Originally an Israeli Zionist, Arna Mer-Khamis wouldn’t immediately strike you as an obvious supporter of the Palestinian cause. And yet, her life took an unexpected turn when she joined the communist party and met and then married a Palestinian.
In the late 80s, during the Second Intifada, she found herself in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, where she established a small community theatre in the town’s large refugee camp called The Stone Theatre – named after the stones that the young people of the camp would throw at Israeli army vehicles.
Arna’s drama classes included many of the camp’s children and gave them hope in a hopeless situation.
In 1995, just after the end of the Intifada, Arna died of cancer. A few years after her death – during the Second Intifada – many of the children she had worked with were martyred in the Battle of Jenin – a clash that in later years (after the full scale of Israeli terror was slowly revealed) has become known as the Jenin Massacre.
This incredible and challenging story – with footage of the early drama classes, Arna’s last moments as well as the Massacre itself – are contained in a feature-length documentary directed by Arna’s son, Juliano Mer-Khamis. It’s freely available to watch on YouTube and I’d really recommend it. It’s a stark portrayal of the causes and consequences of Palestinian suffering.
But the story doesn’t end there.
After the Second Intifada, Juliano was persuaded to return to the Jenin Camp to set up a new theatre – The Freedom Theatre. He wanted the project to help challenge the anger that, understandably, was felt by many young people in the camp – to provide an alternative outlet for their pent up emotion.
Over the years, the theatre worked with the young people of Jenin, putting on a series of productions and touring abroad.
In April 2011, Juliano was driving through the camp in his Citroen with his young son on his lap and his son’s babysitter in the back seat. A masked young man approached the car and shot Juliano five times, killing him instantly. His son survived and the babysitter suffered non-fatal injuries.
The killer has never been found but there are rumours that it was a local Palestinian, critical of the liberal nature of some of the productions that Juliano put on. The work Juliano championed sought to confront and challenge both Israeli and Palestinian authorities – creating enemies on both sides.
On Friday, we visited the theatre. It’s situated in the heart of the camp – itself home to some 10,000 Palestinian Refugees.
The Jenin camp
The Freedom Theatre
Children in the camp
Despite the low-key exterior, the theatre is impressive, with raked seating that holds a few hundred people. It is surrounded by a series of buildings that house offices and rehearsal spaces as well as a small cinema.
The Freedom Theatre
The Freedom Theatre
We were greeted by the theatre’s location and technical manager – Adnan Naghnaghiye – who made us coffee and spent a generous amount of time sitting and telling us the story of Arna, Juliano and the theatre.
Adnan is a good example of the very real challenges the organisation still faces. He was arrested along with another member of the management team by Israeli soldiers just a few months after Juliano’s death. After this, one of the lead actors in a production was detained and arrested at an Israeli checkpoint. A few months later, there were further raids on the theatre and more arrests.
Late last year, another of the theatre’s co-founders, Zakaria Zubeidi, had a pre-existing amnesty deal revoked. He was detained by Palestinian authorities in May and has recently been released after undergoing a series of hunger strikes. During his four months confinement, he wasn’t charged.
This harassment by stealth has hit the theatre hard and yet it keeps moving forwards. It’s evidence of cultural oppression that is being inflicted on Palestinians.
It’s a sad state of affairs when artistic expression is attacked. This flavour of occupation is harder to see, but it is just as damaging. For proof of the positive differences that projects like The Freedom Theatre can make, watch this short video of a drama therapy class. It perfectly encapsulates the turmoil these young people face and how art can offer some kind of respite.
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