Creation Under Occupation
In the aftermath of its founder’s killing, Palestine’s Freedom Theater is re-introducing itself to the world
By Ismail Khalidi, Erin B. Mee and Naomi Wallace
New York City–based playwright Ismail Khalidi is on the board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theater. Playwright Naomi Wallace, who has been to Palestine numerous times since 2002, first visited the Freedom Theater in March 2010, on a trip sponsored by New York Theatre Workshop. Director and writer Erin B. Mee also went to Jenin in March 2010, and has written articles about the Freedom Theater for TDR: The Drama Review and Yale’s Theater magazine.
When five bullets ripped through the body of Juliano Mer Khamis on April 4, 2011, in front of the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, the as-yet-unidentified masked gunmen who fired the shots left a shattered artistic community in their wake. Six months on, the Freedom Theater is reassessing its future, and its first class of students, now graduated, is moving forward with a theatrical vision that is simultaneously inspired by their tough, passionate teacher and mentor while being reinvigorated and reinvented anew.
Co-founded by Mer Khamis, Freedom Theater opened its doors in 2006 to harsh realities that appeared completely inhospitable to the stage: Two-thirds of Palestinians lived in absolute poverty on incomes of less than two dollars a day; unemployment and underemployment were rampant; fundamentalism was on the rise; and Palestinian society was encased in Israel’s illegal occupation, where—as reported by Amnesty International in 2001—violence was the rule rather than the exception. In addition, a systemic, bureaucratic injustice that touched the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives continued to play out in Israeli government offices through the refusal of residency documents, expropriation of land, house demolition, the building of settlements and the creation of Jewish-only roads for those settlers. A maze of segregated and dis-integrated spaces rivaled anything Piranesi’s Prison series of etchings could conjure up. And all this came to be “framed” by the “separation barrier,” a nightmarish sculpture of concrete and razor wire, 25 feet high in places, that when completed would cut its 403 monumental miles deep into, and around, Palestinian territories.
Thus, the Freedom Theater operated in a suffocating social space, where, as Saree Makdisi writes in Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, the “hyper-regulation of everyday life had become catastrophic for Palestinians.”
“The Freedom Theater,” declared Mer Khamis in 2010, “is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation with poetry, music, theatre, cameras. The Israelis succeeded [in destroying] our identity, our social structures, political [and] economical. Our duty as artists is to rebuild or reconstruct this destruction. Who we are, why we are, where we are going, who we want to be.”
TFT began with a drama therapy program to help children and youths (of the 16,000 camp residents, more than half are under the age of 18) deal with the ravages of life under occupation. In 2008 TFT opened a professional acting school—a three-year theatre training program for young adults, one of the few in the Occupied Territories. From the start, Mer Khamis insisted upon the cultural and social education of Palestinian youth. Along with vigorous theatre training, there were classes in film, photography, creative writing and journalism.
“We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras and magazines,” the pioneering director declared in 2010. And last year, shortly before his death, he called the occupation “a system in which the Israelis deliberately keep us ignorant. It’s cultural ethnic cleansing.”
TFT was not only an artistic challenge to the deprivations of occupation but also a venue where both critical and creative arts would counter repressive aspects within Palestinian society itself—including inter-Palestinian rivalries, gender roles and sexual taboos. Mer Khamis proclaimed: “We hope that this theatre will generate a political artistic movement of artists who are going to raise their voices against women’s discrimination, against children’s discrimination, against violence.” In a 2009 interview with the BBC, Mer Khamis reiterated this vision: “We are fighting a lot of [religious] fundamentalists…. We are fighting backwardness, that [sees us as] corrupting the youth. We are fighting a lot of enemies before...we get to the Israeli soldier.” It is a terrible irony that in all likelihood Mer Khamis’s killers were Palestinian.
Since 2006, the Freedom Theater’s productions have included Fragments of Palestine, Animal Farm, The Magic Flute, Men in the Sun (an adaptation of the novel by world-renowned Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated by Mossad in 1972) and, more recently, Alice in Wonderland. Alice tackled issues such as arranged marriage, the hijab, homosexuality and patriarchy and its effects on the family, especially young women. Alice had an energetic verve and visual originality that would rival the most daring European and U.S. productions—including the Red Queen’s rousing lip-synch of Blondie’s song “One Way or Another” (“I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha”) and a sexy tango at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to Freddie Mercury’s “I Want to Break Free.”
