The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
The Freedom Theatre
By Shaina Low & Jen Marlowe, Introduction by Susan J. Erenrich
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Shaina Low first visited Israel/Palestine in 2008 as a summer intern with the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP). Her experience with organizations in both the U.S. and the region has included fundraising, working with children, guest lecturing at high schools and colleges, organizing and leading coast-to-coast advocacy tours, and bringing delegations to the region. Her legal research has covered topics ranging from forcible transfer, the international community’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and the rights of prisoners and children. Shaina holds a BA in political science from Columbia University and a J.D. from the City University of New York Law School. Shaina serves on the boards of The Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre and the GRALTA Foundation.
Jen Marlowe is an award-winning author, playwright, documentary filmmaker and journalist. Her books include I Am Troy Davis, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker and Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. Her films include Witness Bahrain, One Family in Gaza and Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home. She is the co-producer of Just Vision’s Naila and the Uprising and the playwright of There Is A Field. Jen serves on the board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre and is the founder of Donkeysaddle Projects
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features a column penned by Jen Marlowe and Shaina Low. It covers an explosive topic that is usually discussed in an impassioned way — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This isn’t an ordinary portrayal of the decades-long struggle in the region. Instead, it is a noteworthy glimpse into the innerworkings of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin and what it means to lead and create dangerously in occupied territory.
The idea that one must create dangerously is certainly not new. On December 14, 1957, at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, four days after accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus famously challenged artists to immerse themselves in the thick of battle. Create Dangerously was the title of his speech. He ended his remarks with a passionate plea to people everywhere:
Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation, others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all (Camus, 1988, p. 272).
Even though Camus never defined what he meant by his charge, throughout history artists involved in movements of protest, resistance, and liberation have taken enormous risks and have placed themselves in perilous situations — just like those participating in The Freedom Theatre, as you’ll read below.
My personal interest in Create Dangerously as a motif began when I was a doctoral student. Albert Camus’s lack of definition in his provocative statement has left room for multiple interpretations and misinterpretations over the years that have taken the speech out of context. As part of my dissertation I established, as follows, seven benchmarks to explore the idea.
Do artists or artist groups Create Dangerously when they:
- Threaten the social, economic, and political status quo?
- Mobilize for systemic change?
- Introduce new practices and tactics into a community?
- Openly express the hidden transcripts of opposing views?
- Keep the stories of repressive power alive?
- Assist ordinary people usually locked out of the political process to write their own scripts (i.e., popular education)?
- Lead without authority?
To answer these questions, I researched two artists and one artist group, crafting portraits to help critically examine these concepts. My inquiry is ongoing and evolving. This month’s guest column on The Freedom Theatre assists in furthering the leadership footprint in this area.
I hope readers are intellectually and emotionally stirred by Shaina and Jen’s article and that the compelling content about creating dangerously and leading dangerously stimulates a deeper conversation about this serious issue.
Camus, A. (1988). Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. New York, NY: Vintage International. (Original work published 1960)
Erenrich, S. (2010). Rhythms of Rebellion: Artists Creating Dangerously for Social Change. (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation). Antioch University, Dayton, Ohio.
The Freedom Theatre
By Shaina Low & Jen Marlowe
A little boy, approximately seven years old, leans against a light blue door embedded in a single-story, cement-block home in Jenin camp, the northern most refugee camp in the West Bank. “Freedom to me is the occupation ending and the army leaving.” His political manifesto declared, he then gets down to the real business of defining freedom: “It is also playing snooker, hide and seek, and no one hitting me.”
The other children of Jenin refugee camp interviewed in the summer of 2008 espoused similar thoughts on freedom. First, an end to Israeli occupation (one boy offered the chilling detail of “being able to sleep in your house and not hiding in hospitals”), followed by more personal desires: one girl wished to travel and learn other languages; another wanted to pursue her hobbies of theatre, circus, and music. But what should have been prosaic desires for these children, were — and continue to be for the next generation — often as far-fetched as imagining a complete and permanent withdrawal of Israeli troops.
And that is why The Freedom Theatre (TFT) exists. Artistic Director Nabil Al-Raee describes TFT as “a safe spot for people to express themselves and to find their own freedom; individually and then, collectively.” Understanding and telling your own story, Al-Raee believes, is a necessary first step towards being able to stand and fight against the different levels of occupation that exist.
