A year after Juliano Mer-Khamis’ murder, it’s time to board the freedom bus

Juliano Mer-Khamis’ legacy is alive and well in the West Bank, spreading hope and providing an outlet for expression.

Juliano Mer-Khamis picture
A year ago today, film maker and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot five times in the West Bank city of Jenin [AP]

Irvine, CA – It is now one year since Juliano Mer-Khamis, the charismatic founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, was brutally murdered. To this day, no one knows who killed him, although as with any great political artist, he certainly had enemies who would have liked to see him dead.

In an era where artist-celebrities assume the role of human rights icons through stints as UN “good will ambassadors”, photo-op tours of disaster stricken areas and pronouncements of disgust with the war criminal of the week, Mer-Khamis was an artist in the truest sense of the word. He used his considerable gifts as an actor, filmmaker and theatre director both to represent suffering and injustice in unique ways and to offer a glimpse of a different future.  

He was, in fact, a cultural terrorist. And the world needs more of them.

Mer-Khamis was a terrorist precisely because his art and his identity, were radical challenges to both national identities, bringing violent reactions from those whose power and prerogatives he so directly challenged. But unlike dadaists or members of the “anti-art” movement who first described themselves as “cultural terrorists”, he chose to use the more traditional and widely accessible experiences – and thus more powerful and effective – forms of art, to spread his message.

Born hybrid

Juliano Mer-Khamis was born to a Jewish mother, Arna, who transformed herself from a Keffiyeh-wearing Zionist paramilitary into a Communist who married a Palestinian intellectual, Saliba Khamis, who was the head of the Party. He refused to settle for either an Israeli or Palestinian identity, but like his mother, identified more with the occupied than the occupier.

Arna realised that art and particularly theatre, offered a powerful tool for young Palestinians to express their frustrations, anger and hope…”

His art was shaped by Arna’s activism and father’s intellectualism. Among Arna’s activities was the opening of an alternative education system for Palestinian children to better equip them to deal with life under occupation. She realised that art and particularly theatre, offered a powerful tool for young Palestinians to express their frustrations, anger and hope, and together with Juliano, then an aspiring actor, opened the “Stone Theatre” in 1989, during the second year of the first Intifada. Juliano was one of the directors of the Theatre until its closing after Arna’s death, from cancer, in 1996.

During that period, he filmed many rehearsals and other activities, and these scenes became the core of his exploration of the ongoing costs and consequences of the occupation in “Arna’s Children“, which sees Mer-Khamis return to Jenin in the aftermath of the Israeli siege to find out what happened to the young children he had worked with only six years before.

The tragedy revealed by “Arna’s Children” is how children who had such hope and promise even amidst the misery of life in a refugee camp in an occupied land, could lose both and succumb to the desperation, nihilism and violence occupation inevitably produces – one of the main characters became a suicide bomber, other fighters for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.

Indeed, the transformation of 8 to 10-year-old actors into seasoned guerrilla fighters and suicide bombers (two students drove into the Israeli town of Hadera and shot at passersby randomly until they were shot dead by security forces. Their act was partly in response in the killing of a young female classmate inside their school by a tank shell during an earlier Israeli attack) is one of the best indicators of just how long and deep was the descent Palestinian society suffered during the so-called peace process and how fundamentally different and more violent was the second Intifada from the first.

Amid the violence, transgressive hope

On its own, “Arna’s Children” leaves little to be hopeful about. The film is a testament to the brutality of occupation and both the inevitability and – at least in the Palestinian case – the futility of armed resistance. But then Mer-Khamis teamed up with one of his former students, Zakaria Zubeidi, the military leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin, to re-establish the Theatre. And that is where the story becomes far more hopeful.

As Zakaria explained to me when I met him last year at the Theatre, after years of fighting with guns, it became clear that words were ultimately more powerful than bullets. This was a belief Mer-Khamis shared and so the Theatre aimed to be the “major force, co-operating with others, in generation of a cultural resistance, carrying on its shoulders universal values of freedom and justice”.

This idea, which has become a manifesto for the Theatre, anticipated precisely the attitude of creative resistance that fuelled the Arab Spring. It combined the recognition of the importance of developing new and sustainable forms of resistance against oppression with the knowledge of how important international solidarity would be in the future for taking on a much more powerful and well-armed foe.

“Anyone who’s visited the Theatre is struck by the way in which Palestinian, international and even Israeli artists and activists come together across so many boundaries to forge a common purpose…”

Anyone who’s visited the Theatre is struck by the way in which Palestinian, international and even Israeli artists and activists come together across so many boundaries – nation, religion, gender, class, even race – to forge a common purpose and the solidarity that emerges through it. More than most spaces, it offers a glimpse of the kind of future that, for example, Peter Beinart might have considered in his The Crisis of Zionism (which I reviewed in my last column) had he not been so fixated on saving Zionism from itself.

But of course, such an identity is inherently transgressive. Many right-wing Israelis no doubt were disgusted with the one-time IDF paratrooper’s declaration that he was “100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish” (note his use of “Jewish” instead of “Israeli”) while conservative Palestinian Muslims were extremely angered by his staging of “Animal Farm” because it had actors depicted as pigs (which are ritually unclean in Islamic theology), his mixing of young men and women together on stage, advocacy for Palestinian women’s rights and for staging plays that aired issues related to teenage sexual problems and other issues that are rarely discussed openly in Palestinian society. The Theatre itself was attacked several times on account of these plays.

