Jenin Refugee Camp, occupied West Bank –– The congested alleyways of Jenin Refugee Camp mirror Palestinian camps across the Middle East, but the Freedom Theatre is unique.
Off one of the main roads in the camp the theater sits, a beacon of art, creativity, politics and youth. This week the theater performed one of its most famous plays, “The Siege,” about the 2002 Israeli siege of the Nativity Church, the church in Bethlehem where it is said Jesus was born.
At least 39 armed Palestinian fighters barricaded themselves in the church to hide out from attacking Israeli forces during the Second Intifada, along with around 200 civilians and clergy who happened to be in the church as the fighters sought refuge. The siege lasted for 39 days, and resulted in 39 resistance fighters from Bethlehem being exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip.
The play will be performed October 12-22 at New York University’s Skirball Theater, but one of the five actors in the original performance, a Palestinian with dual Norwegian citizenship, has been replaced because he was denied the US visa — a normal instance for Palestinians, particularly those from refugee camps.
One of the Co-Directors of the performance, Nabil Al-Raee, told Mondoweiss the theater depends on the support of the international arts and activist community to be able to take their performances abroad due to all the obstacles Palestinians face.
“We’re lucky to have people inviting us and supporting us with invitations to places all over the world, but the story doesn’t end there, because after the invitations we need to do the visa process and you’re never sure if you’re going to get it or not,” he explained. “ And even then, just to leave the country we have three stages to cross. From the Palestinian, to the Israeli and then the Jordanian borders. If any one of our actors have a problem with one of those three authorities, we are done, so usually when we have productions we have to take serious considerations into alternatives. We have our actors but also we always train others just in case one of them won’t be able to travel.”
Before the show began its final performance of its five day tour in Jenin Refugee Camp, youth gathered outside the Freedom Theatre, talking politics and life while they waiting for the play to start.
Leila Buck, a writer and performer from New York, had seen the play several times, but looks forward to seeing it on a larger stage when she flies home to New York next week, where she plans to see it again.
Buck told Mondoweiss that she would encourage every New Yorker to take the time out to see the play while they have the chance during the ten-day tour.
“There’s nothing else like it, people should go see this performance because we rarely get such an opportunity to hear from Palestinian voices themselves talking about their lives and their community’s experiences,” she said. “But it’s also such an opportunity just to be able to see the work that is generated here. The creative power to cross borders and tell stories that are not heard enough in their own voices is what the arts are all about, it’s why we do what we do. Theater should be about being able to connect people to places they may not be able to see and feel in the same way otherwise.”
Performing in New York is of particular importance to the show’s director, because The Siege is such a rare instance of a Palestinian narrative to be told in the United States by Palestinians themselves.
Al-Raee says, “The face of Palestinian is in general only told by voices that are either Israeli or supporters of Israel, and the way we are presenting the Palestinian voice through Palestinians and through art, is a new story. I think we are being accepted now because of the support of the people there in the US. That is how we are managing to bring this production to the States this year.”
Al-Raee said that even though the Freedom Theatre has a strong international support system, “It’s still a fight of survival.”
“Our main concern isn’t an actor breaking a leg or even being barred from traveling, sometimes we just feel lucky our actors have their lives still,” he said. “It is on that level here in Palestine.”
The theater is accustomed to controversy. In 2015 The Siege finished its UK tour, and was supposed to tour in New York, at the Public Theater, but the performance was canceled due to pressure from pro-Israeli groups. Even now the two Co-Directors, Al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, are not convinced all will go as planned.
“We aren’t sure about anything. The political structure we have in the world nowadays is not reassuring, but we hope it will go well — we are very hopeful — but no one can ever be sure whether or not we will all be allowed to enter the United States,” Al-Raee said. “I’ve been there many times, yes, but when it comes to the production itself, I think it has always been difficult to bring a Palestinian voice into the States, especially when it’s a Palestinian narrative that isn’t romanticizing the idea of the Palestinian reality by putting the Palestinian and Israeli situation together on an equal field. That’s normally the only way that our narrative can be told, but what we are doing is telling a pure Palestinian narrative, and telling it from Palestinians from Palestine.”
The hour-and-a-half act takes place in one room, with one set and five actors playing seven characters. The performance is simple, but thrilling. The actors make the characters come to life in a way that has the audience members grimacing as they witness horrendous suffering in one minute and chuckling as they experience an easy silliness in the next.
“I love The Siege, because I believe in this story,” Al-Raee said. “We are very happy we were able to design the play by doing research with the actual fighters who were there. We call them freedom fighters, while most of the world calls them terrorists. My favorite part is that most of the people who will see the play are going to go through these individual stories of these guys and understand why they’re fighting as Palestinians — from an individual level — which many have not been able to portray until now.”
The Freedom Theatre was opened in Jenin Refugee camp in 2006. Before the Freedom Theatre, the camp had the Stone Theatre, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2002, two years into the Second Intifada.
Life for Palestinians generally is hard, but in the camp it is harder. Water is often scarce, electricity is weak and shared from house to house through hazardous knots of wires that hang over alleyways. Israeli invasions, like in most West Bank camps, happen on a near weekly basis. You would be hard pressed to find a family who does not have a loved one in an Israeli prison — the most common charge being stone throwing.
At the entrance of the camp, two large stone arches etched in black Arabic script and reading, “Waiting Station for Return” welcome visitors and residents. The message underlines the Right of Return every Palestinian refugee in the world hopes to achieve one day.
The vast majority of the people involved in the production, from directors to actors to set designers and more, are from Jenin camp, and remember the 2002 Siege as it took place during the Second Intifada, which affected every Palestinian in the country on a personal level.
“It’s one of thousands of stories that have happened here, one of many Palestinians stories, but it’s also a time to tell the people about a story that never died,” Al-Raee explained. “The Siege didn’t just happen in 2002. Until today there are people who were sent to exile and have never been back. Fifteen years later and some of them have still not been able to visit their families, some of their families are not allowed to leave the West Bank to go and see them, so it is actually an ongoing story that we are telling here.”