TFT Background and Context
TFT is situated in Jenin refugee camp, which was established in 1953 to shelter Palestinians who were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. At the time of a 2007 census, Jenin camp had a population of 10,000 living on .26 square miles; approximately 42% of them under the age of 15. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Jenin camp’s rates of poverty, unemployment, and school drop-out are among the highest of the 19 refugee camps throughout the West Bank.
Jenin is separated from the Palestinian cultural hub of Ramallah by less than 40 miles, yet closures, curfews, checkpoints, and other restrictions on freedom of movement over the years have amplified their distance. The city of Nazareth, which hosts the largest concentration of Palestinian citizens of Israel, is less than 20 miles away, but Israel’s Separation Wall and permit regime prevent nearly all of Jenin’s residents from reaching it. In recent decades, Palestinian society has grown increasingly religious and conservative, remote areas and refugee camps even more so. The combination of these factors has led to Jenin camp being one of the most religiously conservative areas in the West Bank. It is also one of the most traumatized, having been targeted with especially acute violence in both Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas. In 2002, during the second intifada, Israeli forces invaded the camp, in what has been termed “the Battle of Jenin.” Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians and large swaths of the camp were bulldozed by the Israeli army, rendering 25% of the camp’s residents homeless.
It was against this backdrop of death and destruction that Juliano Mer-Khamis, Zakaria Zubeidi, and Jonatan Stanczek co-founded The Freedom Theatre in 2006, as an outgrowth of Mer-Khamis’s 2004 documentary, Arna’s Children. Mer-Khamis was born to Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli, and Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian Christian citizen of Israel. The film depicts the Care and Learning Center, an art and theater program that Arna established for children in Jenin refugee camp in the late 1980s, during the first intifada. Juliano worked with the children briefly, but, following his mother’s death in the early ‘90s, returned to his life as an actor on the Israeli stage. After the 2002 Battle of Jenin, Juliano returned to the camp with a video camera and discovered that nearly all of the children who had been involved in his mother’s center are now dead. Several had been part of the resistance against the Israeli invasion. One had undertaken a suicide attack in the Israeli city of Hadera. Of the few that were still alive, one was killed during the course of the filming.
Mer-Khamis had no intention to return to Jenin long-term, but after the release of Arna’s Children, he felt a renewed responsibility to the community in the camp. “I cannot just do films and go on,” he reflected in a 2007 interview. “You do films with the purpose to change reality, at least to have some influence on it.” So, Mer-Khamis partnered with Zubeidi (one of the few surviving youths of Arna’s program and a leader of the armed resistance in Jenin) and Stanczek (a Swedish nurse) to launch TFT, in hopes that it would be a venue to “join Palestinian people in struggle for liberation,” and yield a third, cultural intifada with poetry, music, theatre, and photography.
The early years of TFT chiefly served children and youth from Jenin refugee camp, focusing to a great extent on drama as a tool for emotional healing. Mer-Khamis observed symptoms of severe trauma exhibited by children in the camp including aggression, inability to concentrate, and bed-wetting by children as old as 11. Petra Barghouti, a drama therapist contracted by the theatre, worked to give youth the space to feel safe and express themselves via theatrical techniques such as storytelling, role-play, movement, and sound work. Rami, a teenaged boy with a pronounced speech impediment, described these drama therapy sessions as “pulling out the fear inside me so I can be free, so this thing inside my mouth will go away.”
But Mer-Khamis’s vision always went beyond trauma healing. From the start, TFT was grounded in notions of cultural resistance and ideals of freedom on all levels. In an early promotional video for TFT he declared, “We hope that this theatre will generate a political, artistic movement of artists who are going to raise their voice against women discrimination, against children discrimination, against violence.” It was also explicitly about leadership. In the same video he says that what is needed is "liberation leadership. We have to build up this leadership from scratch and to do this, the best way is to start an artistic venue.”
Another unique element to TFT is its political and social diversity. Many of Palestine’s civil society institutions are (at least unofficially) affiliated with a particular political party, yet TFT’s board and staff run the gambit from conservative, to communist, to everything in between.
