Gérard Authelain – English

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About a Question on Collapse

Gérard Authelain

August 28 2018


The Notion of Collapse
The Bombing of Gaza Cultural Center
How to React?
Keep Going as Musician in School
Keeping Hope by Continuing to Act

The Notion of Collapse

On 20 August 2018 at 6.30 pm, I wrote to Ouassem, president of the FNAMI (Fédération Nationale des Musiciens Intervenants), in response to a telephone message on an answering machine that I hadn’t been able to listen because of network problems. He asked me about the notion of collapse, and in particular about what I thought, through my stays in various countries such as Palestine or Tunisia, of the way in which people were living with difficulties of which one can only guess the extent. Widening the debate, he asked me how we can prepare ourselves to face other collapses that threaten us all: the conflicts in the making with border closures, climatic conditions, etc. In what way, he added, do these real or potential collapses challenge the profession of musicians working in schools?

I sent a few very brief lines, saying that even if I had not given much thought to the theme of collapse, it is true that I could see, especially in Palestine, and especially about Gaza, how young adults (between 18 and 30 years old) saw everything going down the drain, what they were doing, what they had done, what projects they could have done. The news that I recently received in the context of this weekly Friday march, where there have already been many deaths and even more injured, confirm that they are indeed in a state of collapse.


The Bombing of Gaza Cultural Center

On August 20, 2018 at 8:50 pm (9:50 pm in France), I received a message from a Palestinian friend from Gaza, with whom we have been corresponding via Facebook since 2016. She confirmed what the press had told us a few days earlier: the bombing of the cultural center of Gaza under the pretext of tracking down Hamas leaders, ruining in a single operation a building that was the place where a large number of activities took place (lectures, theater, music, dance, visual arts, library, exchanges, etc.). More than a collapse: a cultural disaster, a human catastrophe, the annihilation of a place of life, a ruthless brutality.

I quote the entire text published by this Palestinian friend, Huda Abdelrahman Al-Sadi, with whom we exchanged by phone or by Facebook, but we were never able to meet, as she did not have a visa to leave Gaza, and myself, I was never able to obtain a visa to go there despite three requests refused regularly.

The last time I wrote to you was under the bombing which led to the assassination of two children! But this time it was really difficult to write to you under the bombs because of the SHOCK!

As a Palestinian woman, especially from Gaza, shock, death, bombs, tears, fear, destruction, all became part of our daily life.
I once said, the pen, the theater, reading, culture are more powerful weapons than their weapons.

And they killed the theater in Gaza on 8.8.2018.

I was at work when I was told that the Said Al.Mishal Cultural Centre was crushed; five stories like a cookie

I didn’t believe anyone and I didn’t want to believe it, I thought maybe it was just a missile that did nothing, maybe the inhuman invader just wanted to scare us as usual, maybe it wasn’t the cultural center that was targeted, maybe it was an empty land; a lot of “maybe” and nothing “certain”.

Words get confused, but it is not war – why are they causing such destruction?
Why are they destroying our memories, our laughter?

This building does not represent a cultural building, but much more.
Each wall keeps in its arms the laughter after each performance, the memories of each rehearsal, the ideas of each room, songs, our souls, our talents, our leisure, our youth growing up within these walls, the dreams of young people deprived of life.
This building for me and for others was never a building, it was the world of which we are – as Gaza people – deprived.

The world we have never known!

“A theater in Gaza” was once a study dream for me I used to say: “in Gaza there is no real theater, there are only small spaces,” and I dream of reviving the theater with the French language.
Now I can say that there is no theater in Gaza!

For a long time, I dreamed of living the date 8.8.2018[1] .
I love this number and I wanted to enjoy this special date.

And unfortunately having a special date in Gaza is also forbidden!
An announcement was launched by the Pal Theater group – a group of amateur actors who learned to make theater by themselves and who promised to revive the theater without having a real theater or real materials only by having their desire to live in Gaza.

For a play for the big celebration and we were looking forward to this play.
And now there is no theater, there is no theater play.
We still have the festivities.

Happy festivities to all my friends.
Happy festivities to us in spite of everything.


How to React?

After such a message, it is difficult to write anything. And yet we have to write, we have to talk, it is the only way left to say that we refuse to be defeated, no matter how big the massacres are, wherever they are. I owe this to Huda, and I said it to Ouassem, who asked me to continue the reflection that we had initiated over the phone.

