Theater empowers Palestinians
JENIN, WEST BANK
It's early morning in the troubled Jenin refugee camp, an isolated, impoverished stronghold for Palestinian resistance movements in the West Bank. Deep within the camp, a lively meeting is in progress in a freshly painted backroom. Its participants, however, are armed neither with Kalashnikovs nor hand grenades, but solely with the power of theater.Skip to next paragraph
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Presiding is Juliano Mer-Khamis, a well-known actor in Israel, the son of an Israeli mother and Palestinian father. His mother, Arna Mer, began working with the children of Jenin camp in 1988, eventually earning the Alternative Nobel Prize – the Right Livelihood Award, bestowed annually by Sweden's Parliament – for her work in 1993. The prize money was put toward financing a children's theater named "Arna's House." But when Arna died in 1995, the theater was shut down.
Later, during the violent 2002 "Battle of Jenin" – when Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian militants for several days – the camp was left in ruins and with it, the building containing "Arna's House." But in 2006, Mr. Mer-Khamis returned to Jenin to follow in his mother's footsteps. He launched the Freedom Theater to provide Jenin camp's troubled youths with a grounding in the performing arts.
"This is just the prologue," says the charismatic Mer-Khamis. "There has never been any theater in this area. There is no culture of theater or even art in general. So our most important work is not theatrical performance in the traditional sense, but to create a ground for future generations, so that they can one day speak in a clear theatrical language."
Most children here don't even know what a theatrical performance is, Mer-Khamis continues. They have "never seen a clown or been a member of an audience." Moreover, he says, theater has a negative, almost Victorian image within the traditional, sometimes reactionary, camp population. "It's thought of as something dark, unsavory, and for the lower ranks of society," he says. "We want to turn this prejudice upside down."
This morning's meeting is to welcome Israeli-Arab actress and director Valentina Abu Oqsa, who hopes to run a summer theater workshop that will culminate in a performance. It is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter the Jenin camp, and both Mer-Khamis and Ms. Abu Oqsa, along with many other Israeli visitors to the theater, are risking weighty fines, even imprisonment, simply by being here. But this, says Mer-Khamis, is "one way of opposing the occupation, by disregarding the physical barriers constraining us, as well as the psychological ones."
As the meeting ends and Abu Oqsa prepares to meet her rehearsal group in the newly completed theater space, she considers what lies ahead. "I think it's going to be very difficult," she says. "I don't know how easy it will be to get boys to open up or work together with the girls. And I must be very careful with the ideas we talk about onstage; we can't be very free in this society. My job is to accept the children as they are, because theater comes from the inside. I really hope that I can do it....
"Theater has healing power," she adds. "And it's important that the kids feel what it's like to be on stage. It's what we live for as actors, to stand up under the lights and communicate with an audience. It gives us space to dream."
Dreams, for the children of Jenin, are thin. The camp is subject to Israeli army incursions almost nightly. Poverty, unemployment, and isolation are at high levels. Many children have witnessed violence of one kind or another: homes destroyed by Israeli army bulldozers during the Battle of Jenin, the death of parents or siblings during hostilities. Except for the Freedom Theatre, there is little to do and barely even a place to play.