A cultural revolution requires foot soldiers; ones who have nurtured a vision of liberation and developed the skills required to build towards that vision. With that in mind, in 2008 TFT launched its Drama School, the first professional theatre school in the West Bank. The three-year training program is rigorous with its students producing multiple new works each year. TFT productions (both ones that originate in the Drama School and ones that are spearheaded by its graduates and other members of TFT’s artistic team) typically perform initially on TFT’s modest stage, often followed by a tour in the West Bank, and sometimes, international tours. This enables TFT to actualize another goal: for Palestinian narratives, told by Palestinians, to impact the outside world.
Early TFT productions often took classic theatrical works and adapted them with a uniquely Palestinian twist, such as Animal Farm in 2009, in which the oppressive Farmer Jones and other humans were Israeli soldiers, and the pigs who collaborated with them represented the Palestinian Authority — a pointed critique at the perceived corruption of Palestinian leadership. In 2011, the Drama School mounted a production of Alice in Wonderland in which Alice embarks on her journey down the rabbit hole in order to escape an arranged marriage. In 2013, two Drama School graduates performed an adaptation of Athol Fugard’s, The Island, re-imagining the South African play as a commentary on the experiences of Palestinian political prisoners. According to a 2014 report released by the prisoner advocacy group Addameer, approximately 40% of the adult Palestinian male population has been imprisoned by Israel since the beginning of the occupation in 1967.
In recent years, however, TFT has shifted away from adaptions and is more frequently producing entirely original works, sharing Palestinian narratives on their own terms. Perhaps the boldest (and most controversial) of these was the 2015 production The Siege. The Siege was developed by TFT Artistic Director Nabil Al-Raee and British director (and longtime TFT associate) Zoe Lafferty. The basis of the play is interviews with Palestinian fighters who sought refuge in the Church of Nativity for 39 days in 2002, under siege from the Israeli army. (The siege on the Church was part of the same Israeli offensive as the Battle of Jenin.) The play imagines the siege — and the eventual negotiated settlement that sent the fighters into exile — from the perspectives of six fighters, an amalgamation of the dozen or so Palestinian exiles interviewed by Al-Raee and Lafferty. The play not only preserves a slice of Palestinian history, made accessible both to Palestinian and international audiences, but offers a human, nuanced, and complex view of resistance in a political context in which Palestinian fighters are usually either glorified or demonized.
The Siege initially toured throughout Palestine and then in Europe in 2016. In 2017, a significant ten-day run of the play was mounted at New York University’s Skirball Theatre. The significance of the New York run is rooted in a previously scheduled run of The Siege at New York’s Public Theatre that was cancelled, rescheduled, and cancelled again. These cancellations are part of a history of censorship of Palestinian theatre in the U.S., which includes a 1989 cancellation of a production by El-Hakawati Palestinian Theater Company, also scheduled to perform at the Public, and the production of My Name is Rachel Corrie at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. Approximately 3,500 people attended the New York run of The Siege, signaling that, despite institutional fears and censorship, there is an audience that wants to hear Palestinian stories and support Palestinian art.
Freedom on Wheels
Productions (and developing the artists who create them) are the cornerstone of TFT’s work — but TFT’s vision of cultural resistance includes its own versions of deep, ongoing community organizing. The Freedom Bus, a project that spanned five years, is one such example. The Freedom Bus combined TFT’s goals of developing skilled Palestinian artists within a liberatory framework, staging uniquely Palestinian narratives, building solidarity with internationals, reaching remote Palestinian communities who typically have little to no access to the arts, and using theatre as a mechanism to transform pain into power.
Ben Rivers, an Australian theatre artist, based his PhD dissertation research at TFT in 2011. There, he trained actors in the techniques of Playback Theatre, creating a cadre of young Palestinian actors mastered in the skills of eliciting personal stories from audiences/community members and then improvising theatrical reenactments of those stories. This work became the basis of the multifaceted Freedom Bus program. The concept was grounded in building connections; between TFT and remote, rural, Palestinian communities, and between internationals and Palestinians. A physical bus brought a delegation of foreigners and Playback actors to villages and refugee camps that were largely remote and isolated, yet on the frontier of fighting annexation and occupation. These communities were often in areas of the fragmented West Bank that are difficult to access due to land expropriation, settler violence, and closed military zones.
