Let’s start with the theatre. How long has it been in existence?
I met Zakarias Zubaidi in 2005 and in February 2006 the Freedom Theatre  was officially inaugurated. Soon afterwards I moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Tell us a bit about yourself, about the theatre’s history and aims. What’s your function in it? I’m the theatre’s manager, in charge of projects, finances, staff etc. My mother comes from Israel, and my father from Poland, from Cieplice near Jelenia Góra. I was born in Sweden. I’m a nurse by profession. For a couple of years I worked as a child carer. Israel’s political situation had always worried me and I wondered what I could do to change it. In the summer of 2005 I was in the West Bank and I met Zakarias Zubaidi, one of the last surviving actors of the first theatre in Jenin. He inspired me to think about theatre as about a strategy of resistance. We talked about the goals and effects of theatre action. The old theatre in Jenin gave the local community a sense of power and created its leaders. Zakarias spoke also of his desire to rebuild the theatre. Those ideas grew in me until finally, with Juliano, the son of Arna Mer Khamis, and with Zakarias, we decided to rebuild the theatre. Starting from scratch, devoting our own time and money, encouraging others – people of Jenin and international volunteers – to join us, we started building our Freedom Theatre. The guiding idea was to continue Arna Mer Khamis’s work and to fight for the freedom of the Jenin refugees.
How do you fight for freedom with art and culture?
First you have to understand what factors have determining influence on your life. When you’ve learned that, you can transform life, create your own vision of a good society. And that’s how we arrive at the issue of the identity of the Palestinians, whose culture, its very core, has been hurt by the occupation. And it’s precisely culture that makes it possible to shape individual identities, that connects people and creates a close-knit society. From the very beginning of the occupation it was the Israelis’ goal to control not only the territory, but also people’s minds. They always wanted to manipulate them. And they’ve succeeded in that. They created physical barriers in the shape on checkpoints, walls and military zones in the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also mental ones. People distrust and fight against each other. Brothers use weapons distributed by the occupier against brothers. Why do they fight? Why isn’t there a common goal? A frustrated society that has no say over its own situation, in which everyone is deeply concerned about their children’s security, about their family, finally directs the frustration inwards. A symptom of that is the return to clan feuds, clan fights with clan, family with family. The reason is frustration and an inability to control your own life. Tormented people abuse other people, you can see that in the Jenin camp. The traditional family hierarchy has collapsed, the father is unable to provide for the family and he feels humiliated. Men lose their self-confidence and their sons throw stones at the Israeli tanks, convinced they’re braver than their fathers. When the latter are unable to control their kids, they resort to violence, thus teaching it to their children. Women, the mothers, behave the same way. It’s a vicious circle, fuelled by the Israeli occupation. The international humanitarian aid breeds corruption, some people are forced to collaborate with Israel, become informers. You are never safe, people die in their own homes, because the snipers aim at the windows. Parents are unable to protect their own children. The children are exposed to traumatic experiences. This situation has continued for so long it has deeply corroded the very social tissue. And still there’s energy and strength in this society. But this energy needs a place where it could develop. It needs a stage on which it could perform, a material it could transform, and a shape that it could adopt. And I believe this is precisely what theatre gives you. It’s a form, a screen, a stage on which actors can share their stories and experiences. Some of our girls have been publishing a newspaper to learn journalism. One day they asked their teacher, ‘What are we supposed to write about? Nothing is happening at the camp’. ‘What do you mean, the army searches the camp every night’. ‘Yeah, but that’s normal!’. This example shows how the abnormal has become normal. Their own stories are too normal for them, too ordinary to be told. But it isn’t normal that the army penetrates the camp every night, that every family has lost someone, that every family has someone in prison. About eight in ten people in the camp have been arrested at least once. These people need to be given the capacity and means to talk about it. Girls need to understand that forcing them to marry, keeping them at home, the absence of any joy in their life aren’t normal. How do the kids here perceive the political situation? I can’t speak for them, but let me give you an example. When children play Palestinians and Israelis, everyone wants to be an Israeli because they always win and have bigger guns. They perceive Hebrew as better than their own language and want to learn it. Jews are those who’ve achieved more. Palestinians are adopting some of the Israeli role models because they are losing their own culture. They adopt what they know from the Israeli media. These oppressed people want to play the role of the oppressor, because it’s him who is becoming the ideal.
