Just moments after performing a dramatic final death scene, Palestinian playwright Abdelfattah Abusrour was back on stage delivering an afterword that was no less intense. Speaking softly, Abusrour told the small Parisian audience about his work back home in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp where he grew up and now runs the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center.
“We are a beautiful people and we want to show our humanity to others, as well as ourselves,” Abusrour says. “We need to see beautiful acts of resistance. It’s not always linked to blood and martyrs and destruction.”
For Palestinians like Abusrour, who lived the hardships of occupation, resisting isn’t the question. “To exist is to resist,” as Palestinians often say. The question is how to resist.
“I firmly believe that nonviolence as a strategy will win,” he says. “And the way to do it is through building this culture of people who think they can create a world based on nonviolence and the strength of people power.”
Abusrour began building this culture through Al Rowwad (which means “pioneer” in Arabic) in 1998, when he returned home after nine years in Paris, where he studied for a Ph.D. in biological and medical engineering. He also took acting classes while living there and performed in many classics of the French theater, which has long been associated with its promotion of social change.
At first, Abusrour ran the center out of his parents’ house and split his time teaching biology at universities in Bethlehem and Ramallah. Abusrour points to his parents as the people who first set an example of nonviolence in his life. “My father and my mother never tolerated us talking badly of anyone, even if they were the worst person in the world,” he says. “One of their famous sayings was that even with a just cause, if you practice violence, you lose part of your humanity.”
When the Second Intifada began in 2000, they moved to a safer location in the middle of Aida Camp, out of the direct line of Israeli fire.
During the Israeli invasions of Bethlehem, starting in 2001, Al Rowwad became the camp’s main emergency clinic.
It ran twenty-four hours a day during the thirty-eight-day siege of Bethlehem in 2002. Al Rowwad was able to take care of almost 100 people a day from the camp and its neighboring areas, with the help of unarmed civilian peacekeepers from the International Solidarity Movement.
“I realized then that we are not just a cultural center,” Abusrour says.
After the siege ended, Al Rowwad began expanding its programs. It started the camp’s first education program for children with special needs, the first fitness program for women, the first soccer team in years, the first outdoor film festival projecting onto the separation wall, and a mobile program that brings films and homemade wooden games to other parts of the West Bank. Today, the center serves between 12,000 and 15,000 children in Palestine.
Despite all this branching out, Abusrour’s main interest has remained theater, which he calls “the most passionate, most profound thing that can create change.”
He has found that theater provides an outlet for children to explore their emotions, which they often keep bottled up.
“I remember asking some children once, ‘What is peace?’ ” Abusrour says. “They went five minutes without finding an answer. This is why we get children involved in the arts: to show what a normal life is like without occupation, soldiers, checkpoints, and tear gas.”
Some of Al Rowwad’s adult actors have been with the center since they were children. Ribal Alkurdi, who was on the most recent tour in France, called the center “a second home.” He was seven years old when he first started and is now a dance and theater trainer. “It gave me an opportunity to express myself,” he says.
Then there is the little girl, Wouod Alkhawaja, who witnessed Israeli soldiers explode the door to her home, severely injuring her mother, who died after lack of medical attention. (The story was uncovered by the CBC in 2002 and has become popular on YouTube under the name “Video Israel Doesn’t Want You to See.”) For years, Wouod would not speak of her mother’s death. But through time, and with Al Rowwad’s help, she began to write and to excel at acting and dancing. “Now she is studying pharmacology,” Abusrour says.
Stories like this helped him and Al Rowwad gain attention among international supporters such as the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Ashoka. In 2006, he was inducted as one of Ashoka’s fellows, receiving enough financial assistance to leave his teaching jobs and work full time at Al Rowwad.
“Abdelfattah is one of our star fellows,” says Iman Bibars, Ashoka’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “He has managed to transform the way thousands of young Palestinian men and women think, behave, or relate to conflict and violence in an increasingly violent and politically volatile country.”
“I wanted to revive the artist’s history and that of Palestine for those who believe armed struggle is the only way,” Abusrour says. “I want them to see that cultural resistance, popular resistance, and unarmed struggle can create results on the ground. I want to present this other image of Palestine because, after all, more than 90 percent of Palestinians have never carried a gun in their lives—so why should they always be portrayed as these fanatic armed people?”
While Abusrour embraces nonviolence, he refuses to work across the border.
“I don’t work with Israelis even if they are the greatest persons in the world because I don’t want to give anyone the impression that because we are working together everything is fine,” he says. “Everything is not fine. There is still an apartheid system that is worse than yesterday, a colonization that is uglier than the day before.”
He believes that the role for Israelis is to campaign for equal rights for all, and end the illegal colonies and checkpoints. Then, he says, “we can work together.”
“I am doing my own nonviolence according to my agenda,” Abusrour says. “I’m trying to give rise to generations who have peace within them, so that they can build peace with the world. If these people continue to be irritated, not listened to, and unable to tell their pain, suffering, and dreams, then all the nonviolence projects and workshops in the world won’t yield anything.”
Bryan Farrell is an editor for Waging Nonviolence, a blog that documents the many ways people bring about positive change around the world every day. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Slate, and Grist.