Hip-hop in the Jenin refugee camp—and finding its location

From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest sojourns in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning. I now begin making plans to return in fall, 2021.

My major intention is to convey perspectives expressed by the people I interview, as I understand them, allowing for translation problems, misinformation on the parts of all people involved, and my own biases and ignorance. The histories they present, for instance, I may not agree with. I feel accuracy in reporting is more important than the accuracy of their statements. Rather than insert my disagreements with their statements, which could be regarded as an act of white, Eurocentric, male supremacy, I hope to provide open platforms for those I meet.

At the moment of my writing (May 12, 2021), violence reigns in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, parts of Israel including Jerusalem, and its East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the most violent period since 2014 during the Gaza Massacre. For an overview about Sheikh Jarrah, click here. And for my recent 3-part blog series about Sheikh Jarrah and my personal experiences there, click here for part 1.

#SaveSheikhJarrah – Take Action — Sign our Petition to Members of Congress! (April 3, 2021)

The photographic act … is in fact a new beginning that lacks any predictable end…. The photo acts, thus making others act. The ways in which its action yields others’ action, however, is unpredictable.

Ariella Azoulay


But first I need to get to Jenin in the northern section of the West Bank, occupied Palestine. From my journal (I’d written another version of this earlier for my blog, but this account extends it to the hip-hop concert):

July 3, 2019, Wednesday, West Bank, Jenin, Freedom Theater guest house


Click map to enlarge

Arriving at what I thought was the Balam or Balem checkpoint, trying to enter the West Bank from northern Israel to visit a friend, Mouwia, and the Jenin Freedom Theater to continue my Nakba photo project, parking my car (the gate was formidably closed), at first I saw no one. I called out hello, and a drowsy-looking male border agent or policeman slowly came out of the small container serving as office and housing, tucked his shirt in, clasped his belt, and asked, who are you? I’m Skip Schiel from the United States. What do you want? Entrance to Jenin. Why? To visit a friend. Show me your ID. You mean my passport? Yes. What do you do? Photography. By now a female agent had joined us. She adamantly said, you can’t come in. Why not? Not allowed. You can’t come in here. How am I supposed to get into Jenin? I don’t know. Are there other checkpoints I could use? I don’t know. Call your friend.

I phoned Mouwia and eventually engaged him and the two Israelis in some sort of conversation in Hebrew that I couldn’t follow.

Turn around! Go go go! she said, close to shouting, on the verge of screaming. By now both had put on their bulletproof vests, knapsacks, and had their machine guns strapped threateningly across their chests.  No helmets. As if to add credibility to their commands. What had they been doing before I arrived at this lazy border crossing? I pondered to myself.

Looking south at the Salem checkpoint with the West Bank north of Jenin in the background; the luxurious-looking homes in the upper left are presumably in an Israeli settlement

As I went to my car parked about 100 ft from them and the closed gate, I noticed two men easily pass. So I returned to the police, asked again, hey, why can they go thru and not me? They live there, you don’t. I then unleashed the mighty fury of my full credential. Say, I’m a United States citizen, I pay taxes, I vote. I help pay for Israel, perhaps your salaries, (Not quite accurate since I’m a war tax refuser/redirector.) He said, I pay taxes too. Ignoring his non sequitur, I replied, my country gives your country 3.8 billion dollars annually. Implying maybe I’d make some sort of complaint back home. This didn’t move them.

In retrospect, I believe they simply wished to harass me. Why otherwise the early questions about who am I and why do I wish to enter Jenin? Did they notice my bracelet with the Palestinian national colors?

Conversing with Mouwia (luckily I had data coverage, close enough to Israel to provide this), after consulting with others (I sensed that Mouwia rarely leaves Jenin or works with people, guests of the theater, who need travel info.), he directed me to another checkpoint, what I heard as the Jeffrey checkpoint [turned out to be the Jalameh checkpoint] from the Israeli town of Afula south. Without clear information anywhere—online or personally—I wasn’t sure as I was stuck in traffic whether the checkpoint would be open or closed (various views), and if open, whether I could pass, with my car or without (no online info even tho B’tselem [an Israeli human rights organization] has a list of the checkpoints. Comparatively, this second checkpoint was a breeze—going in. Coming out, if I use it, might be much different. Being rush hour, not only was road traffic generally heavy, but the checkpoint was crowded with workers returning home. I watched as long lines of mostly men entered; cars jockeyed for passage. One cursory stop, then the traffic, and I was in. Glory be! My next task was finding the camp and the Freedom Theater and Mouwia himself.