Do people here have any vision of the future?
They live completely in the present. Dreams are usually made on the basis of some more or less distant perspective, some future. But when you can’t change the present and therefore shape the future, why fight, why get up in the morning? This situation has continued for so long people have lost their goals, they don’t know what they’d like to achieve, don’t know where their lives are heading. What is the sentiment among the people of Jenin today? What has been left of the Second Intifada? You said the occupation bred extremism. The Second Intifada is perceived by the Palestinians as a failure, a military defeat. I think the Intifada was a kind of alternative, a way of acting in an impossible situation. Today there’s no viable option of armed struggle, nor is there any acceptable peace proposition. Israel’s goal is to maintain the status quo and keep things ‘hushed’ on the international forum. Israel has continued the policy of appropriating the Palestinian territory, and at the same time suppressed the debate about the creation of a Palestinian state. There’s a vacuum in the Palestinian society, people don’t know what will happen, they are waiting. I suspect there’ll be a Third Intifada, more bloody and difficult than the previous ones.
You mean people are talking about another uprising?
They’re not talking about it on the street, but I can’t imagine a different scenario. It’ll probably happen within the next five years. Between the intifadas there’s time for searching for peaceful solutions. But because none has been found so far, the Palestinians will be forced to resort to other means of resistance. This means an armed uprising. Unless the situation changes, the Third Intifada will break out, but this time the Palestinians will have to confront the wall surrounding and dividing their land. And the Israelis will face much better armed Palestinians.
Do Israeli troops enter the Jenin camp?
Yes, almost every night. These are often special units. Their members wear civilian clothes. They infiltrate the community, look for certain people in the city. If they find them, they kill or arrest them. How does the issue of Palestinian collaboration look like? Every year the Israelis arrest thousands of boys aged sixteen or so, whom they later interrogate and force to collaborate. They blackmail them, ‘Unless you become an informer for us, we’ll revoke your work permit, revoke your sister’s right to healthcare, prolong your brother’s sentence by another ten years, etc.’. And they agree to collaborate. I’m sure they’re informers also among the people we know. Let’s return to the theatre. We saw the film Arna’s Children about the most tragic period in the theatre’s history, when most of the actors were killed or died as suicide bombers. Arna was born in a Jewish, Zionist family in the north of Israel. As a young woman, she was a soldier of the Israeli special forces, but during the ethnic cleansing in Palestine after 1948 she joined the Palestinian resistance. She became a teacher and came to the Jenin refugee camp. She started working here, using drawing as a creative form of expression and therapy. She introduced new teaching methods to the schools here. Other than beating the student until he or she remembers the given piece of information. She opened four day-care centres for children, trained teachers. At the peak moment, over 1,500 children participated in her programme, called Protection and Education. In 1993, she received the Right Livelihood Award, called the alternative Nobel, and used the money to open a theatre in Jenin. That first theatre was located in the house of Zakarias Zubaidi’s mother. In 1993 Arna died of cancer. In 2002, the Israeli army invaded Jenin and destroyed part of the camp, including the theatre. The archive was destroyed, and most of the actors died. Zakarias Zubaidi’s brother and mother, some of Arna’s closest friends, were also killed. Zakarias’s mother was killed by a sniper in her own apartment. Besides Arna’s Children I also saw a film here about the kids who are actors in the theatre. They said, ‘I’d like to be an actor in the future, be famous etc.’. It sounded very much like the beginning of Arna’s Children. And yet most of the actors of that theatre are dead. What is the future of the kids you work with now? This parallel makes me sad, because a similar fate may be awaiting our children. We don’t teach them violence, but we don’t tell them they can’t use violence against their oppressors. We teach them how to speak when standing in front of a crowd, how to move, how to work in a group, how to be audible for others. In what context they use these skills later doesn’t depend on us. We teach the kids to be free individuals so that when the moment of choice comes, they are able to make it. If they have the strength to put up resistance, we believe it’s the normal course of things. A free, able-bodied person doesn’t keep quiet when someone violates their life. I’m a Jew, my family went through the Holocaust. The Jewish WWII heroes that we remember to this day were those who had the courage to resist the oppressors. It’s the same with the people here, the people of Jenin, they have to have the courage. You need it when you distribute information that opposes the dominant propaganda, and when you reach for a gun to offer resistance. We give the kids in the theatre the power to make a choice. Don’t misunderstand me, we’re firmly against the killing of civilians, suicide attacks, or attacks against the Israeli population. That’s clear.
