This article was originally published in Italian on the 17th of October by Radio Bullets. Words by Elena Pasquini.
MILAN – As they left for a gathering in Italy on 6 October 2023, the border closed behind them with a sharp sound, as if a weighty padlock were locking – more like a punishment than an unexpected fortune. Rawand is from Jenin, in the northern part of the West Bank, Palestine. Ilaria is Italian, but she lives in Bethlehem. Both want to go back to the land that, currently, no one can leave, or enter.
In Milan’s unusually warm autumn, Rawand smiles without a hint of uncertainty: “Art is the language of the world… Art changes things.” Both must return because creativity is resistance, while violence only leads to more violence. Palestine has to narrate itself.
At Base, the former Ansaldo industrial complex, Rawand and Ilaria are among the “Creativity Pioneers” who have travelled from every corner of the world for “A Creativity Revival,” a gathering hosted by the Moleskine Foundation which supports the work of the Pioneers. The Foundation believes imagination has the power to turn barrenness into a garden, just as Rawand Arqawi, along with other artists, turned an empty and unfurnished space into the Fragments Theatre, a theater and cultural center in the old city of Jenin.
THE JOURNEY TO ITALY
“When I booked the tickets [to Italy], I was afraid that something might happen… I was worried about missing the flight. So, I traveled two days earlier,” Rawand says. Like all Palestinians, she cannot depart from Tel Aviv; she must go through Jordan. That was where she waited to leave. “When I arrived in Venice, my family called me. ‘Have you seen the news?… Oh my God!’ I put my hand on my heart. I said, ‘oh my God, they invaded Jenin!’ [I thought]. I hadn’t seen the news yet. My mother was calling me and telling me lots of crazy things…”
Rawand had a sense that something was about to happen. However, she thought it would be in her city, where tension was rising after the July 2023 incursion, the biggest Israeli military operation in the last twenty years. The Israel Defense Forces were hunting perpetrators of terrorist acts in the refugee camp established in the 1950s – a monument to suffering, reminding us that occupation and war are not recent phenomena. It was a fighting that, instead, left a trail of innocent blood to fuel reparation or revenge. “This gave me the feeling that the people of Palestine would not remain silent, that they would react,” she explains. However, Rawand could not have imagined what was unfolding in Gaza.
Ilaria Speri, managing director of The Wonder Cabinet, a multidisciplinary artistic and cultural production center founded in Bethlehem by architects Elias and Yousef Anastas, arrived in Milan a few days earlier too. She is not Palestinian so she can move freely and fly from Tel Aviv. Almost the entire Wonder Cabinet team left between October 5 and 6 for various work destinations – a stroke of “luck” that Ilaria doesn’t feel comfortable calling “luck.” Ilaria was supposed to be in Milan with her Palestinian colleague: “She was supposed to go to Amman the day after my departure, but the day after was October 7.”
THE PALESTINIAN POWDER KEG
“Clearly, the West Bank is a powder keg right now,” Ilaria explains – although her friends report “a situation of calm, absolute silence.” It is surreal for her. She finds it impossible to imagine Bethlehem without its chaotic traffic , which brings to the city thousand workers, families and individuals daily, from all across the south west bank and jerusalem, mainly for work purposes.
Jenin is a powder keg too where, life has always been marked by violence and truces. Working in Jenin is full of uncertainties. “A sudden attack by the Israeli army will be followed by shooting which means everything has to be canceled,” Rawand explains. Too often, children are the victims. “Who is responsible for this?” she wonders. “[Palestinians] don’t push for [violence]; they want the same right to walk down the street as normal people, the same rights as settlers. Israel says it wants to protect its residents, okay. But what about the residents of Jenin?”
Forced to take up arms, forced into war, Rawand argues.
