Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank is cultivating a cultural resistance movement to fight against Israeli occupation. This powerful campaign exemplifies a new tactic in attempting to restore human rights, when old tactics seem not to be working. The youth of Palestine desire freedom like any other youth on this planet, craving to sing, laugh and love. Yet, they are taught early that they are not granted this luxury under occupation: night invasions, illegitimate arrests, and the indignity of restricted movement. The freedom theatre in Jenin epitomises their resilience and their determination to sing, dance, and fight for freedom.
Established during the first intifada, the theatre group engaged Jenin’s children who were most disrupted by the occupation, helping them express their everyday frustrations, angers and fears. Its creator, Arna Mer Khamis, born to a Zionist family, married a Palestinian in the 1950s and devoted her life to fighting for Palestine’s freedom. Her son, Juliano, took on the role of director of the theatre after her death and made sure that his project was a radical, rather than a philanthropic one. This is not cultural resistance in its usual form: Juliano did not want culture to be a substitute for other forms of resistance; his aim was to make gritty and authentic theatre in possibly the most unlikely of places. Influencing the other side was not the most important step in the liberation of Palestine, and besides the disproportionality of the occupation made it unfeasible. For Jenin’s freedom theatre, cultural resistance means making changes inside one’s own society, giving people the opportunity to reconsider things and open their minds. Moving away from a militant third intifada, a more effective route would be a ‘cultural intifada’ – a way to reclaim the humanity of Palestinians, celebrate their work, take ownership over their lives and invest in their communities.
Marginalised people are often not given a voice, but theatre creates a way for every voice, experience and identity to be heard and lived out. Through performance, communities can come together and actively engage with shared issues that affect them as a whole, allowing them to deal with pain, poverty and war, but also to realise shared hopes and visions. Drama is powerful in the way it can heal and nurture civil society by encouraging community participation. However, what can it really achieve on the ground? Can it help the Palestinian struggle? Or is it an unhelpful preoccupation? Perhaps art should be separated from politics; and perhaps removing art for art’s sake negates the effect it can have as a creative outlet. This may be true, in a peaceful country. However, the focus for Palestinians must be hope; the Freedom Theatre offers an alternative to chaos, fear and ruin, equipping the young with the tools to have their voices heard on a global stage. Without this, these young people would live under occupation with very little hope. Art is not just about aesthetics, people make art to make a point, to protest at the grassroots level. This is seen all around us: the graffiti on the apartheid wall in Bethlehem is just one example. Art is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle. Once Palestine is free, then art can be liberated from politics, but until then, it must be used as a tool, and this is exactly what the freedom theatre is doing.
It is now necessary to ask whether this movement is slowing since the death of Juliano Mer Khamis. Described as ‘Handsome, charismatic and with a warmth that belied the strength of character needed to work in such conditions’ there is a danger that he might be irreplaceable. This could be detrimental to the fast moving cultural resistance he conjured up. Juliano spoke openly about the stifling nature of patriarchy, gender oppression and religious dogma. It was his firm belief that to be free required individual liberation first since, without it, freedom from occupation would mean nothing. He began to make people see this, that breaking away from tradition would allow the movement to grow. Juliano needs a successor, someone who has the influence he had, the charisma and the courage to make these ‘radical’ assertions. This will allow the culture to change and from there, occupation can start to be challenged.