What are the plans for the theatre?
We’re planning to open a larger, more modern one. Next year we want to open a three-year theatre school. We want our actors to be able to study in postgraduate courses in Sweden or Germany. We get in touch with other theatres in the world so that our students can present themselves on the international stage.
Who teaches these kids? Who are the teachers?
The number of people who can teach acting here is limited, we have little money, and it’s hard to get here. You can only get here from Jerusalem, but there are many Israeli checkpoints on the way. The people working for us now are international volunteers and teachers from Palestine and Israel. Many volunteers offer themselves, so we try to use the time when they’re with us as effectively as possible. We’ve given seventy eight performances so far this year to a total of almost fifteen thousand viewers. This is something! Fifteen thousand people in a theatre at the Jenin refugee camp! These people saw everything, from London Circus to Francois Abu Salem’s 1982 monologues about Beirut. Freedom Theatre is the only theatre north of Ramallah. We’ve become the cultural centre of the north. It suddenly turned out that in the Jenin refugee camp, generally perceived as one of the most violence-affected places in the West Bank, people can enjoy culture.
Do Israelis support the theatre in any way?
There are Israelis among us, though it’s troublesome for them, they help us. Once we smuggled in seven Israelis for a performance. This is A zone, Israelis have no access here. So the theatre helps the Jenin people survive the current situation. To help people survive, you give them food. But to survive means also to remain a creative person. So we help them to survive in spiritual terms. After all, culture responds to man’s basic needs.
Isn’t it so that in Europe culture decorates people’s lives, while in Jenin it simply helps to survive?
What you say about Europe isn’t true. We usually don’t realise that in order to be human beings, we need culture. Culture connects people, drives the society, serves as its driving engine. I see how the Freedom Theatre generates social energy, how it makes the community stronger. The only other option here is the gun. So you can’t compare this with the situation in Europe. There you don’t have soldiers who shoot when standing in the door of the house you live in. Let’s return to what you said at the beginning. You said you had been inspired by Zakarias Zubaidi and his conception of theatre as a form of resistance. He and I think along similar lines. Man is the body, the mind and the spirit. The spirit is the strongest of the three and gives us the energy to create, while the mind transforms ideas so that they become possible. And the body turns them into action. So it became clear to me that it was necessary to focus on the training of the spirit and the mind, and that is done precisely with culture. Zakarias Zubaidi is a soldier.
What did he mean by saying that theatre should be a form of resistance?
Theatre should help people develop their own version of themselves, instead of adopting outside forms and narratives as its own. Especially here, where people listen to the views promulgated by the radical Islamic movements and parties, which exploit this desperate environment to promote their programmes. Look at how music and dance connect people, how tradition and history connect them. The guerrillas in Columbia were connected by common political goals and by the songs about their struggle. Theatre is a common goal for our actors. To create a strong political movement, a resistance movement, you need a strong identity. And culture is a means of consolidating people’s identity.
How is it done in practice?
