I never thought much about branding before last week. My friend Abed, from Al-Rowwad in the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, and I were eating a meal at the World Culture Forum and asked a colleague we had met at the conference about getting more money for the amazing work they do at their center. Abed happened to have a DVD of four short films they made and he handed it to this man who looked at the homemade quality of the packaging and immediately went to work. First he decided that the name, Al Rowwad, (which means pioneers in Arabic) had to go. Or at least, he said, the “al” had to go because it alerted the viewer, potential person with money that it was an Arabic word. Next he decided that the name itself should be changed to something like “Pioneers for Peace,” which is equally problematic because aside from completely changing the name, now the vision of the organization is dramatically altered as well. This group of theatrical children uses dance, song, and drama to educate their audiences around the world about Palestinian history; it’s not about peace. Then he moved into creating subtitles for the organization such as “Bethlehem Children’s Theater Workshop,” which was less offensive given that it certainly would help an outsider to locate the Aida camp and connect it to the Christian associations with the city of Bethlehem. This man eventually came up with a list of four new names, or brands as it were, and gave it to Abdel Fatteh to think about. His main expressed goal was this: “make it palatable.” Dilute the Arabic content. Is this really what one must do when one is involved in creating artistic or educational projects which has as its main purpose giving people a truthful representation of the reality in Palestine?
I filed this episode away and didn’t even think to put it on my Blog before leaving for Palestine for the weekend. I had an engagement party to attend and while I was there I met with some friends about my own foundation idea that I’ve been developing since I’ve been here: I want to create a foundation that funds, eventually, every single Palestinian child’s college education. Of course, this will take some time and money, but to begin with I want to work with refugees and the specific camps in which I have connections, Deheishe and Aida. As I met with one friend to discuss this I was struck by his first question: we need a name. Of course, yes, we need a name, but this time when I heard such a statement I recalled this earlier conversation about naming and branding. Of course, I want an Arabic name, perhaps with a subtitle, because this organization is connected to Palestinians. But it is making me think more about my days of working in marketing and publicity before I went to graduate school when I had to consider issues of packaging and marketing.
It was an insane weekend, going just for a couple of days to Palestine. I had to make sure that I could use the Malak Hussein Bridge and not the Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the north because I only had a few hours to travel from Amman to Deheishe for the party. I went to the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior and got a letter of permission so that I could ensure speedy travels (well, as speedy as possible when an occupying military is guarding the border of someone else’s country). Actually, this was the quickest experience I’ve had at the bridge, in part, because I was recognized and remembered and the man in charge of examining my body and my luggage was willing to speed up the process so that I could get to the party on time. I arrived right on time, in fact, but of course the ladies of the family were still busy at the salon putting on the finishing touches. I took a taxi over to the salon with Rabia, the groom-to-be, to the salon to meet up with Sanabel and Fida’, the bride-to-be. We drove to a beautiful hospital in Bethlehem, which has that gorgeous stone work that one sees all over Al Quds (Jerusalem). There is a beautiful garden there where Fida’ wanted some photographs taken by a professional photographer from Jenin (where Rabia is from), but I went along to take some candid photographs. We eventually drove to the site of the party, a theater built inside the Deheishe refugee camp where performance groups like Ibdaa perform. We danced and offered our gifts to the newly engaged couple who sat on the stage like a king and queen (certainly they were looking the part that evening!). Afterwards we all went back to the house and many more people piled in the house for food, laughs, and stories. As beautiful and amazing as this event was it was hard not to think about Ghassan’s (Fida’s brother) absence that evening. Fida’s mother’s tears throughout the evening made me think about her losses—her son to an Israeli prison, her daughter to Jenin, and Sanabel to the U.S. This is a lot of loss to take within a short span of time.
Actually, I made sure that my visit could accomplish two things: attend the engagement party and have a meeting with people in the know about how to make sure Ghassan doesn’t get an extraordinarily long sentence. He has been in an Israeli prison for almost two years now without a trial. It was supposed to take place two weeks ago, but again it has been postponed until January. His charge sheet is long,, mostly peppered with things like membership in the PFLP or putting up posters (in Palestine) related to PFLP activities (the PFLP, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is a Marxist liberation/resistance organization which is committed to creating a secular Palestinian state based on social justice). There are more serious charges on his confession sheet, a confession sheet which I’m skeptical about because I have no idea what the circumstances were when he did confess. The other charges include using heavy-duty explosives and arms against Israeli’s occupying tanks which invaded his refugee camp. Sitting there discussing his rap sheet with an Israeli, family members and community members in Deheishe, I found myself swallowing my anger at the irony of this situation: if he did these things he was fighting against a military power. It is a time of war and yet he is the one in jail? The Israelis who invaded Deheishe should be the people locked up behind bars, not Ghassan. Not Ghassan.
I actually spent almost the entire day discussing Ghassan’s status with various people, but I took a break with a few friends and went to a village around Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, which was holding a festival to celebrate the anniversary of PFLP. We went on a brief march and then went inside a church where there were speeches, dabka dancing, and singing. Because Israel considers PFLP a “terrorist” organization, I suppose we could have been arrested for our mere presence there. Most of these arbitrary rules and laws, by the way, which dictate how Israel treats Palestinians are left over from the British mandate era when they imposed a state of emergency.
Actually, it felt a bit like a state of emergency all weekend if not in the Bethlehem area, certainly word on the street and in the news. My friend Sahar was supposed to come to the engagement party on Thursday from Ramallah, but when she got there an Israeli soldier was stabbed to death so the Qalandia checkpoint was shut down entirely—for the whole weekend, meaning people cannot leave the Ramallah area to get to villages or cities south or east. At the time I was worried that the rest of Rabia’s family wouldn’t make it because they are from Jenin, which is at the far northern tip of Palestine. Fortunately they made it safely without a problem in either direction. But as a result of the stabbing, Israeli occupying soldiers entered various parts of the West Bank, kept Qalandia shut all weekend so I couldn’t see friends in Ramallah, and ran up and down my friend Sahar’s street, in a small village, shooting. And Sahar’s luck didn’t end there because she went to Jenin this weekend and actually was the last car out of Jenin before the Israelis announced a closure around this refugee camp. It is hard for people who have never witnessed the occupation with their own eyes to understand all that this means. Most people imagine that this collective punishment is deserved—only when it’s not their own family, house, community being eradicated.