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Until Return - Issue 6

Lajee Center in the UK: The Art and the Artists

For Photos from the tour click here

Voices of the new generations of Aida Refugee Camp have been speaking out through their creative grassroots work at Lajee Center ( with increasing volume and reach over recent years. On an international level our photography projects have played a major role in this. These projects have been exhibited widely around the world over the last 4 years but never more intensively than over the 8 months or so leading up to Lajee’s arrival in the UK. This work was part of our work at Lajee Center marking Nakba 60, and last year we completed two new photography projects with the children and new generations including one, ‘Dreams of Home’, in which a group of children returned to their original villages to learn about their history and identity whilst also drawing comparisons between the contemporary realities in the villages and the oral history passed down from their Grandparents about life pre-1948. After completing the two projects last year we held an exhibition in Aida Camp in October to launch the new shows and their accompanying photography books, subsequently we have held international exhibitions every month leading to June 2008 including shows in the UK, Paris, Amsterdam, and a 4 week exhibition tour of Australia in May around Nakba Day itself, but the exhibitions have traveled whilst the artists themselves remained trapped behind the Apartheid Wall in Aida Camp. The artists are young Palestinian refugees, aged between 11-20, who are using photography and other creative media to communicate with a world they feel marginalized in and separated from, yet a world they also know they have a right to change for the better. The arrival of 21 members of Lajee Center at Heathrow airport on June 16th marked the start of the tour which for the first time would see the artists themselves able to personally present their own work at one of their many international shows…

For 21 year old Lajee volunteer Kholoud Ajarma there was a lot to take in upon arrival in the UK:

“We were very tired, happy, and exited all at once. The next day we went to the sea and walked to explore the city. It was really strange for me that I had easily reached the sea whilst we cannot do that in Palestine… The children were very happy to see the sea.”

Lajee began the tour in Hull to participate in events marking UK Refugee Week, with one of the primary aspects being a series of collaborative dance workshops with students at Kingswood College of Arts. These workshops combined elements of contemporary dance and traditional Dabka, a shared learning experience but more than that a platform through creativity for communication. 14 year old Abud AlAzzeh summed up this sentiment:

“My bad English did not prevent me from communicating with people there. I believe that they understood my dance movements exactly as I understood theirs.”

The John Street Art Gallery staged a photographic exhibition during the week showing “Our Dreams and Nightmares” and “Dreams of Home”, and the Warren Youth Centre presented an evening of Lajee films and presentations of digital photography projects. The culmination of the week saw Lajee perform at ‘Gig in the Gardens’ – an annual musical festival marking Refugee Week featuring performers from around the world all with the shared link of living in exile. The performance featured an energetic display of Dabka but also included collaborative pieces in which students from Kingswood College and Lajee’s young performers (aged 11-16) danced together incorporating both Dabka and contemporary Western dance movements into fresh pieces choreographed during the preceding workshops. The Dabka displayed the beauty of Palestinian culture and stories of life as refugees, the collaborative pieces demonstrated a model of people bridging divides and breaking down walls to work together.

The success of the time in Hull and the tour in general derives from this collaboration between people, Lajee Project Manager Nidal Al Azzeh appreciated the shared vision of all involved:

“Many people and organizations worked on organizing the Refugee Week much like many organizations and individuals got involved in the whole tour project. We would like to thank them all. All were motivated by the idea that arts and culture are like birds - borders cannot prevent their movement, walls cannot block their path.”

From Hull the tour headed south to Leicester where the dancers entertained the audience with a stunning Dabka show full of passion and spirit which brought a standing ovation at its conclusion and even a brief encore. Interweaved with the dancing was short films made by Lajee’s children during projects with the US-Palestine Youth Solidarity Network in 2007, and presentations of photography by Kholoud Ajarma, a Lajee volunteer who at only 21 years of age already has 5 years experience of volunteering at the centre. The short films, such as ‘Saddam’s Story’ in which he tells of the day he was shot by the IOF whilst playing football in the camp and regained consciousness to hear that his best friend Tariq had been killed in the attack, tell stories which may often be hard to hear but they are also stories that need to be told by people let down time and again by the world’s leaders and the mass-media propagandists. Combined with the passionate Dabka, and photography, the result is a powerful mixed arts performance that provides a rollercoaster of emotions. The style of Dabka that Lajee performs is a combination of traditional Palestinian and Lebanese movements and more contemporary ‘stories’ which are weaved together to tell the narrative of refugees. Lajee considers Dabka to be a tool of creative struggle through which it displays the deep rooted Palestinian culture and also the insistence on enforcement of rights, as Nidal Al Azzeh explained:

“The right to return can be seen in the pieces in which Lajee recalls Haifa, Akka, Al Majdal, and the sea. When performers hit the ground they ensure their connection to Palestine. When they hug the air, close their eyes, or look to the sun, they hug their parents’ and grandparents’ dreams, and hopes. When performers, girls and boy, catch each others hand, they express unity, equality, non-discrimination, and solidarity. When they close their hands, display serious faces or sadness, and walk or run forward, they express their belief in resistance and their will in being.”