The cultural center of Gaza was bombed: there is nothing left, nothing more than a heap of rubble: this is a real collapse, that of the walls in the literal sense, but above all the collapse of a future that consisted in giving a little air to all those who frequented it and had undertaken cultural projects of all kinds.

The question is certainly how to rebuild “something” when there won’t be buildings anytime soon. Above all, it is to know what hope is possible other than the ever-postponed illusion that the international community will wake up and come out of its incomprehensible silence. In other words, what can we, from the outside, say to Huda that is nothing more than a simple demonstration of empathy and the testimony of a helpless friendship. For my perplexity dates further back in time. The collapse did not date from this bombing, I have had the opportunity to work in the Cisjordan since 2006, I have had the opportunity to work in the refugee camps of Chatila and Borj El Barajneh in Lebanon, I know the family of Salah Hamouri, imprisoned again without trial, and I can extend the list. Each time, before leaving and arriving on the other side of the wall in occupied territory, the question is the same: what is the meaning of my coming, I who do not have to suffer these injustices, contempt, humiliating and degrading conditions[2]?

Of course, I have an answer, but I can’t write it without taking the precaution of adding that it can quickly lead to misunderstanding, quickly provide a good conscience at little cost. I simply have to say that if I am pursuing a very modest presence, it is based on a conviction that we must never forget the formula that Péguy had already presented: “That’s astonishing, that these poor children see how all this is happening and that they believe that tomorrow it will be better, that they see how it is today and that they believe that it will be better tomorrow morning…”[3]

When I said to Ouassem, during the telephone exchange, that I could only envision the reality of any form of collapse by postulating in return the search for what can give hope, it was ultimately to justify the fact that cultural action, even if minimal, is one of the pillars that keeps a small fragile flame that Péguy spoke of in the quote above. But I know that it is easy to hold such a discourse when one is oneself comfortably installed in a system where freedom of movement, of expression, of thought, of information, makes it possible to have easy access to what others sorely lack.


Keep Going as Musician in School

I know that the word “resilience” is easily used today, a word that was not in use some 20 years ago. Whatever the formula, the question is to know where and how to find the strength to build (in normal situations) and rebuild (in situations of collapse) in order not to resign oneself to the fatality of the present condition. For it is this too, beyond any tragic situation that we all have in mind, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Venezuela, Burma, etc., which concerns us every day in our daily professional practice. When I enter a classroom (I’m always a musician working in schools, and whether it’s in France or Palestine, the questioning is of the same order), I know nothing about the children or teenagers with whom I share a few steps.

I have a certain comfort, which is that of my age, of my past experience, of the institutions that invite me, and of all the protections that I benefit from, including that of being repatriated in the event of a problem. But this does not give me any peace of mind about the background of the musical work in school. No matter who I intervene with, I never feel comfortable. If I am going to do a series of workshops in classes in Vaulx-en-Velin or Saint Etienne, I may have what some people call the tricks of the trade, but that doesn’t give me any security. The problem for me is not to succeed in an activity, to achieve a result that will be able to testify that I have fulfilled the contract for which I was solicited. Of course, it is better for the people who have invited me to have the opportunity to make a positive assessment according to their own criteria. But my real concern lies elsewhere.

Every time I walk into a classroom, my first question concerns the kids I’m with: what is the personal mystery that each of them carries when I look at them? I don’t know anything about them, and what someone might tell me about them is only a tiny, often behavioral, fragment of what they really are. A teenager’s speech is terribly ambiguous and terribly misleading too. I don’t know who I’m dealing with. My position is to be able to allow them to go a bit of the way from which they will be able to get something out of it (and I don’t know exactly what it might be). I’m not at all in the spirit of a “school” whose term implies a teaching to be given. No doubt I hope to teach the kids “things”, but that’s not my primary concern. My concern is how what we are going to do together will allow each of them to invent a personality of their own. You can use the word creativity if you want or use the formula of creative approach. Provided that we do not transfer the essential of the creation in the created object, but in the blossoming that this approach will have allowed for each one of them.

Of course, I’m not going to say that I’m not interested in the result. But it only captivates me to the extent that I could have guessed how much progress it will have allowed everyone to make on their own. So much the better if the audience attending a performance is enthusiastic, but real success is measured elsewhere, outside of press reports. That’s why I work a lot with small groups, all by themselves, and me not far away: if they need me, they come and get me. If they don’t need me, so much the better, they do their experimentation, and we talk about it afterwards, after the fights, after the laughs, after the failures, after the discoveries they are proud of, after the new questions they ask themselves.

