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Art for the sake of life: the history of Palestine's Freedom Theatre

Over 900 Palestinians and 40 Israelis have been killed in Operation Protective Edge. Despite the violence, The Palestinian Freedom Theatre continues its project of cultural resistance.

A production at The Freedom Theatre. Credit: The Freedom Theatre. All rights reserved. A production at The Freedom Theatre. Credit: The Freedom Theatre. All rights reserved.“I am not satisfied you are genuinely seeking entry as an entertainer or business visitor and will leave the UK at the end of your trip and do not intend to live for extended periods in the United Kingdom.”

It was Thursday morning and that evening Nabil Al-Raee, Artistic Director of The Freedom Theatre, Palestine, was supposed to begin the first event of many across Britain. He was going to tell the story of creating theatre under occupation.

Three weeks late, we finally received a verdict on his visa. It was a rejection.

“What they are saying is that there is no way for me to represent The Freedom Theatre in the UK”, says Nabil. “That I am suspected of intending to jump ship and stay in the UK, is simply absurd, not to mention offensive. I have my family in Palestine, and my work as the artistic director of one of the world’s most interesting theatre institutions." 

“I was rejected because of who I am, and this rejection is also part of why we are struggling for our rights and our freedom.” 

The Freedom Theatre started in a Palestinian refugee camp in 2006, with the aim of using culture as a form of resistance against oppression. Three men from very different backgrounds were the driving forces behind its establishment: Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli-Palestinian actor, Zakaria Zubeidi, a Palestinian freedom fighter, and Jonatan Stanczak, a Swedish pediatric nurse. However, it was inspired many years before, by a woman named Arna Mer Khamis. 

Arna was one of few Israelis to actively fight the occupation of Palestine. During the first Palestinian intifada in the late 80s, she went to Jenin, a West Bank city whose name had become infamous for its fierce resistance against the Israeli occupation.

In Jenin schools were closed due to the ongoing unrest. Instead Arna entered the refugee camp and began alternative education with the help of a group of local women. Together they built the Stone Theatre, a small community theatre for children in the refugee camp, named after the the stones the camp's children would throw at Israeli army vehicles when they entered.

Arna's son Juliano was a well-known actor in Israel, and decided to come to Jenin Refugee Camp to see his mother's work. He began leading drama workshops with some of the children, while filming his mother's story. This eventually became the widely acclaimed documentary Arna's Children. In 1995 Arna died of cancer and Juliano left the refugee camp. 

Years later, during the second intifada, Juliano returned to Jenin. He found the Stone Theatre in ruins, with the central parts of the refugee camp bulldozed. Out of his ten former acting students, only a few remained. One of them was Zakaria Zubeidi, by then at the forefront of the armed resistance in the camp.

Zakaria had been on the run for seven years. He had been shot, his mother and brother killed, his home destroyed. Many of his friends and fellow fighters were now dead.

On meeting Juliano, Zakaria said: “These weapons that we are using, if they are not backed with values and politics and real honest leadership, liberation leadership, then I do not want to fight anymore. We must build up this leadership from scratch and to do this, the best way to start is through an artistic venue.” 

In 2006, Zakaria, Juliano, and Jonatan Stanczak, a Swedish nurse and activist, founded The Freedom Theatre. They envisaged the theatre as a place where young people could create, imagine and reflect. 

Young men and women who had given up on the possibilities of having any kind of future came to the theatre and started a journey of discovering themselves, their talents and their stories. For many, entering those doors was life-changing.

Rami, a teenager whose violent home life had left him with a speech impediment, said during a drama therapy session: "I am pulling out the fear inside me so I can be free, so this thing inside my mouth will go away." In 2008 when The Freedom Theatre launched a three-year professional theatre school, Rami enrolled. During his education he played leading roles in some of The Freedom Theatre’s most successful productions.

People who had been denounced as terrorists began to express their perspective through theatre productions, short films, magazines and photographs. Leaving their guns at the door, an ensemble of artists, cultural workers and storytellers was created. 

Their purpose was not art for the sake of art; it was art for the sake of life. As Ahmed, a teenager from the refugee camp, said in an early Freedom Theatre documentary: “We used to dream of nothing but dying as martyrs. Now, we want to live a normal life, and die a normal death.”

“It wasn't easy”, says Stanczak, today The Freedom Theatre's managing director. “In 2006 the second intifada was ongoing and heavy clashes between the Israeli army and groups of resistance fighters took place daily in the refugee camp. To get in or out of Jenin meant driving through olive groves and switching cars, sometimes at great risk. While we were painting décor to one of our plays, army jeeps would be driving back and forth outside. One of the first things we told all our international volunteers or guests were that they shouldn't open the windows or look through them when they heard gunfire in the night. But still, the volunteers and guests kept coming.”

One of the first plays was George Orwell's Animal Farm. it came to define what was later referred to as the essence of The Freedom Theatre's work: cultural resistance.

Animal Farm was staged at a time of increasing cooperation between the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces, while Israel showed no willingness to end the occupation. This bred resentment against the Palestinian Authority. In The Freedom Theatre's version, the Palestinian leadership were depicted as collaborators, as a new class of oppressors replacing the old.

The Freedom Theatre's productions were outspoken. Bullets arrived in envelopes at the door, verbal threats were made and female actors were harassed on the street. But the theatre thrived and audiences grew.

On April 4 2011, disaster struck. Juliano was murdered on the street outside of the theatre, shot by a masked assassin. Hungry for a thrilling story, the media descended upon the theatre where chaos, shock and grief prevailed. The Israeli army arbitrarily arrested theatre staff and students. Despite much speculation the murderer and the motive were unknown (and remain so to this day).

Shortly after Juliano's murder, The Freedom Theatre produced a play titled Suicide Note from Palestine. One day before her final exams, the main character Amal has a troubling nightmare: she is Palestine and she has decided to die. Her nightmare drafts between confusion, torture and despair – strange characters symbolising the key players in the land, history, politics and occupation of her country.

Suicide Note from Palestine epitomises the key mission of The Freedom Theatre: to shed new light on reality, to question, to provoke thought and reflection in a society where past, present and future are in somebody else's hands.

Three years after Juliano's death, the theatre planned to visit Britain. A number of events had been arranged as preparation for a planned tour in 2015. But the artistic director was not allowed into the UK.

As is their habit, The Freedom Theatre's members had decided that the show would go on. Ahmed Tobasi, one of the first acting students in The Freedom Theatre, now an established actor with a Norwegian passport, flew out to replace him.

Speaking to a packed audience on the famous Wilton Music Hall's stage he said: “When they killed Juliano there were ten more who rose to take his place. With each setback we experience, we grow stronger. We will not stop what we are doing, whatever the consequences. I am ready to take a bullet for what we are doing, to give my life. After all nothing is more dangerous than the truth.” 


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