This is the most beautiful photograph I’ve seen in ages. I can stare at it for a long time. It is about freedom in the balance; and it is all in the face of that little boy in the middle of the picture, who is on the cusp of imagination or despair.
The picture was taken by Italian photographer Anna da Sacco inside the Jenin Freedom Theatre in the refugee camp of Jenin, in the Occupied Territories. The theater had been destroyed during the Israeli invasion of 2002. Then at the impetus of a Palestinian nationalist who has “put down the gun,” it was rebuilt. These children are coming in to see a show. I love this picture because it could be almost anywhere. Who does not identify with that boy? We all remember what that age was like, the pure wonder we felt at our first show, how transported we were. Anyone can see that this boy is awake to just that transportation.
This photo is about just one night in a reclaimed theater. Everyone is waiting on the big questions. Will Hamas take over the West Bank? Will it permit the freedom to go to a theater? Will the Israelis grant greater freedom to Palestinians on the West Bank, of movement, and civil action? Will it end the siege of Gaza? Will the boy come to see his future with fundamentalist and vengeful forces–will he want to be a martyr? Or will he be granted some hope to dream of being an actor, a builder, a journalist?
I saw this photograph at the New York Theatre Workshop last week. The directors of the NYTW had invited the Jenin Freedom Theatre to reach out to the New York theater community for help—for drama teachers, singing teachers, speech coaches, writers, anything, to keep that theater in the refugee camp going. “This is the place for something that money can’t buy,” Juliano Mer Khamis, the director, said to the theater people. “People who can help us to build… in a professional way. Oh, we have good actors. But we don’t have voice trainers. Movement, masque, commedia del arte–I’m talking about occupied Palestine!”
A charismatic actor dressed all in black, half Jewish, half Arab, Mer Khamis sat alongside the theater’s chairman, Mervat Aiash, her head wrapped in a scarf. They showed two films about the children of Jenin to an audience of 30 in the NYTW. In the first film, a dozen children were taken on a tour from Jenin in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Mer Khamis says several of the children are suffering “post-traumatic stress disorders” from the invasion of 2002, and you can see the fear in them. The trip should take an hour and a half. It takes six hours because of checkpoints. “Nakba, nakba,” the bus driver says impatiently, and the children sing a song about rising to challenge the occupation.
In Bethlehem they pass under a ghastly “apartheid” control tower, as Mer Khamis described it. It looks like something out of Star Wars, or Iraq. At the end of the film, some of the children climb a low portion of the horrifying concrete wall, and dangle their legs off it.
One boy had never seen the Al-Aqsa mosque. “On TV I saw it.” Now he sees it in real life. Though it’s not an hour from his house.
“For the first time they are going out from Jenin,” said Aiash. “They have not even been to Jerusalem.”
To be an activist in Israel, said Mer Khamis, means “working in a society that becomes xenophobic, racist, not tolerant and moving toward what I would say is fascism. I mean that they lose even the will to look good. The Israelis give a lot of importance to their image… [but] they don’t care any more..”
Mer Khamis says it is as important to fight the other side: “stagnation and intolerance” in the Arab community. In the second film, Arab girls doing workshops at the theater talked about their desire for personal freedom, to become actresses and playwrights. “You move from your father’s house to your husband’s kitchen,” one girl complained.
A teenage boy said calmly that the occupation was cultural and military. In the past, all he and his friends wanted to do was to be martyrs. But now with the theater, they say to themselves that they can win by rising culturally. “If we become great actors, we will have defeated the Israelis.”
How naive is that boy? Mer Khamis spoke with desperation. The Palestinians had failed to defeat the occupation with suicide bombing. That was a terrible mistake, it created a “vicious circle.” The third intifadah, or uprising, must not end like the last one, but be a movement of culture and expression. He is also afraid of Hamas. All these Palestinian children want is to learn. His Jewish mother, a former Zionist, told him about the Jews of Europe, who had no land, no country, only knowledge that could be killed, but never taken away. “It is the same thing with Arabs. There is a pathology, to study, to get the diploma, to be something, to do something…”
I am writing with explosive feeling. That is because of where this appeal took place. In the New York Theatre Workshop, which censored the Rachel Corrie play two years ago. NYTW was ripped apart by that event. At that time I had no sympathy for the theater company. It was obvious that some one or other on the board had found the play objectionable and had overruled the artistic director, Jim Nicola, and so the case was seized upon, in the New York Times, in the Nation (where I wrote about it), and on playgoer. It was a shock: a live demonstration in New York of censorship that has since become a common occurrence inside the Jewish community.
Well the other night at the NYTW, hosting this Arab theater group they have met and worked with many times, there were two of the enemies. Jim Nicola wearing a green Ocracoke café tshirt, a big sweet warm man. And Linda Chapman, a skinny vigorous woman who buzzed from one guest to another welcoming them. I understood that this outreach is not some sudden or forced motion of their hearts. The New York Theatre Workshop has been active on the Arab-Israeli problem for years now, and it fulfills them to give a platform to Mervat Aiash, to talk about cultural revolution in Palestine. Aiash, who has a doctorate, explained that she has had job offers from around the Arab world. But she is committed to Jenin.
“When I see the boys and girls’ eyes, I see the future in their eyes. That they are doing their best to change things. I have the feeling that I have to stay. I have to support them and work for them.”
The world has come a long way since Rachel Corrie was censored (though it happened again and again, in other cities). NYTW has instead of backing down in a climate of fear and censorship, doubled down. Its staff has brought in Nibras, the Arab-American theater company, and staged several Palestinian voices. (And maybe they will get the N.Y. ball rolling on David Zellnik’s epic post-Zionist play Sharon…Herzl, which lately played San Francisco)
This is difficult terrain, Linda Chapman told me. She felt caught up in a media drama two years ago. As a journalist I know how easy it is to paint people as enemies. This doesn’t help. It is a weird thing to say here, but at AIPAC two weeks ago, I heard the Israeli negotiator Tal Becker speak about the growth of civil institutions in the West Bank as a great thing. It seemed to me he was engaged with his community, inclusive even of Arabs. The challenge to Americans is to imagine our community in new ways and push these things forward. The huge wheels, the political processes, the ideological wars, the contending parties, they are so many abstract nightmares next to the urgency of reaching out to that wideeyed boy on the threshold.