The Jenin Freedom Theatre lies in the heart of the Jenin Refugee Camp, and serves as an artistic outlet for Palestinian youth [Jenin Freedom Theatre]
«We have slogan here. ‘From river to the sea, everyone should be free.'»
Thus explained acting teacher Nabeel Raee as we drove through the beautiful sand-colored West Bank hills on the way from Jenin to Nablus, and then onto Ramallah, where we would part ways.
Raee is an original member and current acting teacher at the Jenin Freedom Theatre, whose director, the well-known Palestinian-Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, was gunned down outside the theatre on April 4 by still unknown assailants. It’s hard to overstate the tragedy of Mer-Khamis’s murder, so important was his role at the avant garde of Palestinian and Israeli arts. According to most every member of the Freedom Theatre’s extended family-Palestinians, Europeans, Americans and even Israelis-Mer Khamis’s vision and experience were at the core of the Theatre’s groundbreaking use of art as an instrument not merely of resistance, but of healing and transcendence as well.
Indeed, the Freedom Theatre’s philosophy of artistic production remind us that resistance, healing and transcendence must proceed in tandem for any of them to bear fruit. This insight has made plays such as «Alice in Wonderland» and «Waiting for Godot» – to name just two of the company’s recent productions – into powerful weapons against oppression that also open new spaces for imagining a different future.
Zacharia Zubaidi, another of the Theatre’s founders with Mer-Khamis, was still a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades when he followed his dream into the theatre. He explains this dynamic most succinctly: Far more than can violence, art forces people to look at Palestinians differently. «It makes them see us differently and question their basic assumptions about who we, and through it, they are.»
A threat to many quarters
It might well never be known precisely why Mer-Khamis was killed; Israel’s removal of Mer-Khamis’s body along with all the forensic evidence soon after his murder has made it impossible for Palestinians to conduct a proper investigation and Israeli authorities have provided little help. Assuming it was Palestinians, several members of the troupe agreed that his art did not merely challenge local moral conventions; his attempts to build an alternative form of resistance threatened Palestinians whose power, however limited, is drawn from the kind of violence the Freedom Theatre has worked to transcend.
As one of the first generation of students reflected in explaining the violence and conservatism of Jenin today: «Occupation, checkpoints, martyrs, settlements – look what Israel has done to us.» After decades of occupation, violence and repression, being an artist in Jenin can be as dangerous as being a fighter.
Yet Mer Khamis’s death has not broken the spirit of the company, who only two months after his murder remain not just defiant, but – somehow – even joyful. Students, teachers and staff go about the daily business of teaching and taking classes, writing scripts and film treatments, and rehearsing for performances amidst threats and fear of further violence. Several female first year students have been forced to withdraw from performances, but women remain at the core of the JFT.
The courage of the JFT reminded me why artists will risk so much merely to stage a play or perform a song. As another student explained to me over coffee in one of the Jenin’s few nice Coffee bars: «The Theatre is a way to open a new generation and be in contact with people from all over the world, and that’s our future.»
The spring of Arab revolutions
If the openness and intellectual maturity of 20-year old actors from the Jenin refugee camp is inspiring, the resilience and audacity of their peers in Gaza borders on astonishing. Even regular viewers of Al-Jazeera would have a hard time understanding the levels of destruction Gazans have lived with for at least a decade. Returning after a several years absence, I felt like I’d stumbled into a giant archaeological dig, only above ground. Each new layer of rubble has added its sad archive to the one below it.
Yet perhaps even more than in Jenin and other West Bank cities, young people in Gaza are erupting in the kind of creative resistance that threatens not just Israel’s master narrative of the occupation, but Hamas’s violent hold on the Strip as well.
There is a saying making its way around Palestinian circles: «The Palestinian winter gave birth to the Arab spring.» For me, the first hint of that spring occurred when a new movement, «Gaza Youth Breaks Out,» put out their now (in)famous manifesto in December of 2010, right around the time the protests in Tunisia erupted. As I explained in my column devoted to GYBO, the manifesto began with a scream: «»F*** Hamas. F*** Israel. F*** Fatah. F*** UN. F*** UNWRA. F*** USA!» (the verb is spelled out, and was written originally in English because the Arabic equivalent does not have anything close to the power and anger of the English word). It ends by declaring «We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of these feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore.»
From Juliano to Vittorio
The GYBO manifesto was, to my mind, the first salvo in a generational war for independence that pushed its way into world consciousness with the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt. An act of extreme will by young people who have nothing left to lose, its poetic metre and naked eloquence are a work of art as powerful as the theatrical ouvre of the Jenin Freedom Theatre (not surprisingly, the manifesto is widely appreciated by JFT members).
As in Jenin, it was an outsider to Gaza, the Italian ISM activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who helped inspire the movement that became GYBO. Like Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin, Arrigoni was not native to Gaza, but his arrival in 2008 on the first Free Gaza Flotilla and fearless activism and reporting during the 2009 Gaza invasion and on behalf of local fishermen led to his adoption by innumerable Gazans as one of their own.
