Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Journal Entry - 14/6/12

Nandita and I have been invited on a day-trip to the beautiful mountain region of Pehelgam by our two unlikely new friends. Being away from the public gaze of our small town has relaxed us all noticeably, and our conversations have grown increasingly more casual over the course of the day. While Aamir bombards Nandita with enthusiastic stories about his love life, Syed is answering my questions about the history of Kashmir and its recent (current, really) conflicts. Boyish Aamir is without question the louder of the two, so I have to strain to follow Syed’s intricate and articulate web of events and ideologies through Aamir’s punctuated exclamations of “She is my sweetheart!” and “I am loving all of the women!” Syed’s just gotten to the part about Hari Singh signing a conditional accession agreement with India when Aamir stops all conversation by loudly declaring “I am so fast!! Sometimes I do it in three minutes!!” I fall over laughing, “Dude, that’s not something you brag about.” Syed grins incredulously at his ridiculous best friend.

We love these boys. Syed, the intellectual of the pair, has a simple and direct way of speaking about human nature, giving him the ability to communicate a perspective on war and conflict that is neither sentimental nor dramatized. He also has strong political beliefs and stands passionately behind the ideology Kashmiri independence. Aamir is all heart, like a big clamouring teddy bear, and couldn’t care less about idealogy. In one of the simplest and clearest examples of the complexity of war, it is Aamir who has borne arms, thrown stones, clashed with police, and led ambushes; politically passionate Syed would root his friend on from the sidelines, but never physically engaged in fighting himself.

A second example of the complexity of conflict: Aamir and Syed’s close friend Sameer, who they have considered a brother since primary school. Sameer is a Kashmiri arms dealer and military contractor who works with the Indian Army posted in Kashmir. Nandita and I constantly rib the three boys by telling them that one of these days, Aamir is going to get shot by a gun sold to the CRP by Sameer. They laugh it off, they really aren’t bothered by the glaring contradictions in their beliefs. Aamir himself goes from telling us stories of cradling dying children shot by “those bloody bastard Indian Army” to inviting us to have lunch with his friend Mr. so-and-so Commander or Police Superintendent.

This is something I found echoes of in all of my travels: the more steeped in conflict a place becomes, the less possible it is from anyone to speak of the situation in simple us-and-them terms. Even in a region with a clear-cut oppressor and oppressed, the blacks and whites of governments and ideologies will inevitably fracture into a million shades of grey wherever individual people are concerned.

I say something to this effect, and Syed tells about a day during the 2010 unrest when a CRP officer showed up at his polyclinic with a badly mangled hand. Syed, who runs the clinic, was in the process of bandaging the man when he received a frantic call from Aamir. Aamir explained that he was hiding next door because he’s just come from a skirmish with a group of CRP officers. Aamir found himself momentarily alone with an officer in an alley with a stone sink. He grabbed the officer’s hand, rammed it in the sink, and smashed it repeatedly with a large rock. Then he fled as other officers began firing. Syed, unable to respond in present company, told his friend he’d have to call him back. Syed is tutting and smiling as he tells me this story. “Of course, on one hand, I believe in resistance, and I am happy that Aamir has done this thing, but then this is a human being in front of me, you know? It touched me like anything.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Journal Entry - 9/6/12

Driving from Jammu to Srinagar in the middle of the night we pass through 4 or 5 military checkpoints, and I’m starting to get a feel for why Arundhati Roy chooses the word “occupation” to describe the situation in Kashmir. I’m not ready to make a judgment on that either way, but I can say that of all of the places that I’ve been this year, the atmosphere I now find myself in most closely resembles what I experienced in the West Bank.

Hurriyat, the separatist organization at the heart of the independence movement, is currently very active; there are daily releases of instructions and statements from party-leaders; and in our month here, regional political strikes were an almost weekly occurrence. The JKLF, Hurriyat’s military arm, has an ideology of Kashmiri self-determination and freedom (as opposed to accession to Pakistan, which I erroneously thought before coming here).

Militancy was officially abandoned by the party in ’95, but there have still been deaths both during border clashes, disappearances, “encounters,” and protests. The last big flare-up was in 2010 when 112 locals were killed during region-wide protests over an alleged encounter that left 3 “Pakistani militants” dead at the hands of the Indian Army. The casualties were later established to be Kashmiri civilians who were lured to the border area and murdered by army personnel (presumably for cash compensation and/or promotions).

The learning curve is steep, and Nandu and I have quickly adapted our vocabulary to suit our new friends. “Here in India” becomes “here in Kashmir.” The local “Indians” are actually “Kashmiris.” Unless of course we’re talking about “mainland” Indians. By which we'd mean the Central Reserve Police. And the Army. And Nandita.

Everyone watches everyone here. NGOs—as they’re connected with foreigners and mainlanders—are suspect. As an “Indian” and an American here under the auspices of an NGO that we are building a new relationship with, and who are still figuring out the most basic rules of accepted social conduct for women in Kashmir (I have to train myself out of habits I didn’t even know I had—like dancing in the streets), Nandita and I aren’t getting the sense that attempting a public performance with—or even about—soldiers is a very good idea. We shift plans and keep a low profile, sticking to projects that might leave room for the theme without being overtly political. We conduct a devising class for young men at the local Government Degree College. We hold theatre workshops at an orphanage for young girls affected by conflict. The sessions are joyful and fun, and when it comes down to picking themes to devise around, war is the farthest thing from my mind. I’m thrilled by the girls’ suggestions and interests: “The Taj Mahal,” “London,” “The Moon.” When you’re in a conflict area, it turns out, one of the last things you want to talk about is conflict.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I am sitting in Nandita’s apartment in Pune, enjoying the feeling of the hot summer breeze on my bare legs and shoulders one last time before we head up to Kupwara.  I had braced myself for both the June Indian heat and the North Indian religious values, but somehow my brain had neglected to make the important leap of considering those two elements in combination.  Nandu abruptly connected the dots for me as I unpacked my ill-planned wardrobe of tank-tops and cut-offs: “In Kashmir?  Are you crazy?!”

