Interview with Juliano Mer-Khamis, founder of Freedom Theatre Jenin. Pre-published from the forthcoming issue No 30, of INTIFADA, the magazine of the Anti-imperialist Camp.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was born in 1958 in Nazareth into a mixed marriage. His Arab father as well as his Jewish mother were political activists. He was named after Joul Jamal, an Arab naval officer from Syria, who destroyed the french battleship Jean-Bart in a kamikaze attack during the Suez Crisis of 1956. His mother, Arna Mer, was a well-known political activist. Her role in the children’s theatre of the Jenin refugee camp is the subject of Julianos film „Arna’s Children“. His father, Saliba Khamis, was a prominent Arab member of the Israeli Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Both his parents left the party in 1968 due to its rejection of the call for a democratic secular state in whole Palestine that was raised by the new Palestinian liberation movement. They joined the political struggle of the Palestinians.
Julianos career as an actor began on the Israeli TV and theatre. He had his first film role in the US-movie „The Little Drummer Girl“ by G.R. Hill. His most famous work is the documentary „Arna’s Children“ which shows his mother’s activities during the first Intifada (1987-1993) in the children’s theatre of the Jenin refugee camp and then turns to the fightings which took place in the camp in 2002. The reality in the camp turned the main characters of the children´s theatre into the main characters of the resistance against the Israeli occupation. Zakaria Zubaide, leader of the al-Aqsa Brigades is the protagonist of both episodes.
When „Arna´s Children“ was released, it generated a wave of international support, enabling Juliano to restart the theatre project in Jenin. In 2006 Mer-Khamis opened the Freedom Theatre Jenin together with the Israeli activists Jonatan Stanczak and Dror Feiler from Sweden.
In the course of the annual cultural program „Salam Orient“, the Freedom Theatre performed in Austria in October 2009. INTIFADA met Juliano Mer-Khamis before the show in the Grazer Orpheum for the following interview.
Intifada: In 2006 you founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. What was the main aim and the general idea of this project?
Juliano: Theatre for me is a factory of ideas, disputes, arguments, conflicts, critical thinking, reconstructing your identity or rewrite your narratives, invent yourself as an artist, as a human being, as a nation, as a citizen of an area, that was destroyed by the Israelis after seven years of invasions and curfews and sieges. I think Israel succeeded to put down the cultural structure of the Palestinian people and we are trying - at least in Jenin - to bring it back. With culture I mean not only to play music and do theatre, but culture in social means and political means of creating solidarity, mutualism, cooperation, this is culture for me, not only dabka and Tchaikovsky, it´s the social most delicate structure of people.
Intifada: You are working with children now for more than 15 years. Can you describe, how the Israeli occupation affects the development of children?
Juliano: I can tell you only about the Jenin refugee camp. In the camp 58 percent of the population, about 8500 people are under the age of 18. About 3000 of them were analysed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and actually I always say it´s not post-traumatic, it´s ongoing trauma. And trauma doesn´t mean, that the child sees an accident and he dreams about it, this is the easy thing.
But ongoing trauma under the Jenin circumstances means people who lose their personal grounds as human beings. Personal ground means your ability to put yourself in space, to put yourself in time. To know, you come from there and go to there. To put yourself in the security of your existence. This shell that you have for granted as a western creature, we don´t have it. Death for us is like life for you, something we confront on a daily basis. It´s an abnormal phenomenon, especially for children. Children who are confronting death on a daily basis they are becoming walking dead people. People who have no kind of security, no self-confidence in their own existence. They have no frame of time, which means they have no future. I call them dead walking people. From this dead walking people the suicide phenomenon came out. If you go before the suicide attacks, which were a result of this nerve system destruction by the occupation, you go to children who stutter, who can not talk, who hardly blink, who cannot concentrate. All their relationship with their surrounding is violent: with their parents, with their friends, with their teachers... it´s all violent, because there´s nothing else. All they could internalise during the years is violence from the occupation and it becomes their only tool to communicate with their own society or their surrounding: through violence.
Intifada: Is the work of the theatre successful in overcoming these problems?
Juliano: These kind of things are always to little and to slow, because you´re facing total destruction. It´s a small theatre and a small refugee camp... it´s a drop in the sea but it´s still a drop. We always believe or hope that, if everybody will drop his drop, it´s gonna get to a wave, Inshallah. But I can say it´s very hard to define the development of this kind of project and to see a line of progress, because there are also jumps.
