Performing Civil Resistance in Palestine: A Conversation with Ben Rivers of \“The Freedom Bus\”

By Chana Morgenstern

The interview on the Freedom Bus is the first installation in a series of articles on contemporary artists and organizations that challenge occupation, partition, racism, and violence in Israel/Palestine and support community resistance and culture through writing, theater, visual art and film.—series editor Chana Morgenstern and assistant series editor Ghada Abdelqader 

The Freedom Bus, an initiative of The Freedom Theatre, uses interactive theatre and cultural activism to, in their own words, "bear witness, raise awareness, and build alliances throughout occupied Palestine and beyond." A few weeks ago, Palestinians and allies from around the world took part in a nine-day solidarity ride through eleven communities in the West Bank of occupied Palestine. Last spring, they toured through Egypt and Jordan, connecting with local communities and preforming stories from the Egyptian and Syrian Uprisings. The following interview took place in July 2012 at a weekend rehearsal during which the Freedom Bus troupe prepared for their nine-day performance tour throughout Palestine. Me and Elin Nicholson, a doctoral student who is completing her dissertation on contemporary Palestinian theater, attended the troupe’s rehearsals and interviewed members of the troupe on their experiences performing in communities throughout the region. In what follows, Ben Rivers, the director of the Freedom Bus troupe, discusses the Freedom Ride, the tour to Jordan and Egypt, and the relationship between communities, stories, political resistance and theater in Palestine and the Middle East today.

Chana Morgenstern and Elin Nicholson: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Playback Theatre and its role in the cultural resistance movement in Palestine?

Ben Rivers: Very simply, Playback theatre is a form of improvisational, interactive theatre where audience members are invited to share a story from their life. An ensemble of actors and musicians listen to the story and upon its completion they instantly turn it into a piece of improvised theatre. Playback Theatre was formed in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and his partner, Jo Salas, who were part of the Hudson River Playback theatre company. Fox and Salas, from the very beginning, were committed to using Playback as a way of amplifying and broadcasting the voice of marginalized communities. Our troupe travels to communities all over the West Bank, where we listen to and act out many different kinds of stories about life under the occupation. This is really the first time that Playback theatre has been used in Palestine and the Freedom Bus troupe is the first Playback Theatre troupe in the Arab world. It’s a form which seems to meet a very obvious need or demand that one frequently hears within Palestinian society. Palestinians are not asking for humanitarian aid or a ticket out of Palestine. Rather, people are saying: “listen to my story and take it to the world!” This is a very common request, and so Playback theatre is in some ways the perfect form to meet this demand. It is also more mobile and economical than most other art forms that aim to achieve the same end, because we don’t need sets or props.

CM: What inspired you and The Freedom Theatre to launch The Freedom Bus, which is specifically a travelling playback theatre troupe?

BR: The idea came about in December last year [2011]. We were inspired by the Palestinian Freedom Ride, which was an act of civil disobedience in which a group of Palestinian activists boarded a Jewish-only settler bus in the West Bank and were arrested. The whole event was live-streamed, and it gained a massive amount of international attention. They were inspired, of course by the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era in America. So the idea of the Freedom Bus was inspired by that action and the historic freedom rides in the American South and in Australia in 1964 and 1965. Freedom Rides have usually had two intentions: one is to engage participants in acts of civil disobedience that challenge racist laws; the other is to bring non-locals to an area that is experiencing structural racism and give them the opportunity to see the reality on the ground. The Palestinian Freedom Ride that took place in November aimed to fulfill that first objective, whereas The Freedom Bus aims to fulfill the second objective, which is to bring internationals and other Palestinians to communities throughout the West Bank to learn from community members about the realities of their life, not only the negative impact of occupation, but also about the resilience of the communities and the ways that they engage in popular struggle. Our other aim is to try and collect and broadcast as many pieces of the Palestinian narrative as possible: the narratives of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel/Palestine ’48, and in the diaspora.

CM: And where will The Freedom Bus be travelling to?