As I soaked in the sights of this incredible new country on the drive from Mumbai’s airport, my head was a flurry of questions.  Who was everyone honking at?  Was the guy in a dress shirt who stopped and interrogated us on the back-road a real cop?  Why was everyone sleeping on the fruit stands?  And seriously, what was up with the honking?

Nandita has answers for “what” and “how,” but consistently furrows her brow every time I come to “why.”  In a place with such a multiplicity of narratives, she tells me, “why” isn’t really a question one asks.  Things just are. 

After a few days here I’ve relaxed into a quiet observation that allows for this kind of unquestioning acceptance.  I wander for hours through twisting streets that take me past garbage heaps leading to gorgeous perfumed gardens on pathways that appear and disappear with a logic of their own.  After crossing a stretch of beach I arrive at a massive octagonal structure filled with pigeons and seeds, a sign attributing its presence to the Lodha Charitable Trust.  Is Lodha trying to keep the pigeon population confined to this area of beach?  Or does he just really like pigeons?  Maybe he’s a Jain?  These questions melt into a silent  and goofy smile as I step back and observe this massive birdfeeder.  Whatever the reason, it’s here in front of me now…and how weird and awesome is that?!

Nandita and I picked “Kashmir,” and everything else seemed to pick us after that.  An organization running orphanages for girls affected by armed conflict has invited us to conduct a theatre project at one of their centers near Srinagar.  Their level of support and hospitality has been incredible—even before our arrival in Kashmir they are on the phones with us constantly, sorting our travel and putting us in touch with some of the center’s older girls who are studying in Pune so that we can stay with them and discuss our ideas for the piece. 

The girls tell us that based on their backgrounds, the theme of ex-combatants should come fairly organically and will be relevant and worth exploring.  Nandu and I brainstorm side-projects and the issue of access comes up.  If we reach out to combatants and ex-combatants in Srinagar, she counsels, we should stick to female fighters.  This is purely for practical reasons, given who we are and where we are going.  I smile inwardly and realize I’ve managed 9 months on this project without really having to grapple with the subject of gender.  Strangely, this “restricted access,” the technical narrowing of our scope, doesn’t feel like a restraint or limit.  I’m not too hung up on ‘why’ we’ll be working with women instead of men.  Yesterday I was looking at an octagon full of birdfeed.  Today I’m looking at sleeves in the sun, unparalleled hospitality, and the female perspective on conflict.  That’s what is; that’s what’s here in front of me.  Awesome. 

A grant from the European Cultural Foundation lands me back in Lebanon for a week of follow-up on “A Drop of Honey,” the script that I left behind for Mike to translate and stage.  Mike and his students have done an excellent job, the team reports.  The video hasn’t been cut together yet, so I get to live the entire thing through hearsay; little by little I begin to piece an image of the performance together via a mixture of photos, descriptions, and anecdotes. 

I meet with the students who performed the piece, and they point out—quite rightly—that coupling the ex-combatants’ civil war stories with their own stories from today will emphasize and clarify our allusions to similarities between the growing civil tensions then and now.  Excitement builds.  The team discusses re-writes. We draft a proposal for a 2-year plan to bring the piece to 20 schools.  We evaluate our remaining budget and plan another showing, this time for potential funders and participating schools. 

It’s very strange to work so intensely with and around a piece that you’ve never seen performed.  In some ways it feels like a dream, or a game, and the only thing grounding the experience in reality is the faith in the people who report back to you after experiencing the thing first-hand.

While I’m in the country, fighting breaks out in Tripoli, Lebanon's northern hub.  It’s on the news, it’s happening in a place I visited last week, and it’s not so far away from where I am now.  It’s also the very reason that the five of us decided to write a play about civil conflict, targeted towards a Lebanese high school and university audience.  But in many ways, for me, it’s still not “real.”

The fighting in Tripoli continues.  A few days after I leave Lebanon, Assaad writes me this: “Ailin if you pray, please pray for Lebanon, for all of us as a team and especially for Ziad and I who are called to many speeches, talks and activities to stop the slide towards a civil war.”

And that’s as close as I get to understanding, and perhaps as close as I will ever get.  I re-write the script, and draft grant applications, and keep this blog, and pray.  Not because I can feel the weight or “reality” behind any of these things or their effects myself, but simply because they’re real to the people who I care about.

Crispin's Poem
(translated from Kinyarwanda)

In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I knew how to create
When I was still young
And I knew how to fight as well;
But it wasn’t me
I did it because of the forest
Because in foreign lands
There were conflicts.
Those who laugh, let them laugh
Those who talk, let them talk.
I knew to eat forbidden things
Because I detested
Those who spoke to me of the future.
Good things became
Bad for me,
What was cooked became raw.
I wanted to go to the place they spoke of
They spit on my face
And when I asked “why?”
They threw stones at me.
I understood that
In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
When we live in foreign lands
Our emblem is shame.
It’s serious
In foreign lands we cross a strange cunning
Who fixes you in his unrelenting gaze
And who embraces you in reprimanding you;
Instead of asking you
how the night passed
He shouts at you.
I arrived at Nyabihu
With great shame.
I arrived at Marembe
At the end of my strength.
By dint of chasing the wind
I arrived at Kasonyi
Dying of shame
Full of regrets.
At last I arrived at Bunyakiri
I arrived at Kabogoza
And God shielded me with his hand.
There where I lost
Those who I called my family,
There too I lost my irreplaceable one.
I arrived at Kigogo
I found my sight
And I took the student’s path
I smiled for the first time
I studied with courage
As if learning to create
As if to revive my mother.
But those I called mine
Did not permit me
Saying, "Come quickly, we need you
in the army, others like you
have already taken half of Rwanda."
Angry, I asked:
"What is Rwanda? "
They responded with:
"What? "And hit me.
I knew that in foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I take my bow
And I fight
See, I had so many misfortunes
Since I was called soldier.
I plotted
And I amused myself
With the property of others
I laughed and I bashed my head against those I met
Saying: "Those who have no country
Spend their time in the brush. "
It’s there that I decided,
I will take the road and return.
And the road showered me with luck

I went to my homeland
Where I got another parent, RDRC.
He raised me
Today I am an artist.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Chance. There was war in the region where Chance lived, and so his family had to abandon him. Chance was discovered by a man who raised him as his son, and then, when he was old enough to fight, entered him in the army. Chance had both of his arms cut off in the fighting, and decided to return to Rwanda to find his family…

I sit here trying to understand why it’s taken me almost two months to write about the CRC play. April is a blur of contrasting memories competing for space in my undecided narrative. Images of joyful drumming and tearful goodbyes are wedged unceremoniously between heated arguments, uncomfortable contracts, and confusing artistic compromises.

