By EA Keith, Northern West Bank
How do you resist an occupation that has lasted for 50 years? Some people use drama to explore anger and apathy, and to channel them in positive, liberating ways.
Nour Shehada was a leader in the second intifada (a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000) and served time in jail. Today he works in nonviolent resistance. The most powerful tools he has found come out of Augusto Boal’s ideas, which aim to bring change through theatre. The Theatre of the Oppressed allows Israelis and Palestinians to work together towards an understanding of the occupation. It espouses a peace based on nonviolent principles “to open the minds of the people to find a solution to the problem”.
Actors in the Theatre of the Oppressed perform before a mixed audience of Israelis and Palestinians, and present examples of oppression from their own experience. After a scene audience members are invited to replace one of the actors, replay the scene, and show how they would change the situation. A discussion follows and then another actor is changed and the scene repeated. Theatregoers become active participants rather than just observers. The group sometimes performs in open spaces near a checkpoint or the separation barrier. Nour told us that on one occasion a soldier was so moved that he threw his gun at his officer and joined the performance. Another time one of the actors was arrested.
EAs have also visited the Freedom Theatre, where we were told the occupation exists on four levels. Firstly there is the physical Israeli occupation. Secondly there is oppression through the Palestinian Authority. Thirdly there is foreign aid. Lastly is the internalisation of occupation.
The Freedom Theatre exists to confront the occupation on all these levels but especially the last, internalisation. After 50 years most people find it difficult to imagine another reality. It is easy to accept the situation as normal – or to think there is nothing you can do – if you haven’t known anything else and just get on with living your life. People can no longer imagine freedom. In this way the Freedom Theatre has sought to open a new front against the occupation – cultural resistance.
The Siege is set in Bethlehem during the second intifada. The dramatic scenes of the Israeli army’s siege of the Church of the Nativity made headlines worldwide, but the fighters, priests, nuns and civilians trapped inside were not heard. Tracing the movements of those involved and hearing their testimony, the Freedom Theatre tells the story of some of the people who lived through the 39 days of siege. Fighters become individuals in extreme circumstances rather than idealised symbols of resistance or demonised terrorists.
“It develops into an unexpectedly compelling theatrical experience with a rough and ready energy, and, in the very act of its telling, speaks for the voiceless and forgotten.” The Guardian
The Freedom Theatre works mainly with children, teenagers and young adults from the refugee camp in Jenin. It offers summer clubs, a child and youth program, a youth magazine and a youth theatre club. These programs develop original works like The Siege.
The theatre starts by creating a safe space and building trust between people. It is only then that play can start. To create this space requires a lot of experimentation. When people have an opportunity to play they can develop their own themes and address some big questions: Who am I? What do I want? What do you want? It becomes a place where people can experience their own stories.
Nour Shehada is one of the Combatants for Peace. Visit the website at www.cfpeace.org.
Go to www.thefreedomtheatre.org and look out for UK tours.