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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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.


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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.


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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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October 2011 News – Film, Graffiti, Funding and Tactics

News from Shatila Theatre Trust October 2011

The documentary film shot by Primate Productions, called Shatila Theatre has been a long time gestating, but is now near completion. A version was shown recently at the Whitley Bay Film Festival to an appreciative audience but the complete version should be around 50mins in length.
Primate will try to get it into various film Festivals. It is already booked to be shown at the Cinema Politica group in Newcastle in December (I’m giving a preview talk on Monday November 7 when they are showing another Palestinian film, Occupation 101).
Primate is also offering it to various TV networks. We plan to show the film in Edinburgh and Liverpool and to have another public showing in Whitley Bay. Interest has come from various other sources and my own feeling is that it will cause a great deal of interest, and be more power to our elbows.
I shall also let Shatila Camp have a copy of course, and indeed I think a team from the trust should visit should visit Beirut before long, so that we can start getting a momentum on future projects.

Artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie are keen to go to the camp and work with young people on creating graffiti art for the camp’s walls. As well as work on the camp we are talking about a possible Graffiti Festival here on North Tyneside, which Faye and Anthony might be interested in helping to organize and to which we could bring over the Shatila Sprayers. Faye is talking to her employers North Tyneside YMCA about working together and potentially doing something around the regeneration of The Dome in Whitley Bay
Kitty has been in been in touch with The Sage, Gateshead about sending over a choirmaster/mistress and a couple of choristers to the camp to set up a Shatila Choir. Hopefully a fusion of Arabic and English influences. The idea is to perform both in Beirut and in this country, the latter possibly with UK members of an existing choir, of which there are various at The Sage and elsewhere on North Tyneside.

The photographer Dave Turnbull has put around 100 of his photos documenting the trip and tour in the UK onto a CD. They are excellent and I have sent a copy over to Beirut. David followed the Palestinians faithfully and got some great shots. We will be putting more up on our website soon.

A meeting with Julie Turnbull and Diane Legge of N.Tyneside Council discussed involving the borough’s junior Mayor in future Shatila activities. More on this later.

People and organisations in Beirut have been kept informed over recent months including The British Council, The British Embassy, UNRWA, the Shatila Youth Hostel and the Haifa School teachers. I think we should work closely with the all the above as they are integral to our developing work on the camp and have been very supportive in the past.

It will soon be time to get our applications rolling again and as we are a now a registered charity, we shall have access to more foundations for funding, which we hope this will make our task easier. The trust will begin actively to look at potential sources.


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My Palestinian host wrote this when my daughter and I stayed in Beirut.

“You are coming from your country. You make a big effort and time to touch the wounded of the Palestinians. These wounded are from a very long time ago. Thank you because you make our children happy and cheerful, the child is always the miracle. Alquos is in waiting for us all .There we will meet and sing and dance. Peace from me to you and all over the world.”      M. Khahchan

22ndFeb   Walking through Beirut airport I see a white paper flapping in the air with Pat written on it in red. It is held up by Iman who has come with his wife to take us straight to Theatre Monnot. Excitedly, he leads us to his ancient Mercedes, but how will we all fit in, four eager pilgrims who have come to support the play, plus his wife? Not a problem to Iman as he packs us all in. After some confusion finding the way, Iman stops at Rue Monot and unloads his cargo. Where had he put the entire luggage? It`s so amazing to see posters for the play, with The Angel of the North spreading its wings, in Beirut. I am so looking forward to meeting the children, also seeing Maha and Mariam again.

23rd Feb   This evening Mohamed our host talks of his flight from Palestine in 1949. He jumps off his seat and demonstrates with his feet. “This foot in Palestine, this foot, “in Lebanon, two lives, “he says taking a wide step. He was not to know then, all those years ago that he would never go back.

24th Feb   This morning I revisit the Najdeh Centre in the Shatila Refugee Camp and am taken to the kindergarten. Memories of my time there, teaching the children flood back. This was where it all began. OPENING NIGHT a little late in starting but fabulous! Stunned faces, almost in disbelief beside me, could only be those of some of the parents. I recognise Iman and his wife. In the foyer a ladies black skirt sweeps past me. I hear, “My    daughter`s   the   g e rl .”

31st M arch     The Northumbria -Whitley Bay. The children pour out of the coach from Manchester and give three kisses on mycheeks, left right left are an Arabic custom which is now familiar and one which I rather like. They cheer with energy when they receive the home-made Palestinian flag cake I brought them. This is the first of many parties.