Chance’s family didn’t recognize the boy, who was all grown up and had no arms. The real Chance, they said, had arms and hands. But they took the boy in anyways. Chance’s mother had long since passed away, and his stepmother disliked him because he ate too much food. Eventually she had enough, and one night when he was sleeping, she picked him up and threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish.

We asked the boys to present us with their stories, hopes, and fears, and what they came up with was a bizarre but ultimately eloquent collection of scenes and stories that captured, quite poetically, their protected emotional state as they transitioned out of their lives as fighters and prepared themselves to meet and live with their long-lost families and communities.

The fish swam across the world and spit the boy up in America. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a rich man who taught him how to fly a plane. Chance returned to Rwanda in his plane. When his family saw him—able-bodied, rich, and flying a plane—they repented their decision to reject him, and asked him back into the family. But Chance rejected them in turn, and flew back to America where he lived happily ever after.

After an initial showing for the Programs Coordinator at the RDRC, the boys were given a speech asking them to reflect on what their time at the center had taught them. They were given pointed suggestions which were eagerly adopted and incorporated into the piece. Our free-flowing devised theatre collage was starting to look, in moments, like that dreaded monster of arts in the developing world: “NGO Theatre”.

The fish swam across the lake and spit the boy up in Gisenyi. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a commissioner from the RDRC, who brought him to the rehabilitation center and taught him valuable job skills, and how to read and write. Chance went home to see his family, and because he had arms and job skills, they wanted to take him back. But Chance was too proud, and rejected them. The RDRC man scolded Chance for his pride, and told him to make peace with his family. At the same time, Chance’s family lamented ever rejecting him. Chance returned to his family who embraced him with open arms, and they lived happily ever after.

So much was a fight in Rwanda. Just getting the T-shirts printed in the right color (a battle lost), at the right price (lost), in the right sizes (won), and in time for the show (won, barely) all took such an enormous amount of effort. We didn’t know for sure until 2 days before the performance whether or not the boys would even be allowed to perform at all. So I didn’t really get a chance to pick my battles, because I was necessarily immersed in so many just to tackle the simple logistical task of staging a play—any play. When the boys were asked to change parts of it, there were enough sound reasons provided (the need to combat FDLR propaganda, a desire to avoid awkward allusions to the slave trade…) that I didn’t really feel inclined to dig my heels in and fight yet another battle for the sake of “poetic voice and artistic authenticity.” Also, I was scared. I was scared that if I didn’t compromise a little, the whole project would be called off.

But at the end of the day, any disagreement was a simple question of aesthetic difference, and contrasting ideas about how change occurs. We all wanted to arrive at the same place; it’s just that I believed the best way to get there was through exploring process, whereas others believed in the effectiveness of propounding messages. And either or both of us may have been right. So that’s not why I took two months to write this. It’s not an anger thing, or even a fear thing.

I think, if I’m really honest, what happened in Rwanda was that I lost focus. My focus going in, my focus this whole year, has been “ex-fighters and their voice.” Their voice. And towards my last weeks in Kigali and Musanze, my focus got fractured and spread between filming rights and documentary crews and logo permissions and t-shirt orders. Coming away, looking at all of the things I fought for in those last weeks, I regret not having stood up for the only one that I actually deeply cared about: the boys’ thoughts and ideas. I’ve been waiting to post this last entry for Rwanda because there’s a poem that Crispin wrote which I wanted to publish here, in lieu of all of my rambling musings. Unfortunately, I don’t have that poem yet; it’s on a friend’s computer in Rwanda, because while my collaborators were translating the boys’ words and stories from Kinyarwanda to French and English for the subtitles, I was choreographing movements and calling T-shirt companies and running the sound board. 

I never learned Crispin’s poem. That’s why I haven’t posted anything yet. Because all of the other stuff, all of my little personal dramas, don’t actually matter as much. They take up space that should be saved for something else entirely.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Elizabeth’s purchase of a rickety Suziki Vitura happened to coincide with a grenade attack on the Ruhengeri bus terminal which missed us by exactly an hour, so we’ve been driving the windy road to the Child Rehabilitation Center, Elizabeth getting better and better at the drive that we keep joking we’re going to base the most boring video game in history on: “Musanze 500,” which will consist of spending 90% of your time crawling up winding roads at 5 mph behind toxic smoke-exhaling cargo jeeps, with the rest of the time spent passing said jeeps in death-defying and idiotic maneuvers around blind corners out of sheer frustration.

Pacy gets shotgun because his legs are longest, and Ari and I take turns sitting in the "shitty chair," which is the rear-left seat with a backrest that is rusted into a permanently acute angle. Our 4-man team folds up quite nicely into what we’ve named the “De-mobile.” After a couple of weeks together, we’re hitting our stride – the car journeys feel shorter and the theatre sessions feel simultaneously more effortless and more productive.

Yesterday, without exactly planning to, we ended up staging absurd and hilarious scenes based on the boys’ worst nightmares about returning to their families (10 of them are set to visit their families for the first time this week).

