Reclaiming Lost Palestinian Dreams Through Role-Play
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Laura Alajma is spreading live-action role-playing throughout the Palestinian territories and the broader Arab world.
When Laura Alajma was a little girl, the games she played evolved with the world around her. Before the Second Intifada in 2000, she and her friends role-played, pretending to be doctors, mothers and fathers in a children’s game known in the Palestinian territories as “Bait Byout,” or House of Houses. But then the Intifada started. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers woke up young Laura in bed with rifles pointed at her face. In 2002, at the start of the Siege of Jenin, she woke again to Israeli gunfire blasting through the bedroom window inches above her head. While visiting the decimated refugee camp after the siege, men shouted at her to be careful of dead bodies below her.
Traumatized from the five-year war, Alajma and other children began to role-play those figures prevailing over their war-torn life — soldiers, fighters, martyrs. Laura would be a “journalist” for Al-Jazeera at these make-believe clashes.
“It was how we tried to cope,” says Alajma.
By playing with identity and social rules, LARP helps Palestinians reconcile the complex identities they struggle with internally.
As the 29-year-old executive manager of Bait Byout, the first live-action role-playing (LARP) organization in the Palestinian territories and the Arab world, Alajma is reclaiming these childhood traditions. With past and present reality etched into their identity, Alajma and her Palestinian cohorts are using LARP as a means for personal and social transformation. Introduced by visiting Norwegians in 2011, the LARP scene in Palestine by late 2016 had grown into a full-blown movement in need of a professionalized organization and a leader — Alajma.
A math and applied economics graduate of Birzeit University, the “Harvard of Palestine,” Alajma worked for nongovernmental organizations after graduation. She found international funding sometimes made Palestinians not only “financially dependent” but also “mentally dependent.” Alajma started to focus on social enterprise as a solution.
As a coordinator for a local NGO, she oversaw a project involving the upstart LARPers back in 2013. Intrigued, Alajma first played So You Think You Can Dance: LARPers play political prisoners from different Palestinian factions — and someone might be a collaborator with their Israeli interrogator. “It relates so much to the reality you are living in,” says Alajma.
Through role-playing, “you have the opportunity to reflect on the external behavior you’re projecting, but that behavior is never separate from yourself,” says Lizzie Stark, a journalist, LARP designer and author of Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. “This character provides a space for reflection. That’s what makes the medium powerful — you can gain self-knowledge.”
With Finnish partners, the Palestinian forerunners of Bait Byout created State of Siege, a LARP game in which Finland is under occupation by a fictional state. “During the game, there was a martyr, and I started crying for real. I lost myself,” says Assalah Zagha, a board member of Bait Byout. “Our games are stressful sometimes,” Zagha says. “But the hard shock — it shakes you.”
When Zagha began LARPing, she was dealing with the trauma and stigma of divorcing an abusive husband. “You have sympathy for me, but never say you can feel what I felt,” says Zagha. “But in LARP, you will feel the pain. You will feel the role. Any LARP you enter, something will change in you.”
Zagha, who has created LARPs like To Be or Not to Be a Feminist, credits the safe environment for both working through her trauma and addressing her own prejudices toward gay and nonreligious people.
Alajma left the LARP community for a time to go to Poland as an accelerator ambassador for a startup hub, then to India as a consultant and an IDEX fellow working with social enterprises. But instead of remaining overseas, “something inside me wanted to bring these skills back to Palestine,” she says.
It had to be in her own way. In Ramallah, she eschews social norms by living alone as a single woman, serving up her own unique recipes for Palestinian dishes. Fiercely independent, Alajma is also disarmingly personable. A passion for life manifests at LARP conferences as readily as on the dance floor. At first, Zagha was wary of handing control to someone from outside Bait Byout’s original core. But through rambunctious greetings and eager coffee dates, Alajma quickly won her over.
Since becoming the executive manager of Bait Byout last year, Alajma has rapidly expanded the organization’s operations. Currently, at about 100 volunteers and four employees, Bait Byout has grown beyond Ramallah to start clubs in Nablus, Hebron and Jerusalem, training new volunteers to create and organize LARPs. “All the agreements she’s signing, I doubted they could do it,” says Zagha. “But Laura made it happen. She has confidence, and she knows how to network.”
Along with hundreds of adults, more than 3,000 kids in schools and refugee camps have LARPed with Bait Byout, learning leadership and community skills. Alajma is communicating with the Ministry of Education seeking to embed LARP into the school curriculum, and she is pursuing LARP’s potential in the private sector. Bait Byout has brought LARP to places like Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanese refugee camps.
But for a group promoting healing, the greatest division Palestinians face — with Israelis — remains a topic so contentious that they avoid it. Personally, Alajma, who has met Israeli LARPers at international conferences, views general dialogue as critical. As an organization, however, it’s a topic that elicits discomfort, even if it would seem like a logical next step for a group promoting empathy and understanding. “We are preaching basic values as individuals,” says Alajma, “but if you talk about the situation and bringing dialogue with Israelis, it would bring fire from both Israelis and Palestinians. We are not at that point.”
For the time being, by playing with identity and social rules, LARP helps Palestinians reconcile the complex identities they struggle with internally. As a refugee born outside the Jenin refugee camp, Alajma wasn’t “from” Jenin like her neighbors. Her family was from Haifa. But she lived a different life from those in the camp, then moved to Ramallah as a single woman. What was bait — “home”— was never certain.
Then she played Strangers, a LARP in which foreigners with a different language slowly enter a population and “natives” must decide how to treat them. Laura wasn’t thinking of Israelis, actually. In the game, Alajma played the native — unlike a refugee outside the camps. “My reaction [to the strangers] wasn’t so different from those who were doing that to me and my family in reality,” Alajma says.
The lessons Alajma and her (occasionally) foam-sword-wielding friends have learned from LARP manifest every day. “As a young female leader, I don’t know how many meetings I have where I’m the only young woman there and people think I’m an assistant or something. It’s a role that is given for me to play,” says Alajma, cracking a smile. “But I’ve learned how to improvise!”
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