Palestine’s voice

A comprehensive view of the history and the present state of cultural resistance in the occupied West Bank.

Published : Jul 17, 2018 14:40 IST

RESISTANCE through art is the leitmotif of this remarkable book that offers a detailed documentation of the first decade of a heroic experiment that has come to be known as The Freedom Theatre (TFT) in Jenin in the occupied West Bank area of Palestine. This is also the first time, as one of its editors Johanna Wallin writes, when those involved in the TFT have themselves told their story in their “own words” while earlier others did all the telling and interpreting. She says that along with this thick book, a companion volume titled Rehearsing Freedom: The Story of a Theatre in Palestine was also prepared to offer a “visual representation” of the TFT’s first decade. LeftWord Books published this volume, too, and the entire process of preparing the twin volumes took a year and a half.

To offer a comprehensive view of the history and the present state of the cultural resistance that has found its unique expression in the TFT—and also a few hints about the future that awaits it—the book has been divided into five sections: 1. The Beginning, Arna, and Juliano Mer Khamis; 2. Cultural Resistance; 3. Performing Arts; 4. International Perspectives; and 5. The Future. The editors have added an informative and useful introduction to the compilation to give the reader some indication of the road that lies ahead.

To understand the nature of any resistance—political or cultural—one has to understand the nature of the entity that is being resisted. In this case, the entity is those who have perpetrated and perpetuated the tragedy that befell the Palestinian people—predominantly Muslim but also Christian as well as Jew—in 1948, the tragedy whose roots went back to the late 19th century when Jews began to flock to Palestine to escape the anti-Semitism in Russia and central Europe. In 1917, the British captured Palestine from the Ottomans and promised the Jews a “national home”. There was a great Arab revolt in Palestine during 1936-39, which the British brutally crushed.

Finally, in pursuance of a United Nations resolution, Israel was created as the Jewish homeland on May 14, 1948, and Palestine was partitioned between the newly created Jewish state and Arab states with the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, going to Jordan and the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

This provoked an eight-month-long war with the Arab states. The Israeli forces razed more than 470 Palestinian villages, forcing nearly 800,000 Palestinians to flee to the West Bank, Gaza and the neighbouring Arab states. Israelis began to colonise Palestinian lands and the process continues to this day. In the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel defeated a united front of Arab states and occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, and Jewish settlements began to be built in the occupied territories. Refugees from the Galilee and the Hanifa region settled in a camp that was established in 1953 on the outskirts of Jenin.

Stone theatre

Against this background, during the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) that broke out in 1987, Arna Mer Khamis, from the nearby coastal town of Hanifa, took the initiative of collecting a group of women from the town and started setting up several alternative education centres known as “children’s homes” in the Jenin camp and town. Their work, known as the Care and Learning Project, received the Right Livelihood Award in Sweden in 1993, and the award money was used to start the Stone Theatre, a small theatre built on top of a residential building and named after the stones children threw at the invading Israeli tanks and troops. Arna Mer’s son Juliano Mer Khamis, born to a Palestinian-Christian father and a Jewish-Israeli mother, was a famous and controversial actor in Israel. He too joined the Stone Theatre along with Samiri Zubeidi, one of Arna Mer’s closest associates, and her sons Zakaria and Daoud.

When Arna Mer died of cancer in 1995, Juliano returned to the ruins of the camp and the Stone Theatre in 2002 and opened The Freedom Theatre in 2006 to carry on the work of his mother and others like Samira Zubeidi. His associates were Zakaria and the Swedish activist Jonatan Stanczak. On April 5, 2011, Juliano was assassinated outside the TFT by an unknown assailant.

Nucleus of cultural resistance

In its first decade, the makeshift theatre grew into the largest cultural centre in the northern part of the occupied West Bank. The editors inform us that it has also become “a nucleus of artistic, sociopolitical creation, conversation and cultural resistance in the heart of Jenin refugee camp”.