Clowning with deep fears, I’ve decided, is my new favorite game. If I could send you a film of anything that we’ve done so far, it would be of Aimable playing Jean Damascène’s father—holding his nose, gagging, checking his shoes, and searching frantically through the house to figure out what smelled so damned bad, before realizing that it was his dirty little jungle-rotted long-lost son and promptly chucking him physically out the door. The laughter, my god, how we laughed. I imagine playing this way in prisons, streets, hospitals, refugees camps…anywhere that there is pain and fear, there is joyous, empowering, tension-relieving laughter to be tickled out.

Also, it just makes good theatre. I think of the 2 entire sessions that we spent trying to tease out comedy around “daily life in the forest.” It was off-theme and we all felt it. There was some general buffoonery around food-stealing and farting and even (I didn’t get the translation but I’m pretty sure) poo-throwing, but none of it was really that funny because—I’m realizing—none of it was tied to something urgent and real for the boys now. At the end of the session on Friday, pensive natural-leader Crispin asked when we would get around to the theme of families rejecting their sons. I nodded agreement and promised to start with that Monday. Monday it was raining cats and dogs and we braced ourselves for a depressing session about rejection under the half-soaked overhang on the stairs outside the dorms (there are no rooms to retreat to in this weather, as the classrooms are still being built and the rest of the indoor spaces are stuffed full of bunk beds or food stores). The session ended up being anything but a downer. Aimable’s hilarious son-sniffing performance was rounded off with an “adoption auction” (one of Elizabeth’s genius ideas) where the boys sold one another to the giggling crowd by announcing their “product’s” innumerable skills, while the boy in question mimed along to prove his worth: “This child is very strong! He is very sociable! He knows how to cook! He is 14 years old! He can lift that chair over his head!” As the “selling points” got more and more absurd, the boys got more and more excited to “welcome” one another into their “homes.” At the end of the session I stood on the bench and announced, “The audience at Ishyo is going to fall in love with you.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the bus to Reuhengeri, Elizabeth, Pacy and I are brainstorming ways to generate stageworthy movement and text. “Self-selecting” didn’t happen at all—all of the boys participated enthusiastically and are thrilled about the show—meaning our cast size is nearly 40, and we’re going to have to get really creative on leading the group to produce material that they can all perform together.

Elizabeth recounts a memory-based exercise that her director Rhodessa used in her work in prisons in San Francisco. The group says in unison, “I remember my mother.” Then they walk around the space until, on a collective impulse, they stop moving. At this point anyone who would like to speak solo begins by saying “I remember…” and then says something about their mother. This text is written down and can be collaged later for performance.

We all decide that the memory game is good model, but that we should choose something a bit less fraught than “mother.” A few of these kids lost their mothers (along with the rest of their families) during massacres or fighting in their Kivu camps, and those whose mothers are still living have obviously been separated from them for a while, often forcibly.

We agree to change the wording to “I remember, in the forest…” figuring that gives a lot of leeway to talk about anything from their recently abandoned daily lives. We begin by creating a group ritual to begin and end each session from here on out (the boys choose the words “Gukina, Kwishyima, Kubabara, Isomo,” meaning, “Play, Joy, Sadness, Lesson” creating movements to accompany the chant), and then we play a image-based freeze game where the boys dance to music and then freeze when it stops, creating the picture of a word or phrase that Pacy calls out just before stopping the music. The boys had chosen the words beforehand, and despite our not having said anything about relating it to war, the words that spilled forth were all on-theme: “regret”; “to be bound at the wrist”; “being shot at”; “to evacuate someone injured”; “to transport gear”; “to force to one’s knees”. The youth are amazing performers, physically engaged in a way that I have never seen in a group their age. The dancing is joyful, filled with their spirit; its juxtaposition with their frozen pictures is powerful.

After a break (which means more dancing), we jump into the text exercise. As Pacy nods, scribbles, and translates, I begin to worry about our choice of the word “Forest.”

I remember how they beat me during the military training. I remember trying to escape from the training camp. Being caught and taken back. I remember sleeping three nights in the forest before they caught me.

I remember well the time I was separated from my parents. That’s when I began living a difficult life. They made me transport gear that was too heavy for me, and en route we inflicted a lot of violence on civilian farmers, and forced them to give us their things.

I remember being forced to consume ganja. I would pass whole days smoking non-stop, and then all night I would participate in ambushes.

I remember being shot at for entire days.

I remember my close friend who died.

All of the worst things, I realize a bit too late, happened in the forest. This is session 2 of 10, and the boys are pushing into dark territory faster than we had expected or intended. At the end of the session ever-inquisitive Janvier asks, “What about the comedy?” Yes, next session we’ll definitely look at comedy.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Thursday I hop on a bus to check out the RDRC Demobilization Centers in the Northwest. It's been a long week of official meetings and NGO jargon, so I'm grateful to have Elizabeth, a young writer on my wavelength, to chit-chat with on the 2-hour journey to Ruhengeri.

Our first stop is at the country’s main center in Mutobo. The facility is simultaneously modest and impressive. Rickety warehouse-like structures—built entirely from logs and sheets of tin—form classrooms, kitchens, and dormitories for the 500 ex-fighters who have spent the last 3 months here taking classes on everything from microeconomics to HIV awareness. Our conversation with the director, Frank, is formal but friendly. He describes the curriculum and the process of repatriation. We agree that my ice-breaking theatre skills will be most effective at the beginning of the next “class cycle” after the current group graduates, and the new group begin their program. I’ll send him an email with a draft proposal of a 4-hour “trust and groupwork” theatre module. While I’m grateful to be included in what is clearly a tightly regimented program, I find myself wondering if I’m going to spend the next two months delivering a piecemeal string of scratch-the-surface one-off workshops.