Photography students of Skip Schiel, Jenin Freedom Theater, 2015
Mays, Jenin, 2012, photo by Skip Schiel

Which as one might guess was complicated. By two factors: virtually no one I met in Jenin spoke English and I lost coverage of data and phone. In addition, my phone translator app didn’t work because date coverage had ceased, and the map pointer was erratic and untrustable. I asked several: where is the refugee camp? And people at best would try to repronounce the statement. Where is the refugee camp? No one understood me. Ok, I can drive around until I spot something familiar. Since I’d been many times to Jenin, I have scenes in my head, not only the camp, but the road to it, a main center with the fruit drink shop, a line of large stores, the souq, a cemetery for British soldiers or airmen, etc. But now I recognized nothing.

Until I decided to park my car and simply ask people until I found someone who spoke English. Immediately, walking into a food shop, I found someone—and the shop looked familiar. I’ve been here before! Internet data popped back just in time to phone Mouwia and ask him to speak with the fellow I’d bumped into who seemed to have some English. Here, talk with my friend, tell him where I am.

After a convoluted conversation between Mouwia and my improvised local guide; eventually the man asked to join me in my car. He directed me to the camp, which was within walking distance, a route I’ve taken before to load up on food. In a few minutes, I recognized another landmark, the Palestinian Authority headquarters and prison. As he left the car he directed me with hand signals, and sure enough: the camp, the theater, first an actor who recognized me and remembered my name, hey skip, welcome! And then I found Mouwia himself, sweaty, in the control booth about to produce a hip-hop show.

One key to surviving such incidents is avoiding panic. No, this is ok, I’ll get thru. Another is self reliance, trusting myself (and my muses) to come up with some solution. I sometimes visualize a blissful moment, say the Haifa guesthouse the night before, or refuge in the refugee camp with Mouwia and the theater.

What a contrast between morning and evening: Haifa in the German Colony and my new friend and guest house owner and host, Andrew Haddad, who I interviewed and photographed—such pristine quarters—and Jenin and my old friend and colleague, Mouwia. The difference between freedom and imprisonment—Israel and Palestine.


Before I could fully settle myself in my new residence last evening I attended the hip-hop concert. As Mouwia said, this is noisy. As I say, this version of hip-hop is all about energy, frenzied energy. Plus, the repetition, same lines repeated without much variation, shouted, ad infinitum. It reminds me of young Jewish Israelis circle dancing and chanting in their febrile manner, as if to declare their possession of the lands. Same age group, different purposes.

Mist added charm, amplification added ear pain, stage lights added color, hands thrusting upwards and heads bobbing added silhouettes. I tried my best to appreciate the scene thru photographing it, a version of what I do to endure the Valley of Fire ride (a treacherous road I needed to travel between Bethlehem and Ramallah). Eventually and before the end of the concert, I escaped. Luckily I bumped into Mouwia who graciously left his post at the hip-hop concert to assist me in dropping my luggage in my room. I went for food, some from the nearby camp store (including eggs which formed the backbone of this morning’s breakfast, aided by an orange I’d picked up along the road driving past a Palestinian housing complex) and then the street kabob, me the main attraction to Jenin residents as I ate. A man offered me a cold drink, later charged me 10 shekels (nearly $3). Which I believe is high. But the teen boy who made the kabobs treated me to two rollup kabob sandwiches.

I remain mindful that most in the hip-hop audience had lived thru the 2002 fighting during Operation Defensive Shield, called The Massacre of Jenin (17 years old and older), and the construction of the wall (same year). Their own form of holocaust.

National Reading Campaign/Palestinian Children’s Day


On April 4, 2011, revolutionary activist, director, and actor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was shot dead by masked gunmen outside the Freedom Theatre in Jenin that he founded and nurtured. His work there positively impacted the lives of many Palestinian children mostly from Jenin’s refugee camp, and his killing was a shock. Now (April 2012), Palestinian hip hop group, DAM, has released a new single and commemorating Juliano’s life and calling for those responsible for the murder to be found and prosecuted. It is titled “Juliano’s Way.”

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