BETWEEN GAZA AND THE WEST BANK
In a beeline, the distance between Gaza and the northern part of Palestine is just over one hundred thirty kilometers, yet there is no possible route for taking this journey: The only thing moving between these two strips of land is fear. “Everyone is worried about what is happening in Gaza, no one knows what will happen,” Rawand says. She does not accept the equation that makes every Palestinian a terrorist: “Hamas is a military group fighting with Israel, so why punish the children?” Fear is spreading fast like an avalanche. It is the result of decades of segregation, violence, and poverty: “I am Palestinian, and I hear the people, I hear what they say, what they talk about: ‘We have to die, but at least we are doing something…‘”. It comes down to fighting for a city constantly under attack, a poor city, like all of Palestine. “In July, in Jenin, people fought, women, children… ‘Whether we are above ground or under the ground, we are dead people,’ [they said],” Rawand murmurs.
Ilaria has lived in Palestine for a year and a half. She is the only foreigner in the Wonder Cabinet, a local organisation. The only one who can move freely and reach Jerusalem, drive through settler-only roads on a yellow plate car, without a permit – as required for all west bank id holders as part of a system based on racial, religious and economic premises aimed at the control and restriction of movement of Palestinians .
WHEN RESISTANCE IS NOT VIOLENT
There are also those, like Rawand and Ilaria, who have chosen to take another path, to involve themselves in another form of resistance. “This is our task,” Rawand emphasizes. “I am not a fighter… We have found our way to resist through art. Staying in Jenin, continuing our work in the most difficult situations, that is resistance… Or coming here[to Italy].I came worried, I was scared and left two days earlier. It is more difficult for us to do things that are easy for others… and even passing through Jordan is horrible.” Their’s is non-violent resistance. ” What we are doing is very important. It is very important [for example] to help children talk about what is happening. This is also a type of resistance, and this is our role,” she emphasizes repeatedly. “Show the right side of life, give them hope, make art an adventure!” That’s what creativity is for – and above all, to give a voice to those who have learned to stifle theirs.
“There is nothing in Jenin, no entertainment, voices are silent, no one can raise their voice to talk about what is happening [there] or in Palestine,” she says. “We give them the space where they can express themselves.” Anger, pain and all their feelings: “Through our theatre shows, you can criticize the community, talk about your problems… Through theater, through art, young people can send messages. And children who have nothing to do – apart from playing soccer in the street – can learn, have fun, and we can bring them hope.”
THEATER AS HEALING
That’s why Rawand established the theater. Her and her team started by staging “Peter Pan,” and now they use visual arts and cinema with women, children, and young people, while also addressing mental health, in a space where artists – especially the young but also the entire community – can present their work. It’s not easy to make art in Jenin; it’s ‘a struggle, like a war, as if you had fought a battle,” without money and challenging a conservative society. “When we started, people didn’t accept the idea of theater, they attacked us at the beginning. Some protested, saying they didn’t want it in their neighborhood”, reflects Rawand. Even worse if you’re a woman: “Some people want to stop me and my work, they don’t accept that women run a theater.” Rawand speaks of threats and fear: “I was really scared at first, and then I said to myself, ‘Why should I be scared? I know what I’m doing, I believe in myself, and let’s fight’… In the end, I could prove that I was totally right.” However, it takes patience, proceeding one step at a time, and “being kind,” she explains. It’s necessary to show how beauty can spring.
The name, Fragments Theatre was chosen because after the 2011 assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis, an Arab-Israeli artist with whom they worked in the refugee camp, Rawand and other Palestinian artists scattered around the world, inspired by Juliano’s legacy, decided to return.
Fragments, like the Palestinian artists forced to leave their land. Fragments, like Palestine’s land, which cannot be freely crossed because of checkpoints, its territory divided into A, B, and C zones controlled by the Palestinian Authority or the Israeli army.
In Bethlehem, The Wonder Cabinet tries to put those “fragments” of people back together in a new building that was inaugurated in May 2023. It is a space made of voids between glass and concrete – voids to be filled with the forms of an identity, the Palestinian identity, too often written by others or elsewhere.