By the time we arrive at the CRC—the demobilization home for child ex-combatants—it is already 4pm and we’re going to have to rush to catch our 6pm return bus. Rafael, the unassuming center director, meets us as we scoot up to the corner store decorated with a painting of a massive Skol beer bottle (the clearest identifying landmark he could direct us to). He walks us down the dirt path to the center, and as we approach we are welcomed by the sound of traditional Burundian drums—not unlike the familiar sound of the Japanese Taiko. We walk past the buildings where the drumming is coming from, and sit in Rafael’s office where I do the requisite “I-am-blah-de-blah” thing, and he nods, smiles, and wrings his hands. Rafael doesn’t say much, mostly “yes.” He’s very open to the idea of doing some sort of project; many of the kids here don’t go to school, most cannot read or write and almost any activity is welcome. “The only problem is one of language…” he says, looking worried. I assure him that I’d be bringing a translator, and he has no further concerns.

We ask to tour the center and as we pass the building with the drums I peek in to see young boys—some of them only 12 or 13 years old—banging away happily on traditional Rwandan cow-skins with improvised drumsticks (chair legs, branches, dowels). The young leader, beads of sweat dripping down his smiling chin, beats out a complicated rhythm on a small high-pitched drum and the 6 or 7 others bang out a much simpler rhythm in response. I clap and dance along to the beat and the boy nearest me thrusts some sticks into my hands. Thanks to Mom and two decades of Taiko, playing along is easy and fun. Fun fun fun. The most fun I’ve had all day. I want to stay here in Ruhengeri with these boys. I want to move in. I want to make a play.

Finally, I get excited, ambitious. Can we bus into Kigali? Can we perform at Ishyo Art Center? Can there be drums in the piece? How much would it cost to transport the drums? How can we publicize and get the community to come? Is two months enough? Should I change my flight and extend my stay?

Finally, and for the first time since my arrival, being here is more important than being anywhere else.
I remember having a conversation with my friend Walshie, an urban planner in London, about the negative social impact of bad urban design. Architecture, she explained, creates opportunities. And badly planned architecture creates the opportunity for bad things to happen. As an obvious example she cited how the installation of a women’s public underground toilet in one poorly policed low-income area lead to a shocking number of muggings and rapes on site. Other examples of poor planning included closed stairwells, fragmentation of public spaces, and long passageways without overlooking windows.

This was my first real exposure to the idea that “peace” was as much a question of well-planned infrastructure—built with an awareness and integration of the lowest common denominator—as it was about idealistic education and goodwill. Feel-good cross-border initiatives and humanistic moral education programs have value, sure, but equally if not more important is the construction of a sturdy social infrastructure that takes people where they are at, and is creatively designed to maximize the potential of a survival-driven human population in the context of an unequal and unjust world.

At a macro level, “peacebuilding” is incredibly technical. Take the RDRC (Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission) as an example. With an annual turnover of $52 million and a head office in Kigali with a couple dozen staff, it’s easy to wonder what exactly they do. In order to spare you a long and incomprehensible list, let’s create a fictional character, we’ll call him “Bosco,” and map his journey from the Congo to his native Rwanda. Bosco’s Hutu family fled Rwanda with Bosco when he was a child in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

He spent the next two years in a refugee community in Kivu, until one day when RPF fighters attacked his camp. Bosco fled to a nearby community where he was picked up by FDLR fighters offering him protection and the opportunity to avenge his presumed-dead family. For many years, Bosco fought. Around 1999, he heard rumors that Rwanda was peaceably repatriating ex-FDLR and even ex-FAR (the army in charge at the time of the Genocide), but he had nothing to return to, as his commanders insisted to him that his own family was dead. Between 2001 and 2006, several of Bosco’s friends deserted the army, some taking their dependent families with them. Soon, through word-of-mouth and sensitization programs, it became common knowledge that MONUC (the UN Mission in DRC) advertised safe transfer to Rwanda via their demobilization centers in Kivu. Civilians wanting safety and better opportunities were even posing as ex-combatants and flocking to the centers. By then, however, defecting was a near-impossible feat, and those caught trying were immediately executed; for ironically as the more moderate commanders fled the Congo, the army was left in the hands of increasingly extremist leadership.

Bosco spent an entire year planning his escape, and when fighting broke out, his unit was mobilized, providing him with the opportunity to flee. From the MUNOC transit center he was transported to a screening center on the Rwandan border, where he was asked his several questions about his military history to verify where he served. He was also asked his age, and this determined that he would be sent to the adult Demobilization Center in Mutobo. Among the other people screened, civilians were send back, dependents of combatants were sent into their Rwandan communities of origin, and child soldiers were sent to the Child Rehabilitation Center in Ruhengeri. Bosco was terrified throughout the screening process, as the entire demobilization program was run by the Rwandan government, meaning the staff were all “enemy” RDF. There was a very real possibility the rumor that the demobilization program was a ploy to capture and imprison or execute FDLR soldiers was actually true. After his transfer to Mutobo, Bosco was given some pocket money and told to visit his home community in Rwanda and then to report back to the center in 2 weeks. Staff at the center helped to trace the location of any family members, and it was in this way that Bosco learned that his Mother and 2 of his Sisters were still alive, and had repatriated in 2001. Bosco was promised $100 USD if he reported back to the center and completed the 3-month training program which covers everything from tourism and entrepreneurship to health and HIV awareness. He graduated the training program along with 500 other classmates (2 women and 498 men), after which he returned to his hometown to live with his mother, where his was enrolled in a year-long vocational training program for welding, paid for by the RDRC. Upon completing the program, the RDRC bought him $300 worth of welding materials so that he could start his own business. Thereafter, he was checked up on quarterly in a home visit by an RDRC staff member.

In a nutshell, providing safe transit to Rwanda is actually a microscopic portion of the work of demobilization. The RDRC has learned from the recent tragic examples of “demobilized” populations in West Africa who were unskilled and unable to properly reintegrate, leaving them highly likely to join a militia—any militia—any time fighting broke out in the region. The RDRC has to design and budget for demobilizing a human being from A to Z: from outreach and propaganda in the Congo to combat false rumors about the program, to coursework, to strategic bribery to keep participants engaged in the reintegration process until completion. The success rates here are among the highest in the region. And the annual budget, interestingly, is one of the lowest.

