Wall Painting at The SAGE Gateshead and The Trojan Rooms Whitley Bay

PETER MORTIMER reports on the latest events in the trip to Tyneside of the Palestinians from Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut.

The thirteen Shatilians will leave three artistic legacies behind when they depart from Tyneside; their main project is creating a row of eight large spray-painted boards, to be mounted and displayed at Tynemouth Station on Tuesday.
Yesterday (Sunday), a long brick wall at The Trojan Rooms, Whitley Bay received the Shatilian treatment while on Saturday the wall of an old railway arch at The Sage, Gateshead was given the full spray-can once over.
In their protective white zip-up hooded safety suits plus face masks the ten youngsters and three teachers cut a strange sci-fi pose, and though for their first efforts, the work was tentative, under the careful nurturing of artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie, slowly their confidence and skills improve as to the sounds of the hissing cans they help build ornate modern tapestries, complemented by several of the young artists proudly signing their names in Arabic.
Watching them come to terms with the technique and skills, discovering the disciplines of form and colour, reminds you what great potential this art form has. A week before none had even picked up a can, yet at the Trojan Rooms they transformed an entire wall in only one hour into a psychedelic celebration.
One of their teachers, Khodor Dannan talks of nurturing teams of similar artists on many Beirut refugee camps to help transform some of the drab walls – and why not?
The Shatilians took the chance to see some ‘official’ modern western art in the vast display halls of the Baltic Art Gallery, Gateshead, but seemed slightly less than overwhelmed by Mark Wallinger’s thousands of pebbles on dozens of chess boards, or Richard Prigg’s mountain cabin containing its own mountain. “Please Peter, what does it mean?” asked one.
They were more impressed with Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet where, plonked in the middle of forty speakers, the listener is totally consumed and possessed by Thomas Tallis’ reworking of renaissance choral music, whose power, coming at us from 360 degrees, almost sweeps us up into the air.
Was this a portent of the planned Beirut work next year where we hope to create a Shatila Choir to perform both in the Lebanon and the UK?
Such has been the publicity of this visit that many people stop the group to talk or just to shake their hands. In The Baltic a woman,Theresa Dixon shoved a £10 note into my palm.
“Sorry it isn’t more,” she said, hurrying off, reluctant to give her name (I insisted). In a similar incident at Tynemouth Station Market on Sunday a woman pressed several pound coins into my hand.
Today there’s a trip to BBC North East in Newcastle, the final touch-ups on the major painting, and a reception at the Linskill Centre, North Shields, hosted by VODA.
Tomorrow the boards will be mounted at Tynemouth Station and unveiled before an invited audience. The youngsters will also don beautiful hand-embroidered Palestinian costumes to perform the traditional Palestinian dance, The Dabke.
If any event were to symbolise the cultural fusion of East and West, the historic and the modern, then this surely is it.

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THE OLYMPIANS AND THE PALESTINIANS

Here was a truly international event; we were at an English football ground, sitting with thirteen Palestinians, watching Brazil play New Zealandin an Olympic match, and round the vast stadium was rippling a Mexican wave.
But what was it like for Palestinians themselves? A life spent in the squalor of Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut, and suddenly they found themselves high up in St. James Park, home of Newcastle United FC, and one of the mythic cathedrals of the Premier League, a place they had seen often enough on the fantasy of Sky Sports, but had only ever dreamed of visiting. Not only visiting , but to watch the most famous team on the planet, an international outfit boasting a galaxy of stars few football fans could ever hope to see in the flesh.
The sense of the unreal was compounded by the Palestinians’ arrival on Tyneside only a few hours earlier, 3.30am, bleary-eyed after an exhausting journey and a previous week spent wrangling with the intractable bureaucracies of the UK Border Agency. Via the British Embassy in Beirut, the Agency first refused the Palestinians visas outright, then admitted their errors and reversed the decision, but humming and haaaing to such an extent that the visas ended up in the Palestinians’ hands two days after their booked plane had taken off. This meant a £1,500 rebooking penalty charge from Lufthansa airline on our somewhat threadbare charity, Shatila Theatre Trust, and a UK itinerary turned upside down.
No matter. The Palestinians were here, ten youngsters, three teachers. And by getting here, among all the despair and sense of hopelessness about the Middle-East, the violence, the intractability, they were a small hope for the future.
They would create street art to be hung and displayed at Tynemouth Station. They would perform their traditional dance the dabke on the streets of North Tyneside. They would, like the two previous sets of young Palestinians who had visited, totally disarm the North East public.
Still bleary-eyed, and with only a few hours sleep they began their initial sketching with artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie in an empty retail unit at Whitley Bay’s Park View shopping centre. Various well-wishers popped in to offer encouragement.
And almost before their sketch pads were closed, off on the Metro to Newcastle
to watch the beautiful artistry of the Brazilians. In Shatila Camp, their local team, Al Karmel, played on patch of red dust in a make-do kit.
The Palestinians jumped to their feet, caught up in the excitement as the Mexican wave tsunamied through our stand. And at some particular moments in our lives, all things seemed possible.

PETER MORTIMER

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So finally and indubitably, the Palestinians are coming!

