Freedom Theatre – musings on life in Palestine

Freedom Theatre actors jumping. (Credit: The Freedom Theatre).

By Anonymous

One night in 2008, I found myself standing on a street corner in Brooklyn with a man called Juliano Mer Khamis. I had come from rehearsing at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo with a superb group of highly trained actors: he had come from a theatre in occupied northern Palestine with kids from the refugee camp. I envied him from the bottom of my heart.

Juliano – a man who will, for me, ever epitomise the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’ – was a highly successful Israeli actor and founder of the Freedom Theatre in a town called Jenin, in the West Bank. The son of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian communist, he was a successful film and theatre actor, an ex-paratrooper, a clown, a brilliant Othello, a mercurial hell-raiser, iconoclast and charismatic fundraiser. He handed me a copy of Arna’s Children – a documentary film he had made about his work re-establishing a theatre that his mother Arna had helped start in the 60’s in the upstairs room of a house in a camp. Reached by a flight of stone steps, she christened it the Stone Theatre.

Juliano Mer Khamis.

I had just staged a benefit performance of a play called London Cries based on Henry Mayhew’s great study of Victorian working life titled, London Labour and the London PoorThe packed audience had loved it and I was pleased to be sending the money that we raised to support Juliano’s new theatre, named after the cry Arna would inspire her audiences with: Huriya! Freedom!’ As we left, our heads were still ringing with the tunes of the many Music Hall songs that had punctuated the evening: 

While London sleeps, and all the lamps are gleaming 

Millions of its people, now lie sweetly dreaming 

Some have no homes, and o’er their sorrows weep 

Others laugh and play the game  

While London’s fast asleep. 

‘Come and work at the theatre,’ Juliano said. ‘Come and meet the young actors we are training. Direct a play. Teach them about Shakespeare.’ 

‘Yes, yes, I will,’ I said lightly ‘next year when I am less busy.’ 

I did not, as I had not yet heard it, add the supplication most Palestinians would have added in this situation: ‘Insha’allah – God willing.’ Juliano did not add it either. He turned away as a crowd of theatre goers were jostling to talk to him, and he had funds to raise and people to charm. I did not go to the theatre the next year. I do not even remember what I must have been busy doing.  

My daughter and her boyfriend went instead. When they arrived in Tel Aviv, they called Juliano. ‘I’ll meet you in Jenin at the theatre on Wednesday,’ he said, ‘Come and stay with me.’ I don’t suppose any of them said ‘Insha’allah then either. I had told them not to mention to anyone in Israel that they planned visit to Jenin. ‘Better,’ I said not really knowing why, ‘not to cause complications.’ On Tuesday morning, while visiting the Cameri theatre with Noam Schmuel, a young Israeli director I had trained in London, they waited as he spoke in Hebrew to the stage-door keeper who was in obvious distress. Then he turned to them and explained, oblivious to the effect his words would have: ‘A wonderful actor has been shot.’  

It was Juliano, killed by five bullets as he sat in his car outside the Freedom Theatre. We learnt, at that moment, that this little theatre named Freedom was not just about playacting. For months, the Freedom Theatre reeled from the shock. One by one the workers there were arrested and interrogated as if it were an ‘inside job.’ One of the original founders and former administraters, Jon with his wife and small baby, came back from Sweden to try and help pick up the pieces. Juliano’s wife, Jenny, seven months pregnant at his death, gave birth in July to twin boys. Her grief unimaginable, she nevertheless decided not to return to her native Finland, but to stay on in Haifa in the house where she and Juliano had lived part-time since their marriage. Their nanny, who had been in the car holding their one-year-old son as Juliano was shot in the seat next to her, had escaped, as was reported without a trace of irony, ‘with no injuries.’ She stayed on to help despite her nightmare experience. 

Work on a new theatre building and rehearsals for a new production of Martin McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Innishmaan, all stopped. Instead of going to visit Juliano in Jenin, my daughter travelled to where Juliano’s coffin lay on the stage of Al-Midan theatre in Haifa. The next day she followed the hearse as it was briefly carried through the Separation Wall so that all his Palestinian actors, colleagues and friends, forbidden to cross the barrier, could pay their respects. There were terrible scenes of grief, young actors sobbing and hoarse cries of ‘Jules, Jules.’  

