by Will Tantoco
It was a cool summer evening when the crowd began gathering at the outdoor grass arena in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. A mix of conversations in Arabic and Hebrew filled the air. The younger children were running around and wrestling while the older boys and girls broke off into their various cliques. Lugging strollers, setting up lawn chairs and trying to keep a watchful, yet liberal eye on their children as they ran about aimlessly, parents and older villagers situated themselves behind the child-dominated first row. A random village dog lazily cushioned himself in the front row, watching as everyone busily prepared for the night's events.
One of the 6th grade teachers was herding the students together near the stage, conducting last minute rehearsals and making final arrangements. Another teacher was busy directing the switchboard and light operators, ensuring the stage looked its best.
As the lights came down, a hush fell over the crowd and suddenly, the spotlight was on two young children as they began their long list of opening remarks and "thank yous." The sixth-grade graduation was the culmination of a seven-year process that began in kindergarten. Next year the children will disperse to attend various intermediate schools and, eventually, high schools where integration isn't the norm.
Many of the children will be challenged by their new peers as to why they are friends with the "other." Some kids may keep the same friends and may, at times, have to stand up and defend them. Others may break off into the classic high school hierarchical groups to ensure social acceptance.
But for tonight, those thoughts are put aside. Tonight is a night of enjoyment, laughter, music and theater.
The children's program started off with a student rendition of a hip-hop song, which included student-authored lyrics predominantly in Arabic, peppered with various Hebrew phrases. Tamer Nafar, of the first and most popular Palestinian rap group, DAM, has been teaching and working with the children for the last couple of months to help them develop their technique. The excellent dance/hip-hop exhibition was followed by an opening credits presentation, shown on a large projection screen. The video went through each child's name and gave a small snippet of the skit he or she would be performing.
The skits were a myriad of short dialogues, poetry and plays. Although not everyone was able to understand each skit, the tone of the plays was easily decipherable. Many of the plays seemed to revolve around quarrels and silly arguments, almost exposing the absurdity of this society's every day conflicts, usually between adults. Through satire and farce, the children unconsciously showed a keen understanding of what transpires daily in Israel/Palestine.
Every so often, a short dance routine would break up the series of plays. Some musically gifted children played the darbooka (a type of hand drum), while other children danced traditional Palestinian dances such as the Dabke. The final hip-hop exhibition was done to the instrumental music from Methodman and Redman's, "Da Rackwilder." This medley invited the crowd to get involved: when the kids shouted, "Neve Shalom!" the crowd yelled, "Wahat al-Salam!" When the kids shouted, "Wahat al-Salam!" the crowd responded, "Neve Shalom!"
When the children were done, the teachers and the principal distributed the graduation certificates and plenty of hugs.
At the end of the evening, many of the other younger students piled onto the stage to say hello to their older friends and siblings. As they gave high fives and smiled, one could tell that the younger children wanted to feel that they too were part of the show – conscious of the fact, however, that one day they would get their chance to perform for their village and greater community.