Going to the theater is a privilege often taken for granted in the United States. On campus alone, students can pick and choose the type of show they wish to attend each weekend — musical or play, comedy or drama, original production or reinterpretation. But in Palestine's Jenin refugee camp, this opportunity exists only through the aspirations of the Freedom Theatre.
Eric Ehn, professor of theatre arts and performance studies, welcomed members of the acting troupe to an intimate McCormack Family Theatre Wednesday evening to discuss their experience developing plays and educating students in the oppressive and turbulent atmosphere of the West Bank.
The Jenin refugee camp was established in 1953 in the West Bank to house displaced Palestinians. Approximately 16,000 registered refugees live in the camp today, but it was not until 1987 that these individuals saw the dimming of the house lights, the opening of the curtain and the eruption of actors taking to the stage. It was then that Arna Mer Khamis first opened the Stone Theatre — Freedom Theatre's predecessor — with her son, Juliano Mer Khamis.
"For the first time in our lives, we didn't expect what to see," said Mustafa Staiti, a photography instructor at the theater. "(We were) not going to see guns and bullets anymore — (we were) going to see a play."
Arna Mer Khamis came from a prominent Jewish family and held a job relocating Bedouins when she met Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian leader of the communist party in Israel, according to Staiti. He told Arna Mer Khamis she was not creating a free state for Jews but rather an oppressed state for Palestinians, Staiti said. The two married, and Arna Mer Khamis' family disowned her as a result.
Arna Mer Khamis visited the Jenin refugee camp in 1987 during the First Intifada — a six-year uprising by Palestinians against the Israeli occupation of disputed territories. Determined to aid the children of the camp in particular, Arna Mer Khamis established the program "In the Defence of Children under Occupation/Care and Learning," an initiative that included the Stone Theatre as a production space and teaching venue.
A second and intensified Palestinian uprising began in 2000 and reached Jenin in April 2002. The Israeli army levelled the camp's buildings, and of the 75 dead, seven were actors of the Stone Theatre, Staiti said.
"Not only people were killed, buildings destroyed, but minds were killed, culture was killed," he said.
It was to this macabre scene that Juliano Mer Khamis returned after spending time working away from the camp. The events inspired him to make the film "Arna's Children" and, amid requests from residents, to open a second theater and school — the Freedom Theatre.
Since its opening in 2006, the theater has put on such shows as "Animal Farm," "Fragments of Palestine" and "Alice in Wonderland" — plays dealing with occupation, revolution or individual freedom, said Momin Switat, a member of the troupe.
Video clips from "Arna's Children" and recent productions show the children of the Jenin camp coming together to learn acting and other creative means of expression and forget their surroundings for a short part of their day. In the camp, after curfew — around 5 or 6 p.m. — individuals are not able to leave their homes, Staiti said. The theater gives them a chance to escape that and hope for the future.
"A girl has to move from her father's house to her husband's kitchen," said one of the young girls in the subtitled video. "I will not end up in a kitchen."
One boy said he joined the theater "to enhance the reputation of our camp."
"They want us illiterate," he said of Israelis. "Since the theater opened, we have something to live for."
The scenes shown were powerful, illustrating that though one may not understand the words of a piece, the emotion can still be conveyed. The actors have a powerful message to spread, and they do so with ease.
The obvious excitement and technical skill of the students is a joy to see and speaks to the talent and dedication of Juliano Mer Khamis, who nurtured the first group of actors, who are now the current teachers.
Juliano Mer Khamis was leaving the theater April 4 with his one-year-old son in his arms when someone fired a gun at him, Staiti said. Juliano Mer Khamis immediately asked the shooter to stop, put his son down and said, "Kill me, not the son," according to Staiti. He was shot five times in the chest. The killer remains unknown.
"We lost a father, a real true father," Staiti said. "Man was there for a mission and for a reason, and we are continuing it."
The troupe will continue its East Coast tour with a visit to Columbia for a Tuesday performance
of "While Waiting." The play is inspired by Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."