Faisal Abu Alhayjaa
Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, the youngest of ten, was born in the Jenin Refugee Camp in Palestine. Faisal participated in UN summer camps when he was a child, which is where he was first introduced to theater. Faisal realized his passion for theater after watching the documentary Arna’s Children, directed by Juliano Mer-Khamis. When Juliano opened an acting school as part of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Faisal became one of the first students to join. After graduating, he served a resident artist in Freedom Theatre for the next five years and taught the next generation of acting school students. During his residency, he also traveled to many countries on behalf of Freedom Theatre, meeting artists and representing Palestine, including to Georgetown University as part of the US tour of Athol Fugard’s The Island. In 2012, he joined Red Noses International as a clown to bring laughter into children’s hospitals across the West Bank where he found and experienced the power of laughter. Faisal founded his own company “Palestinian Laughter Liberation” (PLL), the first clown and physical comedy company in Palestine. Their philosophy is “laugh about it and you can change it.”
Why me? This is a question every Palestinian asks at some point in their lives. We ask this question at checkpoints, when we are arrested by soldiers, and when someone is killed. The question has become a part of our daily lives. I, too, have asked this question many times. When soldiers block a road, and I cannot get to my destination, I ask: Why me? Our impulse is to blame ourselves when something terrible happens, which makes us internalise blame and believe that we must be punished.
Life under occupationpresents questions around anxiety and anger as it is connected to our internalised blame and victimhood. We blame ourselves for everything beyond our control. Yet, being a theatre artist, a clown and a comedian, I have witnessed how the arts and theatre routinely turns this questionon its head. I have seen how practitioners and audiencescreate the spaces they need to stop blaming and punishing themselves. Instead, they are able to ask the questions we never ask: “Why them? Why arethe soldiers doing this? Why them?”
One summer I directed theatre workshops involving villagers from Atuwani, a small Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank. My intention was to gather stories. Every day, the villagers are attackedby the inhabitants of the nearby illegal Israeli settlement. Their movements are also restricted due to Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks. Settlers attack Palestinian shepherds, farmers, and even children walking to and from school. The villagers, however, resist these attacks using non-violent tactics.
Atuwani, the play I directed, was inspired by a storyone of the children told me. The child said, that in their excitement for an annual summer camp, the villagers decided to collect old tires, paint them in the colours of the Palestinian flag, and arrange them on the side of one of the hills. Everyone had joined in, assembling the structure that was big enough to be visible from the village.
But the tires could also be seen from the settlement. One of the settlers had come down and stole one of the tires.The children were angry and upset by the settler’ action and organized a demonstration on the hill. They marched up and down with placards, chanting: “We want our tires! We want our tires!” Eventually, the settler got annoyed and decided to give the children a tire. But this was a different tire, and the children wanted the original ones. The demonstrations continued. This time, the children were joined by other people from the village. Eventually, the settler returned the very tires he had stolen. The children rejoiced. Everyone cheered their victory.
The children of Atuwani used their creative and artistic skills to overcome anger, anxiety, and the cycle of blame. Instead of asking, Why us?, the children asked, Why them? Why are they doing this? By avoiding blaming themselves, by resisting anger and anxiety, they responded more constructively to what happened. Audiences were amazed by this message in Al-Tuwanias we toured the West Bank.Theyfelt empowered, overjoyed, and left the performances with a sense of victory. They were also left to ask themselves: What is my tire? What am I going to do to get it?
Even though Atuwani is about just one tire, the story itself represents a victory for Palestinians against the system thatharasses them daily. No matter where they live in the West Bank, audiences see their own anger, anxiety and blame reflected in the children’s story. They also see how these things can be transformed into a more fruitful action, and how a new life can be won.