And I’m never sure it’s going to work every time, because I don’t know anything about the collapsed situations in which they find themselves. I often continue to work with teenagers in SEGPA [Sections d’Enseignement Général et Professionnel Adapté, special education sections for junior and high school students having difficulties]. For most of them, I have no idea where they come from. In retrospect, I have experienced situations that are unfortunately extreme but not necessarily exceptional: the drunken father beating his wife, the student not knowing if his brother was from the same father, and I could continue to paint a series of tableaux in the manner of Hector Malot or Emile Zola.

Doing creative activities with them is not a comfortable situation, I may have all the material I want and the experience of these groups with unpredictable reactions: it does not give any comfort. Let it be understood that my problem is not a question of how I am going to keep a little authority, or a minimum of feedback towards myself. From this point of view, the ingratitude of this age is an excellent medication. It brings us back to the only interesting question: how our encounter has been a source of progress for them. And I never know that, because I would have to see them again after six months, after three years. It is not because you have planted the seeds in the fall in a garden that you are guaranteed a result the following spring. All you know is that if you don’t prepare the ground for everyone to put the seeds it also needs to be nourished, there is little chance that you will see its fruits later on.


Keeping Hope by Continuing to Act

When I was at the CFMI [Centre de Formation des Musiciens Intervenants, Center for training musicians intervening in schools], I don’t think I ever gave students any illusions about the job that awaited them. I don’t think I led them to believe that the profession was a comfortable situation. But that it was interesting: yes. Not easy, but exciting. Challenging, without a doubt. Enriching, O how much! Those who play it safe in institutions, methods, tricks, rather than in a constant search for those to whom they are sent, may wake up sooner or later with some disappointment, the kind you hear about “the situation before” and all the litanies about the values of yesteryear being lost.

I am not against didactics, but I know that it is not where I put the trust I need in order to meet groups of children and teenagers. Nor in the hardware. When you invent, it’s not the richness of the hardware that determines the quality of the production: in archaeological museums, when you see the richness of glass vases or the decorations on earthenware vases, some of which date back to 1000 or 2000 BC, you see that inventiveness is not limited to the performance of the tools.

That doesn’t stop me from always very carefully preparing the interventions that I am going to undertake, including those concerning practices I have acquired over the years. But I prepare according to what I perceive through the eyes of those I am going to meet, and where I will have to adapt when I am in front of them. I don’t see how you can do something relevant without being in permanent creativity. Willingly or unwillingly, we are in a constant search. And I don’t want to sing yet another ode to creation, but we know that the children and teenagers who will come out of it are those who have had an inventive spirit, or at least those who will have approached their adult life to get by with all the means of the moment: and especially something that gives meaning to what they want to be.

This is why I truly believe that, in spite of Trump’s monstrous acts[4], it is not vain or illogical to pursue an artistic or cultural action, whatever the term, in all latitudes, insofar as it is a way of saying that against all odds there is a future for man, a future for man. To ask ourselves how we can “give hope to someone” is to think of the person in the first place who alone can manifest what he or she is striving for. The content and the modalities come after, and it is not even certain that this is the most difficult question to resolve.

Return to the French text


1. August 8 was declared a day of support for the Palestinian media. According to the Palestinian Prisoner Club Association, the number of Palestinian journalists held in Israeli prisons is 23 journalists. They have called for the formation of an international judicial body and more broadly requested the UN Security Council to investigate the possibility of carrying out their news work despite the measures of intimidation, interrogations and forced silence imposed on them. (Author’s note)

2. And I wonder all the more because I only do short stays, while young people named Alicia, Julie, Rose, Roxane, and others, will spend a year or more in these countries as Civic Service Volunteers and confront these realities, and for whom I have great admiration, not to mention the Palestinian men and women who are struggling daily with these permanent destructions and attacks.

3. Charles Peguy, Le Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu. Paris : Nouvelle Revue Française, 1916.

4. The results of this have been seen in recent days with its decision to cut the UNWRA budget, which we know that a large part of the UN’s activity for the Occupied Territories is support for schools in the refugee camps. Italy, Hungary, we don’t know any better where this is going…