Palestinian troupe regales Delhizens

Theatre Activists

In 2000, the year which marked the start of the ‘Second Intifada’, Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor, filmmaker and a political activist, visited the Jenin Camp situated in the northern part of West Bank to complete his documentary Arna’s Children. Jenin, at that time, was engulfed in violence and Palestinian fighters were engaged in pitched battles with the Israeli army. 

Among the ruins of Jenin, Khamis, managed to find the building where just five years ago, his mother Arna Mer Khamis (1929-95) held theatre workshops with kids from Jenin camp. Khamis and his camera crew were led by a former student Ala el-Sabagr (who by then had become a guerrilla fighter) into the premises which were previously owned by the Arna’s Freedom Theatre Group. Arna herself was part of the Jewish Brigade before joining the theatre movement in Palestine.

Once inside, Khamis, reminisced about the days when he was recording the theatre workshops conducted by her mother for 12 of Jenin’s children. Khamis went on to complete his documentary film in 2004. By then most of the theatre children had died in various operations or while resisting the army during the ‘Second Intifada’.

Ala el-Sabagr himself is shown killed towards the end of the documentary film. Among the other theatre children to have died during the ‘Intifada’ were Nidal Swetti, Yussef Swetti and Ashraf Abu-Alheji. 

Four years later, Faisal Abu-Alheji, cousin of Ashraf, is now in India and would later travel to other countries to conduct theatre workshops across in a bid to carry out the legacy of Khamis, his mentor, and the legacy of Arna’s children. Khamis himself was gunned down by masked men in 2011.  

“We are freedom fighters,” says Faisal Abu-Alheija who is now the part of the Freedom Theatre which is still based in the Jenin Refugee Camp.
“Jerusalem is a point where all the major religions of the world converge. Jerusalem should become an example of people living together,” said Alheija. He said that theatre can be an ‘effective tool of resisting oppression’ and added that acting has a deep impact in Muslim societies as opposed to the general perception of them being conservative. 
 
“Women play an important role in the resistance. Currently we have a lot women participating in film and theatre,” said Alheija adding that the culture of protest in pockets of India is impressive but not a part of popular culture. On January 2, Alheija visited theatre activist Safdar Hashmi’s grave. Arna’s Children, which features his cousin, was screened in Delhi on Wednesday and was attended by theatre activits and filmmakers. Among the audiences was Kashmiri filmmaker Sanjay Kak, director Jashn-e-Azaadi and Red Ant Dream.

“The experience of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin reminded us of the place of culture in politics, of the struggle for freedom and dignity amidst appalling odds. One is immediately forced to think of Kashmir then. Several centuries ago Kashmiris already had the sharp anti-establishment repertoire of the bhand folk theatre, whose plays were always only a deadly satire of the powerful,” said Kak.

“Freedom Theatre, who sometimes describe themselves as the third Intifada in Palestine, raise important flags for all those who are involved in resistance politics,” he added.

While in conversation with Metrolife, Ahmed Hussen Rokh voiced similar opinions. “Our problem is not with any religion or any country. Our problem is with the occupation and we will continue to fight against it. Theatre is a tool for us to resist the oppression that is meted out to our people,” said Rokh.

When asked if he or his troupe members are not deterred by the death of their mentor Khamis, he responded very casually, “Sometimes we die, sometime we don’t. But with whatever time we have, we ensure that our soul keeps on living and that our identity never dies”. Rokh’s own home was demolished recently to pave way for settlers.

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