It’s exciting that institutions like the RDRC are working this way at a grassroots level; taking a single human being exactly where he or she is at, and investing in giving that person the capacity and resources to contribute to society in a healthy way. I wonder when we will stop holding useless protests and start treating corporations, governments, and other human institutions with exactly this same level of intelligence, generosity, and compassion. Telling the military-industrial complex to stop building weapons is analogous to telling a soldier to stop fighting. It’s probably useless unless you invest your own resources in investigating and presenting a healthier—and more profitable—alternative activity to pursue.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Africa does something to your body. Stepping off of the plane I immediately feel it: a top-to-toe release that is unlike anything you’d experience in London, barring perhaps the climactic final minutes of a top-notch Alexander Technique class.

Public transportation in Rwanda is not for pansies. After a quick nap to recover from my red-eye, I hail a moto-taxi into town to attend a screening of a friend’s movie. I fiddle with the strap on the purely aesthetic helmet while my host Emmanuel negotiates a non-Muzungu price with the driver. This helmet will spend the next fifteen minutes bobbing atop my head as haplessly as I bob atop the back of the speeding motorbike. But the headgear does have a soothing effect in that it places distance between me and the 60-mph Kigali air and the stark, open mountainside dotted with clusters of shacks in the dusty red distance. My feet are massaged into submission by the rumbling bike engine and the rest of my muscles follow suit, embracing this moment of pure mortality. I find it funny to consider how little stress and danger have to do with one another. Tech week on a recent puppet show had me tied up in knots. This death-defying motorcycle ride is what’s helping me unwind.

The movie, “Grey Matter” ends us being about (big surprise) trauma, and the central protagonist—a young Rwandan man who lost his family in the genocide—spends the majority of the movie wearing (bigger surprise) a bright red motorcycle helmet. He does everything in this helmet—showers, paints, hides in the attic. It’s an incredible image; I’m sure I would have appreciated it on its own merit, even without the serendipitous timing. But my ride into town has given me a special appreciation for the director’s choice to show a response to trauma that is so physical. Trauma, vulnerability, repression…these are physical words as much as they are emotional. Trauma is stored in the body. In fact, if this year has taught me anything, it’s that the fictitious boundaries between mind and body become impossible to maintain at the extreme edges of human experience. When our defenses are penetrated, we are wounded entirely: mind, body, soul.

Healing, then, has to similarly encompass the whole and integrated self. Somehow, this seems to happen more naturally in Rwanda than in any other place that I have been. It might be an audacious and unfounded thing to say, but something tells me that healing, as a process, happens faster here.

But maybe that’s just my sun-baked body talking.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I’ve been negligent with this blog these past weeks; it’s not from a lack of thoughts and experiences…actually, it’s the opposite.

Chen Alon of Combatants for Peace recently said this to me in a conversation about political theatre vs. personal narrative theatre: "Aesthetics are Ethics." It's taken a few weeks for the truth of this statement to really sink in.

The first interviews we collected here were with disabled veterans of an older generation; most of their stories came from wars fought in 1967 or 1973, and emphasized their journey of overcoming physical and emotional trauma after combat. Text collected about the 2006 Lebanese war had a similar focus, so the script began to take a fairly clear narrative shape. Then I began talking to another crop of ex-fighters, those who had served in the Occupied Territories and had later joined Combatants for Peace and Breaking the Silence--organizations with a clear political ethos regarding the very specific (and hugely polemic) issue of the occupation and Israel-Palestine. I realized, hearing these new stories, that I didn't have enough material at that point to create a piece exploring this new theme in a coherent or useful way. Throwing something as sensitive as a personal trauma narrative up against the full judgement of deeply-held political opinions without the time nor the in-depth dialogue to find a common ground in the felt like the wrong thing to do at the time. It felt like a different piece. And personally, I struggled with my omissions, with what to include and what not to. Not least of all because of my time in Beirut, of my conversations with friends who had spent a great deal of time in the West Bank, because I knew the urgency of these narratives, and what "IDF" symbolizes to so many. I knew that many people would find it difficult to understand that I had compiled a full-length script about the experiences of IDF soldiers, and not mentioned Palestine or the occupation even once. But at the end of the day, it wasn't the story I was here to tell. Not this time around. To tell it, to even attempt to, would take more time, more care, more nuance. And this time I was here to listen to the guys at Beit Halochem, and to understand and present their stories.

Here's a clip of the actors seeing the vets (whose stories they had rehearsed and embodied) for the first time as they walk and wheel their way into the hall for the reading at Beit Halochem. Orna, who knows the vets from the interviews, runs introductions for the cast: "That's Uzi there, talking to Raffi; and Itsik has just come in behind them..."

The feedback after the reading is predictably mixed. An old vet wonders why we didn't turn the microphones up louder, and another one asks us to include more stories of "fallen heroes". A left-wing activist condemns the piece as "nihilistic," because it doesn't show a way out of the culture of militarism; she wants us to show "what's happening now, in Hebron." Roni, our security guard friend from the very first day is moved to tears. A man whose name I never caught spends ten minutes telling us that we have shown him an understanding of trauma that "no one, not even my wife, can have," and thanks us profusely, parting with "God bless you."

Some of the other feedback is less emotive. Raffi, in his matter-of-fact manner tells us that the way we presented his story of his Judo team’s visit to a Swedish bar was very effective, and that he thought the narrating actor should actually show the bit where Raffi takes out his prosthetic eyes. “We did! We did take it out!” the cast replies, giggling. Of course Raffi didn’t actually get to see this slapstick bit. “Good. good.” He’s satisfied.

"Aesthetics are ethics" is just the artist's way of saying "the personal is political." Especially in this country. One cannot tell a "whole story," because no such thing exists. Every choice carries the full weight, the full responsibility of your conscious decision to put your focus in one place instead of in another. The script, the stories I include, this blog, the moments I share, the images I post...each one of those things is an aesthetic choice with ethical implications. Which in a place like Israel can be so confusing that it locks you into a paralysis of integrity.