Abu Ismael is a Palestinian who lives in Britain who hosted some of Lajee’s children whilst in Leicester, and one of those standing in applause as the performance drew to a close, he described how the dancing made him ‘remember everything about Palestine.’ All participants were hosted by families in Leicester which provided a fantastic opportunity to build personal connections. During four days in the city during we visited many local schools and grassroots community organisations making 2 or 3 performances and presentations a day, whilst also staging a photography exhibition in the city. Lajee’s children danced for hundreds of school children in Leicester and also shared in their dancing and songs including at a joint performance for over 200 children at which local schools also performed specially prepared dances and songs on stage, a particularly poignant moment saw children from one Primary School take the stage carrying a Palestinian flag before an energetic display of calypso dancing.

Leaving new and old friends behind in Leicester the tour headed to London for a performance in the ornate surroundings of the Goodenough College in association with The Palestine Gallery. Tickets were sold out and again the children danced, shared their stories, and Kholoud presented our photography projects. In a room alongside the performance-hall images from both ‘Dreams of Home’ and ‘Our Dreams and Nightmares’ photography exhibitions were projected large onto white walls in otherwise dimly lit rooms. Printed images, themselves almost like fragments of Palestine, showing cactus fruit, half-demolished houses, and children’s visions of yesterday and tomorrow, were laid out on tables. The mixed-media seems to create at atmosphere that draws people in and then like a celebration of resilience and ‘samud’ the energy of the Dabka breaks through. In a way it’s a creative journey which moves through feelings of darkness, anger, resilience, and then, somehow, hope and even celebration.

Sami Metwasi is the Head of Artistic Projects at the Palestine Gallery in London which will be launching in October this year, the Gallery acted as a partner in the tour arranging the London show:

“Having young artists from Palestine touring with their colorful work that talks about our heritage and culture is extremely important, what Lajee Center brought with them is what every Palestinian living in the Diaspora has a thirst for, and what every westerner needs to see. We believe that art is the most powerful bond between cultures.”

Sunday 29th June saw London’s Trafalgar Square host a ‘Salute Israel at 60’ festival, a national ‘celebration’ which attempted to mask more than 60 years of ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Driving around central London on the day were three open-topped double-decked buses on which people of varied ages, religions, backgrounds, nationalities, and of both genders stood together with a common message. The buses were covered in banners such as ‘Nakba 60’, ‘Israel’s Record of Shame’, and ‘Stop the Wall’, black balloons (as used inside Palestine to mark Nakba 60) flew from windows or railings.  Lajee were invited by the UK Twinning with Palestine Network (one of several organizations involved in the ‘bus tour’) to meet up with the buses at Embankment Gardens and dance Dabka at a ‘Picnic for Palestine’ before boarding and touring the city as the buses provided a vivid and highly visual reminder to people of the Palestinian narrative. In Trafalgar Square, amongst thousands of blue and white flags and their wavers, the water in the pools of the fountains was stained red by activists, and red paint handprints adorned signs reading ‘Israel: Blood on your hands!’.

A brief visit to the Market Town of Bury St Edmunds provided the final shows of the tour as guests of a local school. Two more performances attracted around 700 people in less than 24 hours. The final performance of the tour fittingly attracted the largest audience, and also appropriately it was an audience of children. Over 500 eager young faces crammed into a gymnasium to watch the final flourish of the tour and somehow the performance seemed as fresh and energetic as the first one had done over two exhausting weeks earlier. Cecilia Greenlaw, a friend of Lajee center and one of the organizers of the school performance said that the children have been talking about the performance ever since and are ‘still sending their best wishes to all the people in Lajee Center and in Aida Camp’. We are working with the school and other contacts from the tour already looking for ways to cement relationships and develop future projects together.

The tour is now over, but the young creative voices continue to fly past the Wall which surrounds them;‘Our Dreams and Nightmares’ is showing as part of the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival from August 4-24th, and further international exhibitions are planned for coming months.

17 children (and 4 volunteers) from a Palestinian refugee camp brought a glimpse into their lives to the UK, a vision of Palestine, a vision of youthful creativity and a belief in arts and culture as powerful tools of communication and resistance. Lajee’s young artists performed, presented, and exhibited to around 3,000 people during the tour, but they also danced, talked, and laughed with many, many more. They showed people that after more than 60 years of ongoing Nakba they, as refugees, will continue to create and inspire, and that they will find ever more creative means with which to speak out and defend their rights. They shared their stories, showed their true homes to people, and danced for ‘return’. They also showed that they are children, that they love to laugh, and that they are proud of who they are.

Rich Wiles
Artist/Lajee Center UK Arts and Culture Tour Coordinator

Rich Wiles and Lajee Center would like to thank: The Palestine Gallery, INTERPAL, Dove and Dolphin Charity, Leicester Friends of Bethlehem, Kingswood College of Arts, The Warren, Anna Lindh Foundation, Arts Council England, Hull City Arts, Twining with Palestine, Hull Trains, and all others who supported the project in so many ways and without whom it would not have been possible.


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