BR: There are nine West Bank communities that we’ll visit and perform in during the nine-day ride. We’ll also have a couple of events focusing on themes: one performance will focus on the theme of political imprisonment, and ex-prisoners and families of currently imprisoned people will be sharing their stories. There will also be one event that focuses on the history of popular struggle, and we will be inviting people to share stories about historic boycotts and general strikes, and creative protests that took place in the first intifada. There will also be three concerts and a street theatre event. In addition, we will hold a Playback Theatre event with Gaza via video conference.

EN: Do you feel that by moving throughout the West Bank, you’re helping promote the Palestinian story and encourage cohesion between the different Palestinian localities and communities?

BR: That’s our stated objective, but we’re really at the very beginning—you know, we’ve only been working for nine months now. But that is definitely one of our objectives: to connect villages, towns, refugee camps and Bedouin encampments to one another, and this will take place during the Freedom Bus Ride, where Palestinians will also travel on the bus. Up until now, it hasn’t really happened, because our troupe goes to a community and we perform in a community, but we don’t take community members from one village to another. So really the primary way that this connection has been happening is for the actors and musicians (who are all Palestinian), because for them this is a new experience, to be meeting people up and down the West Bank and getting to know their stories. But, what we hope to do—this is the dream—through this project, is to create a collective of hip-hop artists, poets, musicians, and actors that can be a resource for villages who want to use the arts for cultural resistance. And this can be a way that we promote this cross-pollination between different communities and perhaps through ongoing Freedom Rides as well, that can be another way that Palestinians can travel through these different geographic areas. One example of how that’s worked already is in al-Walajah—we did a Playback Theatre performance in al-Walajah in January, and after that, the community asked us to come back and hold other events there including a performance during one of their monthly protests.

EN: Ah, so they demonstrate against the Separation Wall, like in Bil’in and other villages?

BR: They do. The difference is that, I think in Bil’in, the Wall is now completed, and they have been demonstrating to have it moved back to the Green Line. In al-Walajah, the plan is to construct the Wall in such a way that the village will almost be encircled by it, the only way in and out will be via a checkpoint. In the process of carrying out this plan, much of the village land has been confiscated, homes have been demolished, and many youth have been imprisoned. It has been a terrible tragedy for the community so far, and once the Wall is complete, it will be the death of the village. They have regular demonstrations against the construction of the Wall, and we were invited to come and perform at one of these events. The event took place on a hilltop next to where the Wall is being constructed. This piece of land where we performed has been unilaterally declared an Israeli National Park, even though it’s been farmed for generations by the village. Once the wall is constructed, the village will have no access to it. We performed between the olive trees on this piece of land; it’s a very, very beautiful hilltop, and on that hilltop there is a house that was going to be demolished, but due to many protests and other actions, the house was rescued, and instead, the Wall architects decided to build a four-meter-high electrified barrier around the house, and the residents of the house will only have access to the village through a tunnel that goes under the wall surrounding their house. And this tunnel costs 5 million NIS—complete absurdity. So this site on which we performed, it’s charged, you know, it’s a very charged physical space, because of all these things: the fact that it’s going to be an Israeli national park, that you have this house and this family who are going to be imprisoned inside of an electrified fence, and it’s also right next to the site were the Wall itself is to be constructed. Two hundred people attended the performance. There were many internationals that came as well as Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank and also from inside Israel/Palestine ’48. The [Israeli] army also decided to attend and they sealed off the village to stop other people attending, so there were many more people that wanted to come, but couldn’t. The army formed this barrier, a squadron of soldiers, heavily armed with all of their usual crowd-control instruments—sound-bombs, M16s, tear-gas canisters, you know, the whole thing . . . all against a group of actors, musicians and unarmed audience members. If you go to the homepage of the Freedom Bus Web site, you’ll see that there is a short video-clip on the homepage, you can see some of the footage from the event there. You can see the military, you’ll see the actors, the audience. It was a very, very moving event. The first person to speak was a ten-year-old boy, and he was the son of the family that lives in this house that would be surrounded by the electric fence.

CM: What did he say?

BR: He said: “As I look over this sea of faces, I feel a sense of belonging.” It was such a beautiful thing to say, you know, like he really felt so joyful to see all these people coming to stand in solidarity with him and his family and his community. And later in the event, his father spoke, and he said that in this performance, he had found another way to resist through theatre and music, and he also said that “at this moment, I feel free from the occupation.” In full view of this heavily armed military presence! And to me this really spoke to the power of the arts and to a solidarity movement to give hope to communities and families that are really struggling. So, the point of the story is that it’s an example of how we can help to break down this fragmentation that happens in Palestine and to bring people from different parts of Palestine together, because in that event there were many Palestinians from different areas present.

