Brooklyn-Jenin: Jenin In Wonderland

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With Palestinian novice actors, Juliano Mer Khamis has created a celebration unprecedented in the history of the Jenin refugee camp. One of the actors told me that theater taught him that art could be part of the struggle against the occupation

If I had any doubts left about joining the Freedom Theater established by Juliano Mer Khamis with his friend Zakaria Zubeidi, the theatrical performance of Alice In Wonderland, where Juliano directed the school’s actors, made me understand that it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Having been part of the play’s creative team it would be inappropriate for me to write professionally about it, but I must say that I am truly proud to take part in such an exciting, subversive, vivacious, and dynamic project, orchestrated by Mer Khamis. The acting is superb, and includes texts that are simultaneously feminist, radical, and funny. The entire play is woven through with circus tricks mixed with comedia dell’arte.

The audience included children from local schools, alongside older Palestinians, who came to enjoy a matinee. Journalist Gideon Levy was also in the audience, having come to test the mood in Jenin following the Jasmine revolution of Egypt and Tunisia.

As soon as the curtain came up, the audience was enthralled by the play, which would not have been out of place at any European production. Half-human creatures hanging from the rafters, a turning stage, sensual music accompanying a strict tango, wonderful costumes, a world full of risk controlled by the iron hand of the Red Queen, played by the amazing Maryam, whom we remember from recall from Mustafa’s movie about her being a brown-skinned Palestinian. 

Udi Aloni, Juliano Mer Khamis, and performers from the play (Mustafa Staidi)

Batul plays Alice most gracefully, hovering like Peter Pan between land and sky due to the somewhat malicious plot of the devious cat. Oh, Wonderland is such a world of strangeness and danger, yet Alice realizes that the other world, which purports to be real, is one where an attempt is being made to force her into marriage with the neighborhood nerd.

In order for her to be able to say “I don’t” to her fiancé she will have to go through all of the experiences – from the seductive cat to the Mad Hatter, who walks around with a swing of his hips while putting together his famous, rule-breaking tea party. Thus she challenges the tradition that robs her of freedom of choice. This entire extravaganza takes place nowhere else than in the very heart of the Jenin refugee camp. 

A Jasmine Revolution In Jenin?

This feels to me, right now, as a symbolic preparation for Jenin’s Jasmine Revolution, because just as Mustafa and some of the actors told me, the anti-colonialist revolution in the Arab world must first go through the decolonization of the Orientalist self-image of the Arabs themselves.  

From the Jenin performance (courtesy of the Freedom Theater, Jenin)

I asked one of the actors who plays a particularly colorful and amusing role which would be better: weapons or the theater? He smiled sadly and replied: “Five bullets were removed from my body; one is still in there. My sister was killed when the occupation army came to catch me in my home, and the feelings of guilt and revenge are devouring my soul. Right now I believe in the theater, because it helps me learn to grieve and forgive, perhaps even the soldiers who shot my sister, perhaps even myself, and heal those wounds in my soul that are still open,” he said.

“Theater taught me that art could be part of the real struggle against the occupation,” he told me. “But we don’t have to be naïve. If the cultural intifada does not work, if the occupation won’t shatter under its own evil…” he did not complete his sentence. He once told me “I will always be a soldier in the liberation army, if necessary. But I will always prefer to be an actor and liberation artist to being a liberation fighter,  inshallah.” 

Between Jenin and Haifa

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Juliano’s story is that one could attend two plays that he directed, in Arabic, just two days apart.

The first was Alice, in Jenin; the second The Lady And Death, in Haifa. The Haifa play is very political and realistic, with some of the best Palestinian actors living in Israel. The play, which deals with the post-traumatic Chilean society after fascism, Juliano produced performances of great power from Clara Khouri, Salah Bakry, and Amer Khalkhel.

Concurrently, in Jenin, with beginning actors from a refugee camp, he created a celebration the likes of which the camp has never seen. These two plays position Juliano as a director who compromises nothing of his commitment to art. It is specifically by stretching the political and cultural boundaries of the Palestinian world, on both sides of the Wall, that he creates an artistic dialect that enriches Palestinian discourse. This may be a discourse with which we will smash the physical and metal wall that tries to come between a Palestinian in Haifa and his brother in Jenin, a discourse which unites a culture that so many wish to tear asunder.

When I asked Juliano what he had learned from the double experience inside the ’48 borders and as a director of Palestinian theater he replied, “the Palestinian audience Is prepared to see, experience, and hear much more audacious texts than those which Palestinian creators are willing – or dare! – to put before it. But a new generation of creators has arisen; they don’t self-censor, they don’t reign themselves in, not with regard to the occupation and not with regard to the internal, repressive tradition.”

Perhaps the revolution is already here, only we haven’t noticed that it has arrived. Long live the Freedom Theater!

Translated by Dena Shunra. This article is from Udi Aloni’s Brooklyn-Jenin column he is writing for the Israeli website Ynet about his experience living between New York City and the Jenin refugee camp, where he is teaching a film production class. You can read the entire Brooklyn-Jenin series here.

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