Known as ‘The Martyrs’ Capital’ to Palestinians, Jenin Refugee Camp’s streets are lined with posters and awnings featuring somber portraits of the dead. It is an unlikely setting for The Freedom Theater, a progressive institute that has challenged the concept of a violent resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The theater itself is situated on the outskirts of the camp in a spacious building that stands in stark contrast to the majority of structures within the camp: homes are built on top of each other throughout the sprawling network of roads and alleys that make up the camp.
As well as providing a space for performance, the theater also offers full and part time courses in drama, film, photography and website design, encouraging a haven for culture in an otherwise impoverished and conservative society. The project reflects the diverse values and history of its founders that include an Israeli actor and a former leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Juliano Mer-Khamis, the General Director of the Freedom Theater, was born in Nazareth to a Palestinian Christian father and Jewish Zionist mother. Raised as a Jew in Israel, Mer-Khamis served 17 months in the Israeli Defense Forces before training and working as an actor during the eighties.
“It was an easy way. I was good looking,” Mer-Khamis says. “My mantra was that the Israeli theater is a total collaborator propaganda tool of the Israeli institutions. So what do I do? I’m an actor. I’ll get my fame and money and power on the stage and use it in other aspects of the media. I succeeded to become a very loud spokesman of my views. And this balance kept me sitting on the fence.”
Mer-Khamis continued to work in Israeli television, films and stage during the nineties whilst also traveling to Jenin to help his mother, Arna, with the children’s theater that she had set up.
Mer-Khamis’s mother died in 1995. At the height of the second intifada, Juliano decided to return to Jenin during the 2002 incursions. He began to film what he saw and sought out some of the children that had been members of his mother’s youth theater group. He discovered that a number of them had become militant fighters, some of whom had become suicide bombers, been killed in action or had been interned by the IDF. The original theater his mother had set up, called The Stone Theater, had also been destroyed.
The resulting footage became a documentary called Arna’s Children, and further ostracized Mer-Khamis from Israeli society. By 2006 Mer-Khamis had relocated permanently to Jenin and The Freedom Theater had been established. An unlikely friendship formed between Mer-Khamis and Zakaria Zubeidi, who had been the Al-Aqsa commander for Jenin and had spent time on Israel’s most wanted list. Zubeidi became a significant ally in the set up of the theater after taking an amnesty with the IDF in 2007 whereby he renounced violent resistance in favor of cultural resistance.
“I try to provide anything that the theater needs; supporting, funding, whatever,” Zubeidi explains. “I use my connections, I use my publicity. The most important thing is the message the theater is trying to get across. I took this chance to promote the idea without spilling blood.”
Softly spoken and older looking than his 34 years, Zubeidi appears to have developed a close bond with Mer-Khamis, who shares an ideology of creating social change through culture.
“I had my chance. I had guns to express my objection,” he says. “I had to give the chance for the students here to express themselves, but not by guns. To express themselves on the stage. Hopefully the theater is stronger than the gun, and it can lead us to our freedom.”
One of the main features of the theater is the use of drama psychotherapy. It offers the chance of professional psychological support to children who otherwise would not have access to this type of service in the West Bank.
“Psychology is not on the agenda in the West Bank,” explains Mer-Khamis. “The children here are very traumatized. Trauma is when your emotional, imaginary world is locked and trapped with fears. It is a black box. Drama therapy helps you to open it up. It gives you tools to express your imagination. This is the base. Once the trauma is freed, we can talk about artistic activity, until then it’s therapeutic.”
Mer-Khamis insists that the theater’s political and social ambitions do not detract from its ability to be considered for its artistic endeavors. “The psychodrama therapy is a very limited course. It’s not a continuous thing.” he explains. “The professional acting students had six months drama therapy and now are normal drama students as anywhere in the world.”
With successful international tours of its productions already under its belt, the theater has begun to establish itself as an emerging young name on the theater circuit. In the last year, they successfully staged an adaptation of Animal Farm that led to its director being given a year-long travel ban by the local authorities who were naturally unhappy about the underlying political themes. Subsequent productions have also run into controversies at home and abroad. Mer-Khamis recalls a run-in with an ex-pat Palestinian during a tour to Germany of the theater’s own devised production Fragments of Palestine. The ex-pat did not like how the play represented inner tensions amongst Palestinians: “[They] didn’t like that we criticized our own society. But this is the policy of the Freedom Theater. There are almost 200 people here on a daily basis: students, trainers, who are convinced we should lead a new agenda. An honest, straight, not to fear real democracy, not to fear an approach against the occupation in all its atrocities, but also to be able to look at yourself.”
The theater symbolizes a growing cultural trend within the city of Jenin. Cinema Jenin opened in August and was built on the site of an old cinema long since closed down. The $1 million renovation was funded in part by the German government, with a £50,000 sound system donated by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. The Freedom Theater also plans to relocate to a new purpose built site in the New Year that will see the current theater space remain as multimedia studios for the expanding media courses. It is all a far cry away from how the camp started the decade, which saw Jenin suffer some of the worst incursions and massive destruction by the Israeli Army during the second Intifada.
“The main goal is to become a real, leading theater in the West Bank, and not to compromise,” says Mer-Khamis. “We are not social workers. In the end we are artists.”
Yousef Eldin is a journalist based between Dublin and London. He specializes in writing cultural features and has previously contributed to the Irish Times from Jerusalem.