A sixteen-year-old turns up on your doorstep. What’s next? You can say that the situation of everyday violence makes everyone here, both the kids and the grown-ups, feel like victims. Being a victim means among other things that you lose the ability to control your life. If we want to use theatre to create a new identity, different from their victim identity, we need to make these people more aware of what is happening around them, how to behave in a group to identify common goals. As soon as you dress up as a queen, you become one. You can behave like a queen, the world starts to obey you. This is a world of imagination, one that you can control, change. We tell the kids the story of Siegfried and the dragon. Then they can choose whether they want to be Siegfried or the dragon. They play a scene enacting the role of a dangerous, powerful dragon. But then the actor cast as Siegfried comes and slays the dragon. This is perhaps the first time they experience something like that. It’s an incredible power, to be able to manipulate reality, to be a hero and slay the dragon. This experience is the beginning of a creative, adult life. They begin to notice the possibility of change, work in a group, learn the potential of cooperation. They realise that common goals and working together makes everyone feel better.
Is your theatre supposed to produce individualities?
It does, but the main objective is to create a ‘collective mind’. We’re not interested in ‘individual self-fulfilment’ the way it’s construed in Europe or America. The Palestinians are a collective society. A community based on family and connection networks We don’t want to turn it into an individualistic society, based on a capitalistic vision of the world. We strive to help the community fulfil itself by strengthening the individuals.
What other methods do you use?
Theatre touches man’s very essence, his desire to search for meanings. We use theatre as a therapy. Psychodrama is a means of healing by returning to the inner conflicts and anxieties. Enacting them makes it possible to finally react to them. We’ve also been inspired by Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed. A group of young people can enact the following scene: a student asked by the teaches gives the wrong answer. The teacher hits him. But is a different ending possible? The instructor tells the actors to play the scene again, but this time, instead of hitting the student, the teacher discusses the problem with them. Then the kids choose the better solution. You try to replace action whose effects are toxic with a different kind of action. Creative theatre creates such alternatives for reality by resorting to imagination. Theatre shows imaginary situations.
How do your actors behave in the face of real events?
They live in a world where their mothers are humiliated, go to schools where they’re physically abused. And yet these young boys, who once roamed the streets, fought with knives, without the desire to learn anything, suddenly become involved in theatre. To work with text in theatre, they need to read and write. Suddenly these skills become important for them. They start to notice connections between things. The school-leaving exams become important for them, because they want to get into theatre college. They want to feel free, to have a choice. Also women gain a wider perspective than just moving from their father’s kitchen to their husband’s kitchen. I believe our work has long-term effect. To see progress, you need a lot of patience, persistence, otherwise the effect will be short-lived. Especially in this lonely society, fed with false promises, full of expectations and constant disappointments. So the task of the theatre is very important. We’ve shown there’s a way, a choice, and we’re helping them to take advantage of it. If we fail, it’ll be a proof that there’s no alternative. Then the only thing left to these people here will be religion in its most dangerous form, demanding obedience, not accepting individual desires and creative thinking.
Is the Freedom Theatre political?
It is. Theatre cannot be apolitical. Culture cannot be apolitical. The goal of our theatre is political. Especially here, in a place where even saying ‘hello’ is filled with political meaning.
Does the theatre in Jenin oppose the occupation?
In our official statements and everyday activity we oppose the Israeli occupation. We believe it to be the main obstacle to the self-fulfilment of the Palestinian people. Because of this occupation children are frightened and wake up in the middle of the night, parents have no work, businesspeople have to close their businesses. But fighting the occupation isn’t our direct objective. We break the barriers that the occupation creates between people. There’s been more and more people who act like us. Eventually there’ll be enough of us to create a social movement. Because fighting the occupation is a task for those are most affected by it. It’s these young people who’ll one day lead the Palestinians out of the occupation. Our goal is distant. A child needs ten years to learn something, to enter the stage and start changing things. You reap the effects of such activity as ours years later. It’s like sitting in a prison cell with nothing but a teaspoon for digging a tunnel. There are no shortcuts on the road to freedom. A shortcut means fighting an armed struggle without strategy and support, without knowing what your goal is, without a vision of the future world. Here such a decision means that one day you’ll end up with a bullet in your head. To create a political awareness and define political goals you need to act in the long-term.
So you are preparing these young people, your actors, for becoming involved in political activity in the future?
Yes, we’re becoming increasingly aware of that.
Do you intend to ever return to Israel?
