The Summer Camp of the Arabian Nights

Orit Soudry

THE BAQA CENTERS, together with the Workers Advice Center (WAC), held their annual summer camps this July in Majd al-Krum, Nazareth and Jaffa. Some 120 children, aged 6-12, took part. The camps took as their title the "Arabian Nights", concentrating on the cultural development of Mesopotamia from the time of the Babylonian Empire to present-day Iraq. For a week, the children learned about the dawn of civilization, the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the disturbing events taking place in Iraq today under American occupation.

The dawn of civilization

Asma Agbarieh, director of the Baqa Cultural Center in Jaffa: "We wanted to take the children back in time to the beginning of human culture, so that they would know Mesopotamia's important role in its foundation. For the counselors, grasping the material, and learning how to present it, demanded study, thought and imagination. In Jaffa, for example, we chose Sinbad, the legendary seafarer of the Arabian Nights, to help the children understand the continuity of history. I played Sinbad, visiting each morning in costume and make-up. The children were fascinated by every word Sinbad said. I was able to emphasize the importance of the development of laws, like the Hammurabi Code, and the significance of writing and accountancy. I saw in the children's eyes the thirst for more stories, more artistic activities, more jokes.

"As Sinbad, I used a map of Mesopotamia. Each day I presented information by adding slides. On the first day, when talking about laws, we showed the monolith with the Hammurabi Code. On the second day, while discussing the development of writing, we showed examples of writing tools. We also investigated the ancient system of government. All the centers agreed that games were a good way to understand the importance of rules, since they themselves are based on rules."

In Nazareth the organizers invited Harish Abu Shakra, an expert in Arabic calligraphy. He taught how writing was used in the past, and how over the years the forms and letters developed into modern Arabic. He also showed the children a more advanced stage , where letters were used as a special kind of ornament on buildings and books. The children made their own arabesques on plaster seals.

The Golden Age

Samya Nasser, summer-camp director at Majd al-Krum: "On the third day we presented the golden age of Mesopotamia, which began in the eighth century CE and lasted until the Mongolian conquest in the thirteenth. What was special about this era was the extensive scientific and cultural development. It was expressed not just in magnificent palaces, but in the number of educational institutions and educated people. The Abbasid Caliphate is seen today as the pinnacle of Arab culture and statesmanship. For me, it was important to show the children that the Arab world was not always inferior and weak.

"In order to make the past come alive, we visited the Tzippori Museum of Archaeology and even did some digging."

Eitan Mor, an art student from Tel Aviv, relates his experience in Jaffa: "I saw the results of a year's work at the Center. It is clear that the children are used to working. They hold the brush well. They put thought into the use of form and color. For instance, Muhammad was painting a palace. I saw he took it seriously, and accuracy was important to him. I like the center's approach to art. It doesn't consider talent as the most important thing, but love and the desire to paint. The children throw off their inhibitions and don't worry about receiving permission – they decide what is right for them. I am comfortable working there, because I see the degree of freedom they have. There is a high level of integrity, not just in sticking to facts and historical information, but also in the approach to the work itself."

Shiri Wilk, educational director at the Jaffa center, reports on a visit by the camp to the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem: "This was an important experience for both children and counselors. It brought together what we'd learned during the first few days. We discovered the beauty and richness of the Arabic cultural background."
The bundle of sticks

Asma Agbarieh: "The counselors in Jaffa debated the question of whether to inject a political element into the summer camp [see box]. I held that the subject of Iraq would not be new to the children: it touches everyone in the Arab world who watches Al Jazeera and sees American weapons destroying Iraqi houses. It troubles every person who longs for equality and freedom. The extreme policies of the Bush Administration are not just enforcing US interests in Iraq, they are presuming to bring a new culture to Iraq, superior to the culture they are destroying. They want to teach the Iraqis what culture is. America is saying, 'You are not equal, you are inferior.'

"The Baqa Cultural Center was set up to foster, without chauvinism, the children's feeling of security concerning their national and cultural identity – to say to the Arab child: you are part of a rich culture that came from Mesopotamia, a rich and varied culture that belongs to 300 million other Arabs.

