Photostory: Freedom Theatre in Jenin aims to plant seeds of dignity

Amer Hlihel performing “Diab” (Maureen Clare Murphy)

The spirit of resistance has not been beaten out of Jenin, was the message at the opening of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp last weekend. Calls by speakers for the Palestinians to stand firm despite Israeli and American pressure resonated with the crowd, men on one side of the hall and women and children on the other.

On one of the walls of the theatre hangs a series of photographs of the original theatre created by the late Arna Mer Khamis. Witnessing the devastating affects of the first intifada on children, Arna created a series of creative programmes to give beleaguered Palestinian children a means of expressing themselves. Born to a Zionist family but married to a Palestinian husband, her picture framed in the middle of the montage.

Back in 1994, Yusuf performing in the theatre created by Arna Mer Khamis (Courtesy of Juliano Mer Khamis)

Yusuf in 2001, before commiting an attack on four Israeli women and a week after witnessing the killing of 10-year-old Riham (picture in background). Riham died in Yousef’s arms on the way to the hospital after she was hit by Israeli fire in her school (Courtesy of Juliano Mer Khamis)

The theatre opened after the first intifada, but was destroyed during the second uprising during the 2002 Israeli incursion that destroyed much of Jenin camp and claimed over 50 of the 13,000 residents’ lives.

Arna’s son Juliano Mer Khamis is involved in the new theatre, as he was a director in the original theatre. Juliano also directed a film, Arna’s Children, which follows the short lives of some of the children Arna affected — some of the wide-eyed young thespians grow up to be fighters who launch attacks on Israeli civilian targets or are killed in the Israeli invasion.

Juliano Mer Khamis at last Sunday’s opening of the new Freedom Theatre (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Jenin 2006: An aspiring young thespian (Maureen Clare Murphy)

The harrowing film startlingly juxtaposes images of the fresh-faced youth who eventually become faces on martyr posters. One of Arna’s children, Zakaria Zubeidi, his still-youthful face scarred from a bomb blast, is currently the leader of the Al-Aqsa Bridgades in Jenin and with gun in tow was at the opening ceremony of the theatre. Zubeidi, standing nearby as children enjoyed a clown performance, is a reminder of how fast children grow up in Jenin camp, where half the population is estimated to be under the age of fifteen.

Members of the Boomchucka Circus juggling in Jenin (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Though they were laughing like regular kids on Sunday to the Boomchucka
Circus troupe made up of foreign volunteers, the children of Jenin camp have very adult realities. Subjected to curfew and incursions, the arrest or killing of family and neighbors, it is no surprise that fear related to the Israeli occupation is never far from mind, as it colors so many aspects of their young lives. Indeed, on the day of the opening, two 17-year-old boys in nearby Nablus were shot in the necks and killed during a still-ongoing Israeli invasion.

Children of Jenin look on with amazement as the Boomchucka Circus perform for them (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Though the theatre — along with the rest of the camp — has been rebuilt, the threat of violence and another round of demolitions is not far away. But the forces behind the Freedom Theatre are undeterred. “Culture is the seed of human dignity,” explained musician and co-founder of the new theatre Dror Feiler at the opening ceremony. And in the dramatic one-man performance of Diab that followed, performed with vigor by Amer Hlihel, human dignity was a prominent theme.

With the opening of the new theatre, that many more seeds have been planted in Jenin camp’s many children, who have been deprived of the freedom necessary for the flourishing human dignity. Affording what the rest of the world so rarely grants them, the theatre is a healthy opportunity for them to express their anxieties and dreams.

Though the theatre will have special programming for children, the team also aspires to house a community cultural center with a local theatre group, as well as host international and Palestinian theatre groups and feature productions and workshops for children and adults.

Related Links

  • Freedom Theatre to open in Jenin refugee camp, the Freedom Theatre (18 February 2006)
  • BY TOPIC: Arts, Music & Culture
  • Film review: Arna’s Children, Arjan El Fassed (11 December 2003)