I’ve never really lived in Israel. Besides my family, nothing connects me with this place. Geographically or historically Israel is a beautiful and interesting place, but in terms of religion and politics the Israeli society has nothing to offer me. I think it’s lost its identity. Jewishness was lost when the state of Israel was created. Judaism, weakened by the Holocaust, flickers somewhere in Europe. What dominates here is Israelishness. Militaristic, individualistic, capitalistic, short-sighted.
I have some other questions, but you don’t have to answer them. Isn’t it so that we, Europeans, have such an immense debt towards Jews for the Holocaust that we must keep justifying the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? And the consecutive wars against Lebanon… Is being Jewish today not a kind of shelter where people hide from responsibility for Israel’s militaristic policy? Israel is now forced to face the effects of its thinking about the state in ethnic terms, with the effects of transforming a whole nation into soldiers, with the fact of the common acceptance of violence, with its militarised democracy, a martial-law democracy. What do you think about it?
What is the Jewish state? What happens when the idea evolves and is realised by a community that has always been oppressed? The only way this state can define itself is through constant external threat. It’s like a long-abused child who reaches adulthood and is forced to assume responsibility for others, for his own children. Such an adult knows only pain and fear, knows only violence, it’s his only language. Such is the Israel of today – someone who was abused as a child and now abuses others. Israeli schools make their students believe that the world is against them and wants to destroy them. In Sweden they sell a bubblegum with a small comic strip. In Israel too, but here the gum is called Bazooka. In one of the Israeli strips there’s a scene where a mother says to a kid listening to music from a walkman, ‘Don’t listen to music too loud or you’ll lose your hearing, lose points at the conscription board and they won’t accept you for a staff unit’. A child should care for its hearing not because of school or being able to play guitar, but to be able to become an officer in the future. According to the logic of an Israeli ad, mobile telephony exists so that a soldier can call her girlfriend. It’s a society of soldiers, I have no doubt about that. I sometimes wonder who rules Israel – the civilian government or the army?
Jenin, December 2007
Translation: Marcin Wawrzynczak
1 The Freedom Theatre, the official name of a theatre at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
2 Zakarias Zubaidi, as a teenager an actor of the Jenin theatre, then member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah, responsible for, among other things, suicide attacks in Israel. Until today an informal, charismatic leader of the Jenin community.
3 Most of the actors of the first Jenin theatre died during the Second Intifada and afterwards. The actors died as soldiers and suicide bombers. In 2002, during the battle of Jenin, the theatre building itself was destroyed as well. 4 Arna Mer Khamis, Israeli activist, founded a children’s theatre at the Jenin camp. Its story is told in the documentary Arna’s Children, dir. Danniel Danniel and Juliano Mer Khamis. See also http://www.arna.info/Arna.
5 Arna was a member of the Palmach (see http://www.arna.info/Arna/herstory.php), a Jewish military organisation founded by the British mandatory government and the Jewish Haganah in Palestine in 1941. Palmach units fought in the 1948 war.
6 In 1982, Lebanese Christian militias massacred the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, at the silent consent of the Israeli army, which for a couple of days refused to acknowledge what was going on in the camps.
7 A zone, areas under Palestinian control: the Gaza Strip and several larger cities in the West Bank. B zone – areas under mixed control: the Palestinians exercise civilian control, but the Israeli army exercises military control. C zone – areas under Israeli control: Jewish settlements, access roads and strategic points (hills, water wells etc.) (after www.wikipedia.org). The division is not respected by the Israeli army, which carries out operations in some A-zone cities and in fact controls them.
8 Theatre of the Oppressed is based on the idea that interpersonal relations are a dialogue: between men and women, between families, between ethnic groups and the nation. In our realities, this dialogue has a tendency of degenerating into monologue, which results in oppressor-oppressed relations. The main goal of the Theatre of the Oppressed is to return to dialogue between people (after http://www.peacexchange.eu/pl/teatr/W innych krajach.html).
9 Bazooka, man-portable anti-armour rocket launcher, introduced during WWII by the US Armed Forces (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bazooka).