Last night in Putnam County, NY, I met the two actors from the Jenin Freedom Theatre who are touring our country. Above is an interview with one of them, Faisal Abu Alheja.
Abu Alheja is only 23. But this actor who grew up in Jenin refugee camp– and who has never been to the sea that is 40 minutes away in Haifa, who has never been to Jerusalem less than 2 hours from his home– speaks with the wisdom of someone two or three times his years.
Our 21-minute conversation focuses on his arrest in December 2011— when Israeli special forces, their faces blackened as though “in a Hollywood movie,” came into Abu Alheja’s house in the middle of the night to arrest him.
His description of his arrest begins at 4:30. (Before that he speaks of what he is trying to convey to Americans on this trip, and of his late mentor Juliano Mer-Khamis.) I urge you to watch the video from that point on, or skip around through it, to see how this young man has processed his experience. Abu Alheja is not an actor for nothing. Humiliation and pride and anger, weakness and strength, all appear on his face– and so does his commitment to freedom and human dignity.
In the last three minutes of the video, Abu Alheja seeks to translate a traditional Arabic “wisdom” that the Israeli investigator imparted to him at the end of his interrogation. In these moments of explaining a laden and threatening expression, you can see a vast measure of the Palestinian experience in this actor’s beautiful face.
Thanks to Dinky Romilly and Terry Weber for setting up the meeting. I will post a video of fellow actor Ahmad Al-Rokh next. I hope readers will do their part to honor these artists by going to hear them speak about Art as Resistance tomorrow at Columbia University or catching them when they return to our country in September to perform the Athol Fugard play, The Island, in English. We will certainly give you a headsup.
Some of the highlights from the Faisal Abu Alheja interview:
6:00 Why? he asks. Why was he arrested and his arms bound? And his house surrounded by soldiers, as if it were a war?
I ask, how does he answer that question?
7:00 If these people came with this army, to arrest you, that means you are an important person, a dangerous person. That means your art touches.
7:30. Abu Alheja says he must tell me the story “from the beginning.”
He relates how the arrest grew out of a talkback process, in which ordinary people in Jenin would relate an experience and actors would act it out. This talkback soon moved to the streets of the camp. And it involved freed prisoners, relating their experiences. Abu Alheja’s arrest followed.
That night, the soldiers walked him to the place where he had done the street theater, before putting him in the jeep and blindfolding him.
I understand ah, our art it’s working… But we didn’t do anything against them. We just asked people their stories.
So the experience was positive? Not entirely. And here you can see the fear in Abu Alheja’s face:
It makes me stronger, but it also makes me afraid. Maybe they will kill you and nobody will ask, man… Look if they can enter my room. Really I woke up and found them in my room, like a Hollywood movie.
I think Fuck politics… Nobody can do anything for me in this moment.
Maybe you will dead… They have the possibility to kill you.
You feel as a Palestinian, that you are nothing. You are disappear. You are disappearing.
12:20. Why didn’t they call him on the telephone to talk to him? Why did they attack his house, with an army? Yes, why? I ask.
The answer is they want to broken my character as a Palestinian. They want me on my knees. Without thinking. To be afraid from to go to the theater. To be afraid to be doing something political. They did not say that… But this is what I feel.
13:30 As Abu Alheja grows more and more emotional, I ask, Were they successful in getting you to go to your knees? Listen to his answer yourself.
But at 13:50, he relates, that others have been broken.
They succeed with a lot of people. They put a lot of people in the trauma… I know a lot of people who have scared from the voices of bombs or from the army. But you know, I’m lucky, I have the theater.
He then describes his four-year-old nephew seeing the army attacking the house in the middle of the night and taking someone; and he wonders how this will affect the boy. This is what he wants the world to understand.
This is not an issue of partition or international politics. “Two countries or three countries.” It is about human rights. People should talk about the occupation and the denial of rights, and “Stop this fucking occupation.”
Abu Alheja relates that at the end of his interrogation, the mood changed. The investigator had run out of questions. He asks him what is his dream?
17:00 My dream to be an actor, to be a famous actor.
And at the very end, the investigator “said a wisdom in Arabic.”
He spoke Arabic better than me, oh my god…. In nice accent also… ‘Leave the danger and sing for it.’ He said the half of it. He said, ‘Leave the danger.’ And I continue it, ‘And sing for it.’ And he said, ‘One thousand songs.’
18:48: I ask him what is meant by this Arabic expression in that context. “Watch out. We control everything.”
19:28. I ask, Does that mean, Respect the danger?
No. Over the next minute or so, Abu Alheja, motioning at Trout Brook Lake in upstate New York, explains how menacing an expression it is.