A group of 19 Northeastern University students – 13 writers and six photographers -- are traveling through Jordan and Turkey through mid-June as part of the school’s Dialogue of Civilization program.
On the Israeli border, emotional protests led to deaths and hundreds of injuries earlier this month as Palestinians protested the anniversary of the creation of Israel.
But in the Dar Al-Anda Art Gallery in Amman, a group of young activists held a decidedly lower-key demonstration of their own. They marked the “nakbeh,” or catastrophe as they term it, in a way they felt was more fitting. They showed their support for displaced Palestinians through an art show, readings, and music.
In fact, the event’s organizer shied away from the very idea of labeling their efforts as protest.
“It’s not really protest, I don’t want to call this protest,” said Leena Elias, 31, the main organizer. “For me, I just want to bring awareness, in a different way, in an artistic way.”
A specific goal of these events is to raise money for student refugees from Gaza.
Elias said what started as chitchat on Facebook and Twitter quickly evolved into a weeklong collection of events featuring artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who use their work as a medium to remember Nakbeh and promote change for the Palestinian people. While the bulk of the events are in Amman, extensions of the effort stretch to Gaza, Ramallah, Nablus, and Haifa.
The main attraction: a selection of work by Palestinian artist Naji El-Ali, whose subversive political cartoons created the iconic character Handala and ultimately prompted his assassination in 1987. Handala, a 10-year-old-boy with his back always turned from the viewer, has become a Palestinian symbol of defiance. He will not show his face until he can return home.
More than 350 people visited the exhibit on the opening day. Many viewers reacted to the cartoons with a casual laugh or a shake of the head.
"It’s like when there is something very serious, but you laugh at it,” said volunteer, Osama Shamleh, 21. “But when you stop laughing, you maybe start crying.”
The collection, including four cartoons which had never been shown, was sold to benefit 25 Palestinian students in the Gaza refugee camps. Proceeds will enable them to continue their summer courses at universities in Jordan.
“My goal is to bring justice to the people,” Elias said, adding that the best way to preserve a cause is through remembering the struggle behind it. “We’re young social activists and we want to help other young people, especially refugees.”
The opening night featured Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish who read a selection of his works. Piecing together remnants of the Palestinian experience, he recalled stories of his own people and others who have suffered similar fates. Darwish’s reading was transmitted live through Skype to Gaza, where more than 400 people tuned in.
"To listen to the people’s stories is important to me. It’s empowerment,” Elias said. “Because people really need to be brave. Young people who were volunteering with us, they were scared. I say, ‘Don’t be scared, we need to be brave.’”
Nasser Jaber, 27, a friend of Elias’, was in Ramallah visiting his family from New York, where he now lives. By following Elias’ tweets about Nakbeh, he was able to take part in the event’s extension there. He says he later witnessed peaceful protesters shot with rubber bullets by members of the Israeli border patrol.
"Our generation is pretty apathetic right now. But the new revolution is guiding them to new struggles,” Jaber said, referring to the Arab spring uprisings in the region. “As soon as Tunis happened, everything exploded. The youth, they want to live.”
Two days into the remembrance, the gallery filled again with more than 250 people for a short story reading by Palestinian writer Ibrahem Jaber Ibrahem. He recalled stories passed down through his family and expressed the strong desire to return to his country. He also addressed other issues of oppression such as the Qana Massacre of 1996 and the more recent Tunisia uprisings.
Al Hannouneh, a traditional Palestinian folk band, took the stage next. Named after the red flower that covers Palestine in early spring, this collective of seven had its audience clapping, dancing, and singing along. Mothers twirled their children; young activists linked arms and hoisted their black and white keffiyeh into the air.
Muneer Alsaifi, 35, whose grandmother was a refugee in 1948, remembered the stories she used to tell about Palestine – the way she spoke about being forced from her home.
“We’ve been listening to these songs since we were children,” he said. “Every single song has a story about our culture, about the resistance, about our rights. Every single line counts. I believe it’s as strong as protest.”
A group of four activists, who sat in the front row, think change will demand a more radical approach. They quote an Arabic phrase that translates to “what is taken by force cannot be taken back, except by force.”
However, they are resigned that for now, peaceful means might be the only available option.
“They took Palestine by force,” said Mahmoud Khateeb, 17, “But since we cannot do anything, this is the only way we can express our support. Our hearts are with them. We feel empowered, we feel proud to be Palestinian.”
In a region that is currently roiled with revolt and a driving force of change, Elias said she understands the impetus for more extreme action embodied by the border protesters.
“The revolution – it encourages people to do anything possible,” she said. “They want to go through the border. It’s not really violent, it’s peaceful. We want Palestinians to have the right to visit Palestine. I respect their agenda but at the same time, everyone has the way they want to be resistant.”
Last Saturday, Dar Al-Anda showed the documentary This Is My Picture When I Was Dead. The film features Bashir Mraish, 32, who witnessed the assassination of his PLO activist father Mamoun in 1983.
To Mraish, Jordan is a “boiling pot,” ready to bubble over.
“Jordan is in a very critical condition right now,” he said. “More than half of the population is Palestinian. I cannot see how it will not end in war.”
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