A Nightmare of Shattered Lives

Th1_247200857frere Artist Jane Frere in The Scotsman:

I was in Bethlehem working on The Nakbah Project, a programme of artistic workshops with Palestinians to create an art installation, Return of the Soul, marking the 60th anniversary of their expulsion from their homeland in 1948. Amal was one of three women I worked with in the ancient town – the others were called Imurad and Shama – who had agreed to make 200 figures. Normally these three ladies would eke out a living by creating the most exquisite Palestinian embroidery, or other craft folklore, to sell to the dwindling tourist trade. But now such tourists comprise only the most dedicated of pilgrims, bold enough to venture beyond the 8m-high towering wall, through hostile check points, to seek out the birthplace of Christ.

I knew that Imurad, Shama and Amal loved the concept behind the project. They were not only digging into their own family histories, but also those of their friends and relatives. But, really, they were desperate. Although they wouldn’t admit it, they needed the money.

So, with enthusiasm and dexterity, my Bethlehem trio swapped their needles and thread for pliers and wire. As we negotiated our way around the twists and knots, creating the skeletal wire shapes representing their fleeing grandparents, we huddled on sofas around a single bar electric fire, and out poured a litany of woes – unemployed husbands, hospital fees for the son who got shot in the leg, the struggle to support older members of their families, nearly all succumbing to an assortment of cancers. Palliative care is rarely available in hospitals there; if there is no imminent threat of death, everyone gets discharged as quickly as possible due to lack of space. But that might mean paying for medication and nutrients on drips administered at home, and if an electricity bill is not paid, the power is cut off with devastating consequences for the makeshift nurses. In my time in Palestine I gathered many stories like these, as I travelled across hostile borders observing the fragments of people’s shattered lives.

As an artist and theatre practitioner, my interests have always tended towards humanitarian concerns, and the journey an artist takes interests me almost more than the final work of art.