Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
Oct. 18, 2011
A refugee camp isn’t the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of creative or nurturing environments. And it’s not. But the performers of the Jenin Freedom Theater, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, have created a space where art flourishes amid strife and squalor.
Last Tuesday evening, four performers from the Jenin Freedom Theater came to the atrium of Mandel Center for the Humanities. They had each been personally affected by the violence that they have seen as refugees living in the camp, which covers an area of two square miles and houses about 16,000 people. The performers were angry with the Israeli Army for its brutal treatment of the inhabitants of Jenin. They hoped to create positive change through their art.
Josh Perlstein ’79, one of the organizers of the event, shared his view of the goal of the Freedom Theater in a phone interview with justArts. “The goal of the theater is to use theater as a means of liberation, for Palestinians and for all people. If people could focus their fear through a process of creation, it would move people in a positive direction. They are trying to humanize the people in the theater and anyone who they interact with. If you act as a liberator, you liberate all people, not justyourself.”
The theater’s first incarnation was known as the Stone Theater. An Israeli woman named Arna Mer came to the Jenin Refugee Camp originally as the founder of the relief organization Defense of Children under Occupation. One of the Jenin actors, Mustapha, recounted the story of Mer’s first days in the camp: “Arna showed up one day, an Israeli woman in the middle of the West Bank. She just came with papers and other arts supplies and started engaging with the young children in the street. At first, people thought she was a spy. Then, a woman named Samira decided, ‘I will host this woman. She will live in my house.’ She could see that Arna was just [trying to help the children]. From that day on, everyone trusted Arna.”
Established in 1992 during the first Intifada, a guerilla war between Israel and its Palestinian inhabitants, the Stone Theater was the first public theater to be built in the West Bank. The theater, along with much of the camp, was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 2000, during the second Intifada. Most of the theater students died in the attack.
Mer’s son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, rebuilt the theater in 2006 and renamed it the Jenin Freedom Theater. (Mer-Khamis was an established Israeli actor and director. In 2002, he was nominated for an Ophir Award (the Israeli version of an Oscar) for Best Actor in the film Kedma, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.)
After the death of his mother in 1995, Mer-Khamis became personally involved in the Stone Theater’s work. After rebuilding the theater, he moved to Jenin to become more involved. The performers couldn’t speak highly enough of their mentor on Tuesday night. “Juliano was creating individual freedom in the Jenin Refugee Camp. That can be very dangerous,” said one speaker. The others agreed that they would still be “street punks” or small-time criminals if it wasn’t for Mer-Khamis. These comments were overshadowed by a depressed spirit among the Jenin representatives: Mer-Khamis was assassinated by an unknown gunman on April 4 this year. The theater community is still recovering from the shocking murder.
As part of the talk, the performers showed clips from some of their recent performances, including a retelling of Alice in Wonderland and an original production called Fragments of Palestine. These clips did not show dialogue from the plays (which are written in or translated into Arabic) but rather dances, fight scenes or scenes set to music.
“The performers chose material that fits with the theme of liberation,” Perlstein clarified. “They assigned different characters in the play that are analogous to characters from their lives. They translate or adapt various works to fit with their own experiences.”
Some of the members of the audience at the event (mostly older people from outside of Brandeis) criticized the clips for containing too much violence. One woman asked if the theater was trying to end the violence in the camp or if they were just promoting it in a different medium.
“I don’t think you understood the clips if you think we are promoting violence,” Mustapha responded. “The actors in the theater take what they see in their daily lives and put it on stage.” Another performer agreed, “Theater becomes a refugee for … the people of Jenin. It’s therapy. When people come to the theater, they see what is in their heads.”
The four performers themselves have all been “saved” by the theater. One performer recalled that he was a petty criminal, stealing cars and selling drugs, but that he really wanted to be an actor. So he went to Mer-Khamis for a part in the theater. Since then, the young man has immersed his life entirely in acting. He recounted that he would go about his day and “go to parties in costume and in-character.” It became a part of his daily life.
Perlstein added his own view of the work the theater has accomplished in Jenin: “You can tell just from the people who came to speak how much the Theater has affected them. Their options were very limited. They were all headed down a negative path, and the Theater gave them options to see different ways to live their lives. In a community-based theater, it becomes inspirational. In the largest sense for the people involved but also for the audience. If they keep going the way they are they could have a huge impact on the neighborhood.”
The talk on Tuesday was part of a tour the company is doing to promote their work overseas. They will next be performing Waiting for Godot at Columbia University and will be appearing at a benefit at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, hosted by the celebrated playwright Tony Kushner.