Brooklyn-Jenin: Happy Birthday, Juliano Mer Khamis

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Juliano was born on Nakbah Day and murdered on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Jul and Udi
Juliano Mer Khamis (left) and Udi Aloni (right).

Forty days have passed since the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis. Juliano –freedom fighter, cultural hero, actor, director, clown, teacher, husband, lover, tyrant, servant, father, (something of a mother), provocateur, gourmet, wild intellectual, and more than all that and encompassing all that – a soul-friend. Demons chased Juliano for years, until he taught them to bow to his will. He caught and tamed them like wild horses and harnessed them to the chariot of freedom, on which he galloped to far, inspired realms. He rode off in search of liberty and the meaning of its boundaries, and generously took us along on his fascinating journey.

Forty days have passed and I could not write a word. What language does one choose to say Kadish for a Shahid who came from a Christian family and was, himself, a Communist. So I was moved in the funeral when, in lieu of Kadish, a harmonica played the traditional tune of that song which seemingly was written for and about Jule: “What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good?” So I wrote nothing for forty days, but I did function. I functioned like a man possessed, as though the spirit of Jule had come into me – and there was no one like Jule for functioning in a crisis. There is much to say about the days following the murder: about the loneliness, the melancholy, the tensions. About the family, bereft of a father, husband, and friend, that will have to have to shoulder the unbearable burden.

But I spent the days after the murder with Jule’s students, the students whom I had learned to know and love over the past year. I could tell stories about the students’ feelings of persecution, about their sense of being the disciples carrying forward his legacy, about the sense of helplessness before the faceless violence that took him from our small world. Two days after the murder we decided, the students and I, to go to Ramallah, to find a space where we could cry, mourn, remember, and become reenergized. We sought refuge far away from the place of the trauma, from the place where he, this man who turned a group of outcasts into a troupe of talented actors, was murdered. Now the students walk the streets of Ramallah and Jenin with their wounds exposed, for all to see. Sometimes they are fragile, sometimes powerful, seeking a healing balm or a holy rage to pacify their pain. My friend Adi Khalifa, a Palestinian stand-up artist from Haifa, gave a workshop on how to laugh at Jule. And so we sat there, a grieving troupe, and we could not stop laughing and crying for seven days and seven nights.

Truth be told, we became refugees from a refugee camp, and then were expelled from the hospice that had given us refuge in Ramallah. We were expelled by an administrator with a German accent, because I am an Israeli Jew. But there – faced with expulsion – twelve young Palestinians from the Jenin Refugee Camp stood angrily against the Christian-European administrator, shouting in unison that if she would not respect an Israeli Jew who came to support the struggle for equality and justice she was a racist… Hallelujah! What an amazing education Juliano gave them; he was truly ahead of his time. He brought the spirit of the Arab Spring and of Tahrir Square to his students. He kept challenging and re-challenging them, in a sort of ongoing pop-quiz about the spirit of freedom – beyond religion, beyond nationality, and beyond gender.

Hard work and unending talent turned Jule into an artist-leader, who began to create real change with revolutionary power in the whole space between the Jordan river and the sea. Unlike the project run by his mother, Arna, he was not only there to help the children in the camp. He chose to establish a professional theater in the most impossible place, the place that seemed most unprepared, to produce an atomic-dialectic explosion of uncompromising ideologies. In Jule’s world, universal values and particular tradition clash swords with fundamentalism and decadence. In the Freedom Theatre we thought that only a true ideological explosion would manage to ignite the engine of Palestinian culture. Only from this position could we expose the fact that Muslim fundamentalism and the decadence of Ramallah are both on the side of the failure of the revolution. In the same spirit, Jewish fundamentalism and the decadence of Tel Aviv are both on the side of the occupation.

I have great contempt for those journalists who were in such a hurry to rejoice about the fact that he was probably murdered by a Palestinian. Their mantra was “here is this wonderful man, come to help the natives, and they murdered him.” Strange, I do not remember those same journalists rejoicing when a Jew murdered Yitzchak Rabin in the name of the ideology which today rules our country. An ideology served by those same journalists.

Today it is Nakbah Day, and I mourn alone the never-again-to-be-celebrated birthday of Juliano. Jule came to the Nakbah refugees in Jenin to share their struggle and their fate. He tried to offer a nonviolent means of resistance. Zakaria Zubeidi had faith in him and lay down his arms to help develop the Freedom Theater. Zakaria knew that by taking this path he could lose his own life, but he did not imagine that he would lose the life of his beloved friend. After the murder I got a middle-of-the-night SMS from Zakaria: “It’s really hard without Jule” – and tears filled my eyes. People liked to say that Juliano was a Jew in Palestine and a Palestinian in Israel. But Jule was a Jewish-Palestinian everywhere and a human everywhere. He wanted to free the Palestinians from the Israelis, the women from the men, the poor from the rich, and people, in general, from their internal bonds.

Juliano, I am so lucky that you generously opened wide the doors to your home, made the theatre my home, and made its people my family. You taught me the practice of binationalism, step by measured step. We worked in the theatre night and day to create our cultural bomb, but we were not sufficiently careful, and it went off in our laps and took your life at the height of its bloom. Kafka wrote, and I quote from memory, “martyrdom and suicide do not exist at the same level of consciousness; martyrdom is more like a bridegroom approaching his wedding.” Happy birthday, habibi, Jule. It’s really hard without you.

P.S. A quote from Juliano’s vision document, sent a year ago to Freedom Theater supporters and friends:

“We aim to create a theater of the highest professional level, that will become the leading force in revival of Palestinian culture – not just a local theatre to benefit camp dwellers, but rather a theater that stretches boundaries beyond the very borders. We believe that we can create a joint force that will strengthen the links between advanced technology, women’s rights, and education in promoting nonviolent struggle for culture, justice, and liberty. As a troupe we will advance the theoretical and practical artistic vision of our pathfinders, philosopher Edward Said and creator Mahmud Darwish, to try and create a community that will attempt to free itself from the bonds of the Israeli occupier, simultaneously with the internal bonds of Palestinian Society.”

Translated by Dena Shunra. For more on from Udi Aloni’s Brooklyn-Jenin column about his experience living between New York City and the Jenin refugee camp, where he is teaching a film production class at the Jenin Freedom Theatre see here.

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