Gift from Shefa-‘Amr

When Arjen Barel shared his thoughts on organising the storytelling/music workshop in the Arab town of Shef’amr, I immediately asked to participate. I signed up with the eight of the Dutch group (a group so diverse that ‘Dutch’ is only used as a euphemism to describe the European-bred team that took the flight to Israel) powered by a certainty I’m still unsure how I acquired. Having visited the land a couple of times already, I thought I was aware of the situation, familiar with the issues, politically correct enough to engage in conversation with locals without insulting them, above all, with outmost belief in the power of storytelling, in making people listen to each other’s stories, I joined.

We listened carefully, being present, and the themes that came up touched on failed dreams, lost hopes, freedom, survival, sense of belonging and identity. Themes as much universal as particular to the area. We listened gently, with respect, and provided the tools for them to elaborate, develop their stories and use them in a performative context. And on the last day, we harvested the fruits of this work in a beautiful presentation, where we witnessed young people from the town of Shefa-‘Amr, some had never met before that workshop, listening to each other’s story while, family, teachers and friends were also there, with eyes and ears wide open.

So far, a typical storytelling workshop, at least for the standards that the organiser has set in previous collaborations. This workshop however, unlike other projects, was not set in the safe haven of a ‘workshop’ location. Quiet, secluded places that have hosted similar workshops in the past, give the opportunity for more concentrated, perhaps even more ‘efficient’ work. However, staying in Shefa’ amr with the participants’ families made the difference between listening and experiencing one’s story. Every day we would step out of class and the stories would come to life. The smell of the ‘borikas’ from the bakery next door would fill the picture of a lazy breakfast in bed, we could taste the pride in the locally produced pistachio ice-cream, see for ourselves what fails the dreams and kills the hopes but also what creates an identity and a sense of belonging.

I left the place with a feeling that I got more than I gave, maybe it’s just my western guilt that says so but, I saw my perspective shifting considerably in a short amount of time and that is Shefa’amr’s priceless gift to me. All this certainties I had in my luggage when I took off, had now completely disappeared. I proved to be familiar with only a few of the issues, aware of some parts of the situation and I almost managed to insult our hosts when I offered to pay at the grocery store but, in this roller-coaster of a week, there were moments where I also shared parts of my story and I saw the rest of the team doing the same. Some parts we told with words, some with music and the rest with eyes and smiles. And the untold message was ‘you are not alone, your story is heard’. May this be the mutual gift of this workshop, a sense of comfort in the thought that the ‘Dutch’ group, the eight of us from the other side of the continent, also wake up to questions about our identity in the morning and similar fears and frustrations keep us awake at night.

Anastasios Sarakatsanos – Dec 2016

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