Jenin's theatrical oasis
Armed Palestinian leader swaps weapons for words in West Bank youth project.
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2009 12:04 GMT

Artsworld's Mona Ibellini travelled to Jenin and finds that one of the key figures of the Palestinian intifada has swapped weapons for the stage.

Zakaria Zubeidi has featured near the top of Israel's most wanted list for many years.

But the head of the Jenin branch of the al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade now believes that children's theatre is as important a method for achieving Palestinian statehood as armed conflict.

"One of my first poignant memories in life was waking up in a hospital with a bullet wound when I was thirteen and a half," Zubeidi says. "At 14 I was imprisoned."

"With its invasions, tanks, and explosives, the occupation destroyed our childhood."

Having felt his own youth was taken from him Zubeidi is investing his efforts in the Freedom Theatre which is giving that childhood back, by allowing the current Palestinian youth to develop a different narrative.

One of the most popular armed leaders in the Palestinian intifada he has now laid down his weapons.


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Sited in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank the Freedom Theatre aims to provide "a safe space in which children are free to express themselves and in which they can develop the skills, self-knowledge and confidence which would empower them to challenge present realities."

In a community that is often forced to live in fear, isolated from the rest of the world and subject to regular raids by the Israeli army the theatre provides a social oasis in the Jenin camp.

When Al Jazeera vists Zubeidi is welcoming home a former political prisoner.


Incarceration is a right of passage for young men in Palestinian refugee communities and many of Zubeidi's childhood friends are now dead. Consequently he is determined today’s young Palestinians have better prospects.

"Instead of playing on the streets like I used to," he says. “The kids of the Jenin camp now have a place to go."

"The Freedom Theatre is an umbrella for everyone. I’m the head of the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, but when I walk in that gate, I become Zakaria Zubeidi, a member of the Freedom Theatre."

A theatre was first established in Jenin by Arna Mer Khamis, an Israeli woman who taught Zubeidi and his friends acting skills at his parents house.

But as the war dragged on the teenagers became soldiers and the theatre was forgotten.

The new theatre is now run by Kamis' son Juliano. Zubeidi for security reasons is not officially on the staff but is very much a strong presence.

"I am very happy that Zakaria went in this way, and decided to put down the weapons, and joined the Freedom Theatre," Jualiano Khamis says.

Mixed environment

"It's not safe from a fundraising point of view, you know, some people still consider Zakaria a terrorist. So he supports us from the top of that mountain, protecting us, giving us the legitimacy to be here."

Zubeidi says his childhood was robbed by conflict

Khamis says that because the camp is home to Jews, Muslims, Christians, Americans and is among the most attacked camps in Palestine, the theatre is a true phenomenon.

"Art cannot free you from your chains," he says. "But art can generate and mobilise discourse of freedom. Art can create debate, art can expose,"

In a community often segregated by gender the theatre also provides a rare occasion for boys and girls to gather and act and play together.

"Palestinian girls are essentially oppressed by their male relatives, an atmosphere of fear exists between them," Nadine, one of the theatre's regular performers, says.

"So in my sketch I am trying to get the message across that no matter what the Palestinian girl does, she will be monitored."

Many of the performances are improvised and raw but in a society where acting has often been considered taboo the theatre provides a rare chance to leave everyday problems at the stage door.

"I love being in the theatre, because it gives me a stage to express my thoughts and feelings," Nadine says.

Movement Therapist, Petra Barghouti, works with the performers and says that although acting is frowned upon in much of Palestinian society, talking about psychological problems is traditionally even more looked down upon.

"In this culture if you have any kind of psychological problem you hide it, because it's a shame," she says. "But now they ask for help, which is wonderful, because it’s the first step to a healthy environment or healthy community."

The interminable threat of violence and repression has often meant that life as a child in the Palestinian territories has involved growing up a lot faster than elsewhere in the world.

The Freedom Theatre is at least giving some youngsters the opportunity to act their age for a while longer.

Al Jazeera
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