Most of the young activists, bloggers, musicians and artists I know found in Arrigoni both a friend and an inspiration. His mantra, «Stay human», well summarises what can only be described as the prime directive of life for Gazans under a dehumanising siege. But like Mer-Hamis, the power of Arrigoni’s message, and his status as an outsider to the insular community of Gaza, threatened the wrong people, and so despite all that he had sacrificed to protect Gazans and share their sufferings he was murdered by extremists less than two weeks after Mer-Khamis, in circumstances that remain equally murky.
Yet also like Mer-Khamis, Arrigoni’s ideas have become even more powerful in death. As the Gazan rap group Darg put it in the song «Onadekum,» written about him, Arrigoni inspired young Gazans to «write resistance on every wall in my brain, brother».
Even more than in Jenin, every day life is an act of resistance in Gaza, and the Strip’s burgeoning rap scene (first brought to the world’s attention in the 2008 documentary «Slingshot Hiphop» by Palestinian-American filmmaker Jackie Salloum) along with its growing community of bloggers, filmmakers and other culture producers are on the front lines of that struggle, which these days pits them against Hamas as much as Israel. «In order to get shot at by Israel, we have to get beaten up by Hamas,» explained one of the founders of GYBO, describing the seemingly ludicrous routine of having to fight Hamas cops or militiamen just to get close to the Erez checkpoint to protest the ongoing Israeli siege, where they can expect to be shot at by the IDF. Over two dozen children were shot by the IDF merely for collecting rubble near the Erez border last year.
Ahmed Rezeq, a young rapper and recently joined member of GYBO explained it this way as we sat near the sea and he worked on the lyrics for a new song: «I can’t go to the university, I have nothing except my words.» Sitting next to him, his friend and fellow rapper Mohammed Antar elaborated, «art is crucial because it leads people to the truth. It shows them how we suffer and how much we struggle; that we are human.»
With the increasing international attention being given to Gazan hiphop, suddenly rappers from the Strip are being invited to perform across Europe and beyond. But it remains very difficult to get out; even with the so-called «opening» of the Rafah crossing the majority of artists and bloggers remain trapped, «despite everything trying to create our lives».
Indeed, the strategic maturity, never mind courage, of the GYBO community is hard to grasp fully, all the more so when you realise so many of these activists (women as much as if not more than men) who are so sophisticated and worldly, have never left the Gaza Strip.
Trapped in the world’s largest prison, they have created a boundless virtual world through their online activism, which reaches out and connects them to other youth-based movements for democracy and human rights. Scholars have yet to grasp the ways in which these virtual connections are reshaping and ultimately prying open the far more constrained physical geography they are forced to inhabit. But one factor clearly motivating their push to get out is the double unhomeliness the clearly feel living in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Gazans live, in the words of GYBO founder Osama Shomar, in a double, triple occupation, or even more – thus the multiple curses of the manifesto’s opening line. A female blogger and co-founder of GYBO explains it this way: «It feels like it’s not even our country anymore. A policeman put a gun at my head and threatened to shoot me. I couldn’t imagine, is this guy a Palestinian like me? He couldn’t be Palestinian and do this.»
But it’s not just Hamas that is a threat to the attempts by GYBO to build a new culture of resistance and unity. Equally as dangerous is the hijacking of the youth movement by various outside forces. «We’re more known, but we’re getting weaker. Suddenly everyone is throwing money at us. We didn’t take money from anyone when GYBO started but now NGO people with access to money and fancy meals are coming in, and once you get into that orbit and you have the ngo-ification of resistance, it’s game over.»
From one country to one world
Osama was lamenting how easily powerful movements can be coopted as we sat in his friend’s apartment on a warm night and he and some comrades took turns playing video games on the computer. As we sat there, another founder of GYBO, Abu Yazan, stopped by. He was supposed to be in Egypt on the way to Europe to meet with other activists but he wasn’t allowed out (he finally got out the next day after a long wait). It was 1:19 am, almost four months to the moment since I was sitting with a similar group of young activists at Tahrir Square, wondering what the future would bring when Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power was still a fantasy.
In a few minutes most of us would head for the beach, where, even at 3 in the morning, groups of young men and even families hang out barbecuing and playing soccer the way, in a normal place, people would be doing twelve hours later. As Abu Yazan and I sat down to talk the subject turned to the United States and how difficult it will be to bring peace and justice to Israel/Palestine as long as Americans remain so brainwashed and apathetic.
«Don’t worry,» he declared. «One day American kids will rebel, they will say enough, let’s have peace, let’s tear down borders and have one world.» I was shocked. These words matched, almost to the letter, what a young activist told me as we sat in a similarly large apartment above Tahrir Square at the same time of night, pondering the implications of the still inchoate Egyptian revolution. «If this can work here, it could spread to the whole world,» he told me as a group sat around talking, exhausted from another day of protests.
Thoughts like these can seem almost laughably utopian. But in places like Gaza or Jenin, where the practical and reasonable have long ago been rendered impossible, utopian dreams don’t seem so crazy.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.