Silwan school - David Bachar - March 2012
A lesson at the school. “Until 2007, the children here didn’t have anything.” Photo by David Bachar
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Climbing the steep slope of Silwan’s main drag, Wadi Hilweh Street, one would never imagine that beneath the street’s houses lies a network of subterranean shafts and tunnels. The Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Elad Association, and the settlers who have moved into barricaded compounds in the heart of this village that became a neighborhood of East Jerusalem, are all trying to take over Silwan and rob its inhabitants of their homes and their lands.

This is true not only above ground, where the City of David ‏(Ir David‏) is expanding to huge dimensions, but also beneath it, via excavations running from the Old City to the Shiloah Pool, as a 2009 study by the Ir Amim organization revealed. Wadi Hilweh Street itself is closed to its inhabitants on Jewish holidays, and the harassment of local children along its length and breadth is a daily occurrence.

To the left, going up the hill, is a small soccer field. Until last month, this was the only playground for the 5,000 children living in Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh neighborhood ‏(altogether, half of Silwan’s 55,000 inhabitants are under age 18‏). The neighborhood has no community centers, no open areas for play and leisure activities, no parks, not even any classrooms.

At 7 A.M. one morning − “even before the lawyers wake up and the courts open so you can file an appeal,” as 40-year-old neighborhood resident Ahmad Qaraeen put it − the soccer field and the temporary pergola alongside it were demolished. In its stead, other play facilities, including a ping-pong table, were set up under the watchful eyes of dozens of black-clad Israeli policemen.

“Boys and girls played soccer together for the first time in Silwan,” Qaraeen said, “and this is a huge blow and a trauma for the children. The field was a refuge, a place where the children forgot about politics, about the settlers, about the arrests. And now, the state comes along and forcibly drags them back to all that. Everyone rallied to clean the place up after the destruction, to try to rebuild it. You weep when you see it.”

Up the street is a fenced-off, filthy excavation site and huge, overflowing garbage bins located alongside the Jews’ houses. The municipality doesn’t bother to empty the bins ‏(“in the summer, they attract roaches and rats,” Qaraeen said in passing‏). And to the right is a modest green door.

Behind it is a small apartment with decorated floor tiles that houses the office of the Madaa Silwan Creative Center. “Madaa” means “horizon” in Arabic, and here you’ll find a quiet library with 3,000 books for children and a computer room where two children are surfing Facebook ‏(“not many have computers at home,” Qaraeen noted‏) while the rest are engaged in learning activities.

Two alleys over, sounds fill the air: piano, oud, guitar, cello, percussion, violin or choir, depending on which day you come. Here Madaa operates the Silwan Village Music School.

“Until 2007, the children here didn’t have anything,” Qaraeen related. “We, some of the neighborhood residents, therefore decided to set up a cultural center. We rented this apartment, and first of all, we opened the music school.

“At first, 15 children sat on the floor of the small apartment without any musical instruments. Today, we already have 100 students, and there is also a drama club, a mosaics school, a creative writing class, and a summer day camp. There was also a soccer team, until the field was destroyed. And there are courses in English, math and sewing for women.”

One of the center’s founders was Jawad Siyam, who remains to this day its moving spirit and director. He is one of the most prominent leaders of the social struggle in Silwan − and also one of those most persecuted by Israel.

The community decides

Silwan is located on the southeastern slopes of Jerusalem. In 1967, it was annexed to Israel, and its inhabitants were given the orange identity cards denoting legal residency rather than the blue ones denoting Israeli citizenship. The infrastructure in the village is neglected and in many places dangerous; the education system suffers from a serious shortage of classrooms and teachers; and 75 percent of the village children live below the poverty line.

But the establishment of the music school has effected a social turnaround in Silwan. “First of all, in the children: We can feel a change in them,” Qaraeen said. “They have learned to keep the place nice, to behave politely and to keep quiet; they have learned the importance of sticking to a timetable, and also that there is something called the rights of the child. We established the place for them, so they won’t go doing bad things, [like] smoking, and to keep them away from violence.”

The isolated and weakened community, which once suffered from mutual suspicion among the residents, has now united around the children’s musical activity. The parents got to know one another, they conversed, and they became aware of their neighbors’ struggles over their houses and lands, which until then had been waged individually. And the women, who previously had no reason to leave the house, now get out and about. They meet, they learn mosaics and Palestinian embroidery, and they discuss their lives and their problems.

“Every decision, whether about the center − what musical instrument is needed or when concerts will be held − or about whether to appeal a court ruling concerning our lands and houses, is now made in a community meeting, and our representative committee is elected democratically,” Qaraeen said. “We want to develop the village, so Silwan won’t be like a hotel where you go back to sleep after work, but rather a center of culture.”

After the cultural center, the village established an information center for political activity.

Qaraeen, a member of the village’s representative committee, has to use a crutch for walking. About five years ago, two armed men − later identified by local residents as settlers − conducted a patrol along the street in order to frighten and intimidate the residents. After they hit one of Qaraeen’s sons, he went up to them to ask why. As seen in a video recording, one of them then cocked his M-16 rifle and shot his knee at close range, and when Qaraeen fell, he fired another bullet into his thigh.

“Our children are suffering from this situation: in the street, on the way to school, in families that have received eviction and demolition notices,” he said. “If you listen to their conversations, what do you hear? ‘Police,’ ‘Settlers,’ ‘A cousin of mine was arrested.’ My own children, for example, cried and screamed when they saw the man shoot me in the leg in the street, and then he shot me in the other leg. They haven’t recovered from this.

“Therefore, we established the center. So the children would have an address.”
It is 8 degrees Celsius out, rainy and windy. But inside the building where the young school is located, there are private piano lessons in one room and young children, in the pre-instrumental stage, preparing for Mothers Day in the other.

The children are learning a song, drumming on their bodies, experiencing basic musicality in melody and rhythm. Their eyes are shining and the sounds are lovely. When they complete this phase, they will join 100 of their friends who are already studying here − with five teachers − and will be able to choose an instrument to specialize in.

Support from aid agencies, especially overseas organizations, enables the loan of an instrument to each child. It also enables the teaching of other subjects, like choir and music theory − all for a nominal annual fee in the form of Madaa membership dues.

The organization’s Internet site, www.madaasilwan.org, features not only reports on its musical and cultural activities, but also a statement by the center’s leaders of their objectives: to promote nonviolence, to strengthen the community, to build leadership and dialogue, and to inculcate awareness of their Palestinian heritage among the youth, all without affiliation to any political organization, under the complete control of the villagers themselves. The sounds of the piano and the oud arising from the small center, the debka dancers and the choir singers, are giving concrete form to this statement.