Rocks, guns and bombs are easily associated with the enduring occupation of Palestine. Make-up, props and standing ovations? Not necessarily. But with The Freedom Theatre–from Jenin, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank–collaborating with organizations world wide, this quickly changes.
Last month, I witnessed an extraordinary performance, ‘Courage, Ouda, Courage’–a collaboration between actors of The Freedom Theatre and international theater company Hotel Courage. A bare, minimalistic stage, enhanced by a powerful live soundscape and Commedia dell’Arte-inspired masks, the heartfelt story centered around elderly refugee, ‘Ouda’, wonderfully portrayed by actor Saber Shreim. As a boy, Ouda’s mother dies in his arms after their home is destroyed in an attack, and he longs to see her one last time. In reminiscing about his life, a job he once held and moments with his mother, the straight-forward, simple and dynamic telling left me simultaneously feeling enlightened, inspired and ineffective.
It is a performance that takes the audience on a poignant journey straight into the soul and everyday reality of the Palestinians. A reality that includes an apartheid wall that separates the West Bank from Israel–85% of which is constructed on Palestinian land–Israeli-only roads that severely limit Palestinian mobility between cities and villages, armed checkpoints, color-coded identity cards that bar Palestinians from living in all but 40% of the West Bank, frequent whole-town curfews, mass arrests, demolition of homes to make way for Israeli settlements–considered illegal under international law–and abuse from armed Israeli settlers, which have resulted in murder.
Actor and theater teacher Faisal Abu Alhayaa introduced his ensemble and was clear about their circumstances: “The occupation is no longer just an occupation of the land; tanks and fences, we are used to that, but it is now an occupation of our minds.” Unlike a typical theater company, these artists have actually grown up inside the refugee camp. The only professional venue for theater and multimedia in the northern West Bank, Occupied Palestine, they face on a daily basis the circumstances they portray on stage. It grants them the irrefutable right to make their inspiring, hopeful and constructive messages heard.
During the First Intifada, in 1988, a social project called Care and Learning used theater and art to offer a brighter perspective to children growing up inside the camp. Ran by Arna Mer-Khamis, a Jewish-Israeli politician and human rights activist, it would lay the foundation for the birth of the Stone Theatre, later destroyed during ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, a large-scale military invasion of the West Bank in 2002.
In 2006, Arna’s son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, co-founded The Freedom Theatre: a community-based theater and cultural center with its main purpose “to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation with poetry, music, theater and cameras.” Juliano Mer-Khamis was brutally murdered outside the theatre in 2011 by an unknown gunman.
The major images on the news are of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli tanks and fighting. The goal of The Freedom Theatre is to ‘Generate Cultural Resistance’, perform theater, bring art around the world and accomplish change in doing so. By sharing human stories, in which you recognize yourself, they impart upon their audience an understanding that something is wrong and needs to change.
An urgent resolution to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires the world to put pressure on Israel and its allies–mainly the US–forcing them to change their policies and recognize Palestine as a viable entity. And that’s exactly what The Freedom Theatre hopes to accomplish. Applying that pressure by taking their message around the world and promoting awareness in a way that transcends brute force.
The Freedom Theatre is currently touring the UK with their play ‘The Siege’.