beautiful resistance

“We call it ‘beautiful resistance’. It involves using theatre as a means to overcome the ugliness of occupation and to reclaim our humanity.”
That’s how Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder and director of the Al Rowad Centre at Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, explained the children’s arts project his team has been running for the past 10 years.
“We don’t want our children to be put in a corner where their only response is violence. This is our way of saying we are human beings and equal partners for making changes in the world.
“We want to break down the stereotypes and show another image of Palestinian culture.”
Abusrour was born in the refugee camp, which was built by the UN to take displaced Palestinians in 1950. Over the years it became clear that they would not be going home, and the UN-issue tents were replaced with small houses.
Today, almost 60 years later, it’s one of three camps in Bethlehem and 22 in the West Bank. There are also eight refugee camps in Gaza, 10 each in Jordan and Syria and 12 in Lebanon.
As he walked me through the warren of narrow lanes that make up Aida, Abusrour talked me through some of the figures. The 5,000 people that call the 27,000 sq m camp home today come from 41 different villages, most in the Hebron and Jerusalem areas.
Two-thirds are below the age of 18. There are no green or open spaces so children must play on the streets or in community centres like his to pass the time. The camp now stands in the shadow of Israel’s separation wall (below).

A staggering 77 per cent of adults in Aida are unemployed – compared to a West Bank average of about 55 per cent. Four out of five people live on less than a dollar a day.
Al Rowad means “pioneers” in Arabic. “The idea was to create the possibility of something beautiful and safe for the children – we were fed up of our children just being statistics. We have lost 26 people in the second intifada, of whom five or six were under 18. They were shot by the army.
“We are well aware that Palestinian children are only every portrayed as stone-throwers and full of hate as if they were born like that,” he says.
“To me, theatre seemed a great tool for restoring our humanity, otherwise we would be living in a jungle. We were born under occupation and are living under occupation and naturally people do try to resist.
“We wanted a beautiful and human way to do this while keeping our humanity intact. When people practice violence they lose part of this humanity. That’s the message we try to pass on to our children here. We want them to be positive changemakers not negative ones.”
Abusrour returned to Aida in 1994 following nine years in France. He holds a PhD in biology and medical engineering and lectured at Bethlehem University when he first returned, before coming up with the idea for Al Rowad and putting his own money into the project.
Art projects running at the centre include photography and video production, but theatre is the main one. Young people from the drama group have toured in Europe and Egypt over recent years.
Abusrour says: “We were one of the first in Palestine to use theatre as a way of resistance.
“The children can throw stones on stage and if they want to be a martyr they can act it out on stage.
“When they want to be alive they can wake up. It’s a safe and positive way of addressing certain issues.”