model camps


after school today i went with a friend and a student to jenin refugee camp to see mohammad bakri in a one-man show called the opsimist, which is based on emile habiby’s novel. i have been wanting to take a field trip there with my drama class, but unfortunately they did not send the notification out until saturday so i was only able to find one student who could come at the last minute. the drive to jenin is always so beautiful because it is so green. it is the place where so much of palestine’s produce is grown. but today we also saw signs of spring on the drive there–little, lovely wildflowers growing among the olive trees. of course there were many checkpoints as well–flying and permanent. one of the flying checkpoints you can see in the photograph below. apparently there are two new flying checkpoints around nablus.

flying checkpoint outside nablus
flying checkpoint outside nablus

we arrived in jenin, grabbed some quick shwarma sandwiches and then headed over to the camp. we got a little tour of the freedom theater there and its related centers–a library and a multimedia center. this area of the camp is the “new camp,” meaning rebuilt after the israeli terrorists destroyed it in 2002. but more on that in a minute. i am very interested in the work that the freedom theater is doing. apparently it is doing great work on bridging the gap between the city of jenin and the camp. around 70% of the audience now comes from the city of jenin. i’m not sure what the stats are for tonight’s performance, but the audience was enormous. as we walked inside the theater we were directed to the left side of the audience (women on left, men on right). after we filled all the chairs (perhaps 200 seats?) then people streamed in and sat on the stairs. it was amazing to see such attendance for a theatrical performance (my friend beesan says that we would never have such an audience if it were at an najah university, for example). perhaps it was because mohammad bakri is a very famous palestinian actor and director. he also has a film on emile habiby, called since you left, which i have been unable to see yet, but he promised me a copy after the show. i want to show it to my students when we read habiby’s novel later this semester.


i think the theater work they do there is great. i’ve posted before about the theatrical and therapeutic ways they use therapy at the freedom theater. but i was very turned off by some things about the director of the center, juliano mer khamis, as one can see in his film arna’s children (you can click this link to watch it on google video, but i hate this film so i will not post it here). there are elements of normalization that i don’t like in it. and there is an odd gap in the film when mer khamis leaves jenin and the film never explains why. he explained why when he first screened this film in ramallah a few years ago, though i cannot now recall the specifics. but i do recall him saying that he served in the israeli terrorist army. the absence of this context renders the film a bit more disturbing for me. i also found it disturbing that there was an israeli colonist filming the play tonight. how is it that only 7 years after the israeli terrorist massacre that he is welcomed in the camp? very disturbing.


but the theater is very cool and the performance by bakri tonight was amazing. the play excerpts certain threads of habiby’s novel and just as in the novel he plays both saeeds. the stage was very sparse–just a couple of props and a bed in the center. he also included a number of palestinian songs and encouraged the audience to sing along with him, which they did with vigor. and there was also a lovely kind of call-and-response in his play at a number of different moments when he would say something inviting the audience to respond. it was really beautiful to see not only the performance but this particular audience’s interaction with the actor. even when someone’s cell phone rang and the rest of the audience made noises of disapproval, bakri had an exchange with the young man with the phone. but he seemed to be in character the entire time, even with such disruptions.

i’m sure that having bakri in the camp had special significance for the people from the camp in the audience as he is the director of the wonderful documentary, jenin, jenin. i strongly recommend it and will insert it here for people who wish to watch it as it is an important reminder of what israeli terrorists do whether in jenin or in gaza:

this film has an interesting history as israeli terrorists filed a lawsuit against bakri after he made the film. bakri has a website explaining this context:

The atrocities of the Israeli military have been documented outside the film by researchers and activists who entered the camp after the military lifted its blockade, and confirmed by Israeli soldiers themselves such as Moshe Nissim, who bragged to Yediot Aharonot about his use of an armored D-9 bulldozer to flatten homes in the refugee camp. “Jenin Jenin,” however, is distinguished by its focus on the direct experience and narratives of the Palestinian victims themselves, from young girls to old men, refugees from their own homes from which they were expelled in 1948, once again finding their homes destroyed, by the same enemy, over 54 years later.

However, since its initial release, “Jenin Jenin” has come under attack within the Israeli legal system. After the military invasion of Jenin, the sealing off of the city and its closure to reporters and human rights groups, the attack on this film has served as a mechanism for further silencing and delegitimizing the voices of the Palestinians of Jenin camp.

