On Tuesday, August 18th, two MPTers visited the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp. Jenin is the northernmost Governorate in the West Bank. The city of Jenin has approximately 120,000 residents while the Refugee Camp has just over 18,000 people. The story of the Freedom Theatre starts with an Israeli woman named Arna Mer-Khamis who was married to Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian man from Nazareth. In 1988 Arna came to Jenin and began working with Palestinian youth from the Refugee Camp giving acting lessons. According to the Freedom Theatre’s website, Arna wanted to give the children a space to work through the trauma they experienced because of the ongoing conflict. Because of her work she received the Alternative Peace Prize in 1993 and used the money to build a theatre in the Camp.
The first theatre, the Stone Theatre, was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli army invasion of the Jenin Refugee Camp. In the midst of the Second Intifada the Israeli army sought to crush the armed resistance in the Camp and in the process destroyed half of its housing units and other buildings, including the theatre. They brought in large bulldozers and leveled buildings without warning. Some of those killed during the invasion were former acting students of Arna’s. In 2005 Arna and Saliba’s son Juliano, a then famous actor in Israel, returned to Jenin to begin building a second theatre known as the Freedom Theatre.
Today the theatre complex includes the theatre itself, video editing studios, a film darkroom, a library, two classrooms and a computer lab. The computer lab was donated by an Israeli man whose daughter received a heart from a Palestinian boy who was killed by Israeli soldiers in the Camp in 2005. Classes in the complex are taught by Camp residents, Jenin city residents and international volunteers.
There is a specific program for the younger children where they are able to work through their trauma by acting out scenarios that they have lived through. In a culture where “the streets are for the boys,” acting classes also provide girls in the Camp with a safe space to express themselves as well as come together outside of their homes. Both boys and girls in the theatre’s promotional video specifically mentioned that the Freedom Theatre has given them new opportunities for their future.
The Freedom Theatre has just concluded its first year of post-secondary acting school. Currently there are 9 students, 2 of which are women, in the school. It is the only acting school in the northern West Bank and one of its productions, Fragments of Palestine, is scheduled to tour in Europe in the coming months.
The theatre in Jenin is one example of how Palestinians are resisting Israel’s cultural occupation. People who work and/or participate in the Freedom Theatre believe that a third intifada is coming, a nonviolent uprising which should use art and culture to create social change.
To visit the Freedom Theatre’s website: http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/