A Palestinian Education

Farkha Festival Diary

Following a welcome ceremony on the evening of our arrival, the 27th annual Farkah Festival began.

Festival hall at one of Farkha's schools.

Male participants slept in classrooms. Around 7.15, festival director, Bakir Hamad (father of the mayor, Mostafa Hamad), walked loudly past the makeshift dormitories, banging on doors and shouting “Yallah, Shabab!” (Let’s go, guys!) or ‘Good morning!’, depending on whether they contained Palestinians or internationals. 

Breakfast was provided between 7.30 and 8.30. Then it was off to work on the various tasks, which included building a wall around part of the school premises, painting classrooms and walls at the village schools and kindergarten, and setting up terraces to improve cultivation in the communal garden. 

While there was a plan for the 140 volunteers to rotate, the majority ended up settling on one task for most of the festival.

Lunch was usually followed by politics. This involved talks given by speakers with different roles, from active Palestinian People’s Party (PPP) members to academics. 

The talks were conducted mostly in Arabic and required translation; because of time constraints, the translation often omitted various details. One possible improvement for future editions would be to take translation time into account when scheduling the sessions. 

An exception to this was a wide-ranging presentation by Jamal Juma’, coordinator of the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, also known as Stop the Wall, which was initiated directly after the construction of the Separation Barrier began in 2002. 

Accompanying his lecture with numerous maps and illustrations, Juma’ went into considerable detail about the route of the wall and the land affected, the demographic engineering and expropriations in East Jerusalem and the popular struggle that gained steam with the initiation of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign in 2005. 

International and Palestinian volunteers at the communal garden.

Evening activities were usually more cultural, including theatre, music and dance performances (more on that later). Several times, the late dinner (10-11 pm) was followed by an ‘internal evaluation meeting’, which turned out to be an extended reflection on the day’s events by Bakir Hamad. 

The combination of morning wake-up calls and late speeches soon took its toll on his voice, which became ever hoarser, yet no less powerful, as the festival proceeded. 

One event that stood out for many participants was a trip on the second day – after the morning’s work – to the nearby village of Beit Dajan to support the locals at their weekly protest against the threat of settlement expansion. 

There is already a settlement close to the village, on Mount Sabih, and one settler – a single man – has been demanding further village land for his farm. 

As one of the tasks of the army in occupied Palestine is to protect and support settlers in almost anything they do – often while being ordered around and abused by them – these protests are met by soldiers who declare them forbidden. 

Each protest has a similar dramaturgy: slogans are chanted (most loudly by youths, their faces concealed by kufiyas, and declarations are made by senior participants. In some cases, stones are fired by boys with slingshots, and at a certain point – sometimes before the first stones, sometimes afterwards – the soldiers shoot tear gas grenades at the crowd and take pot shots at individual participants with rubber-coated bullets. 

After meeting at the community centre and listening to a brief speech from the mayor, another PPP comrade, we set off. The joint forces of locals and volunteers meant that there were far more protesters than usual, enough to extend all the way from the beginning of the demonstration path to the army blockade. 

As we walked towards the soldiers ahead of us, we saw more perched on the hill to our right as well as some standing in the fields below, to our left. We were surrounded. There were also a handful of reporters nearer to us on the right. 

The ritual took its course, and we soon fled from tear gas and other projectiles. 

Elder vs IDF, Beit Dajan. (Photo: Raman Bilal)

Speaking to locals over lunch afterwards, we were told that the soldiers had been softer than usual in their response on account of the international presence. Only two protesters had been injured by bullets, compared to 15 or so on many occasions. 

Since the weekly demonstrations began, some villagers have been killed. There was a memorable moment when one man took his phone out of his pocket; it had been damaged by a rubber-coated bullet fired at his leg. 

Shortly after the demonstration, it rang, evidently still functional. In occupied Palestine, even the phones resist. 

After we returned to Farkha, the usual afternoon speaking event began with a few words about the demonstration. 

“Palestine was not freed today,” the first speaker wryly conceded, “but we were not alone.” He thanked the international volunteers for joining Palestinians in their struggle and underlined the importance of such shows of solidarity, however powerless they might seem. We were told that this strengthened them, and hearing these words in turn encouraged us. 

I understand those who dismiss such outings as this as a form of tourism for privileged Westerners to feel good about themselves, but it was clear that it had served a purpose beyond that. In one of his subsequent evening speeches, Bakir Hamad reiterated this, apologising for placing volunteers in danger. I did not, however, have the impression that many of us regretted attending the protest. 

While the Israeli occupation is the overall source of Palestinian hardship, some of the festival events also addressed problems within Palestinian society. 

In one session, two female activists spoke of the women’s struggle in the context of national liberation, describing their attempts to find a place within it and the disappointment of the situation reached after the Oslo Accords and the installation of the Palestinian Authority. 

The activists made no bones about the patriarchal obstacles placed in their path, explaining how many women sought to come to terms with their disillusionment by doing social rather than political work. 

The theme of gender equality was also featured in the festival’s theatre performance, a two-part play called Abu Salma presented by the Ashtar Theatre from Ramallah. 

In the first part, a female corporate employee complains to her boss that she is doing more than her share of work yet has been denied a pay rise for years, while the company’s male staff do less and receive more. She is mocked by her male co-workers and her boss denies all wrongdoing until she finally resigns in frustration. 

At that point, the action stopped and the presenter entered the stage. It then became clear that this was to be an evening of interactive theatre modelled on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which breaks up the rigid schema of performers and audience to introduce the role of ‘spect-actor’. 

The presenter asked for a volunteer to come on stage and put herself in the frustrated employee’s shoes, showing how she might approach workplace discrimination and find a solution. 

