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Juliano Mer Khamis, 1958-2011

In memory of the Jewish Palestinian and Israeli actor, director, film-maker and activist who founded the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp.
Jonathan Holmes
5 April 2011

Juliano Mer Khamis was a flamboyant, garrulous, beautiful bear of a man who loved the limelight, but loved even more the gifts that theatre could bring. He loved that in an auditorium everyone is equal, that when spellbound everyone's mouths open just as wide. He loved that when playing, we all giggle with the same mischief, that when tickled we laugh as loud. He loved children and young people, on stage and off, and this was the gift given to him by his extraordinary mother, Arna - as was the unlikely dream of a theatre in northern Palestine, in the refugee camp in Jenin. The Freedom Theatre is five years old now. In that brief time it has become a beacon of joy and a small miracle of success; an island of cheeky hospitality in a troubled region. 

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A few days before Christmas I sat with Juliano in Jenin, sipping coffee and watching him holding court, amused and slightly quizzical in black linen, revelling in the attention of his international audience and justly proud of his cheerful, professional, highly committed little studio theatre in the camp. He told with great relish his story; the half-Israeli, half-Palestinian actor, former IDF soldier, now staging Alice in Wonderland in a Palestinian refugee camp that had become his home. 


Juliano Mer Khamis

Afterwards I walked the new concrete shell of a new theatre, a much bigger place for which Juliano had raised funds in a timescale that made us gasp. We left with promises of collaboration, of plans to take our production of The Tempest to his theatre in September, of dreams to mount the biggest production he had yet entertained, with an international company, in Jenin. We were all excited, and slightly embarrassed, like schoolchildren about to be found out at any moment.

Today, (April 4), Julian Mer Khamis, the impudent, handsome bear who dared to dream, was shot five times as he carried his infant son to his car. He died instantly.

The Freedom Theatre will live on, however, because it has to. Because Juliano proved, effortlessly, what we all know to be the case - that theatre can change lives, that, even in war zones - especially in war zones - theatre can have a power beyond measure. 

That it can be a matter of life and death.

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Juliano Mer-Khamis, Freedom Theatre, Jenin / francismckee on flickr

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