As the frontwoman of Bait Byout, the first live-action role-playing organization in Palestine, 30-year-old Laura Alajma revives the games of her past. With childhood memories of war etched in her memory, she brings Palestinian reality into a fictional world of role-playing. When Laura Alajma was a child, she and the other children in the neighbourhood played a game called “Bait Byout”. Loosely translated, bait byout means “the house of houses”. A kind of Arabic version of “playing house”, the universally known game in which children pretend that they are adults; Adult teachers, adult fathers, adult mothers.
Laura Alajma was 12 years old when the Intifada started and the events are still stuck in her memory. The experience of stumbling through the streets on bare feet when Israeli soldiers drove her family out of their house in the middle of the night. The experience of lying in bed under the window facing the street, paralyzed by fear, while bullets flew over her head.
The five-year war changed the character of the improvisational childhood game. “Bait Byout” was replaced by “Israelis and Palestinians,” a game in which soldiers with branches as pretend firearms and Palestinians with stones fought against each other. Laura Alajma’s role was always “Al-Jazeera reporter”. ”Maybe, it was a way for us to cope. It shows how these experiences became normalized for us as kids,” she says.
Today, improvisational role-playing has become 30-year-old Laura Alajma’s profession. She is the frontwoman of Bait Byout, the first live-action role-playing organization of the Arab world. Bait Byout borrows from the long Nordic tradition of LARP, a role-play based on the principle that “everyone plays to lose.” In LARP – Live Action Role Play – participants occupy a fictional world that is often violent and pushes boundaries. There is no script and no audience. The purpose is the development that the participants undergo in the game.
“The idea of LARP is that you place yourself in other people’s reality. It’s a fictional world that deals with real-life-issues and forces you to relate to other people’s lives,” says Laura Alajma. Imagine, for example, a trial taking place in a matriarchal world in which a man has been honour -killed by his sister (the game is called Till Death Do Us Part). Or imagine that you live in occupied Finland where you are facing daily interrogations by soldiers from the occupying power (the game is called State of Siege and took place in Finland with Finnish and Palestinian participants).
LARP is “a tool to push social change by turning the structures of reality upside down,” says Laura Alajma. It allows for people to seek out emotions and experiences that they would usually leave untouched: anger, evil, the wrong that has been done to them. “I believe that LARP can help people work through some things. During the second Intifada, I saw older boys from the neighbourhood being dragged away, stripped, and mistreated. The game takes you back to those experiences, and it is painful, it feels wrong, but you still want everyone to experience it so they can relate,” she says.
Laura Alajma was introduced to LARP through the game “So you think you can dance.” A game that takes place in a prison where Palestinians from different factions are interrogated and mistreated. “It’s so close to our reality,” she says. But her favourite game is Strangers, a game in which a disaster forces one country’s population to flee to its neighbouring country and settle among strangers. It’s a game that speaks to Laura Alajma’s background as a refugee from Haifa.
In the game, she played a local, one of the people who received refugees. The experience was intense, she says. She was shocked by her reaction, the overwhelming anger that she felt. In the role of the recipient of refugees, she felt threatened on her identity, her existence, the peace in her country. “My reaction was not much different from the one my family and I were met with as refugees. Strangers gives you the experience of being a refugee and being defined as a human being based on your status as a refugee. Even in Palestine, we distinguish between refugees and non-refugees and discriminate on that basis,” she says.
The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, known as Al Nakba – the catastrophe – means that Laura Alajma identifies as a refugee. After 1948, her grandfather fled to Germany, and that is the reason why she was not raised in a refugee camp. Instead, she grew up in a conservative neighbourhood in Jenin. Not a conservative family, says Laura Alajma, but her father still didn’t like other people in the neighbourhood talking because she was the only girl not wearing a hijab. Laura Alajma, on the other hand, did not like being defined according to what other people thought about her. Her family was not decidedly religious, so it had a hollow ring to it when her father lectured her about what was “haram” (forbidden). The “hijab thing” evolved into a year-long battle of wills between her and her father. A confusing internal conflict in her teenage years between who she was forced to be and who she wanted to become. “My father said I couldn’t walk on the street without a hijab. So, I said, ‘okay, we’ll fix it. Every time I go somewhere, you will have to book a taxi.’ It was a win-win situation. He got what he wanted and I did too,” says Laura Alajma.“I went through many conflicts to reach the place I am today. But I reached an understanding with my parents and it paved the way for my sisters so they didn’t have to go through the same battles and the same shit,” she says.
To improvise with identity
LARP has the ability to show us that these social roles can be criticized and changed, Laura Alajma says. And like that, we are back in Jenin, back to the hijab thing and the private taxi driving her everywhere. Back to the fact that if you do not claim ownership of your identity, others might do it for you. “It initiates a discussion about who the ‘real you’ is and what role you play in creating your own identity. But it is a challenge for us right now to get people to understand LARP in that way. The educational potential that LARP has. LARPers are considered geeks and originals. People don’t understand it until they have tried it themselves.”
Does your family understand what you are doing?
“My family has never understood what I’m doing,” says Laura Alajma and laughs.
“My mother doesn’t think I’ve ever done anything useful in my life. She says, ‘you have been working since the age of eight and for what? No car, no house, no kids, no salary,” says Laura Alajma. “When I got the position of manager at Bait Byout, my mother was like ‘ah, you are a manager.’ ‘Manager’ is a word that translates,” she says.
For the past 10 years, Laura Alajma has broken social norms by living alone in Ramallah. She is financially independent, travels often, and no one questions the person she wants to be. It is a battle that she had to fight with her family, society and herself. “The first time I wanted to travel, my mother hid my passport. Today, she encourages my sisters to travel and experience the world. Winning the trust of my parents took time, but little by little I could do the things I want. It’s a radical change from now to the struggle I had to fight as a teenager to not wear a hijab.”