“The smell of oranges is special for me. As I child, after kindergarten, we went to my grandmother’s place. I associate that smell with afternoons in April. we would be catching the sun in her garden and she would peel oranges for us. That smell takes me back to Palestine in a split second.”
My name is Remah Jabr, I am from Palestine, 35 and a theater maker. I was born in Nablus and lived there for most of my life. At 30, I moved to Ramallah where I started working in theater. A few years later, I moved to Brussels to study at RITCS, a theater and cinema school, and I could extend that as an artist in residence with Moussem, an art centre in Belgium that focuses on the Arab World. Belgium did work out really well for me, I made 4 plays and I met my boyfriend. As he lives in Toronto, I have now moved to Canada. For the moment, my life is a somewhat between two countries but I am settling in.
My parents were originally from a village called Tubas but we always lived in Nablus. We are a big family, I have 5 sisters and two brothers. One of my brothers works in Jordan, but the rest of my family still lives in Nablus, I am the only one in Europe. Or should I say in Canada? Where do I live now?
I started writing short stories and poems since ages but it really started for me with a competition that was organized by the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah. It gave me the opportunity to participate in a workshop for theater writing with an Algerian-French writer: Mohamed Kacimi. That is where I met Hildegard De Vuyst from KVS. KVS is a theater house in Brussels with a strong multicultural focus. The first time I went to Brussels was as an actress in a play from Dalia Taha. When I came back in Ramallah, I lost my job. I worked for Sesame Street but the funding of that program was cancelled. From that point, I decided to follow my heart and to apply to study theater at RITCS in Brussels. I applied, was allowed and from that moment on, things went very fast. Soon I felt that I was more focused on writing and directing versus acting itself and all of a sudden, I had two plays ready. The first year at RITCS was a very productive year for me.
What were the biggest differences for you, after arriving in Brussels?
That is a difficult question. I guess it was the freedom to travel. Two Belgian friends have a band called Tommigun and I joined them often to their concerts in the Netherlands. Just taking the car and drive to Amsterdam or Paris; that is an amazing luxury for somebody from Palestine where travel is very restricted. And I guess I was a bit more myself and free, far away from family. Not that I took advantage of that, I was working all the time. Also, I was also a bit surprised about the level of hospitality in Belgium. The cliché suggests that people in Northern Europe would be more work-focused and less sociable than in Palestine but I did not experience that at all. It was just as easy to meet new friends, go out for dinner; join people at their house as it is in Palestine. That was a very nice surprise. And I love the chaos from Brussels.
You have been living in Belgium for a few years now, and you kept going back on a regular basis. Have you seen Palestine change over this period?
In fact, every time I go back, I am a bit surprised. It seems as if I forget how difficult life is at home. The occupation is really hard. In addition to that, life in Palestine changes rapidly. Over the years, I started seeing a lot of advertisements for products like cars, apartments as well as for the bank services to buy these. This propagates a different lifestyle and causes financial and cultural friction. It feels as if people are more stressed than a few years ago. Even I get stressed when I am there for a few weeks.
Living in Brussels, how did you remember Palestine?
During my first year in Brussels, which was my first long trip outside of Palestine, I was flooded with old memories, from 10 or 20 years ago. Suddenly, a lot of images from my childhood came back, images related to the first Intifada. And I was thinking a lot about my family. Often, memories about the curfews did surface. As a child, I often felt happy with these, because then we did not have to go to school. That leaves me with a strange feeling. During curfews, I sometimes left the house, for various reasons. It was always very tense. It is strange that these specific memories came back so often, once I was in Brussels.
What did you study in Nablus?
I must be the only theater maker with a degree in accounting. I wanted to study art but just missed the architecture exam. As my parents were pushing for me to study something that would get me a job afterwards, I did study accounting.
What about other, non-visual memories?
The smell of oranges is special for me. As I child, after kindergarten, we went to my grandmother’s place. I associate that smell with an afternoon in April, we were catching the sun in her garden and she was peeling oranges for us. That smell takes me back to Palestine in a split second. We had this garden with a lot of trees: oranges, grapes and mandarins. During the first Intifada, my father started to plant vegetables in our garden, and he bought some chickens and rabbits. And ducks as well. We did not like to eat the eggs of the ducks; these were way to heavy. This garden took a lot of time, but it was also really nice. And the fresh food tasted so well. We were lucky with the garden, not everybody could do this during the first intifada. I remember my father sharing some of our crops with friends and family.
Do you cook Palestinian dishes?
I try to do so, yes. [smiles and looks at her boyfriend]. My favorite dishes are maqluba and stuffed zucchini. In Brussels, I knew a Syrian shop where I could find all the ingredients. And in Toronto, the offer is overwhelming. That is fantastic, but I must share that it never tastes as in Palestine. Didn’t you notice that vegetables, even chicken and meat taste different in Palestine?
Have your parents visited you in Brussels or Toronto?
No, that did not work out yet. But Ashraf was able to visit me [smile].