Defined by craftsmanship, design, architecture, visual arts, music, and food, The Wonder Cabinet was conceived “to connect a territory that is strongly, clearly fragmented from a physical and social point of view, from an architectural control imposed on the entire West Bank, which effectively separates one city from another,” explains Ilaria. The Wonder Cabinet seeks to become a bridge connecting Bethlehem, with other cities in the West Bank, the territories of ‘48, or historic Palestine, and the respective communities, including those of the Palestinian diaspora.
THE ART OF WEAVING SOCIETY
“It is about bringing together the Palestinian creative community where the entire territory is completely exploded, fragmented, and hardly crossable from one side to the other. Creating a reason for connection,” she adds. However, it is also a place to try to weave back together a society that is in pieces. It is a space where the creative scene can develop, where Palestinians can access physical tools, machinery, and skills that are not usually accessible in the country which is pushing artists to leave in search for resources and tools elsewhere.
The Wonder Cabinet is a space where job opportunities can be generated, culture and knowledge exchanged, where foreigners can be engage with the local community, and where there is always something new: “Almost on a daily basis, we have local musicians come to perform, [for example], a selection of vinyl from our archives… Just before October 7, we were working on an archival project with Mo’min Swaitat, who over the years has given life to the Majazz Project, accumulating a growing archive of rare cassettes and vinyl, many acquired from a former record label in Jenin, containing everything from traditional wedding songs to resistance songs, to the various sound experiments of the second half of the 20th century in and around Palestine” shares Ilaria.
When the Wonder Cabinet opened, hundreds of people from across Palestine, except Gaza, since it’s been under siege for over 15 years, came for three days: “The entire creative community was there, students, teachers, international organizations as well as our neighbors with whom we work closely,” Ilaria says, betraying the emotion surrounding that event. It was a challenge because many people in Palestine live in “survival mode,” and the value of creativity as an “organic part of the individual” has been lost. It’s often seen as a luxury or, at most, entertainment. However, there is one thing that art is for: telling oneself and, in the telling, affirming one’s identity.
Rawand is convinced that Palestine is not represented for what it really is. Ilaria believes the Palestinian identity “is in the hands of anyone but the Palestinians,” and therefore always defined in relation to Israel. “The same interpretation of craftsmanship, for example, is often folkloristic, nostalgic, set up in such a way as to satisfy a Western audience. Little attention is paid to what is really happening locally. The point is to create a space for the local voice to express itself, tell its story, and have a platform to help advance this voice,” she explains. A safe space to express oneself freely in a land “always under scrutiny.”
Now everything is closed in the West Bank. Ilaria, if she attempted to return, could maybe reach Tel Aviv, or cross through Jordanian borders but then the wall and the new gates, concrete blocks, and flying checkpoints separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem would stop her. It still cannot be crossed. “At the moment, we cannot physically be there.We are just waiting to return. I got the news of the cancellation of my flight last night: I knew it would come, but I was still hoping it wouldn’t”says Ilaria.
Some would say Ilaria lucky to be in Milan: “The fact of having been ‘lucky’ upsets me because I already enjoy disgraceful privileges, such as having a passport that has allowed me and allows me to travel, even to be able to return when people are physically blocked, or having had the opportunity to come here, talk about the situation, share this experience when my colleague is more entitled to do so, and should have been here too” shares Ilaria.
Suspended, Ilaria and Rawand are waiting to get back to work. “Of course, I want to return,” Rawand affirms. “We will continue our work… We have to continue.” There is a new project to carry out, a collection of short stop-motion films.” Now is the time to speak. ” Speaking of the desire to stay alive, to continue living like every normal person in the world, in a safe space where everyone can express his opinion, or go to Nablus if one wants, or pray in the al-Aqsa mosque, or just sleep peacefully at night. The result of violence is only more violence, Rawand argues. “Art is a very strong language… Art can change [things]… We resist through art.”