Theater empowers Palestinians

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.

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.

"We take in the broken people," says Mer-Khamis, "the neglected, the outsiders, those with nothing to lose. The intelligent 'upper class' is not here yet; the group of boys we have here now are car thieves, bandits, and petty criminals."

This group, about 15 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, are the ones Abu Oqsa now welcomes into the theater. Slowly, she takes them through a series of warm-up exercises. The boys, at first rowdy and laughing, eventually simmer down and listen to her instructions, concentrating and becoming increasingly cooperative.

"These boys," says Mer-Khamis proudly, watching from the sidelines, "were the ones everyone said we shouldn't take in. Members of the camp's committee itself told me to refuse them, that they were bad news. I've been working with them for a month now, and the difference is astonishing. They're learning about respect, cooperation, togetherness. Even I was surprised by their progress; this is the magic of the stage."

But theater projects in Jenin have not always managed to make a lasting, positive impact on participants' lives. Many of the boys of Arna Mer's original theater group – featured in Mer-Khamis's 2003 documentary, "Arna's Children" – are now dead. One, Ashraf Abu el-Haje, was killed in fighting in 2002; a second, Ala'a Sabagh, joined the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, before also being killed in battle. A third, Yussef Swetty, died during a 2001 suicide mission in Israel when he opened fire on civilians in the town of Hadera, killing four women. His brother, Nidal Swetty, became a member of the Islamic Jihad group and died fighting Israeli troops in the Battle of Jenin.

Today, one of the boys participating in Abu Oqsa's workshop is 18-year-old Yasin Swetty, brother of Yussef and Nidal. Not long after the deaths of his two elder brothers, Yasin's home was demolished by the Israeli army. Mr. Swetty is unemployed, and has been attending the theater for the last month. It has changed his life, he says.

"I feel empowered on stage," he says, "It's given my life some sort of meaning. I have a goal to become something, and suddenly I'm part of a group. Since I stepped on stage, my only dream is to become a great actor. I want to play Romeo."

His brothers, too, both dreamed of becoming professional actors. "But they ended up dead, defending our people. If I will be forced to defend my people, I will do the same – by acting."

Faris Juradat, also 18, was initially identified by Mer-Khamis as "the biggest bandit of them all." Now, he says, he wants to become a professional actor and travel to Europe to perform. "Before, I spent a lot of time on the street," he explains, "but now I feel my future is here. Through theater, I can cross walls; I see there's more to life than soldiers shooting at Palestinians."

After a long day on stage, the theater workshop draws to a close. Abu Oqsa emerges, exhilarated, as dusk settles in and a melancholy call to prayer begins to trill out from the camp's central mosque.

"It was wonderful," she exclaims. "At first they were a bit hard to control, but they're only boys, after all. I got through to them eventually, and they were responding very well. I now feel very positive about the future of my project; really, this is excellent!"

Onstage, the boys now rig up a microphone and launch into an impromptu musical performance, leaping joyfully around, arms linked, in a traditional Palestinian dabke dance.

But is Mer-Khamis concerned that these boys, in just a few years, might be armed fighters or suicide bombers? "The boys will be exposed to theater, art, and culture, and will learn more about the outside world, so it's very natural that in the future, they'll become leaders, perhaps locally, or in Palestine as a whole. What kind of leadership – with a gun or a guitar – is their choice. I really hope it's a guitar. But in the end," he adds, "this is the Freedom Theatre."

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