Two women volunteered, the first with a vehement approach, and the second with a more diplomatic one. After their contributions, the play was brought to a conclusion. 

The whispered translation by volunteers planted among the non-natives did not give us a full picture, but the surprisingly convincing performances of the amateur actors compensated for some of the missing information.

The second part was a completely separate story, this time about a businessman – Abu Salma himself – who receives phone calls from the authorities pressuring him to prevent demonstrations by dissatisfied workers. 

Abu Salma confronts one official in his office, but is fobbed off; here the action paused, and this time the presenter asked for a male volunteer. It became clear that this was a critique of the Palestinian Authority and its methods as the inferior arm of the occupation. In a conversation with a theatre member afterwards, I learned that the company themselves had good reason to be so critical. 

Only a few weeks earlier, a multicoloured street theatre performance of theirs had been misread as LGBTQ activism by the Palestinian Authority, who then sent thugs to beat them up. So, while some opponents of Palestine activism like to distract from Israeli oppression by referring to problems within Palestinian society, the play and the presentation by the feminist activists demonstrated that Palestinians are perfectly aware of those challenges themselves. 

One late evening event during the festival provided a contrast with the intra-Palestinian focus of many presentations. At short notice, the organising team had decided to highlight the internationalist perspective, making space for short presentations by German Palestine activists, participants from the Kurdish liberation movement and myself, as a representative of Jewish activism. 

I normally wear a leather Star of David bracelet, but had decided to remove it for the festival to avoid misunderstandings, knowing that some younger participants might only know the symbol from the Israeli flag and mistake it for an expression of nationalism. 

I put it back on for my presentation, however, in which I gave a very short history of Zionism and anti-Zionism, highlighting how there has always been Jewish opposition to that movement, both because it requires the dispossession of Palestinians and because it internalises the anti-Semitic premise that Jews in the so-called diaspora do not belong in their countries of residence. 

I pointed to the star on my bracelet and conveyed how Zionism had appropriated centuries-old Jewish motifs and made them symbols of oppression, also mentioning how it had sought to erase the Arab heritage of Middle Eastern and North African Jews to make them conform to the new ‘Hebrew’ identity. 

I closed by emphasising that more and more Jews worldwide are standing by Palestinians and demanding their liberation, and was moved by the intensity of the subsequent applause. Bakir added that he had had close Israeli Jewish comrades, including one who had initially immigrated to Israel on ideological grounds and served in the army, but soon realised what injustice was going on and became active against it. 

“We do not care who you are,” Bakir said. “We only care how you deal.” 

The last two evenings of the festival, which featured traditional music and dance on an outdoor stage as well as prize ceremonies and accompanying speeches, were partly overshadowed by the bombing of Gaza. 

People were constantly looking at their phones for news updates, and it was clear that the isolation imposed on the Gaza Strip through Israel’s blockade had done nothing to lessen the bond between the people there and the other Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel. 

As a gesture of solidarity, some PPP members set up a frame on the school roof with ‘GAZA’ in burning letters. 

Gaza solidarity protest. (Photo: Nûçe Ciwan)

However, in keeping with the spirit of Palestinian defiance, this did not prevent the festivities from proceeding with great exuberance, and the participants joined to form huge dance lines moving about the schoolyard, clapping and singing. 

Although it was obvious that the Europeans had a slight handicap, commitment took precedence over skill, and our attempts at dancing were clearly appreciated. 

What remained was to clear up the school and depart, a process that began the following morning and continued for several hours. Most of the international group left, some of them for further travels in the region, and a handful of us met with another of Bakir Hamad’s sons, Mahmoud, for a trip to Nablus. 

Although Nablus is smaller than Hebron, it is livelier, and its old town is teeming with activity. Its narrow alleys were also the scene of intense urban warfare during the Second Intifada. 

Mahmoud showed us around, intermittently calling local friends for sightseeing assistance, and we stopped for some exquisite knafeh at the legendary Al-Aqsa Café and a quick tour of a traditional soap factory. This was standard tourist fare, but then he suddenly told us that we could visit the house in which two resistance fighters had been killed in an army raid two weeks earlier. 

We walked to a house decorated with a Palestinian flag and a martyr picture of two young men, and respectfully greeted family members, who soon brought us cardamom-infused coffee. 

We were led from room to room and shown photographs of one of the dead men, Abdul Rahman Sobh, as well as the many bullet holes that riddled the ceiling and walls. We went past what remained of the living room, devastated by a missile fired into the house, and ascended to the roof. 

We were told how the Israeli army came to kill Sobh one night, surrounding the house and firing at it without restraint or consideration for the large family living there.

Miraculously, they were able to escape via the roof, and one of Sobh’s relatives pointed to the adjoining houses to indicate how they had crossed from each to the next, saved by the tight web of buildings.

Old scars: Bullet holes from the Second Intifada, Nablus.

When the IDF carried out the raid that killed Sobh and Muhammad Azizi, their main aim was actually to eliminate the most wanted man in Nablus: Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, known locally as the ‘Lion of Nablus’. The day after I returned home to Germany, he was killed in a similar old town raid.

While the visit to Sobh’s house had made a strong impression on me, the fact that al-Nabulsi was killed only two days after I had been in the area felt positively uncanny.

Although the inspiring memories of the Farkha Festival were undiminished, this was a reminder of the seemingly endless repetition that forms the darker side of Palestinian steadfastness, a fluctuation between hopelessness and resistance that no outsider can truly fathom.

Perhaps more widespread participation in such events can bring us closer. The festival’s joyful motto, “Volunteering is life”, still echoes in my mind.

Photographs courtesy of the author, except where noted. All rights reserved.