In this production, a boy and a girl danced together for the first time on stage in Jenin; this was the first time a boy and a girl touched or used their bodies sexually on stage in Jenin. Alice was a huge hit despite the fact that it was banned for school-age children by the Palestine education ministry (who usually incorporated TFT’s productions into the school curriculum) on the grounds that it was immoral. As of March 17, 2011, in a theatre that seats 250, it had been performed 35 times. Young women in their twenties and thirties were often in attendance at Alice, as well as older women in their fifties and sixties. All were very vocal in their appreciation of the production, and seemed particularly delighted by the disco tango.
The Freedom Theater did not arise solely from Mer Khamis’s own vision; it was established partly in homage to his Jewish mother Arna, who sponsored a children’s theatre and arts project in Jenin in the 1980s to address the traumas resulting from the occupation. (Her work is documented in the award-winning film Arna’s Children, directed by Mer Khamis.) Mustafa Staiti, who was a toddler when Arna opened the doors of her theatre, has said: “Arna gave us paints and paper and told us to express ourselves. Then she asked us about what we had drawn. No one had ever done that before.” Arna’s Stone Theatre was destroyed during the Israeli invasion of the camp in 2002, and most of her by-then grown-up students were killed in the battle against the Israeli army.
Harassment and intimidation has continued against TFT. Since Mer Khamis’s murder, several board members, actors and stage managers have been arrested and detained without formal charges and have been prohibited access to lawyers. The theatre was also ransacked by the army. On Dec. 29, 2011, TFT co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi, former head of the Al-Aqsa Brigades but now a champion of nonviolence, suddenly and inexplicably had his amnesty revoked. He has been taken to prison, and the Israeli army will release no news of his whereabouts.
Since Mer Khamis’s murder there has been an increasing interest in TFT internationally, and in the director’s work and philosophy in particular. His vision for theatre was as radical as his vision for Palestine, and some Western theatre practitioners have attempted to edit out his more challenging beliefs. While he advocated resistance to oppression through a “cultural intifada,” he also, more controversially, embraced a one-state solution, with Arabs, Jews and Christians living side by side. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass writes:
He was the long shadow of an imagined bi-national community from the 1950s. Like a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, Juliano embodied the potential of a shared life (ta’ayush in Arabic) while striving for equality. The son of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father, he was born to two cultures, and chose to live in both. He saw no need to explain.
Mer Khamis had a refrain about his identity, and would repeatedly assert: “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”
Nabeel Al Raee, head of the Freedom Theater’s actor-training program, is now serving as artistic director of the theatre. Jonatan Stanczak (who co-founded the theatre with Mer Khamis and Zubeidi) has stepped in again to help get the theatre back on its feet. A new community outreach program has been initiated, which will run through July 2013. The program has three interrelated components: Playback Theatre, an interactive technique used in more than 50 countries as a tool for community building, conflict negotiation, education and trauma recovery; Drama for Conflict Transformation, a technique adapted from Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, in which political and social scenarios are tested for use in real-world situations; and a Trauma Response Project for mental health professionals, who will spend one and a half years training in psychodrama and trauma response.
Meanwhile, TFT’s first-year students spent the summer and fall of 2011 touring Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France, making performances and participating in workshops. They had tremendous success with Sho Kman (What Else), a piece that explores how young people in Palestine see the world around them. Sho Kman focuses on how the violence of occupation turns inward, affecting family relationships, friendships, social structures and internal political structures.
Also this past fall, TFT’s first class of graduates toured the U.S., training with professionals and speaking to students at Bard, Emerson, Yale, NYU, Northeastern, Brandeis, Brown, Holyoke Community College and Central Connecticut State University. Kathleen Edery, a student at Bard, responded to the presentation by signing up to volunteer at TFT, and is already preparing for her trip. “I did not know much about the Jenin camp before the Freedom Theater’s visit to Bard, so learning about the history in that context was incredibly interesting,” she says. “I believe deeply in what the Freedom Theater is doing.”
The graduates also visited the theatre they consider their “home” in the U.S.: New York Theatre Workshop. This theatre has been involved with TFT since 2007. It has hosted symposia on Arab-American theatre (at which Mer Khamis spoke) and taken U.S. theatre artists to visit Jenin, as well as sending acting teacher Stephanie Gilman and voice teacher Deborah Hecht to teach at TFT. This ongoing relationship has been important for both institutions. During this latest visit, Mustafa Staiti told NYTW staff: “You are like our home in the United States. You are like our older brother.” Moemen Switat added, “When people come to the Freedom Theater, and they ask from where are our teachers, I say from New York Theatre Workshop.”
“We have to keep this going,” responded NYTW associate artistic director Linda Chapman.