The last few days has seen first the one small bombshell of news that the teacher Khodor Dannan had been denied a visa. This was followed soon after by veritable megabomb that visas had been denied by the UK Border Agency to all thirteen Palestinians teachers and students.
This meant an entire year’s planning risked going up in smoke. There would be
no street art created by the Palestinians to be mounted at Tynemouth Station, no public performances of their traditional dabke dance in North Shields, Wallsend and Tynemouth.
The Palestinians would not get to see Brazil play football at St. James Park, nor visit the Alnwick Garden and view the Alnwick Castle made famous in the Harry Potter films.
£9,000 would have been wasted on airline tickets. The rooms at Christine Goodwin’s Northumbria Language school would remain empty. The young Palestinians would not get their English lessons, nor their trips out. We would be denied that sense of vibrant excitement each group of young Palestinians brings with them to North Tyneside, that feeling that in all the seemingly hopeless futility of the Middle East scenario that there is, via the region’s youth, some small glimmer of hope.
They and us would have been so much the poorer.
Worst of all, the decision would leave all future Shatila activity in doubt. What was the point of spending an entire year planning a visit that at single stroke of a pen could be wiped out?
And at the very moment that the UK was welcoming people from almost every country in the world for the Olympics, it was shutting the door against a totally innocent group from one of the most disadvantaged states on the planet.
No-one took this decision lying down. Our patron the Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell, aided by his agent Sarah Lough took up the cause with the Foreign Office and the British Embassy in Beirut. The journalist Tony Henderson wrote a front page lead in the Newcastle Journal. The North Tyneside based News Guardian did a major story. Facebook was suddenly full of indignation at the crazy nature of this decision. Emails and messages of support came flooding in.
And it worked! In the face of such tremendous grass roots opposition, this morning the Agency saw the error of their ways and reversed the decision. The visas were granted. Cock-up more than conspiracy had apparently been at play.
And in the early hours of Sunday morning, a van and a mini-bus head down to Manchester airport bringing back the 13 Palestinians who, judging by the visit of the previous two groups, over the following ten days will create many indelible memories – both for us and them.
Onwards!

PETER MORTIMER

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Shatila Art Auction Poster

Art Auction Poster

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PETER MORTIMER writes of the recent visit to the camp by three of the Shatila Trust’s steering group.

As usual Shatila was bewildering, exhausting and frustrating. When on camp I regularly swear to myself I will never visit again, but always I go back. The love/hate relationship continues. On this recent visit -  comprising myself, Kitty Fitzgerald and Tim Tribe – Lebanon was the coldest I have known, a low temperature compounded by the frowning grey skies in a country normally enjoying Mediterranean blue. There was also the dampness of our accommodation, the basic  and unheated Shatila youth centre in whose small community room the odd visiting student sat huddled in blankets.

Contrast this frigidity with the warmth of the Shatila people themselves. We visited various Shatila families befriended over the years, plus the off-camp homes of three  teachers involved in past and present projects, Maha, Khodor and Noha. Here we walked in to tables laid out like banquets, that extraordinary sense of Palestinian (and indeed Arabic) hospitality that shames we considerably more affluent westerners.

For Kitty and Tim this was the first Shatila visit, and hence that sense, after a couple of days of disorientation, of a place not like any other, and a suspicion it may be too much to handle. It is a sensation felt by all.

This is not simply because of poverty. The camp is poor but as Tim put it, “I have seen poorer places in India.” It is as much the sensation of a people living decade after decade in a state of suspended animation; a country without a country, the feeling that despite the efforts of many splendid individuals and organisations, the world is simply passing these people by. Some Palestinians from Shatila manage to escape, via marriage, via scholarships, via work permits. Most don’t.

The damp and cold played havoc with poor Kitty’s asthmatic lungs, and Tim’s guts took a pounding, but both showed great resilience, courage and optimism, and having two such supportive buddies lightened the load considerably as we negotiated the trip’s many obstacles.

Meetings in Lebanon can be confusing affairs, both to arrange and to work your way through. Often you stagger out in a state of bewilderment. Having said which we emerged from meetings with UNRWA, with The British Council, with Haifa School, with the Shatila Youth Centre and with Theatre Monnot feeling no little sense of achievement. They liked Tim’s obvious business head and they liked Kitty’s warm feistiness.

We also took the documentary Shatila Theatre, copies of which we handed out to interested parties, and for which had a public showing on camp at the youth centre. For various reasons this showing started one hour late, broke down on a couple of occasions and was accompanied by a good deal of noise, the audience coming in and out like the tide. Much cheering and clapping at the end.

We still have to raise oodles of dosh for  the planned June visit to the camp of the two street artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie, which remains  fraught with potential pitfalls, and specific plans for the Shatila youngsters when they come to decorate North Tyneside in July/August are a long way from being finalised.

But the potential is exciting; for this year’s project, for next year’s planned formation of a Shatila Choir to perform in Lebanon and the UK, and for the eventual creation on camp of a permanent Shatila Theatre Company, a wild but intoxicating idea which brought a glint into the eye of Theatre Monnot’s artistic director Paul Mattar.

And all the best things in the Shatila Project start with a glint in the eye.

Plus which, despite Beirut’s sometimes labyrinthine complexities, you return having experienced many moments of genuine friendship and feeling a genuine affection for Shatila Camp.

To finish on one small but vivid memory. At the house of teacher Noha Ali, we were introduced to her father, a Palestinian who founded his own English school in Beirut, but was now a small frail looking old man needing support to walk. Bent over, he seemed barely conscious of our presence, but then suddenly straightened his body, his eyes gleamed and he recited in beautiful English, an entire poem by Lord Byron, an act which saw him grow in stature tenfold. Each line seemed to infuse his ancient frame with a new energy. Before we left he recited a second Byron poem. Of the hundreds of poetry readings I have attended over the years, none has quite affected me like this


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Trailer for SHATILA THEATRE film

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More showing of the film SHATILA THEATRE

SHATILA THEATRE (the film ) will be shown on Sunday Nov 27 at the North-East Mining Institute, Neville Hall, Westgate Rd, nr. Newcastle Central Station, as part of a PALESTINE JUSTICE AND FREEDOM event. Peter Mortimer will talk about the Shatila Project after the film.
Also on the programme are Sameeha Elwan a Palestinian activist and blogger, and Remi Kanazi the Palestinian/American poet.The evening starts at 7pm.

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