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23  09  2005

'Culture and peace' : symbolic cracks in the Qalqilia wall!Palestine - dialogue

'Culture and peace' : symbolic cracks in the Qalqilia wall!

until 2002. Every day, Palestinian people would cross the border to go to work, and conversely, Israeli residents would come to shop in Palestine. The life around the border was what it is anywhere else, despite the tense political context, and suddenly, Ariel Sharon's governement decided to erect a wall around the town, abruptly dividing people for "safety" reasons. The UN and the European governments immediately condemned it. On hearing the reports of foreign civilians sent on observation missions, a group of Belgian citizens, shocked by the locals' despair, decided to provide some psychological relief to the people of Qalqilia, helping them not feel isolated from the rest of the world too. Meetings took place, appeals to everybody's good will were launched and in July 2004, a 'Summer camp' was finally organised for the local children. Belgian artists helped them discover music, singing, video/photography, theatre, puppets, wall-painting (though not on "the" big wall, the one with the watchtowers, but on walls the local schools allowed them to use). A whole fortnight of intensive work, activities, and dialogue —thanks to a team of interpreters. The City of Qalqilia, the local radio and television welcomed this unexpected initiative with great enthusiasm, proving that it fulfilled its purpose of relieving the people. It was such a success that the operation was renewed this Summer, except that this time, it was designed for teenagers. Appointment is already made for next Summer —a team will go and prepare it in November.

There are already forty voluntary Belgian citizens involved in this mission entitled 'PAS CE MUR' (which means 'not this wall'). They all belong to very different religious and ethnic backgrounds: there are Christians, Muslims, atheists, Arabs, Jews, 100% Belgians. There are artists, educators, journalists, psychiatrists... Everyone brings their knowledge and experience with purely humanistic intentions and no wish to interfere on a political or even philosophical level, except by trying to help people communicate and keeping them from bearing grudges which could have violent consequences. As a matter of fact, all the Belgian participants accept some 'rules of good conduct' which imply, for instance, that they will not dress in an inappropriate way (women do not have to wear a veil but their shoulders must be covered), etc. The current number of voluntary members being quite high, the fact that they do not all work at the same time entails that the form of their involvement varies according to their profile and willingness to go there or stay in Belgium to organise actions to support the cause. A full range of original and varied activities, all enjoyable, exist.

To finance the trip and the necessary materials, a big party was organised in Brussels last June, featuring such great artists as Mustapha Largo and Pie Tshibanda (who accepted to come for free for this good cause). Word of-mouth worked marvels, and nearly a thousand people showed up. Arabian women even sold cakes to buy cell-phones and credit for Qalqilia mothers cut off from their family and friends.

One of the initiators and most fervent workers of this project, Marie-Paule Eskenazi, is a former journalist for RTBF (she actually covered the first intifada, in 1987, for the radio) and the former director of a famous Belgian publisher. During Summer 2004, she set up a real press room for children from 8 to 13. She explains: "I offered to help them publish a newspaper. We worked from 8am to 1pm. There, boys and girls are educated separately so I was in charge of two different groups. Since I cannot speak Arabic, we worked with interpreters. When we wrote the possible subjects on the blackboard, what really struck me was their choice of themes. I thought they would want to deal with the painful reality of their country, but they did not. They felt like talking about daily life in their small town: their schools, the zoo, and...medicinal plants! We interviewed some chemists, the Lord mayor, etc., found someone to print the paper, and distributed it on the street. It was a huge success; the local radio and television even mentioned it. The kids were so proud and happy!" Another former radio presenter, Claudine Arnoldy, helped the children prepare radio programmes. Pierette Nicolosi, also a founding member, runs a travel agency specialised in pilgrimages, which allowed her to organise a meeting between Palestinians and Israeli pacifists. As far as the video artist Greta Alegre is concerned, she and the children made a film which will soon be shown in Europe. A group of psychiatrists created support groups for mothers with troubled kids whose husbands died in combat.

These voluntary helpers were put up by the locals. They worked a lot and slept little, but were rewarded for their efforts by the warm welcome, the many smiles, the hot cups of tea and delicious typical pastries the people of Qalqilia kept offering...

NB : An exhibition with the photographs taken by Eduardo Cereceda during the Summer camp 'Not this wall' will take place in Nivelles (30km from Brussels) from the 24th to the 30th of October (every day from 10am to 5pm at the Maison des artistes). For further information on the operation 'PAS CE MUR', contact mpeskenazi@skynet.be

Chantal Gras