In the words of NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola: “It’s hard to speak on behalf of all Americans on why they should find value in the Freedom Theater’s work, but I can certainly speak about what struck me: I saw young men and women whose lives had been given shape and meaning in the midst of deprivation of all possible kinds. By practicing the art of theatre, these hungry, isolated, aspiring human beings were collectively empowering themselves to find a future for themselves individually and for their emerging nation.” He added, “It was like watching the birth of a new idea of a society—a society composed of artist-citizens. How could watching the seeds of this great project, this urgent aspiration, not be irresistible to anyone?”
On Oct. 18, While Waiting, the production that served as the third-year students’ culminating project with the Freedom Theater, was performed for audiences at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. An adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, While Waiting (directed by Udi Aloni) begins with a hilarious stand-up routine (performed by Adi Khalefa) about the constant and absurd challenges of touring a production created in an occupied country:
Palestinians suffer from a lot of discrimination. Not only at the checkpoints. Most people arrive at the airport three hours before their flight. But we, the Freedom Theater, when we booked our flight we booked 15 days in New York, and three nights in the airport. The airport was like a spa: It was hot, I was naked, and I got a special “Security Massage.” …And then, when we got on the flight, I saw that the bathroom said “occupied.” Occupied! You have been occupying my bathroom for 63 years!
This comedy routine locates the production specifically in the Occupied West Bank, and the production investigates what Didi (Maryam Abu Khaled) and Gogo (Batoul Taleb) do while waiting for their freedom, while waiting for a state: how they treat each other, and how they fill their time with endless acts of creativity in order to survive. During rehearsals in Ramallah, cast members were continually harassed by the Israeli army. Rami al-Awni (who plays Pozzo) was held for three weeks without access to a lawyer, and Switat (one of two actors playing Lucky) was forced to attend interrogation sessions daily both before and after rehearsals.
In a post-play discussion at Columbia, the actors talked about their personal connection to the play. For Taleb, the play is about “waiting for freedom.” For Staiti, who created several video sequences for the production, it is about starting “to take responsibility, because all the Palestinian people have been waiting for a leader. It’s about: Stop waiting and start doing something. This is what this play means to me.”
This first group of graduates from the Freedom training school is intent on starting its own theatre company in Ramallah. The plan is to develop an arts center with a café, a small stage, a cinema for screening films and a library. Evad Hourani plans to hold a puppetry workshop for kids “because they are our new generation; we need them. They will be our students, our partners, our audience.” Says Taleb: “Our idea is not new—it’s all about freedom, it’s about the revolution, it’s the same thing we were working on with Juliano.”
But the graduates’ focus will be on creating theatre, and they plan to do The Lieutenant of Inishmore as their first production. “Why Inishmore?” Switat asks rhetorically. “Because we always choose the dangerous thing to put on the stage. This play speaks about the Irish revolution, so it is similar to what is going on in Palestine.” He continues, “The stage is our gun, so we have to put a specific shot, not just nice movement. We have to put our smell, our message in the production.”
Staiti summed up their mission and their approach: “We are young, cool theatre artists in Ramallah, and we’re going to talk about the corruption of the P.A. [Palestinian Authority], we’re going to talk about the occupation by the Israelis, we’re going to talk about the oppression of women, we’re going to talk about all taboos, all dangerous stuff, everything people are afraid to talk about—we’re going to put it on stage.”
International theatres, and specifically U.S. theatres, have benefited in a variety of ways through their cultural exchange with the Freedom Theater. One of the many challenges going forward, however, is how to avoid such a relationship existing solely for the sake of a cultural humanitarian intervention, or a dialogue between “both sides.”
The good news is that the graduates of TFT are aware of the potential pitfalls of this relationship. The Occupied Territories, after all, have over the past 18 years of the “peace process” become a virtual petri dish for Western-backed NGOs and other well-meaning “development” projects and charities, which often proclaim compassion for Palestinians without challenging the status quo of occupation and apartheid.
As Hourani, one of the actors who played Lucky, put it: “We do not want the Freedom Theater to be seen as simply a place where victimized children draw for a couple of hours. Juliano understood that to be revolutionary artists was an active endeavor to reclaim our future, not simply bemoan our plight.”
The importance, then, of recognizing these students as the revolutionary artists they have become cannot be understated, nor can the need to support the Freedom Theater actors’ inevitable dream of becoming a top-notch professional theatre company—not only in Palestine but internationally. The question that arises for those of us in the West is whether we can simultaneously embrace their objective artistic prowess and their Palestinian identity. To collaborate as equals requires a controversial step that these actors have insisted, again and again, must be considered in any relationship with the artists of the Freedom Theater, and with Palestine in general: solidarity.