Days were spent learning about the specific issues, challenges, and needs facing each particular community, and engaging in service work in partnership with community members. This work included clearing demolished homes and rebuilding a demolished oven in the Bedouin community of Umm al Kheir, making mud bricks in the resource-deprived village of Fasayel, and planting olive trees in the Jordan valley. During the March 2015 ride, visual artist Alaa Albaba painted murals in each community the bus visited, using the motif of fish to illustrate the different challenges each community faced. For example, because the village Fasayel faces severe problems with access to water, the mural there depicted a water tap with fish coming out. In Bil’in the Separation Wall cut through the village’s land, so Bil’in’s mural was a fish whose scales were a wall.
Most days included Playback performances, where community members in the audience were invited to share personal stories. Some told stories of ordinary life, but many related the specific struggles in their community — whether it was the army continually demolishing an unrecognized village’s schoolhouse in the Jordan Valley, or settler attacks in the south Hebron Hills. The playback actors re-enacted the story on the spot, giving the storyteller the agency to determine whether the story was portrayed accurately or if they wanted to make any changes — a therapeutic aspect to the process that enables the storyteller to reclaim some modicum of power in a dynamic where all too often, in the lived experience, the person had been stripped of all power.
Internationals were invited to share stories during playback performances, too, cultivating a sense of true exchange with the local community. Internationals’ stories varied as much as Palestinians’, yet many used the Playback performance as an opportunity to reflect on the violence and oppression they had witnessed in Palestine. The playback helped them to process these experiences and also reinforced the solidarity shared between host communities and their visitors.
For internationals on the Freedom Bus, the opportunity to build solidarity with communities marginalized within Palestine was rare — most delegations travel chiefly to the urban centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Furthermore, the very act of Palestinians from TFT traveling to remote Palestinian communities to learn about their localized needs and injustices, and to collaborate with those communities for their stories to be told, was, in and of itself, a challenge to the fragmentation of Palestinian society that is inherent in the occupation. A number of Freedom Bus delegations also included Palestinians from other parts of Palestine, in an effort to challenge this fragmentation.
The south Hebron Hills village of Atuwani is one of the communities who hosted the Freedom Bus. Though only 75 miles from Jenin as the crow flies, Palestinians must drive a circuitous route to reach Atuwani, around settlements, through checkpoints, and bypassing Jerusalem as West Bank Palestinians cannot enter Jerusalem without an Israeli army-issued permit, even though the most direct route from the northern to southern West Bank passes directly through Jerusalem. The journey can take hours. The Israeli settlement of Maon looms high on the hill above Atuwani, as does the Israeli outpost Havat Ma’on. Since the late 1990s, villagers in Atuwani have experienced violence and harassment from these settlers. For more than a decade, internationals from an Italian NGO, Operation Dove, have accompanied children from neighboring villages to the school in Atuwani in order to protect them from the possibility of violence from the settlers.
Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, a Drama School graduate turned director, playwright, and teacher, and a member of the Freedom Bus Playback troupe, was inspired by the time he spent with the community at Atuwani to create a deeper collaboration. He wrote and directed a play named after the village that was based on the experiences that the community shared during the Freedom Bus tour and fleshed out with further research and interviews. Stories include a woman who blocked the demolition of the village’s school with her body and a shepherd who was arrested for grazing his sheep on his own (expropriated) land, which created such a commotion that the police ended up begging him to leave the station. The 2014 tour of Abu Alhayjaa’s play brought a theatrical rendition of Atuwani’s people (particularly women), their struggles, and their creative, nonviolent, highly organized resistance to other West Bank communities, enabling the creativity and resilience of the Atuwani villagers to reach and inspire Palestinian villages and refugee camps all over the West Bank.
The Dangers of Cultural Resistance
The work of the Freedom Theatre — from the Drama School, to the original productions, to the Freedom Bus (not to mention the different multimedia projects over the years, including photography, filmmaking, writing, and hip-hop) has been profound and transformative. But the challenges and dangers are also very real and come with the highest stakes imaginable. Much of the danger emanate from the raison d’être of the theatre itself.
Al-Raee has described the theatre’s mission as resisting not one, but multiple occupations. “Resistance is, first, against the Israeli occupation. The second occupation, it comes from our own society. The social occupation, and then you have the mental occupation.”
