“The Third Intifada is a Cultural Intifada. “
– Adnan, The Freedom Theatre, Jenin 2013
A long road leads away from the centre of Jenin to the Refugee Camp. The noise coming from the pre-recorded tapes blasting kilo prices from the street vendors is slowly and gradually muted and replaced by heaps of trash and stray cats as you get closer to the camp. A tractor stands idle to the side of the road, two bullet holes through the windshield directly in front of the driver. “Israel Israel”, shouts out a youth Shabab when he spots me inspecting the vehicle, with arm gestures indicating the shape of a rifle.
Few hundred meters into the rag-tag puzzle of houses evolved over the years since the camp’s establishment in 1953, a narrow street opens up to the right leading into a well-kept courtyard with a billboard signalling the arrival to The Freedom Theatre.
The Freedom Theatre was co-founded by Juliano Mer Khamis in 2006, succeeding the Stone Theatre, which was established in 1993 by Arna Mer Khamis: “A revolutionary who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Occupied Palestine.” The preceding Stone Theatre was directly targeted and destroyed in 2002 during the Second Intifada, triggering claims of Cultural Genocide, which have been echoed in most of the Palestinian territories with the imprisonment of teachers, doctors and other intellectuals, along with destruction of associated structures. “120 Palestinian teachers are currently imprisoned by Israel, according to the Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies and Human Rights.” [AIC, AHRAR]
It was a difficult start for The Freedom Theatre after the deaths of Arna Mer Khamis and the Stone Theatre. The mission of the project and the projects before it has always been centred on the youths and giving them a perspective along with a bigger picture, or as Arna Khem Khamis put it herself: “Learning and Freedom. These are not just words. They are the basis of our struggle. There is no freedom without knowledge. There is no peace without freedom. Peace and freedom are bound together. Bound together! “
And it only got more difficult ever since. The actor, filmmaker and the co-founder of the theatre Juliano Mer Khamis was assassinated in 2011 in front of the main entrance. With no group or authority claiming responsibility, the details of the murder remain a mystery with the majority of people pointing fingers at Israel. This is followed by a string of arrests of other members of the theatre in 2012 in addition to the Israeli army “breaking theatre windows and equipment and shooting live ammunition during night raids conducted in the camp, and intimidating and ransacking homes of theatre employees.” [AL JAZEERA].
In the courtyard I find myself in December 2013, a conversation is exchanged between three members of the theatre group.
“That’s typical Palestine. Instead of spending the money people pay for tickets somewhere good, they go to Intercontinental hotel for a conference.”
“What’s the best thing about it? It’s the room and the food”
“His room at home is better than that. It’s about looking important. These fucking NGOs, man. They want to do things like that, intercontinental. That’s all they see when they come here”
The corruption within Palestinian society and the images of status perpetrated from abroad is evident on this level as well.
Perhaps the clear and unhidden message of active resistance through culture and art, or the strategic location within the Jenin Camp, is what continues to complicate the existence of this outpost of Palestinian Culture. Going through the pain of empowering the local youths, leading away from the perpetual hatred by giving a perspective in the confines of Jenin Refugee Camp and then seeing all but few killed or imprisoned following the Second Intifada makes the current situation no easier, especially after the void left behind by Juliano.
“We’re not healers. We’re not good Christians. We are freedom fighters.” – Juliano Mer Khamis
Adnan looks at me with faint tears in his eyes and speaks for the final time in our brief conversation.
“We still trying to fill the void left behind by Juliano“