A street theatre performance by Jana Natya Manch and The Freedom Theatre as part of the “For Palestine-Freedom Jatha” in Bhopal on December 21, 2015.

They add: “The Freedom Theatre’s work is based on the belief that artistic expression has a crucial role to play in creating a free and equal society. The theatre stages plays, runs professional training in acting and devising, offers pedagogical training and creative after-school activities. It runs courses in photography and film-making, produces exhibitions, short films, a youth magazine and various publications. It has within its first 10 years raised a core of actors, stage managers, theatre technicians, cultural administrators, photographers, film-makers and instructors. It has engaged more than 10,000 artists, spectators and visitors in performances, trainings, workshops and presentations, in Jenin and elsewhere in Palestine. It has toured in over 15 countries and created an extensive international network of partners and friends.”

One such partner is Jana Natya Manch (Janam), India’s premier left-wing political theatre group, which too lost its co-founder and charismatic theatre activist Safdar Hashmi on January 1, 1989, in a murderous attack that took place the previous day while the group’s performance was in progress in a working class area near Delhi.

Sudhanva Deshpande, who has been involved with Janam in various capacities for the past more than three decades and also heads LeftWord Books as its managing editor, has written a readable account of his experiences in India as well as working with the TFT in Palestine. The murder of Juliano resonated with him and Janam and an emotional bond was established. Titled “Solidarity is Not a One-Way Street”, the essay has been included in the section titled “International Perspectives” along with, among others, Jacob Gough’s “Working with and Reflecting on Juliano”, Gary M. English’s “The Freedom Theatre: Artistic Resistance and Human Rights in the International Sphere” and Robert Lyons’ “Brecht and Politics at The Freedom Theatre”. Swedish, French and American friends of the TFT have also contributed to this section, detailing the role of culture in an occupied Palestine.

Janam’s solidarity

Deshpande’s account tells us about the collaboration between Janam and the TFT that took place in the winter-spring of 2015-16 to create a joint production. It first toured as many as 11 cities in India and later Janam staged its performance in the West Bank. Doing some plainspeaking, he places emphasis on the fact that solidarity with Palestine is not “an erasure of complicity” as it might be with citizens of some Western nations as India has always supported the Palestinian cause, and Mahatma Gandhi, the tallest leader of the Indian freedom struggle against the British colonialists, was against the Zionist project.

As Janam from its birth has been facing tremendous hardships, the idea to learn from the experience of Palestinian theatre activists who had been working under much harsher conditions was what propelled Janam into collaboration with the TFT. And the collaborative experience has proved to be beneficial to both.


Faisal Abu Al Haija of The Freedom Theatre and Sudhanva Deshpande of Jana Natya Manch speaking to the media on the For Palestine-Freedom Jatha in Bengaluru on January 13.

The first section of the book ends with an interview with Juliano by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, done in 2006 but published on April 5, 2011, a day after his murder. Titled “Art is Freedom without Force”, it is really the tour de force of this section. Similarly, in the “Performing Arts” section, Hala Kahmis Nassar’s article titled “Palestinian Theatre: Trials and Tribulations” offers a historical overview of the way Palestinian theatre has evolved over the past two centuries, thus demolishing the prevalent assumption that it really took off in the 1970s. Nassar asserts that on the basis of newspapers, personal documents, journals, diaries and scholarly studies on the “vibrant pre-1948 cultural scene in Palestine”, it can be safely said that Palestinian theatre was “in sync with neighbouring Arab theatres” and Palestinian theatrical activities went back to the early 19th century.

It is not easy to find such detailed documentation of diverse material about Palestinian cultural activities, especially the theatre of resistance as exemplified by the TFT, in one volume. The editors have done this.

Those who are interested in understanding the nature and dynamics of cultural activities of those who are living and functioning under oppressive conditions of occupation will find this book indispensable. It also underlines the fact that howsoever brutal a repressive regime might be, it cannot control or diminish oppressed people’s creative urges and cultural expression that invariably take the form of cultural resistance although its core remains political.

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