In Arabic, "alrowwad" means "pioneers for life", and it's certainly an appropriate name for the Alrowwad Centre at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Founded by Dr Abdelfattah Abusrour in 1998 as a non-violent response to Israel's military occupation of Palestine, its mission is to foster "beautiful resistance" through creativity and education in the face of a bleak reality. And this year, they're bringing that message to the Fringe in the shape of Cafe Palestine, a cabaret show featuring both Palestianian performers and surprise guests.
Producer Justin Butcher has plenty of experience with political material – he previously wrote and directed the anti-war satire The Madness of George Dubya, which was followed by sequels A Weapons Inspector Calls and Guantanamo Baywatch. It was his involvement in the anti-war movement that brought him into contact with organisations campaigning for Palestinian rights, including the UK-based charity Amos Trust, which works with partner organisations in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They've been collaborating for 10 years now.
Butcher encountered the Alrowwad Centre on a trip to Palestine and was so inspired that he became determined to do all he could to bring Alrowwad Youth Theatre to the UK. “Seeing the young performers at work in their dance, theatre and music classes, against this backdrop, and receiving their wonderfully generous hospitality, has been one of the most affecting and memorable experiences of my working life,” he says. Abusrour, meanwhile, is "one of the most remarkable change-makers" that Butcher has ever come across.
For Abusrour, it's important to shed light on aspects of everyday life in Palestinian as well as the suffering, resilience and resistance. “Life in Palestine, and in a refugee camp like Aida, would push a lot of people to despair,” he says. But the Alrowwad Centre deals in hope, using arts, culture and education as building blocks to a brighter future. Many of the young artists involved had never left Palestine, and the opportunity to share their struggles and stories is thrilling – a chance to present an image of Palestine not often portrayed in the media.
In Cafe Palestine, Abusrour offers a glimpse at their lives: "Their struggle for liberation, their beautiful resistance against the ugliness of occupation and its violence… [They are] human beings, artists, who fully live their humanity despite the inhuman conditions that they are forced to live under.”
He believes that art is a stronger weapon than political debate – that engaging with audiences in this way will “humanise” the Palestinians, and put them on an equal level with the audience. That through their art, they can create a place where real conversations happen. Alrowwad aims to reach audiences wherever they are; using cabaret as a medium further exposes their performers to new venues, new audiences, new countries even; all parties involved can learn, change and grow during the process.
There is no question that this is emotive subject matter – that notions of refugeehood will stir up feelings of discomfort and distress. But despite the harsh realities of life under occupation, Cafe Palestine is nost, at its heart, a dark piece. “It’s really more about sharing Palestinian culture with a much wider audience,” says Nick Welsh of Amos Trust.
And that culture is joyful and dynamic; as Justin Butcher observes, one of the best things about visiting Palestine is that you have such a great time. “Between the barbed wire and the checkpoints, there is an ancient and beautiful culture, vibrantly engaged with the modern world, bursting to get out.”
The show offers audiences a chance to experience traditional Palestinian 'dabke' dance—flowing and graceful, with robes, foot-stamping, leaps and bounds, and the high-pitched ululating cry known as 'zaghrouta'—plus choral music, poetry in both Arabic and English, beautiful film sequences, and an array of guest artists from the Fringe programme who are performing with the company in solidarity. They will also be selling Palestinian olive oil, dates, za'atar and other produce imported by award-winning Fairtrade company Zaytoun after each performance, offering Edinburgh a taste of Palestinian life along with its cultural sights and sounds.
In the run-up to opening, the excitement of the production team is palpable. “Most of [the performers] have never been outside the camp, let alone the West Bank, let alone Palestine. Imagine what that must be like?” says Welsh. “And then, suddenly, you’re performing at the Edinburgh Fringe!”