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With so many dramatic events taking place in the Middle East, CUSSW student Lina Hamdan decided it was time to get some Arab youth involved in a drama of their own making—and with a peaceful ending. She would offer young people from several Arab countries the chance to write and stage a performance about what they had experienced during the Arab Spring, the emotions it had generated, and how it could all lead to a peaceful and democratic future for the region.
Hamdan, who is a Second Year student under the Jordan Social Work Fellowship program—which is cosponsored by Open Society Foundation and the King Abdullah II Fund for Development—called her proposal "ARTiculating Peace." From Jordan originally, she recruited other Jordanians with experience of working with youth at the community level. She applied for, and received, one of the special grants made to Columbia University's International House by the Davis Projects for Peace.
It all came together this past summer, with a five-day boot camp involving 14 youth from six Arab countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, occupied Palestinian territories, Syria and Tunisia.
Hamdan recently agreed to answer some questions about the project on behalf of the wider CUSSW community. Here are some highlights from our exchange:
How did you get the idea of using the creative arts—especially drama—for assisting youth, ages 15-17, who had lived through turbulent political times?
I used some drama-related activities for a previous work experience—to provide psychosocial support for underserved youth and especially girls who were victims of abuse. It was a great medium of expression. Not only did it help in facilitating open expression but it also provided a baseline for the issues these young people faced on a daily basis.
I know you had a partner in the Amman Theatre Lab in developing the content and training the youth for their performance. What role did the Davis money play in enabling the project? Did you also have to seek support from other sources?
The founder of Amman Theater Lab, Dr. Fadi Skeiker, was involved even before I applied for the Davis grant. Fadi has a PhD in theater from the University of Texas, with a concentration on community empowerment through theatre. The two of us quickly realized that in trying to capture youth opinion about the Arab Spring, along with their dreams for a better future, the project was unusually ambitious. I strongly believed that the experience should be documented and disseminated. This entailed recruiting Abdel elah Aljawarneh, a young Jordanian director who brought in his crew and joined the team for the entire week. He kindly volunteered his time to document the process. Basically, the Davis grant covered the logistical expenses for transporting the youth from different countries to Jordan, along with their lodging and meals. CUSSW, through the office of Dean Takamura, linked me with the Columbia Global Center in the Middle East, which is based in Amman. The Center supported my project by hosting the training and providing all the facilities that were needed to conduct the workshop and the performance. In addition, I had many local partners who provided great help. The All Jordan Youth Commission hosted a discussion between ARTiculating youth and their activists and covered transportation costs. The Royal Film Commission provided the videographer team with all the equipment they needed to document the process. And JCI-PSUT provided some volunteers and also organized trips and visits.
During the course of the workshop, did the youth ARTiculate anything surprising—anything you didn't expect?
At the beginning, we found it challenging to work with youth who had never been on stage before—not only to perform but also to compose the stories that they would perform. But then the young people started to get into it, and their sketches focused on the theme of stopping political oppression in ways that grabbed my attention. I was surprised at the level and depth of their ideas.
Can you share one of the stories the youth groups told?
All of the stories were strong, but one that I recall is the torture of a women activist who cheered for democracy and women rights and then was tortured by the police for that. The story was powerful, and the actors seemed to speak directly from their hearts. As a social work student, I was overjoyed by the participants' repeated calls for social justice, empowerment, education and well-being.
Your project involved the traditional arts. What about social media?
ARTiculating peace was designed to include social media as a core component. We arranged with Think Arabia, one of the largest media solution companies in Jordan and the Middle East, to host our youth for a tour, which included a visit to Kharabeesh, a sub-company that specializes in social media production and in the use social media to advocate, express and capture citizens' voices about social and political issues. Afterwards, two of the youth were assigned as the project's social media team and they started to broadcast all the components of the training on Twitter and our Facebook page.
If you had the project to do over again, would you do anything differently?
I would extend the time of the project to be at least 10 days. As it was, we had five full training days, and the young people worked for more than 12 hours a day. That was so intense. Also, I would increase the range of the age group involved. It was very hard to get 15-year-olds to travel under such unstable conditions. As it was, we did increase the age range to 24 years (young adults), and the mixture was amazing (it represented youth from 16-24 years).
What's next for the project—is the film ready yet?
We have two more steps: the first is the final production of the documentary. It's expected to completed by the end of November. After that we plan to distribute a copy to each participant and encourage them to start using the creative arts as a medium of expression with peers in their local communities. We see the creative arts as a way for Arab youth to become agents for social change and advocate for their countries' governments to adopt best practices.
What's next for you—are you planning to build on this work?
ARTiculating peace is a pilot project that we hope becomes a yearly activity where youth from different countries can come together and then start working with their peers. We are already planning next year's round, and if we get the needed support and partnership we will be one step closer to institutionalizing it as a platform for Arab youth expression.
Thanks, Lina. Your work is very inspiring! Good luck with the next steps. We look forward to seeing the video!
--Interview conducted by ML Awanohara
Img: ARTiculating Peace participants doing their morning warm-up before starting the sessions, by participant and project photographer Nader Shakhshir.