Samah Mahmood, a young woman in TFT’s drama school in 2015, illustrated Al-Raee’s point. “Resistance from my perspective is not just against the occupation, but also for me, a girl in society, there are things I cannot do, because I’m a girl, and because of society and because of norms and traditions, and because I’m in Palestine, and because I’m in Jenin, and because I’m in a refugee camp. There’s a lot of pressure. Everything is forbidden, nothing is allowed. A lot, a lot. So thankfully I found a place like this where I can express what I want.”
Abu Alhayjaa put it like this: “When you grow up in Jenin refugee camp, everything will be about killing or death, or about intifadas, or about the army, prison. These are our stories, this is our dialogue. But suddenly in the theatre, there is something more than this…. I start to feel the occupation (is) not only the wall or the checkpoints, or the army or the prison...the occupation is more in the mind, in the dreams, in the thoughts.”
Mer-Khamis and his colleagues challenged — and angered — conservative power structures in Jenin camp and beyond from the very start of the project. Girls and boys were on stage together, defying deeply traditional community norms. Critique of Israeli occupation was received enthusiastically; critique of Palestinian leadership and society often was not. Some complained that the lifestyle of some of TFT’s staff, students, and international volunteers were corrupting the youth. Opposition to the theatre, which had been vocalized from some quarters all along, took a new, darker form starting in 2009 when the theatre was firebombed during the production of Animal Farm. Nobody was hurt — then.
On April 4, 2011, Mer-Khamis was driving his car from TFT’s small parking lot when a masked assailant stepped in front of his car and shot seven bullets into his chest. Mer-Khamis died en route to the hospital. Some believe the assailant was sent by power structures in the camp who disapproved of TFT in general and Mer-Khamis in particular; others are convinced that the assassination was directed by Israel. The murder was never solved.
After the assassination, it wasn’t clear how — or if — TFT would continue, both without its charismatic co-founder, and in the midst of the deep grief, turmoil, and fear that followed his murder. It didn’t help that in the wake of the killing, Israeli attacks on the theatre and its staff intensified. In the months following the killing, staff and board members were arrested in nighttime raids, which continue to this day. As recently as February 2019, Israeli forces arrested TFT co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi from his Ramallah apartment in a nighttime raid. At the time of this writing, Zubeidi remains in Israeli custody.
Other challenges facing TFT are consistent with the more mundane, structurally oppressive aspects of occupation: actors being unable to receive visas to tour with productions; other actors being unable to even receive permits to travel to either Jerusalem or Jordan to visit consulates, a necessary first step towards obtaining a visa; and all the ways in which the occupation creates barriers and obstructions to travel, life, work, and study. Jenin’s isolation means that the TFT also has difficulty attracting talent and audiences from other parts of Palestine. The 2010 refurbishment and reopening of Cinema Jenin in Jenin city offered hope that the two institutions could help Jenin become a vibrant center for the arts in the northern West Bank. Yet, mismanagement and financial problems led to the Cinema’s closure within six years. The building was ultimately sold and razed, and a shopping mall built on its lot.
There are other, more deeply embedded challenges as well. TFT as an organization works for full equality between men and women. But in certain ways, elements of the very patriarchy that TFT is seeking to resist is replicated there. The lack of women in leadership positions among TFT’s Board of Directors and staff is one example. Both writers have heard some TFT team members profess views supporting women’s equality but, have observed them personally behaving in ways that contradict those beliefs. Yet, there are team members actively challenging their own internalized misogyny. TFT recently partnered with women community members from Jenin to present stories of oppression faced by women, entitled Us Too. One TFT actor/director remarked how hearing the women’s stories helped prod his own continuing evolution in this arena.
For all the challenges, the dangers, and the ways in which TFT struggles to live up to its mission, it is providing a critical source of hope and vitality for those seeking to nurture a deep vision of liberation. Abu Alhayjaa said that at TFT he both finds and shows people “new colors of life, of happiness, of joy, of art, and also of a dream. And this is important because I believe we live because we have a dream.”
Alia Alrosan, a former coordinator of the Freedom Bus and Drama School student, believes the central importance of TFT lies in this nurturing of dreams. “People can change their reality only if they can imagine the life that they want to live, and the stage is a place to create whatever you want,” she said. “So, it’s an amazing chance to have this place to create how real life can be, how freedom can be, how love can be…how Palestine can be!”
Photo Credits: Fish Mural Photo Courtesy, Shaina Low; All other photos are Courtesy, The Freedom Theatre.