Emerging Scholars presentation made by Madalena Santos in January 2016
“Arts cannot free you from your chains. Art can generate and mobilize discourses of freedom. Art can create debates. Art can expose.” – Juliano Mer Khamis, The Freedom Theatre
The need to talk about the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe which signifies the establishment and enduring project of the settler colonial state of Israel as a continuous and ongoing process – and not as a past event – was underscored recently in Dr. Ramzy Baroud’s article published in the Palestine Chronicle on January 19th, 2016 (see http://www.palestinechronicle.com/defined-by-nakba-and-exile-the-complex-reality-of-home-for-palestinians/ ). According to Baroud, the Nakba “is an ongoing story, a journey that never ended at a psychological nor practical level … exile for Palestinians is not a specific time or place, but a cyclical process that is experienced by every single Palestinian” which often goes unnoticed and unspoken in the West. Here, I present the transformative potential of Palestinian creative resistance in the telling of the ongoing Nakba by the Freedom Theatre (TFT; http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/) in Jenin, Palestine. The research for this blog originates from the research for my doctoral project To provide a working definition of creative resistance, I adapt Stephen Duncombe’s (2002:8) definition of cultural resistance which creates a “free space” to challenge and transform the ideological and material hold of dominant power through novel “language, meanings, and visions of the future”. Creating a means and a space to resist and subvert the powerful myths of Zionist storytelling, the narratives that I speak about here point directly to the logics of settler colonialism.
Approximately 16,000 people live in the Jenin Refugee Camp where the Freedom Theatre is located. The creation of Israel caused the internal displacement of Palestinians from their homes and towns or villages, mostly from in and around the Haifa area during the Nakba in 1948 and following the Naksa in 1967 (Mee 2011:9). Forced exile is therefore significant to the realities of Palestinian lives in the Jenin refugee camp and also to their receipt and interactions with those outside of the camp. Palestinians within Israel proper do not learn their own history in official discourses, such as educational institutions; while until recently, education within the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza was informed mainly by the history of other nations (de Santisteban 2002). The idea for the establishment of a Theatre in Jenin refugee camp was born out of the work of Jewish Israeli activist Arna Mer Khamis during the First Intifada (Fisek 2012:104). In 1989, A. Mer Khamis began working with Palestinian children in the Jenin area using theatre as a method of therapy. She began a theatre group and moved on to fund the construction of a theatre in Jenin with money that she received as part of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Noble Peace Prize) by the Swedish government (Mee 2011:9); the family of Zakaria Zubeidi – one of the co-founders of the existing Freedom Theatre, and one of Arna’s former theatre group students who was later to become an armed resistance fighter- donated the building used to house the theatre which became known as the Theatre of Stones (Freedom 2008, July 8; see also Fisek 2012:107). The original theatre was destroyed by the Israeli military in 2002 during the Second Intifada, and then rebuilt in 2006 as the Freedom Theatre by Arna Mer Khamis’s son, Juliano Mer Khamis and Zubeidi. The Theatre enables Palestinians to learn and perform their own stories, stories that counter Zionist claims, stories written by Palestinians in exile and within Palestine, as well as stories written and performed by young people related to their own experiences. While a great focus of the Theatre is on youth, professional performances by adults are also central to the project. The narratives of TFT are then, at once, decolonization practices that seek to challenge and alter the colonized mind (Fanon 2004 ) of those within and outside the West Bank in addition to being anticolonial processes.
The performances of TFT, such as their adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a novel about revolution and corruption- critiques Israel as a settler colonial state which utilizes apartheid practices but also importantly points to the collaboration between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In these scenes, the animals represent the Palestinian people. The abusive farm owner represents the Israeli state. The animals organize and successfully overthrow their oppressor, but instead of distributing wealth and work more evenly, the revolution leads to corruption and the once leader of the revolution becomes a tyrant in his own right. The play offers a critical perspective into what has occurred within Palestinian leadership since Oslo. With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority took on many of the security enforcement practices that were previously performed by the Israeli military. The strengthening of the PA’s control within the Occupied Territories intensified already existent class divisions which has negatively impacted women and children the most, and has also led to increased surveillance of Palestinian resistance groups (see Hilal 2003).
Greater surveillance and policing of liberation and resistance efforts that are integral to settler colonial processes create a fertile environment for self-censorship, which along with the destruction of historical documents, homes, and villages, also enable the renaming of place and suppress the practices of passing down oral histories. The material and symbolic violence of continued settler colonial discourse and practice plays a major role in current-day Palestinian collective memory and everyday life. While the scenes from Animal Farm reveal how violence impacts the lives of Palestinians, they also demonstrate numerous narratives of Palestinian resistance.
The Siege, produced by TFT, is one such narrative of resistance. Having toured the UK in late 2015, the Siege reached a wide audience outside of Palestine through its reviews in mainstream and alternative media. The performance offers a complex view of the events that took place in April and May of 2002 when five armed Palestinian resistance fighters took refuge from Israeli occupation forces in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem for 39 days. Following traditional protocol, the priests offered sanctuary to the men. The play is important not only in documenting a significant historical moment in Palestinian history, but also in archiving – in the present sense – what is happening on the ground on a daily basis (Arise News June 3, 2015). One of the most important elements of the theatrical production is its capacity to capture mutual aid between Christian and Muslim Palestinians during the siege of the Church of Nativity. Showing how Palestinians of different religious beliefs worked with one another, helps counter Israeli mythmaking and mainstream media congruence with Zionist narratives that 1. produces stereotypical images of who and what is Palestinian and 2. evades the reality of Israel as a settler colonial state and 3. constructs Israel as a victim of Palestinian = Muslim terrorism. Finally, the “siege” of the Church of Nativity is also symbolic of the siege of Palestine, in particular of Gaza.