As a Palestinian Arab who holds Israeli citizenship, born and living within the areas of Palestine occupied in 1948, Bakri’s position as less than a second-class citizen living in an occupied land is visibly illustrated by the speed with which his artistic and cultural production has become subject to state censorship, control and legal attack. When first released, after only three screenings, Bakri’s film was banned by the Israeli Film Board in 2002, accused of being libelous and offensive for telling the unmediated stories of Palestinians.

When, in 2004, the Israeli High Court finally upheld its earlier overturn of the ban, it nevertheless joined the Film Board in labeling the film a “propagandistic lie,” illustrating its own basis in the racist structure of the state that is reliant on the rejection and silencing of Palestinian voices and Palestinian narrative, just as it is upon the dispossession of Palestinian people and the theft of Palestinian land, while providing the outward appearance of democracy and proper judicial process. Rather than focusing on Jenin as an internal issue to be resolved among Israeli voices – a debate among the occupiers – “Jenin Jenin” focused on the voices of Palestinians, placing itself, as an artistic creation of a Palestinian filmmaker in a state based on the denial of that very identity, outside the framework of “legitimate” expression.

anyone thinking of the massive media censorship in gaza should think about bakri’s case. it sheds so much light on why they don’t want you to know what is really going on. likewise, the lebanese army in 2007, when they invaded and destroyed nahr el bared refugee camp in lebanon is yet another stark parallel to jenin. i remember fouad siniora saying something that summer about how he wanted to re-build it as a “model camp.” at the time many palestinians from nahr el bared talked about something which seemed like a rumor or a conspiracy theory: but clearly they were right. they thought that the lebanese government was just looking for an excuse to destroy the camp so they could build a military base on its land (while 80% of the camp residents remain internally displaced and are not allowed to return home). i posted the open letter from the camp residents before, but i will link it here. and here is the map that set off the alarms:


and here is what a recent article in afp reported about this so-called “model camp”:

A major reconstruction operation by the Lebanese authorities and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) is to kick off later this month to rebuild a “model camp,” according to the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), a government focal point in the reconstruction effort.

“The rebuilding plan is the result of a partnership between UNRWA, the Lebanese state and the Palestinian Authority,” said LPDC advisor Ziad Sayegh.

“We seek to build a model camp that would provide a minimum standard of decent living for the Palestinians under the state’s sovereignty and authority.”

UNRWA has appealed for 450 million dollars for the rebuilding, which is scheduled to be completed in around three years. So far it has raised around 120 million dollars.

“We do need more resources to rebuild the camp but that doesn’t mean we are not going ahead with it,” said Charlie Higgins, UNRWA’s project manager. “At a certain point in the middle of this year if we don’t receive any more resources or funding we will stop and the process will be delayed.”

He said UNRWA was appealing to different countries for additional funds.

“We are confident we’ll have this money but we have to show that we are actually moving ahead,” Higgins added.

A Lebanese naval base will be set up at the edge of the camp despite strong opposition from the resident refugees who view this as a “form of restriction” and point to the fact that the base would be located near schools.

“The base is necessary for monitoring all the northern coasts and combating trafficking… this is not a restriction,” said Sayegh.

He added that an army post and a police station will also be built inside the camp, along with health centres and schools.

“The police station will ensure law enforcement and protect the Palestinians,” he said “There will be no compromise on sovereign decisions.

“It will be a model camp in terms of services and quality of buildings and roads.”

when i heard siniora talk about this idea of a “model camp” two years ago it was in the context of jenin refugee camp. he said that he wanted to rebuild it like jenin was rebuilt. but i saw jenin refugee camp tonight. and it looks like a normal refugee camp with newer houses in it. the streets are still narrow. the homes are still small. and this is what the people of nahr el bared told me again and again that they want: they want to rebuild the camp exactly as it was before. but if you look at the map above clearly that is not possible. and their fear that they always talk about is the width of the streets. friends from nahr el bared want the same narrow roads because for them a wider road, for them, means easy access with army tanks. my friend beesan tonight happens to be the niece of one of the architects who rebuilt jenin refugee camp. there the families had agency and a role to play in how it was rebuilt. in nahr el bared they don’t. and it’s unclear as to what will happen when this military base is built on the ruins of peoples lives that were looted and destroyed by the lebanese army.


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