"In the conflict between America and Iraq, Israel tells the Arab child that he should support America, but the Arab child supports Iraq. Our task is to assure the Arab child that supporting Iraq is legitimate.

"For example, on the day that Baghdad was occupied, Sinbad appeared before the children wounded and frightened:

'Children! Children!
You won't believe it!
My most beautiful Baghdad
Has fallen into the hands of evil tyrants!
Suddenly there are steel birds in the skies
Coming straight from Britain and America
Roaring over my beautiful city,
Dropping bombs with a terrible din.
Oh my magnificent city of flourishing wisdom,
Oh my marvelous city,
How it falls…

'So, children, now I must run –
There are many people and many places
That I want to visit and say,
'Don't be sad,
We shall prevail, we shall persevere,
And one day we shall return
To strength and influence!'

"On the camp's third day we added a slide to Sinbad's map, showing towns and cities with containers of oil, surrounded by soldiers and tanks.

"Each center found its own way to broach the occupation of Iraq. In Majd al-Krum, games between groups proved to be a good way to confront the issue. In Jaffa we preferred to work in the spirit of the Arabian Nights. We chose the story of a man on his deathbed who summoned his seven sons. To each he gave an arrow and asked him to break it. Each did so easily. Then he told them to put all the arrows together and now try to break them. The bundle of arrows passed from one brother to the next, but none was able to break it.

"The summer camp in Baqa always tries to deal with revolutionary leaders or exceptional periods of struggle. In past years, for example, we have looked at apartheid, the Spanish civil war and Algeria's struggle for independence. In Iraq we couldn't find any exemplary leaders, but this time the war was happening right in front of the children's eyes and not just in the pages of history. The message of social solidarity was still relevant. The children each received a stick and each one broke it easily. Then they put all the sticks together and found how difficult it was to break them."

Shiri Wilk: "When you work with children on educational subjects, you're never sure how much is getting through. In preparation for the last day, when all the centers came together, we held an internal quiz in Jaffa. This time Sinbad appeared without a text, just with a surprised expression on his face. "As a result of yesterday's trauma," a counselor explained, "he's lost his memory." Sinbad asked, "Who am I?" When the children told him, he asked, "Where am I, and what have I done?" The children related all he had experienced and summarized all they had learned. Then we understood that we were ready for the general quiz."

All together

Samya Nasser: "In the Abbasid period of cultural and scientific development, there was openness to other cultures. The libraries held translations from many languages. Today there is an extreme closed-mindedness resulting from a sense of political and cultural inferiority. The internationalist principle, therefore, is of great importance."

The summer-camp staff is part of a worldwide movement against the war in Iraq. The art counselors were also active in the "Ongoing Platform Against The War". Two actors from the "Veto Theater" (see Challenge # 79) worked with the campers in producing a show. "The performance," says Shiri Wilk, "tells the story of a king who is looking for a worthy successor. He summons all his subjects and announces that whoever grows the most beautiful plant from the seeds he distributes will win the crown. A month later, the competitors return, each with a magnificent plant. Only one comes back empty-handed. When the king asks for an explanation, the man says he didn't manage to grow anything, because the seeds were bad. The king, who had deliberately given bad seeds to all, grants him the throne, for he alone had the courage to speak the truth.

"The actors worked with the children on acting skills and dancing. They also created a comic character called 'the fly swatter' who stole the show."

Khitam Na'amneh: "The staff in the Nazareth camp was varied and interesting. There were people from the Center's youth group, as well as young workers from WAC who had taken a holiday in order to participate."

On the last day, all the centers presented their work to one another. The Daar al-Salaam group from Nazareth did folk dances to a song about Iraq by Nazem al-Razali. The children from the group called "Tigris and Euphrates" danced in the flowing, intricate style of arabesques. To conclude the festivities, the Ali Baba group acted out a story from the Arabian Nights about two disputing brothers who find their way to peace.