In the past three weeks I discussed "Theatre Ethnography" over coffee with Chen; I planted Sabras plants in the tiny village of Susya in Area C of the West Bank to protest a demolition order on the lone elementary school there; I went to a 150-strong Anglo-Israeli Shabbat dinner celebration in Jerusalem, and listened to a Jewish a cappella troupe; I went to a feminist concert in response to the proposition of recent gender-specific religious laws; I spent the night at a kibbutz; I rehearsed; I went to a crafts fair; I went pubbing...and I didn't write about any of it. I think I'm still finding the story.

I think I'm going to have to come back to Israel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I honestly thought I’d never say this, but I think I’m turning into a verbatim theatre junkie.

In 2010 I read Anna Deavere Smith’s pioneering work of documentary theatre, Fires in the Mirror, and was so struck by this quote in her prologue that I wrote it down for safekeeping:

I had been trained in the tradition of acting called “psychological realism”. A basic tenet of psychological realism is that characters live inside of you and that you create a lifelike portrayal of the character through a process of realizing your own similarity to the character. When I later became a teacher of acting, I began to become more and more troubled by the self-oriented method. I began to look for ways to engage my students in putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This went against the grain of psychological realism tradition, which was to get the character to walk in the actor’s shoes. It became less and less interesting intellectually to bring the dramatic literature of the world into a classroom of people in their late teens and twenties, and to explore it within the framework of their real lives. Aesthetically it seemed limited, because most of the time the characters all sounded the same. Most characters spoke somewhere inside the rhythmic range of the students. More troubling was that this method left an important bridge out of acting. The spirit of acting is the travel from the self to the other. This “self-based” method seemed to come to a spiritual halt. It saw the self as the ultimate home of the character. To me, the search for character is constantly in motion. It is a quest that moves back and forth between the self and the other.

Now, two years later, I’m finally starting to glimpse the truth of Deavere Smith’s words in action. Meeting with the actors individually to go over the interviews we’ve collected, I’m finding that my greatest handicap here—my inability to understand Hebrew—is surprisingly proving to be an enormous asset when it comes to the performers and their process. Orna gets on stage to read the words of “Yossi” during our first rehearsal and inhabits the character of the hardened, charismatic older man with surprising grace and ease. But of course—she met Yossi, spent several hours recording his words, and then several more hours playing them back and typing them down in 3- or 4- second segments. This may technically be her first reading of the text, but it’s certainly not “cold.”

Yehuda, a young professional actor and—like many Israeli men—an ex-soldier who has seen his own fair share of danger and conflict, is in Orna’s kitchen transcribing our interview with “Shaul,” an ex-combatant who was blinded when he stepped on a landmine during the 6 days’ war in 1967. Yehuda hunkers down over his computer, listening again and again to the same 5-second clip from an interview, like a private investigator trying to deduce a kidnapper’s location from the background noise of a taped phone call. “He has a stop here, where he cannot remember what he was saying, and he is silent for a long time, half a minute. I want to know…why is there the block at this moment?”

I know what Yehuda is feeling. I remember being fascinated by a particularly compelling interview in Lebanon where an ex-fighter spoke of a time when, after retrieving the corpse of a comrade who had been horrifically mutilated, he had made the decision that he and a small group under his command would capture enemy fighters and pour cement over their bodies, burying them alive. The action was never followed through—an older and wiser commanding officer cottoned on to their plans and sent them all on a made-up mission, and then talked them down after they had released some steam. But the simple fact that he had dreamed up this torture and intended to follow through with it was enough to sit heavy on the ex-fighter’s conscience—it scared him how close he himself had been to losing his humanity and succumbing to the barbarity of war. What was amazing about the interview was that each time the decision to dig holes and prepare the cement was mentioned, it was accompanied by a barely perceptible verbal tic: in assigning responsibility for the decision, the word ‘we’ would first be used, followed by a short stutter, and then replaced quickly with ‘I’, like so: “…but I’m telling to you what we— what I decided…” Transcribing the interview, I was amazed at how much was revealed in the tiny self-corrections. These few short syllables contained over 20 years of internal struggle as to where the final responsibility for the cement idea would be placed—in the self, or in the hands of the collective.

I watch Yehuda furiously scribbling a string of the incomprehensible back-stroking Hebrew letters on his notepad. It takes us over 2 hours to transcribe and translate just under three minutes of text. But this isn’t time wasted; Yehuda holds more passion for each sentence than I have ever seen in any other actor on his first day with a script. In almost a decade of directing theater, this is quite possibly the best table-working session that I’ve ever had.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

As a teenager, for a stint, I was obsessed with lucid dreams. There’s an exercise I used to do, in the half-hour of no-man’s-land between waking and sleep; a visualization game meant to strengthen whatever muscle we use in conscious dreaming. Picture the room you are in. Try to conjure up every detail, remembering, eyes shut, exactly where everything is, in relation to you. Then, once you’ve pulled up a clear picture, imagine yourself sleeping—or standing—in a different part of the same room. Switch the perspective.

It sounds relatively easy to do, but the brain’s instinctive ability to orient itself accurately in space makes visualizing any viewpoint other than our “real” one incredibly difficult to do. Try it. You’ll notice that, after a bit of struggle, there’s a jolting moment when you “click” in to the new perspective. Suddenly something gives, and you just see it.

Sunday night filmmaker Yariv Mozer meets up with me at the Olive café, to give me a copy of his feature documentary, “My First War,” and to answer any questions I might have about his work. Yariv’s sister-in-law has just had a baby this morning, and he’s headed to Holland for post-production on his next film tomorrow, yet he finds a full hour between hospital visits and packing, just to sit with me.

Yariv’s film, shot while he was actively fighting in the 2006 Lebanese war, follows 5 combatants and one Israeli journalist during and after the conflict. Its reception has been hugely varied depending on the audience. Many critics, especially internationally, see an implicit anti-war message in the film, as the traumatic effects of battle on the soldiers as well as their own misgivings about the conflict are brought to light. Others see its humanization of the IDF combatants as insidiously pushing a pro-Israeli agenda; while within the country, Yariv has been criticized for “exposing” Israel and betraying the country by “showing dissent and weakness.”