My research also highlights the Freedom Bus, “an initiative of The Freedom Theatre that uses interactive theatre and cultural activism to bear witness, raise awareness and build alliances throughout occupied Palestine and beyond” (TFT, Freedom Bus 2015). It is also used as a mechanism to demonstrate and contest the severity of restrictions on mobility for Palestinians living in the Palestine (Griffin 2015:75). The Bus is modelled after the civil rights movement in the US, but as Marayam Griffin (2015:79) explains, unlike the American Civil Rights movement, TFT’s Freedom Bus is not about desegregation. Rather the Bus challenges the settlements themselves which are illegal under international law. The Freedom Bus draws attention to the fact that Palestinians are not allowed on the buses which are only for settlers and seeks to change the mobility restrictions that Palestinians have within Palestine.
A central feature of the Freedom Bus is playback theatre wherein people transfer personal stories into political theatre in an improvisational form. The audience members tell their stories and then actors dramatize them back (Feedombus.ps). Palestinian actor Faisal Abu Alheja, who performed in the UK tour of the Seige believes that the impact of TFT project is making a difference to Palestinians and has also caught Israel’s attention. In an interview with Mondweiss, Abu Alheja (Weiss 2013) explains that at one particular place where the Freedom Bus was enacting playback theatre the Israeli military “would come to the camp to arrest people every night, so [the Freedom Theatre actors] decided to perform playback theatre about these experiences. The same night the army attacked … [Abu Alheja’s] house and arrested … [him]. [As he states,] they walked with me to where I did the performance, blindfolded me, and then took me to Jalameh [Kishon prison in Israel]”. When asked about the experience and how it made it him feel, he points to the psychological trauma of arrests and detentions to the individuals involved and also those around them: “It makes me stronger, but it also makes me afraid. Maybe they will kill you and nobody will ask”. The intention of such arrests is to “break the person’s spirit” and “bring them to their knees”, to make them “afraid of anything political” (Abu Alheja in Weiss 2013). But as Abu Alheja (Weiss 2013) says: “We have art, we have dreams …. We are not terrorists, we have a right to live …. The Theatre must be a threat somehow to Israel, art must be a threat, why else arrest me?”
My research shows that for Abu Alheja, as for other Palestinians involved in the Theatre, creative resistance provides an outlet for release from otherwise unbearable violence and a way to teach others about the Palestinian experience of living under settler colonial rule. To move in the direction of halting the violent policies and practices of the Israeli state against the Palestinian people, however, more must be done to counter the Zionist silencing and erasure of situated Palestinian knowledges that continue to be purposely censored. In “writing boldly from the exit” (Collins 2011), Palestinian creative resistance provides the means to articulate and construct novel ways of political engagement marking a very important moment in transforming our understanding of the continued Palestinian Nakba and opposing the brutal practices of Israeli settler colonization.
Collins, John. (2011). Global Palestine. London: Hurst and Company.
de Santisteban, Agustin Velloso. (2002). Palestinian education: a national curriculum against all odds. International Journal of Educational Development, 22: 145–154.
Duncombe, Stephen. (2001). A cultural resistance reader. New York: Verso.
Fanon, Frantz. (2004 ). The wretched of the earth. Translated from the French by Richard Philcox with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Grove Press.
Fisek, Emine. (2012). I want to be the Palestinian Romeo! Arna’s Children and the Romance with Theatre. Theatre Research International, 37(2):104-117.
Griffin, Maryam S. (2015). Freedom rides in Palestine: Racial segregation and grassroots politics on the bus. Race & Class, 56(4):73-84.
Hilal, Jamil. Spring 2010. The polarization of the Palestinian political field. Journal of Palestine Studies, 39(3): 24-39.
Mee, Erin B. (2011). Juliano Mer Khamis: Murder, Theatre, Freedom, Going Forward. TDR: The Drama Review, 55(3):9-17.
Arise News. (2015, June 3). Zoe Lafferty and Nabil Al-Raee talk about The Freedom Theatre’s production of The Siege. Black Rook Media.Com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfCeomMx2JU&feature=youtu.be. Last accessed January 27, 2016.
Cryse. (2015, May 31).Truth, lies, and fairy tales. Blog. Retrieved from http://crysse.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-min=2014-12-31T16:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2015-07-04T13:06:00%2B01:00&max-results=50&start=33&by-date=false. Last accessed January 27, 2016.
The Freedom Theatre. (2015). Freedom bus. Retrieved from http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/what-we-do/theatre/freedom-bus/. Last accessed January 27, 2016.
——. (2008, July 13). From Stones to Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvK47dFl07Y&list=PL23528330B134E57B&index=5&feature=plpp_video. Last accessed June 4, 2015.
Weiss, Philip. (2013, April 13). The Israeli army tried to bring this Palestinian artist to his knees, and failed. Mondweiss. http://mondoweiss.net/2013/04/israeli-palestinian-artist
Last accessed January 27, 2016.
The Freedom Theatre. (2009, August 4). Animal Farm. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfli9le6nmo&feature=related. Last accessed January 27, 2016.
——. (2014, December 29). The Siege. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FL3OIgMV0z8. January 27, 2016.
 Artsworld: Palestinian Theatre AlJazeeraEnglish (Sep 6, 2008). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoeBhD6Q_60&feature=related.