The Determination to Live


Artistic disciplines in Palestine serve a double purpose. Not only do they foster creative development— thereby promoting mental health in the Palestinian population—but they also serve as a form of pacific resistance against the economic and military Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The index finger of almost any Palestinian shows hints of yellow when placed under the sun, a consequence of the nicotine that cigarette after cigarette increasingly stains their skin. The number of cigarette butts tossed on the streets of any city in the Gaza Strip corresponds, when multiplied by ten, to the number of Palestinians who throughout the day don’t have anything to do besides sit with a cup of tea and a cigarette in the noisy city squares crammed with cars, roaming salespeople, pedestrians, and women carrying their daily shopping bags.

When the sun sets, young and old alike entertain themselves talking over Skype with family members living far from home. Those who can spend a while watching satellite television; and those who can’t tune into a Palestinian radio station, whose coverage focuses almost exclusively on the occupation.

It’s hard to get away from it under such circumstances. According to a study carried out by Near East Consulting (NEC), 73 percent of Palestinians are either severely or clinically depressed. The situation is even worse for adolescents, whose lives are stalled before they can even start by unemployment levels reaching as high as 70 percent in some areas. The Internet, Facebook in particular, is a window to the world that many use to kill time and to try to find new friends. However, they can’t reduce their entire existence to a few hours surfing the web on obsolete computers, which are treated as though they were gold. All of this remains enclosed in an environment that does nothing to solve their complicated and anodyne daily lives. Maybe it’s because of this that a group of 12-23 year olds gather timidly at the door to Ali Hasanein’s atelier academy until he tells them to enter. “A lot of kids come around asking how much an Oud costs [Lute in Arabic]. They also ask if I can teach them. But very few can afford it,” explains Ali.

Hasanein is a respected Palestinian musician and one of the most prestigious master craftspeople of the Oud worldwide. He learned to play thanks to the pigheadedness of his father—himself a musician and carpenter—who forced him to start taking classes when he was just a child. For a while, music was more of a luxury than a priority, but nevertheless, while he worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, he kept practicing. Tired of being far from home, he returned to Palestine as the Second Intifada was beginning. And it was then he decided to officially change his occupation. While music had always been on his mind to some degree, it was just now extending itself to him as a way to make his living: “Something sounded off on the interior of my old lute, so I opened it and repaired it,” he explains “and since then, thanks to teaching of my professors and a friend who is a carpenter, I’ve now been building and repairing lutes for ten years,” he comments thankfully after again refilling the cups of tea.

Ali’s atelier is located in a building in the center of Nablus—found in the north of the West Bank—and is built on top of worn and irregular stones, which are actually Roman and Ottaman ruins. He’s not the only artisan in the neighborhood—only a few feet down the street someone is baking bread. The smell of the dough being cooked floats through the air towards Ali’s shop. The baker is a good friend of his. Today, just as every other afternoon, Omar makes his way over to Ali’s and knocks on the door with an Arab bongo and a tambourine to accompany Ali’s lute in an improvised performance. Anyone interested in a cup of tea or looking to enjoy the music are more than welcome to join.

Various instruments covered in sawdust cover the walls on the inside of the shop, which also serves as a school for five students pursuing their love of music. As Ali explains, it’s all a musician can do while a military power like Israel “Tries to push the Palestinian youth towards delinquency and drugs.”

Timidly strumming the strings of one of the instruments is Mahdi (20 years old). As he gently places the instrument back in its place, Ali explains that he is one of many for whom it would be absolute privilege to learn the lute but that cannot afford it. “I would love to give him one as a gift—he is very intelligent,” comments his father, “but…how? How can I afford a lute when I don’t have enough money to buy a kilo of meat to give to my family?” Madhi, the youngest of four brothers, consoles himself by listening to the playing of Ali and his students. For a minute he ignores the cigarette in his grasp and claps along to the rhythm of the instruments enthusiastically. “I just love the sound,” he confesses with a childish smile.

The Ballet Center

On the rooftop of one of the oldest buildings in all of Ramallah—the economic capital of the West Bank— the sound to prayer being called by the Muezzin of the closest mosque, mixes with the sounds of Tchaikovsky or Mozart, which Shyrine Ziadeh uses to try to teach ballet to girls between ages 3 and 12 at the Ramallah Ballet Center.

After a moment of controlled chaos, the girls stop running from one side of the room to the other, leaving a blurred trail of pink, and start to form two lines as indicated by their teacher. In front of the mirror she demonstrates the correct postures, which the students attempt to imitate. Once she is happy with their movements, she orders them to form a circle on the wooden floor and start stretching. 

The Ramallah Ballet Center opened its doors in December of 2011 and is the only such school in all of Palestine. “Palestinians don’t tend to think a lot about art, which is why I wanted to open this school,” Shyrine explains. Shyrine is a relatively young instructor; she began studying the art of classic dance at the age of five thanks to the teachings of a Russian instructor who was living in Ramallah at the time. And now, in addition to teaching the delicate movements of dance to her students, she is learning that it is difficult to deal with the paperwork and red tape that comes with opening such a center.

Now there are 11 ballerinas spilt up into a row of 5 and 6 and the group of 6 begins to spin on the toecap of their ballet slippers from one corner of an imaginary stage to the other, and the others who stretch their arms and legs in gravity-defying postures while contemplating their form in the mirror. However, not all classes are this full as the number of students grows or declines depending on the month. 

