© Tala Halawa
Written by Tala Halawa
A recycling academy, an agent to beautify public space, a learning place for children – the Orient & Dance Theatre in Palestine is all these things at once. It was established by a manager of the municipal electricity company.
Is it possible to combine your passion for contemporary dance and theatre with your work as manager at a municipal electricity company? Maher Shawamreh asked himself that very question when founding the Orient & Dance Theatre. The Orient & Dance Theatre was established by Maher Shawamreh in 2009 in Al-Bireh, a city of 40,000 people in the West Bank that has grown together with Ramallah. Maher is a manager at the municipal electricity company. When he started his project, he could only afford to rent an old abandoned building on the main road of Al-Bireh. The costs for furniture and office equipment, however, exceeded his budget. With the help of his friends he began to collect discarded furniture. Bit by bit the rooms filled with pieces whose shapes and colours did not match at all in the beginning, but which brought comfort and an artistic touch to the house. The place thus became a meeting point for Maher and his friends.
The Purpose of Recycling
By re-using waste wood and bulky waste, Maher not only made a virtue of necessity, but also found a way to raise environmental awareness in Palestinian society. He and his friends came up with the idea to build benches for public squares and fences for a local kindergarten using the electricity company’s waste wood. They turned the thick wood of cable reels and overhead line masts into book shelves on wheels for large school halls.
“It is more problematic and costly to burn waste wood than it is to buy cheap wood,” Maher explains. The wood of electricity poles is treated with oils that are to protect them from the impact of sea air and salt water along the coasts: “When burned, this oil causes severe damage to the environment that exceeds the effects of burning normal firewood many times. Therefore, I had the idea to re-use this wood in a more environmentally friendly way,” Maher says. In the electricity company he has found an important partner. He sees the role of the private sector not in the maximisation of profits, but in the provision of services. His approach seeks to create a positive relationship between the population and the sector and to reinforce a sense of social responsibility.
The Orient & Dance Theatre has several objectives at once: Volunteers get involved and build basic objects for public spaces, such as chairs, tables, bus stop shelters and playground structures. On the one hand, this provides jobs, as local people are needed to help in the development of new designs and their practical realisation. On the other hand, fine pieces of craftsmanship are built that enrich the urban landscape and take on a personal meaning for everyone involved. Today, the Orient & Dance Theatre’s rehearsal rooms and stage are equipped with environmentally friendly, low-cost furniture and props.
The Art of Recycling and Re-using
After the Theatre had established itself, Maher and his team of voluntary helpers launched numerous cultural projects: a ballet school, a school for contemporary dance, and a summer camp where children and teenagers learn about modern dance and theatre culture. These projects have contributed to a number of success stories that are considered truly beneficial for the quality of life in the city.
Muhammad Abul-Amm for instance is an electrical engineer who spends his free time building benches from the power station’s waste wood, which are then available to the Theatre for use. Abul-Amm is proud of his work: “I want to pass on my skills to my children,” he says.
Ribhi Asmar, a lorry driver, gives wood carving a try in his spare time. He would like to make a wooden bench in the shape of Handala, the iconic figure created by Palestinian caricaturist Naji al-Ali, for a park in his community. “My work is entirely voluntary,” he stresses, „I don’t expect any financial gain from it.” Rather, he would like to pass on his skills to his twelve-year-old brother and wishes for him to become as aware of the importance of environmental protection and recycling as he is.
Nina Rewa from Estonia has been living in Palestine for three years. She is a volunteer and ballet dancer at the Orient & Dance Theatre. She makes costumes for the shows at the ballet school using materials disposed of by textile shops. This way, the Orient & Dance Theatre saves considerable material costs and strengthens the idea of recycling and sustainability, because all materials are used again after the shows: The Theatre’s youngest dancers can decorate their costumes with oil paint and make dolls out of fabric waste.
An Environment That Is Loved and Protected
Maher and the Orient & Dance Theatre have ambitious plans for the future. The team of volunteers is currently busy preparing the activities for the summer camp for children from five to twelve years. Moreover, they want to organise a recycling workshop, where kids can draw on pizza boxes and other discarded packaging from the supermarket near the Theatre, and unleash their creativity. The team further intends to offer theatre, dance, acting and singing classes for children. To Maher, promoting the development of children and teenagers is a long-term investment that will benefit Palestinian society. Not only does it awaken the creative minds of the young generations, says Maher, but it increases awareness in Palestinian society about the necessity of recycling. It strengthens children’s confidence in themselves, as well as their ability to bring about change in society. In short, they learn to love the environment and protect it in every possible way.
This article originally appeared on FuturePerfect.