconstructed by telling true stories of empowered women. despite conflict, borders, and Walls, Palestinian women are still stronger and are working to make their voices heard to the outside world. As I encountered a lot of internationals who visit

Palestine as tourists or for other reasons, I was always met by people who knew very little, if anything, about Palestine and if they did, none knew that “Palestinian women are strong”. That reminded me of a countless number of times when I spoke to internationals who were amazed that Palestinian women “can speak in public”, “go out of their houses” or “speak to men”. I was interviewed once by a foreign researcher who after asking me many questions about the life in Palestine, the Wall, and the occupation, he said, “This is the first time I speak to a Palestinian woman and the first time to realize that Palestinian women can speak!” These encounters strengthened my determination to tell the stories of Palestinian women as independent and educated. When I think about the women I know in Palestine- within my family, friends, or colleagues I cannot think of one woman that fits the above mentioned “stereotypes”. My grandmother who is over 90 years old now and has never been to school can help cure tens of people using local plants and herbs. She can tell with the finest details the history of Palestine. It is true that my grandmother did not have access to “formal” education yet she has knowledge from life.

Palestinian children furthermore find knowledge away from schools. In Aida Camp, children continue to dream and work to develop their lives despite the fact that they live crumbled under occupation. Three Wishes was the name of one of my short films that features the story of three Palestinian teenagers who now live in Aida Refugee Camp. Abulfattah, Miras and Munjid are three Palestinians who though were born as refugees, have found in the narrow streets of the camp and their small houses a refuge from everyday life. Through their hobbies, they strive to keep hope alive for a better future where can they live happily. Abdulfattah’s hobby is to look after some birds that he keeps on the roof of his house. Abdulfattah believes that birds reminds him of the virtue of peace and the happiest of his times is when he spends time with his birds, feeding them and listening to their chanting. Miras finds his refuge in Music. He plays the Oud and believes that music can travel beyond the walls that the occupation built around the camp and the walls of oppression and separation. Munjid keeps some fish in his house in the camp. He told me that looking after the fish reminds him of the Palestinian sea to which he dreams to go and which he has never been to in For the 15 years of his childhood in the camp. Today, many things changed through the lives of the three teenagers. When I talk to them now, they speak about new things. When talking about his birds, Abdulfattah remembers how his birds, like all the refugees in Aida Camp, had to suffer from the countless number of tear gas canisters that were thrown at the camp when the people demonstrated against the attacks on Gaza. Miras speaks about the two months he spent in prison this year without charge after the Israeli soldiers invaded his house looking for his cousin. In prison, there is no music and no freedom. Munjid’s dream of swimming in the sea has to wait as Munjid is in prison for trying to “burn” the Wall. His fish is waiting for his return and his family is looking after them until he is released. Relating to the birds, the oud, and the fish in such a loving and personal manner was something learned outside of formal education and they were empowering nonetheless, allowing these boys to dream. They learn to dream and fight outside of school.

The three dreams are interrupted by the occupation, yet the three teenagers continue to dream; it’s their right.

Through working with Abdulfattah, Miras, Munjid and tens of boys and girls in Palestine, I realize that not only formal education, but powerful knowledge comes from informal education, from learning while living and trying to survive. Unlike the story with the Belgian photographers, who were experts, we see that people even without formal education can create knowledge – the create their own magic – as well and in very powerful ways. Through their hobbies, they can transfer it to the outer world and be part of greater change. I learned through my work that every person already as voice. Palestinian youth, children, men and women through their belief in knowledge, peace and justice are helping others learn to listen to our voice.