Economic instability burdens Palestinian families and businesses alike—and the Ramallah Ballet Center is no exception. “When students aren’t able to pay but it’s clear they have talent, I consider myself obligated to keep them here regardless. It’s incredibly difficult to have to tell them that they can’t continue,” Shyrine points out. “I want my students to feel free, that they express themselves as women and that they gain self-confidence. I don’t do it for money.” Shyrine makes just enough to pay the rent, an accomplishment that she is proud to have achieved.

The center is open across the street from the old Ottaman court—one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Ramallah. “I always wanted to open my studio in this building,” Shyrine explains with a smile. The location of the building is reminiscent of the old Parisian studios, where you can make out the entire city through windows where rays from the evening’s sunset sneak through, reflecting off of the window.

Hadil’s tutu, as well as those of her classmates, is complimentary to the studio and creates the image you would expect to see in a ballet studio. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to come by. It was a gift from her professor for the free performance that the school put on this past holiday season for friends and family members. Shyrine had to take them specifically to a tailor in Ramallah because “It’s hard to find anything related with classical dance let alone the actual outfits or slippers. We would be able to go into Jerusalem to get them, but I don’t have permission to enter. Plus, for the few families that do have such permission it’s too costly,” she explains regretfully.

When the scheduled time for fun and learning ends, disorder starts all over again on the rooftop studio of this central building in Ramallah. All of the students gather together around their professor while they change their slippers for shoes. “I never second-guess signing my kids up for this sort of activity. In Palestine there is nothing to do and opportunities such as this are few and far between. I think it’s great for their mental and physically well-being as well as their self-esteem […],” explains one of the mothers who has come to pick up her daughters.

Meanwhile, night is falling on the refugee camp in Yenin. The streets are barely lit and in the distance you can hear the unmistakable percussive explosions of a machine gun. While the neighbors barely pay it any mind, the sound is a reminder that at any minute Israeli soldiers could suddenly burst into their house without any warning and for no apparent reason—life here is an inescapable state of constant tension. “The soldiers enter, despite the fact that it’s Palestinian land, they take our family members, and they kill them…” explains Rawand Arqawi, the young proprietor of The Freedom Theater, located within the walls of Yenin. “The kids live through this every day. There is an enormous weight on them.… It’s quite normal that they have nightmares and we often see the behavior of those that don’t make it to school turn violent.”

But even within the walls of Yenin, art offers an oasis. The Freedom Theater opened in 2006 as a cultural center that offered an alternative education to kids that lived in the camp and is a continuation of the Stone Theater project, which was located in the center of the camp but destroyed during the second Intifada. It is the only officially recognized such school of its kind.

“The unemployment rate in Palestine is very high and job opportunities are nil. That’s why we try to give kids the opportunity to develop themselves in our theater school,” explains Rawand. The tiny stage that the school has is in its auditorium is just barely wider than the exit—where a few students are conducting a sound check. “Thanks to the funds that we’ve raised, we were able to hire a few former students to help out,” Arqawi explains after giving a friendly wave to a few volunteers from Europe who have decided to dedicate a few months of their lives to work with Palestinian refugees.

Qais Sadvi has lived in the camp since he was little. He just turned 20 and he is already acting as the director of the theater. But just a few years ago he was “lost,” not knowing what to do with his time—an all too common dilemma. “Qais was living in the street, but now he’s become a responsible person trying to help convince others to join us so that they can start to help themselves,” Rawand says.

The director of The Freedom Theater is happy to have helped her students learn to speak openly and more confidently about their problems and their respective situations. “Theater allows us to express our feelings, to be proud of who we are and to know what it is we want.”

Palestinian society is a fragmented society and is increasingly rigid due to the pervasiveness of conservative social norms. “Often occupation serves as an excuse not to extend basic social rights,” comments Marta Carbonell, coordinator of gender projects in Ramallah. These circumstances make it difficult to develop certain artistic facets for youth, and especially for women. “[But] thanks to theater we are starting to feel freer, to discover that we have to fight for our rights,” Rawand points out.

As night falls again on the refugee camp in Yenin, a cacophony of dog barks mixes the percussive chorus of gunshots and The Freedom Theater closes after another day. Qais Said takes a second to offer a sharp and poetic affirmation: “The theater is my life.”

Bombs will continue to fall on Gaza, Israeli soldiers will continue to unexpectedly burst into semi-dilapidated homes in refugee camps throughout the West Bank, but meanwhile the students at the Ramallah Ballet School keep dancing to Tchaikovsky. “Ballet is everything to me,” confesses Shyrine Ziadeh.

“My friends often ask me why I don’t leave,” Ali Hasaenin admits as he contemplates the world that palpitates outside of his shop. “Palestine is my home. Everyone I love is here. And the music I make has a purpose here. That’s what I tell them. I will never leave.” Ali takes a deep drag off of his 20th cigarette of the day, which he puts out and throws into the street. He returns into his shop where a new lath is waiting for him to shape to a lute, which someone will use in the future to continue resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

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Kike Gómez is a photographer with a BA in journalism. He has worked for the Tribune Guadalajara and the DEIA Journal of Bilbaoand El Norte de Castilla in Valladolid.

Photo above: members of a Palestinian youth orchestra.