His coffin, draped in the Palestinian flag, was then taken back into Israel to the kibbutz of Ramot-Menashe, where he was buried next to his mother. Those who remained told all visitors to stay away from the theatre, for fear of further violence. Ten months later, hearing that it seemed relatively calm, I cancelled all plans and flew to Israel, thanks to a CBRL travel grant. I spent a few days finding my feet in East Jerusalem, before finally passing through the checkpoints into Palestine. 

I travelled to Jenin in late winter and a cold and dismal journey it was. I had found a driver through the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem. He spoke English well, but irritated me on the journey by repeatedly slowing down and pointing out Israeli hilltop settlements and then several times pointing out what he described as the bare beginnings of new settlements on numerous other hilltops – small pylons for an electric supply, a caravan or disused shipping container forlorn against blue sky. He would say: ‘You see when you next come back there will be houses and on more stolen land.’  

I was callow and uncomprehending, thinking him verging on paranoia. I simply did not understand his passionate need to show me the proof of constant encroachment on Palestinian property. Later, when I had learned more, I saw those skeleton outposts grow into townships: the identical red tiled houses, like an American suburban sprawl, creeping down the hillsides. It did not take me long to learn first-hand, and in horrifying detail, the consequences in terms of land, water and access, what was happening to the Palestinian villages and Bedouin encampments below.  

At last, a few hours later and, by now in lashing rain, the car drew into a concrete yard with a three-storey house, a small patio shaded by an old olive tree and, to the side, what appeared to be a long brick warehouse. It was the theatre. I was greeted and taken inside the house, but not before being relieved of 200 euros by my driver. I was to learn later to travel by bus and hand over a mere 35 shekels to watch that landscape transformed by distant building and forbidden roads, but I remain in debt to him for the lesson he taught me on that first drive out.  

Inside the house I met the theatre workers and we ate a convivial lunch of soup, pitta bread and salad. As I sat there surrounded by the sounds of three languages – English, Swedish and Arabic – I suddenly remembered the origin of the word company. It’s from the Latin com panis – those who share their bread. I knew from those first moments that I had come at last to the theatre I had been seeking all my life: a real company in which I could do honest, unheralded work that would really and truly alter lives.  

To be frank, there was hardly any work going on. With the grief of Juliano’s death had come conflict and recrimination. His most experienced actors – though they were all in their early twenties and with very little experience outside of his care – left the theatre, the site of their newly discovered joys and triumphs. They recently had an enormous success with a re-telling of Alice in Wonderland, which had garnered international praise. Now rudderless and unbearably sad, they scattered. Over the following years, they trickled back but in Yeats’s words: ‘Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.’  

Left in charge was Juliano’s former assistant, Nabeel Al Raee, and four actors still in training. The whole enterprise seemed to be teetering on collapse and what had been intended by Juliano’s killers – the end of the Freedom Theatre. I saw that what I could provide was simply connection with the outside world and, what I had always had in great supply, creative energy. Nabeel asked me to visit the four young actors in training and watch their work that very afternoon. 

I found them in a rehearsal room that Juliano had set up shortly before his death. It was a ten-minute walk from the theatre on the other side of a rubbish dump, past a few large villas with gardens. It was freezing cold, filthy and dismally lit. The actors showed us some scenarios which they had been working on. They had been working alone: solos gleaned from improvisations. The rehearsal started late and Nabeel sat huddled in an overcoat watching the work, chain smoking. I tentatively offered to work with the actors the following morning.  

That night, I slept in the house on the hill above the camp where Juliano had lived. From my window there was a marvellous view of twinkling lights stretching to low hills. It was almost romantic. I did not know then that I was looking at an open prison bounded by the Jalimey checkpoint and the infamous separation wall. In no time, the cold got to me and as I wandered through the flat, I noticed sadly Juliano’s books – various modern plays, a much-thumbed edition of Stanislavski, and a complete works of Shakespeare. I inwardly raged at the waste that his death had wrought. In the morning, I woke up early and made pancakes. Creative energy on a domestic level – what generations of women have drawn strength from.  

That morning starting dead on time (and little did I know then, the problems punctuality and my insistence on it would bring them and me!) I got the actors into the space, moving through the entire room: running, jumping, stopping, calling, whispering – a sort of storm of physical expression. Afterwards, they stood before me out of breath, stripped of their sweaters, eyes alive and asked me to come back. I said I would and asked them what they thought we should do together. They said that Juliano had told them I would come.  

They said: ‘Teach us about Shakespeare.’ 

Written by a former CBRL travel grant recipient who wishes to remain anonymous.

The views expressed by our authors on the CBRL blog are not necessarily endorsed by CBRL, but are commended as contributing to public debate.