But true solidarity vis-à-vis Palestine can be dangerous, because it means asking U.S. theatre artists (and in turn U.S. audiences) to recognize and oppose decades of American policy that has supported and/or enabled Israel’s illegal occupation. It means challenging and shattering the taboos that attempt to silence conversation about Palestine. It means weathering false and misleading accusations of anti-Semitism, and in the case of Jewish Americans, self-hatred. To stand with the Freedom Theater and other artists from Palestine (including Palestinian citizens of Israel) is to support artists whose mere existence is a threat to reactionaries and extremists, whether in the Israeli government, the illegal settlements, the refugee camps, or the U.S. Congress and academia.
To be part of this struggle means educating ourselves in ways that go beyond listening and working with brilliant artists such as those of the Freedom Theater. It means reading Palestinian plays and poetry, privately and publicly, in our classes and our spaces of creation. It means continuing to bring artists from Palestine to the U.S. It is also crucial that we go ourselves, in large numbers, to the occupied Palestinian territories—for it is only after setting foot in the camps and in the shadow of the wall, which is longer than the Berlin Wall was, that we can truly appreciate the context in which Palestinian artists create.
“The Freedom Theater gives us hope for the future,” 22-year-old TFT actor Faisal Abu Al Haija told the Guardian last October. “For the inhabitants of Jenin, the present is unthinkable, so it has to be the future.”
Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus will be produced at NYC’s Culture Project next season. Naomi Wallace’s latest play is And I and Silence. Erin B. Mee is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage. For suggested further reading about TFT visit www.tcg.org/americantheatre.
Suggested Further reading
- al-Ali, Naji. (2009). A Child In Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali. London, New York: Verso.
- Chacham, Ronit. (2003). Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. New York: Other Press.
- Darwish, Mahmoud. (2003). Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems. University of California Press.
- Darwish, Mahmoud. (2007). The Butterfly’s Burden. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press.
- De Vet, Annelys, ed. (nd).Subjective Atlas of Palestine.
- Kanafani, Ghassan. (1999). Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories. London and Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
- Kanafani, Ghassan. (2000). Palestine’s Children, Returning to Haifa, and Other Stories. London and Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
- Khalidi, Rashid. (2006). The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon.
- Khalidi, Walid. (2010). Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876-1948. Institute for Palestine Studies.
- Kushner, Tony and Alisa Solomon, eds. (2003). Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Grove Press.
- Makdisi, Saree. (2010). Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (Revised Edition). W.W. Norton.
- Mee, Erin B. (2011). “JulianoMerKhamis: Murder, Theatre, Freedom, Going Forward.” TDR 55:3 (T211), 9-17.
- Mee, Erin B. (2012). “The Cultural Intifada: Palestinian Theatre in the West Bank.” TDR 56:2.
- Mee, Erin B. (2012). http://theatermagazine.yale.edu/waiting-freedom
- MerKhamis, Juliano. Arna's Children (film).
- Nassar, HalaKhamis. (2006). “Stories from Under Occupation: Performing the Palestinian Experience.” Theatre Journal 58, 1:15-37
- Nathan, Susan. (2005). The Other Side Of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish-Arab Divide. HarperCollins.
- Pappe, Ilan. (2006). The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: OneWorld Publications.
- Parry, William. (2010). Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine. London: Pluto Press.
- Reinhart, Tanya. (2006). The Road Map to Nowhere. Verso.
- Sacco, Joe. (2001).Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books.
- Said, Edward, and Jean Mohr. (1998). After the Last Sky.Columbia University Press.
- Said, Edward. (1992). The Question of Palestine. Vintage.
- Said, Edward. (2001). The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. Vintage Books.
- Shabtai, Aharon, and Peter Cole. (2003).J'accuse. New Directions.
- Shehadeh, Raja. (2003). Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine. Penguin.
- Shehadeh, Raja. (2003). When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege. Steerforth.
- Shehadeh, Raja. (2008).Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape. Profile Books.
- Shlaim, Avi. (2010). Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations.Verso.
- The Freedom Theater. (2010). Untitled Documentary. Produced by Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre.
- The Freedom Theater. (2011). Captured: photography by young girls in Jenin. Published by The Freedom Theater with support from The British Consulate General in Jerusalem.
- The Freedom Theater. (nd). [refuge]. Published by The Freedom Theater in cooperation with Austcare.