Traveling by myself (in comparison to traveling with my seminary class) birthed miniature experiences of racial profiling and unnecessary harassment at the check points. On the day of the theatre première, I navigated myself through the Arab and Jewish towns along the road to the West Bank to the check point at the edge of the city of Janin. The border guard detained me for about half an hour, asking me questions about my family, my life back in the United States and why in the world I would want to visit the West Bank. Finally satisfied by my ramblings (I had been warned of the normal questions and rehearsed the names of my grandparents… apparently not knowing your grandparents real names isn’t quite acceptable.) the border guards let me go. Ten quick minutes in a taxi landed me in the center of the city. A young German guy picked me out of the crowd and guided me to the guest house.
I had come back to Janin after my class had visited a theatre which was located in the refugee camp. The people and history of the theatre had grabbed my attention and an invitation to the world première of Alice and Wonderland (Palestinian style) had sealed the deal of my return. Now, almost two weeks later, I was back. I was alone and I had no idea how to find the theatre.
I walked for a good twenty minutes out of the city of Janin and through a wasteland of destroyed houses and refuse piles. Goats were grazing in the abandoned lots and the sun sparkled off the metallic litter that blew in the wind around the animal’s feet. I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. Was I even going in the right direction? Arabic continues to evade my pattern recognition skills but I had faith in the small scrap of a mat that I clutched tightly between my fingers. “Just keep walking…” I murmured.
Especially in this part of the world, where women all wear Hijab and hardly ever walk the streets alone, I stand out. People turn their heads when I walk by and street boys line up behind me, a constant stream of giggles while they rummage up enough courage to practice their English. Sadly, I didn’t have the patience for their banter during that walk. My uncertainty of place, my vulnerability of singularity and my awareness of my differentness made me walk faster as the children closed in. I’m sure they could smell the fear emanating from my pores.
The fear of children five to nine years of age is partially irrational. In a large group they could do me some harm, especially if they had weapons, but in reality I had a lot more power during that walk than I realized. Instead, tight inside my head, the street children became projections of my own myths of torture and violence. Their laughing smiles were lost to the prejudices of my own narrative.
The refugee camp appeared before me without mistake. Isolated from the other structures the tightly formed unit of twisting streets, raw sewage and graffiti stood with a fierce grimace towards the Wall. Palestinian refugees are prohibited from building outwards and expanding the land usage of the refugee camps so instead they build up. Towers of generations now stand together, sometimes with only inches of space between one complex and the next. “You did this to me” the camp seemed to say to the Wall. “What did you expected when you locked the door? That we would stand by and die?”
The city of Janin is the primary source of suicide bombers during the first and second Intifadas. The refugee camp, located on the exterior edges of the city is second only to the camp outside of Nablus. Situated adjacent to the Israeli occupying wall, the Janin refugee camp served as the training ground for terrorists attempting to cross the border out of the West Bank.
The refugee camp is not made up of a homogenous community of Muslims. Rather, Christian and Muslim Arabs reside in the camp and suffer the brutality of its poverty. In 1967, a young Jewish women witnessed the development of the refugee camp and out of compassion for the youth she saw there, started a community center. Through this community center, Arna Mer Khamis taught the refugee children how to express their frustrations constructively through theatre, visual arts and music. As the years went by Arna married, had children and moved away from Janin to build a life with her family in Israel.
In 2000, when the second intifada took place, many years had passed and Arna’s children had grown. She turned to the news one day and listened to the result of one of the suicide bombings. Moved to tears by the extreme violence, she found herself horrified when the reporter displayed a picture of the bomber. The young man had been one of the children she had worked with in the Janin refugee camp! In the years of her absence the community center had shut down, thus ceasing any constructive outlet for personal expression. Over the course of the second intifada, Arna witnessed many of her students implicated in the violence. When the air settled, she decided that something had to be done.
Now at this point, Arna was an elder women and moving back to Janin poised many challenges. Her son, Juliano Mer Khamis was a prominent Israeli actor working in Tel Aviv. After hearing of his mother’s dream of re-establishing the community center, he joined his mother in Janin. They worked with the community leaders of the refugee camp and opened the Freedom Theatre in 2008. Arna passed away soon after its opening but her dream and legacy lives on through her son and the people of Janin. The documentary that Juliano directed about Arna’s life can be seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6EXrA3UFwM
So on a sunny day in January, 2011, I found myself amidst over three hundred Palestinians and international visitors. We were crammed inside a tiny theatre, set with stadium style bleachers extending from the floor to the second story ceiling. Children sat on laps, in the aisles, and stood in the doorways. The lights dimmed and the show began.
The performance was mainly in Arabic, with an English song thrown in and a few English words tossed around for added emphasis. The performers consisted of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some of the women wore Hijab while others did not. The costumes were all constructed from available resources and the entire stage revolved for the production.
However, Alice was not the small child in the Lewis Carroll books or the Disney movie. She did not fall asleep during a pretty picnic and follow a rabbit down a hole in a cottonwood tree. No, Alice was a young Palestinian woman subjected to an arranged marriage. In her resistance to the engagements she began to see a white rabbit and followed it down into Wonderland. Still wearing the engagement ring, the creatures of Wonderland think that Alice (and in particular her ring) will liberate them from the wrath of the Red Queen. Throughout the course of the production, Alice teaches the creatures that only they have the power to liberate themselves from the Red Queen’s oppression. Then, by teaching others about self liberation, when Alice returns to her normal life, she too understands her power to liberate herself from the arranged marriage.
So what does this production have to do with Janin? The Freedom Theatre attempts to provide a place where the refugee community can critically examine its own participation in the occupation as well as seek creative solutions for the wider problem. The play depicted many social problems including apathy, laziness, violence, and religious fundamentalism. The actors played characters who tried out several solutions before finding something that worked. Humanity was present in the writing. The audience could concretely take pieces of the play and use it to analyze life in the refugee camp. Perhaps there was even a chance of re-writing cultural narratives.
The play was a huge success and continued to receive similar turnout during its run in the camp (which was free of charge to all). More information about the Theatre can be found at www.thefreedomtheatre.org