Indeed, Mer-Khamis himself anticipated not just being murdered but the manner of his death. “I remember once Juliano created a scene,” another member of the Theatre explained, “in which there was a masked [man] who attacked him and killed him, and this is exactly what happened. This crime was very planned.”

She continued, “The theatre in general was not accepted in the local community… Many people were against [it] and talked against us in the mosque, many leaflets spread out against the theatre before and after Juliano’s death.”

Continued attacks

If members of the Freedom Theatre generally believe it was Palestinian extremists who killed Mer-Khamis, the Israeli government clearly also sees the Theatre as a major threat to the occupation. In the year since his assassination, numerous student-actors and theatre officials have been arrested by the IDF, supposedly for suspected links to the murder; several were badly mistreated and, according to former detainees, even tortured.

No one I know at the Theatre thinks someone inside was part of the plot and few believe either Palestinian or Israeli authorities have any interest in identifying the killer. Instead, most believe the murder was a response to the ongoing power of the Theatre and its increasing international recognition as a major arts and activist organisation, which are much harder for Israel’s once-vaunted “hasbara”, or propaganda machine, to counteract than the more traditional and oft-repeated images of Palestinians engaged in more typical forms of protest.

“Last summer, flyers were passed around warning all foreigners to leave Jenin and threatening to destroy the town’s cinema, a major cultural outlet for the community.”

Nevertheless, the opposition to the Theatre within Palestinian society can’t be underestimated and is part of a larger opposition by some ultra conservative Palestinians to any international participation in the efforts to resist the occupation. Last summer, for example, flyers were passed around warning all foreigners to leave Jenin and threatening to destroy the town’s cinema, a major cultural outlet for the community.

As with the rise of hardcore Salafis in Gaza, this dynamic is part of a larger process within Palestinian society in which some segments are becoming more extreme even as others are moving towards a post-nationalist identity. The Theatre, and the international solidarity it brought right into the camp, offered an alternative kind of resistance that was just too positive and attractive to younger Palestinians for those committed only to violence and the most narrow identity possible.

Branching out, in Palestine and beyond

Despite being shattered by Mer-Khamis’ murder, the students and staff and the Freedom Theatre had one of its best years artistically in 2011, as famed Israeli director Udi Aloni filled in for his good friend and produced an instantly celebrated version of Beckett’s seminal absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot”, which premiered in Ramallah and went on to tour Europe and the United States. Inspired by the Theatre, the Levantine Centre – the biggest Middle Eastern cultural centre in the US – created the Freedom Theatre West.

And now the Freedom Theatre is taking the show on the road with a “Freedom Bus“, which later this month will bring members of the Troupe to Cairo and to do a “playback theatre” with Egyptian activists and artists.

As one member of the Theatre’s international staff, Ben Rivers, explains, “The Freedom Bus is more than a travelling ‘truth commission’. A truth commission always holds the danger of entrenching a victim identity with little movement towards substantive justice or any form of genuine healing.”

Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach that has been used in dozens of countries as a tool for community building, public dialogue, trauma recovery, social activism and popular education. The members of the Freedom Theatre use it as a way to get audience members to share thoughts, feelings, memories and autobiographical accounts, which are instantaneously transformed by actors and musicians into improvised theatre. Through this artistic transformation, their testimonies become more accessible to a wider audience, which can achieve a more visceral understanding and empathic connection to the teller’s experience.  

In Egypt, activists, artists and ordinary citizens will be invited to share autobiographical accounts of the revolution and all that’s happened in the last year as a way of celebrating the culture of popular struggle and civil resistance that toppled Hosni Mubarak and despite great odds, continues the struggle to build a democratic Egypt.

Taking culture jamming to the next level

Later this year from September 23 through October 1, the Freedom Bus will travel across the West Bank with an international group of artists and activists for a 9-day solidarity ride, using Playback Theatre to perform the stories of community members whose voices have so often been repressed, by Israel and by Palestinian society as well. 

“The members of the Freedom Theatre use it as a way to get audience members to share thoughts, feelings, memories and autobiographical accounts…”

As Rivers explains it, the ride also responds to a “fundamental human need to experience solidarity in the face of suffering and injustice”. Organisers have imagined it as a Palestinian version of the freedom rides through the American South and in Australia as well that helped highlight endemic racism in those societies.

The Freedom Bus is a kind of travelling “Occupy” brigade, but in a Palestinian context it’s in fact reoccupying culturally – and through it, socially and politically – territory that remains militarily and territorially occupied by Israel. By bringing local and international artists, activists and scholars together the Freedom Bus will not only help ordinary Palestinians cope with the ongoing struggle against Israel – a kind of political group therapy, but help those most engaged in art, activism and scholarship better understand realities on the ground and so help better develop new strategies to resist and transcend the occupation. Such a practice constitutes the next step in the evolution of the kind of culture jamming that enabled such early successes by the Arab revolts and the occupy movements.

One young student at the Theatre put it best, “Juliano succeeded to put in our mind that despite the many obstacles, we mustn’t give up, that the revolution must continue and to express what is inside us without fear [because] through art we can say what we can’t say in our normal life and remove the racism and the walls between people.” That is a legacy Mer-Khamis would have been proud of and the rest of us can continue to take inspiration from that, despite the odds against peace and justice prevailing in the near future.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming