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Resistance Through Art in Jenin's Freedom Theatre

The Bravest Theater in the World

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

First the good news.  On July 12, Nabil Al-Raee, the Artistic Director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, was released after more than a month in detention following his arrest at his home in the early hours of the morning in June by Israeli Armed Forces,

Not accused of any crime, but arrested initially on suspicion of ‘illegal activity’ and withholding information about the murder last year of Freedom Theatre co-founder, Juliano Mer Khamis, for the first two weeks of his captivity Nabil was not allowed to have any contact with his lawyer or family, and throughout his detention he was subject to a long set of interrogations.  When the military judge declared in a court hearing that no evidence had been established, the military prosecution put forward a third accusation of him being involved in ‘terror activities’.

The bad news is that Nabil has only been freed on bail, and that he will remain under house arrest wearing an electronic foot chain until his next trial at the end of the month.

Meanwhile former commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade Zakaria Zubeid, who  received an amnesty when he renounced violence in 2005  and committed himself to cultural resistance through theatre, has been held without charge by the Palestinian security forces in prison in Jericho since May 13.  Zubeidi, is co-founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre.  On December 29, 2011, Israel rescinded Zubeidi’s pardon for unstated reasons.

“The theatre is an important project,” said Zubeidi.  “ It can bring the children together under one roof, give them the possibility to dream, develop them and lighten their psychological burden.”`

What is it about the Freedom Theatre that causes its artistic director to be arrested in a night time raid, one co-founder to be held in prison and the other, Juliano Mer Khamis, to be brutally gunned down at the entrance to the theatre last year?

Built on the inspiration and legacy of Juliano Mer Khamis’mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, a Jewish woman who in 1987 went to Jenin and set up a theatre and activity centres for the children of the camp and worked there until her death of cancer in 1995, the initiative to set up the Freedom Theatre as a European-Jewish-Palestinian-Arab venture in the Jenin refugee camp was born of the enthusiasm of two people – the artist Dror Feiler, and Jonatan Stanczak, a Swedish-Jewish peace activist , who set up an association and solicited contributions  after viewing  Juliano Mer Khamis’ excellent film “Arna’s Children”.

“The Freedom Theatre was created with the inspiration of Arna,” said Juliano, whose father was a Palestinian, speaking before he was murdered,  “but even so, despite  the partners of the project’s request to name the theatre after her, I refused.  Arna hated commemoration.  We will not make a personality-cult for her.  We are setting up a theatre in the spirit of her actions.  One of the reasons why we called the project Freedom Theatre, apart from the obvious political connotations, was the intention to create a theatre that would be free from all the elements of the occupation that is imprinted on the population.  Part of the work with the children will be to liberate them from the scars of the occupation, from the social patriarchy they live under, from the oppression they live under at home and outside.”

“The real essence of the theatre is to create a free zone for children so they can create and bring about change.  I think that the best way to influence the behaviour of a child is to create for him a living space without laws, which is the opposite of the reality he comes from.  This is not a pedagogical effort or an attempt to deal with neurological or pathological phenomena. We have no pretensions. Certainly not me.”

“I think that adults, too, need theatre. It’s not enough that they send their children here, we want to work with them.  Because a network of relationships in the camp are based on violence and hierarchy – between the camp and the occupation, between the parents, between the parents and the children and among the children – a way of group work in psychodrama workshops can teach the participants to create different networks of inter-personal relationships.”

The Freedom Theatre has mounted critically acclaimed productions of plays that raise the dilemmas of the individual spirit faced with the soul-crushing imposition of arbitrary power, including an original musical production inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm, and a Palestinian adaptation of Waiting for Godot. Several of these productions have toured in Europe and the United States – although Israel has frequently obstructed the international performances by denying actors and technical staff access to consular offices to apply for visas or permission to cross the border into Jordan, the only access West Bank Palestinians have for international flights.  Performances within the West Bank have been harassed by Israeli armed forces surrounding the performance space with troops.

A French circus group, scheduled to perform at The Freedom Theatre, was denied entry into Palestine by Israel.

A leading actor in the Godot play was arrested by Israeli armed forces and held in jail throughout the final two months of rehearsal.

Israeli troops have surrounded the theatre and abducted staff members in the middle of the night.

“This behaviour is mounting to systematical harassment of The Freedom Theatre by The Israeli army.  It is scandalous,” said  co-founder Jonatan Stanczak, who lives in Jenin.  “This proves that the Israeli army and security apparatus is either lost in their investigation or that they have the actual intention of damaging the theatre. It also seems that after the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis The Freedom Theatre is no longer exempted from the kind of oppression the Palestinian society is subjected to in general.”

Since the murder of Mer-Khamis the Israelis have repeatedly summoned Palestinian staff members of The Freedom Theatre to the Salem army base for intimidating interrogations.  All come to the appointments as scheduled and answer the given questions to the best of their knowledge even though they are intimidated and even threatened.

“Usually these interrogations start with ‘We know you are the one who killed Juliano, why did you kill him?’” said Stanczak.

“Since this has happened so many times in the past, I can’t interpret it as anything else than an ongoing harassment of the employees of The Freedom Theatre and their families by the Israeli army.”

“Maybe they thought we would break down when Juliano was assassinated, but we kept on and now they are trying to suffocate us slowly by harassing our employees, members and supporters with various accusations, one more absurd than the other.  This systematic harassment has gone on for a year now.”

The Freedom Theatre is warmly received in the Jenin refugee camp.

“The residents of the camps and the military organizations understand that the occupation oppresses also the cultural-intellectual infrastructure and does not allow the residents to develop,” said Mer-Khamis.

As Ashraf, one of “Arna’s Children” expressed in the film:

“When I am on stage I feel like I am throwing stones. We wont let the occupation keep us in the gutter. To me acting is like throwing a Molotov cocktail. On stage I feel strong, alive and proud”.

The Freedom Theatre will continue the message of Juliano Mer Khamis and his mother Arna to promote freedom – not only for the Palestinian people but for all human beings. We will continue our resistance through art, continue our struggle, continue to do our better than best.

As Juliano would say: “The Revolution must go on!”

Michael Dickinson is an artist living in Istanbul. He can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.