‘We are not building artists, we are building leaders in society’

Cultural Resistance through Freedom Theatre in Jenin

By EA Patricia.

Juliano Mer Khamis, the founder of Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, had a vision in which he wanted to create leaders who could initiate a cultural resistance or cultural intifada to fight against what he called the “occupation of the mind”.

Located in the north of the West Bank, Jenin is a small, socially conservative city with an agricultural tradition. It is home to Jenin Refugee Camp where approximately 14,000 people live within one square kilometre.

The camp residents are all too familiar with conflict and suffering but despite this or perhaps because of this, it’s here that Freedom Theatre was established. The theatre introduced the idea of artistic expression and drama to the community as a means of dealing with the harsh realities of the occupation. Nabil Al-Raee, who has been involved in the theatre from the beginning and is also Artistic Director, describes it as “safe spot for people to express themselves and to find their own freedom individually and then collectively. If you don’t know how to understand and tell your own story, you can’t stand and fight against all different types of occupation that exists”. He said the theatre’s aim was to “look for different, non-violent kinds of solutions to oppose the oppression”.      

All involved are passionate about the work the theatre is doing and they recognise the importance of providing an outlet for males and females to communicate their ideas and emotions creatively. It provides young people with an opportunity to learn, have fun and develop their skills. Adnan, a staff member (right) says “we still have hope”. The young people who get involved not only develop their professional and artistic abilities but they also develop their critical thinking and their ability to tell their own stories creatively.

“I start to feel the occupation is not only the wall or the checkpoints or the army or the prison. The occupation is more in the mind, in the dreams, in the thoughts.  I feel in this place, I keep my Palestinian identity alive.”

Faisal Abual, a former student, Instructor and Actor described how the theatre provided him with an opportunity to resist the occupation creatively and the ability to control his own story.  He said “resistance for me is to live without control. I start to discover myself, who I am, what I want and what I’m looking for.  And this is important for me because when you grow up in Jenin Refugee Camp everything will be about killing or death or about intifadas or about the army or prison. This is our stories, this is our dialogue. But suddenly in the theatre, there is something more than this.  I start to feel the occupation is not only the wall or the checkpoints or the army or the prison. The occupation is more in the mind, in the dreams, in the thoughts.  I feel in this place, I keep my Palestinian identity alive!”

The theatre’s school provides the only professional acting programme in the northern West Bank and it also offers drama, photography, creative writing and filmmaking workshops. They have travelled to many countries including the UK to perform their plays and their ‘Freedom Bus’ also travels throughout the West Bank to perform and share ideas. Their own productions reflect the issues that young Palestinians are forced to consider. Previous productions include a play that’s staged in a skate park, another one explains the Nakba through three characters’ stories, while ‘The Siege’ collected the untold stories of the exiled fighters from the 2002 Bethlehem siege of the Church of the Nativity and dramatised the incident through their eyes. After each production, the audience and actors discuss the plays and the issues that emerge.

The origins and history of Freedom Theatre itself is one that demonstrates resilience, resistance and courage. In 1948, an Israeli woman called Arna Mer Khamis was a member of the military forces that destroyed Palestinian villages during the Nakba. However later in life, she joined the Communist Party where she met and married a Palestinian activist. In 1988, during the First Intifada, Arna moved to Jenin Refugee camp and began engaging with children through drama and art to help them deal with the uncertainty, trauma and fear they experienced. Although Arna and even the idea of drama itself was initially regarded with skepticism and suspicion, her persistence paid off and when residents began to see the benefit her activities had on the young people she worked with, she secured a room in the camp where she could continue.  Her efforts earned her an Alternative Nobel Prize in 1993 and she used the $50,000 prize money to establish the Stone Theatre in the camp. Arna and her son Juliano, a well-known actor and director in Israel, produced a number of plays in the theatre before she passed away in 1995.

During the Battle of Jenin in April 2002, the Stone Theatre, along with approximately 10% of the camp, was destroyed by Israeli military forces. But Arna’s vision was revived in 2006, when her son Juliano returned to Jenin and co-founded Freedom Theatre to continue the innovative work his mother had begun. Speaking in 2011, he explained the role Freedom Theatre plays in inspiring people and believed it was “a venue to join Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras. Our duty as artists is to rebuild or reconstruct this destruction – who we are, why we are, where we’re going, who we want to be”. Juliano achieved his dream of staging ‘Animal Farm’ which was given a Palestinian twist and highlighted how power can corrupt revolutionaries. The theatre continues to provide a place where young people can reach their creative potential, but it sadly continues its work without Juliano’s guidance because on the 4th April 2011, he was killed by an unknown gunman who the theatre described as an ‘enemy of culture and freedom’. Despite a number of investigations, the murder still remains unsolved.

“people can change their reality only if they imagine the life that they want to live and the stage is a place to create whatever you want.”

Freedom Theatre and its predecessor The Stone Theatre symbolises the tragedy of an occupation that limits and restricts the lives of those who live under occupation but it also demonstrates the resilience and bravery of Palestinian students, Israeli activists and audiences and educators who continue to creatively and peacefully resist through cultural revolution. This powerful social change is evident when young people describe the impact that Freedom Theatre has on them and the possibilities it has opened up for them. Alia Alrosan, a former student said “people can change their reality only if they imagine the life that they want to live and the stage is a place to create whatever you want. If you didn’t have this alternative image of what you want, I don’t think you’re going to accomplish it. It’s an amazing chance to have this place to create how real life can be, how freedom can be”. The transformative power of theatre might be best embodied by Samah Mahmood, another former student, when she spoke about her hopes and dreams for the future and said ‘I want to work, I want to succeed, I want to achieve. I want to be something’.

‘Arna’s Children’ is a documentary created by Juliano Mer Khamis focusing on his mother’s life and death and the fate of the children she worked with in Jenin. Freedom Theatre continues its work and welcomes volunteers and visitors.