Creation under Occupation: In the Aftermath of Its Founder's Killing, Palestine's Freedom Theater Is Re-Introducing Itself to the World

Article excerpt

New York City-based playwright Ismail Khalidi is on the board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theater. Playwright Naomi Wallace, who has been to Palestine numerous times since 2002, first visited the Freedom Theater in March 2020, on a trip sponsored by New York Theatre Workshop Director and writer Erin B. Mee also went to Jenin in March 201, and has written articles about the Freedom Theater for TDR: the Drama review and Yale's Theater magazine.

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WHEN FIVE BULLETS RIPPED THROUGH the body of Juliano Mer Khamis on April 4, 2011, in front of the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, the as-yet-unidentified masked gunmen who fired the shots left a shattered artistic community in their wake. Six months on, the Freedom Theater is reassessing its future, and its first class of students, now graduated, is moving forward with a theatrical vision that is simultaneously inspired by their tough, passionate teacher and mentor while being reinvigorated and reinvented anew.

Co-founded by Mer Khamis, Freedom Theater opened its doors in 2006 to harsh realities that appeared completely inhospitable to the stage: Two-thirds of Palestinians lived in absolute poverty on incomes of less than two dollars a day; unemployment and underemployment were rampant; fundamentalism was on the rise; and Palestinian society was encased in Israel's illegal occupation, where--as reported by Amnesty International in 2001--violence was the rule rather than the exception. In addition, a systemic, bureaucratic injustice that touched the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives continued to play out in Israeli government offices through the refusal of residency documents, expropriation of land, house demolition, the building of settlements and the creation of Jewish-only roads for those settlers. A maze of segregated and (disintegrated spaces rivaled anything Piranesi's Prison series of etchings could conjure up. And all this came to be "framed" by the "separation barrier," a nightmarish sculpture of concrete and razor wire, 25 feet high in places, that when completed would cut its 403 monumental miles deep into, and around, Palestinian territories.

Thus, the Freedom Theater operated in a suffocating social space, where, as Saree Makdisi writes in Palestine Inside Out. An Everyday Occupation, the "hyper-regulation of everyday life had become catastrophic for Palestinians.

"The Freedom Theater," declared Mer Khamis in 2010, "is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation with poetry, music, theatre, cameras. The Israelis succeeded [in destroying] our identity, our social structures, political [and] economical. Our duty as artists is to rebuild or reconstruct this destruction. Who we are, why we are, where we are going, who we want to be."

TFT began with a drama therapy program to help children and youths (of the 16,000 camp residents, more than half are under the age of 18) deal with the ravages of life under occupation. In 2008 TFT opened a professional acting school--a three-year theatre training program for young adults, one of the few in the Occupied Territories. From the start, Mer Khamis insisted upon the cultural and social education of Palestinian youth. Along with vigorous theatre training, there were classes in film, photography creative writing and journalism.

"We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras and magazines," the pioneering director declared in 2010. And last year, shortly before his death, he called the occupation "a system in which the Israelis deliberately keep us ignorant. It's cultural ethnic cleansing."

TFT was not only an artistic challenge to the deprivations of occupation hut also a venue where both critical and creative arts would counter repressive aspects within Palestinian society itself--including inter-Palestinian rivalries, gender roles and sexual taboos. …