“And all of this is in response to the same film!” he says with a gentle smile. I think of my Mleeta blog fiasco and tell him I know the feeling. We spend our time together swapping stories, talking about the limitations and freedoms of our respective mediums, and sharing thoughts on where we hope to take things next. Yariv’s dream, he tells me, is to get into the same room with a Hezbolla fighter, to “discuss things,” on camera. I tell him “Good luck with that.”

The next evening I pop Yariv’s DVD into my computer and listen as his earnest narration guides us through the dirt roads linking Tel Aviv to the Northern border. As the landscape becomes pastoral and the plum trees pull into sight, I start to feel a displaced familiarity;
I’ve seen this landscape before…driving with my friend Karim, along the other side of the fence. The uneasy recognition continues as Yariv guides us through orchards, tents, and the tiny boxlike “war room” where men sit crouched together, tensely barking coordinates as incoming missiles explode in the woods around them. But it is when I see footage of a tank—an establishing shot locating it clearly amidst the recognizable fruit trees before cutting away to a conversation with the loader inside—that the world goes “click.” In a jolting flash, I’m suddenly seeing the exact same—terrifying—piece of machinery that sat ominously in the distance across Fatima’s Gate just 2 months ago. But now I’m inside of it, with my new friend Yariv.

I don’t think I can say much about that moment, except that it was accompanied with an overwhelming sense of sadness. No anger, no judgment, certainly no pat idea or clever epiphany about the “nature of things.” Just a simultaneous connection to two views of one thing that left me with an incredible and sustaining sadness.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There is a clumsy grace in naiveté. I booked an itinerary that would land me in Israel off the back of having just spent 3 months in Beirut, before I had any real idea of what that would stir up for me—socially, emotionally, and even just logistically. I am grateful for my own lack of foresight and the juxtapositions it has left me to grapple with; I have unwittingly stumbled my way into the very heart of this project.

There was a tentative stiffness to my arrival, which inevitably bled into my first conversations. I was, in some sense, bracing myself for Israel. Israel, very understandably, seemed to be bracing itself for me. Orna and I sent out a batch of e-mails a while ago outlining the project and calling for soldiers and ex-soldiers interested in sharing interviews for a theatre piece about their experiences. There was very little response. Once here, she informed me that the reason one of her friends didn’t reply was that he saw “London-based” and “Soldier” in the same sentence and expected me to be doing a BBC 4 exposé on the mistreatment of Palestinians. The true insidiousness of the word “agenda” is beginning to become apparent to me—I can imagine nothing worse than openly sharing my own experiences, hopes, struggles, and pain with someone in a spirit of trust, and then having those words be twisted and used as evidence against me. There’s an elephant in the room; in order to break the ice, there needs to be some kind of dance so that we all know roughly where it’s standing.

Sabine—true to form—has been accelerating this process with her trademark affectionate ribbing, posting things like “How are things in the Occupied Land?” on my facebook wall, leaving me feeling like a gangly adolescent being kissed goodbye by mum on the first day of school (“Mommm! Not in front of my new friends!”). This of course forces the ice-breaking conversations that I need to be having anyways. Just like in Beirut, these conversations, I realize, are mostly for my benefit: I am grappling with new questions, new ideas, a new elephant in a new room. Imagine that elephant living in your home—every new visitor will vigorously bombard you with questions about its diet, its habits, its care…or (even worse) want to share with you everything they ever learned about elephants on the internet. I am reminded of a Salvadorian-American friend who once told me, “I know it’s coming from a good place, but I hate it when my white friends come to me to process their ‘white privilege’ or ‘racism in America.’ It might be the first time you’ve had this conversation, but I’m forced to have it with my lefty white friends all the time. It’s exhausting.” I can imagine just how exhausting, and I’m impressed by Orna’s patience as she narrates her own experiences and perceptions of the “situation” for what I imagine is the umpteen billionth time.

On Monday Orna and I approach the gates of Beit Halochem (House of the Warrior), an activities center for disabled veterans and their families. We explain our project to a lean security guard, who tells us we can’t go past the gates, but are welcome to talk to soldiers going in and out of the center. His aged, grizzled face carried the scars of a ferocious life, and I’m slightly terrified of him. Orna and I chat for a while with a younger veteran on his way to a chess class, and after only a few minutes of this the subject of PTSD comes up, and the once-stern security guard, “Roni” lights up like a disco ball. He launches into a series of stories about war buddies, veterans from the center, huge men, strong men, “gorillas,” childhood best friends reduced to incapable inverts, their lives destroyed by trauma. He is so happy we have come, he says, because these stories need to be told. The anecdotes and descriptions spill from him in a vigorous stream, as unending and vivid as the love that he clearly carries for the men they refer to. Roni, to steal a phrase he used to describe a buddy, “has a heart 80 times too big for his body.” When he speaks, his eyes fill with a youthful light and the skin around them is flushed pink with excitement. Every time a club member passes the guard kiosk, he pauses to introduce us (“This is Daniel. He’s a king, a king!”), excuses himself to exchange a few words, and then is right back into his narration. We stay this way with Roni—nodding, laughing, listening—for a full two hours. He will meet with us during the week, he says, to record the text officially. In the meantime, he escorts us into the center (the rules, apparently, have changed), to chat with one of the blind vets who talked with us on the way in, and set up a time to meet.

What is amazing about this exchange is that it’s the first conversation here that I’ve had about war where politics haven’t come up at all. The most fundamental question between us is not, “where do you stand on the situation.” In fact, even attempting to examine that question could launch us into a minefield of hot topics and sore spots, an obstacle course blocking the way to shared understanding. The fundamental question here is: “do you value my experiences, and respect me as a human being.” Roni, with his gleeful appreciation of serendipity and his passionate concern for his friends, makes it very easy for me to answer that question with: “Definitely, yes.”