Paranoia and intrigue on the West Bank

For Freedom Theatre's management, struggling to move forward after Juliano Mer-Khamis ' murder, that has raised questions about the limits of performing arts in this conservative and besieged society.
West bank Jenin Refugee Camp
West bank Jenin Refugee Camp

JENIN, WEST BANK // Juliano Mer-Khamis' legacy weighs heavily on the internationally acclaimed youth theatre he founded inside this turbulent Palestinian refugee camp, where some suspect his killer still lurks.

In April, a masked gunman shot dead the 52-year-old Israeli actor and filmmaker, born to a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, as he sat in a car in front of his Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

His funeral procession turned into an outpouring of support that brought together Palestinians and Israelis who watched his casket pass through the city. His body was then taken to Israel for burial. In what stood out as a symbolic rebuke of Mer-Khamis' edgy artistic agenda, however, few from within the camp joined in to pay their final respects.

For Freedom Theatre's management, struggling to move forward after his murder, that has raised questions about the limits of performing arts in this conservative and besieged society.

"Everything seemed fairly good and then, bang, Jules was killed," said Jacob Gough, 25, a Briton who has been working as the theatre's acting general manager.

"And after that, a lot of people who were supporting us were far too scared to speak about their support for the Freedom Theatre. And then all of a sudden, we felt alone, like a small island in the camp where you put the lepers."

Regulars stopped attending theatre activities after the killing. Anonymous radicals began distributing missives in the camp threatening those who attended the theatre where males and females, Jews and Muslims, and Palestinians and Israelis, had mixed.

Then Israel's military arrested the theatre's site director and board chairman in July and, earlier this month, Rami Hwayel, 20, an actor. Israel has not said why it arrested the trio, who remain in detention.

That has only added to suspicion about the still-unsolved murder and the killer's cold precision. With seemingly detailed knowledge of Mer-Khamis' daily routines, the assailant unloaded seven rounds into his body without hitting his son, sitting on his lap, or the nanny in the passenger seat.

"Was it someone in the camp? Was the whole camp behind it?" Mr Gough said. "You start thinking in paranoid terms." He said theatre members began questioning each other over the killing following Israel's arrests, which he called "deliberate intimidation".

A larger-than-life character, he identified with his Arab roots as much as he did his Israeli upbringing, Mer-Khamis, who lived in both Jenin and Haifa, Israel, became an integral figure for the camp's embattled youth.

In the 1980s, he helped his mother run a similar youth theatre in Jenin. He directed a critically acclaimed documentary in 2003, Arna's Children, about her impact on camp children and their traumatic experience years later as fighters in the second intifada.

But his murder has spawned a reckoning over his brash and sometimes overbearing use of the arts. He espoused ideas such as gender equality, defiance of authority and critical thinking, putting him at odds with the patriarchal camp society and Islamists.

It became no secret that his theatre, which has been firebombed at least twice since its founding in 2006, had its enemies.

"It's clear that whenever you bring revolutionary energy, the threat doesn't always come from outside. Sometimes it's inside," said Udi Aloni, an Israeli filmmaker, currently directing an upcoming rendition of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the theatre.

Mer-Khamis' electrifying message of resisting Israel through cultural mediums helped convince some of the most hardened of Jenin's fighters to lay down their arms for acting.

But it also went beyond the arts and competed directly with the West Bank's ruling Palestinian Authority and its platform of creating a Palestinian state. Mer-Khamis, who unabashedly fused politics with drama, advocated one state encompassing Israelis and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

"Of course it's important to work in the community and help people," Mr Aloni said, "but Juliano also wanted to use the Freedom Theatre as a kind of a nuclear explosion of ideology."

Writing about his death in April, Akiva Orr, an Israeli writer and activist, attributed Mer-Khamis' killing to his last production, Alice in Wonderland, which featured local actors in scenes considered far too racy for contemporary Palestinian society.

"Most theatres in the West Bank refused to show it because the major role of a clever girl outraged all oldies in the West Bank," Mr Orr wrote on a blog run by Max Blumenthal, an American writer. "No newspaper in the West Bank mentioned the Alice play."

"So," he concluded, "Jules paid with his life for staging Alice in [W]onderland in Palestine."

Mr Gough and a Swedish colleague, Jonatan Stanczack, who will assume management control of the theatre in October, now plan to move in a more conservative direction.

They speak in terms that starkly contrast with Mer-Khamis' philosophy and hope to build firmer bridges with the camp, tone down the theatre's social message and reach out to the community instead of abruptly challenging its values. It is a trade-off between developing practical bonds with the surrounding community and the sort of idealism Mer-Khamis instilled in Qais Alsaadi, 20, an actor at the theatre who comes from the camp.

"[Israel's military] occupation closes your mind. We don't know what's beyond this place. It's only occupation, occupation, occupation," he said.

"But whenever you got stuck in a rut, Juliano would help you find a way forward. He removed the obstacles."

Published: August 14, 2011 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read