CM: That’s amazing. We were curious about whether you see this process of reenacting difficult or traumatic stories in front of a community as a therapeutic process?

BR: We don’t present Playback theatre as therapy but many community members spontaneously comment on the therapeutic nature of their experience. For example last year we did a performance in Jenin on the theme of political imprisonment, and there was one man who shared his story: he had been in prison for three years, and had experienced many forms of psychological torture while he was in prison. He spoke about how the prison authorities tried to convince him that his whole family had been killed, and they did this by fabricating photographs of martyred family members, of the funeral. And other times they tried to convince him that he was infected by some fatal illness and isolated him in a special cell. When the prison staff came in, they were always masked. They injected him with so-called medicine. So these were some of the ways that they tried to break his spirit and force him to “confess.” He had been free for four years by the time he came to this performance, but he said that there was not a day that went by that he did not wake up filled with the memories of his time in prison. So, I interviewed him the day after the performance and one of the questions I asked him was why he chose to tell that particular story because I know that it’s taboo for men to speak about torture in Palestinian society. He said that he had two reasons: first, he wanted to educate his community in case other people were detained, imprisoned, or tortured. In this way they could psychologically prepare themselves for the possibility of torture. He also said that a part of him hoped that by telling his story, some of the weight of his experience would be lifted. In fact he commented, that after telling his story and seeing it enacted, he felt for the first time in four years a sense of relief that was created, partially by the concretization of his suffering and then by noticing the distance between this and himself as a teller.

EN: In the spring the Freedom Bus travelled to Jordan and Egypt to playback stories from the Egyptian and Syrian uprisings and the Arab Spring. Can you tell us a bit about what happened on the trip and what it was like to go there as a Palestinian troupe?
BR: Yes, well, with the Freedom Bus our main focus really is raising awareness about life under occupation in the West Bank, but we did go to Jordan, in January, to run a four-day Playback Theatre workshop, and we also did a performance called “Stories from the Arab Spring.” And we did this in Amman. During the performance, people in the audience shared stories about their own experience of the uprisings over the last year. After the show, somebody in the audience invited us to go to Egypt to a gathering of cultural activists and scholars that were meeting in Alexandria. We accepted the invitation, and because we were going there anyway, we decided to organize a week of performances in Cairo beforehand. Whilst there, we did four performances, and each one focused on a different aspect of the revolution. The first performance was called: “Workers’ Strikes and the Revolution,” and we focused on the role of the labor movement in the lead-up to the revolution. The second performance was about prisoners and martyrs in the revolution. As you know, many people were killed during the eighteen-day uprising, but after the revolution, [they] continued to use excessive violence and imprisoned many activists. So that was the theme of the second performance. The third performance was about the role of artists in the revolution. The last performance occurred in Tahrir Square in the Syria Revolution tent where we heard stories from Syrian refugees who’d escaped the uprising. That was mindblowing, that was very powerful, you know, the tent was packed, there was probably over two hundred people. It was totally packed, people were flowing into the streets, and you know, this . . . these are people who have escaped from, you know, hell, they’ve lived through the most horrific experiences, and so they’ve been bursting with stories that they wanted to share.

And the energy of the crowd directed the performance in ways that we didn’t expect. For example, one man shared his story and then afterward he took the microphone and started reciting a poem, and then he’s standing up in front of the audience and he begins to sing, and suddenly the whole audience is singing with him. And then another time, the facilitator was interviewing a man in the audience, and suddenly he starts chanting, and again the whole tent breaks out into this collective chant, and at the end—we had these incredible musicians playing with us, they kept playing, and all these men streamed up onto the stage and began dancing together and a young boy climbed up onto the shoulders of his father and began singing, and I realized at that moment that all we’d really done is create a space where the community could come together to assert its identity as survivors and fighters, and they were using these visceral forms that we have used as human beings since the dawn of civilization: song and chants and dance, as ways to assert our defiance of death.

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