02nd April   Today it’s The Sage Hall 2… Evening performance. The show begins with music from the Middle East. A Song from Palestine is picked up by a group in the audience. I watch the Palestinian children with Maha their teacher, as they sing along clapping with passion and pride It`s their turn next, but as usual they don`t show signs of nerves.

3rd April   The Avalon Hotel. I get to know the teachers better. I am so touched. Maha gives me a Mother`s Day present, it`s a handsome bookmark, which is in this diary. Mariam wishes me “Happy Mother`s Day.” Peter`s phone rings often, but does not disturb the magic show as mums ring from Beirut to speak to their children. Noha talks eagerly to me. I learn all about the Palestinian dance costumes, loaned to her as favour, and how expensive they are. I listen to her difficulties when she went for the children`s visas. Laughing, she jokes about the journey, how she has three bags, one with the precious costumes one with the passports and one with the visas. The other teachers are told that she will do nothing else, just guard the bags.

4thApril    Saville Exchange. Arrived early. The hall is transformed, such a surprise! I walk into a party, balloons, pot plants, Sweets, nibbles, and glasses of wine, friends, laughter, and tables arranged cabaret style. My table`s at the very front. I enjoy a close up of the changing expressions.

5thApril   The Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh is such a fitting venue. It`s brand new and all about children. But has The Fringe come early? Downstairs after the play a Scottish Ensemble plays gentle music. The Deputy Provost of Edinburgh gives an address. I am so pleased when he says that this is exactly the type of visit that Edinburgh stands for and would always encourage. I am equally pleased when he tells me that of all the things he sees here he enjoys this play the most. The Palestinians move around in the crowd. The Scots enjoy meeting them. The children are confident both on an off the stage.

8th April   As the train approaches Liverpool lots of beautifully dressed young ladies get on and there are many more at the station. They can`t all be going to a wedding!  It`s Ladies Day at Aintree races. There is a happy mood. At the theatre I am well received and humbled by the excellent hospitality of UNISON our host. I enjoy this performance just as I have enjoyed all others. The stage is smaller so the reader is standing to the side. In the question time after the play it becomes evident how committed many of the audience are to the project. Possibilities and suggestions are made about future events. UNICEF will support future visits of Palestinian children coming from the camp. This is thrilling news.

9th April   At he Avalon Hotel the children watch The Wizard of Oz and then Vicky puts on a DVD she made of the Palestinian Dance. This makes them so excited that they jump onto the small stage in front of the screen and dance with great fervour as the DVD is put on again. And so they dance for the last time. Lovely, spirited children, you have given your all, it`s time to go home to your mums

Hover over an image for its title and click to display a full version.

Pat Riddell – Tyneside – May 2nd 2011

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With the Palestinians on The Magical Mystery Tour

Almost one week on from the Palestinians returning to Beirut, and still I wake early each morning, feverish with thoughts of exactly to where, and how the stage set will be moved this day.
The tour’s after-image lingers long. I cannot believe it’s over, yet also I cannot believe it took place. Did these young people really fly 3000 miles, truck another 600 miles through the UK to give ten performances, and then fly back to Lebanon?
Was there really for ten days that heady mix of Geordies, Scouses, Edinburghians and Palestinians? Did they grace Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, strut round stately piles, did they really bring standing ovations in all venues? Was this group of excitable 12 and 13 years olds, many for the first time away from the squalor of Shatila Refugee Camp, and understandably often a loud ragbag of energy, the same youngsters who once on stage showed the skills, discipline and presence of professional actors? And all this in a language which was foreign to them?
With 22 people, plus a bulky set, costume and props travelling in three seperate wagons, at times it felt like a Rolling Stones tour, yet always it was intimate, always it was knitted together with camaraderie, and an unspoken sense that this was something special.
Small memories abound; the spontaneous Liverpool applause at the end of Lama al Hayek’s brilliant dance of the wind, Adel al Latif (The King) proudly walking through Edinburgh with his dog-on-a-stick bought from Home Bargains, the Liverpool Middle-East restaurant where all we westerners ate exotic dishes while the Palestinian youngsters gulped down burger and chips; football-mad Ibrahim Imad starting up a game in the middle of rehearsals, and the cast’s traditional and energetic Palestinian Dabki dance, choreographed by teacher Khodor Dannan which brought each show an exhilarating end. And back-stage in Edinburgh, the entire cast making a huge fuss over Lily and Finn, the delighted four year old grand-bairns of Pat Riddell. Pat travelled to every performance under her own steam.
You transform yourself through other people. Thus were many of us transformed on this trip, and though the experience by necessity must now shuffle off to the Department of Memory, something indelible, something positive remains, and so the past shapes the future.

Peter Mortimer Thursday April 15, 2011

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