We have a stagnation of our society. We have the development of the ghetto-mentality, of the xenophobic feelings, of going back to tradition because the social structure was destroyed, of going back to tribe relationships. We are back into feudal times now in Palestine. Israel succeeded to push us back hundred years. We´re back on the donkey: mentally and physically. So you go to a very primitive situation, where women carry the most of the burden. So the situation of the women is an indicator for the stagnation of our society. We had one woman four years ago, because for women it´s not allowed to go out. It´s dangerous, they are weak, they can be killed, they can be raped - specially at night because night is death in Palestine. And women can not be actresses. It´s not nice for a woman to be on stage, to show her self, to touch other actors or to dance. It´s not acceptable in Islam, in tradition. So we had one woman, today we have more women than men. This is an indicator. Nobody could have predicted this, but suddenly we have a lot of women, suddenly people who rejected theatre are accepting it, suddenly we are touring and we journey around. Imagine, these boys never left the camp. It´s the first time they see a train. (Points at Faisal, one of the actors) He´s twenty years old, it´s the first time he leaves the camp.
Intifada: Besides the theatre, how would you describe the spirit of the people in the Jenin area at the moment? Will there be a new intifada in the near future?
Juliano: That´s a good question. I think there´s no spirit any more. We´re trying to bring spirit back, but you know, it´s a destroyed nation, so most of us are dealing with building up the elementary things of life: housing, electricity, water, schools, to manage this frame of the day. There´s not much place for spirit. The spirit is still buried under the ruins - not only ruins of buildings but also ruins of the soul - but it´s coming back. It´s coming back slowly. But even if it will be back it is locked between electric fences and concrete walls. So whatever happens to this spirit, one day – I don´t know when – we try to brake out again from this prison. Logically I think we will face a new intifada in a few years. People will not submit to the Israeli Apartheid-conditions. They will rebel. We hope, that our children and youth will rebel with the tools that the Freedom Theatre is supplying. I hope that they gonna shoot with cameras not with guns, that they gonna use the values of liberty against the Israeli tanks. Maybe I sound a little bit naive, but it was like that in the nineties. A child with a stone was facing one of the biggest and most sophisticated tanks of the west, the Israeli tank. So it´s possible, it´s not my naive dream. You can win against the worst enemy with your bare hands.
Intifada: What´s your vision to solve the Middle East conflict? One-state solution? Two-state solution?
Juliano: I don´t support any states. I only support people living together. The how is not very interesting for me. For me the essence of living together – you can call it two states, four states, one state, six states, federation, cooperation, I don´t mind – for me it´s clear: I´m a son of an Arab and a Jew, I´m a son of a Palestinian and an Israeli and I believe that this is our destiny as Palestinians and Israelis. Not only to go to bed together, but also to live together. What would be the mechanical implementation of it... leave it to the business guys and politicians. The principle of the Israeli policy and ideology is about separation, is Apartheid, is about ethnic entities, ethnocracy, walls, fences. Everything I do is against separation. How and when is not important, important is the perspective of how we gonna live together: Side by side, or one on top of each other.
Intifada: Are you optimistic, that someday there will be a majority in the Israeli society for living together with the Palestinians?
Juliano: They are already living together. In Apartheid but they´re living together. They can not avoid it. In the end they will face it. For the kind of life together we´re talking about: No, there´s no majority, but there´s no majority for that among the Palestinians either. It´s a matter of stages. I think it will take time, and the principle should change. The Israelis are not in whatsoever way ready to accept, that they will be part of the middle east. They are creating and generating the extermination fears, which is the opposite of being together. They are just generating more and more the extermination, Hitler, holocaust, Ahmadinejad, Iran, nuclear bomb... it´s going the opposite. They´re not building up a nation that says: “Ok, we came here from Europe, we were exterminated by the Germans and the Austrians, and now we have to put the history aside and start a new relationship in the middle east, otherwise they really gonna wipe us out one day.”
I mean how long is Israel gonna survive on it´s F16s? How long? Forever? They´re gonna live on the sword forever? No, I believe they will change the attitude. The Palestinians have no problem, because mentally they are still a peasant society. They´re less racist, they are less treating the world in sense of mine and yours. It´s a more open society, it´s more willing to accept the other and less built up on ethnic, racist regimes and concepts and ideologies. They always were occupied. They didn´t even have the chance to build up this neurotic, narcissistic ethnic attitude. So they are obviously more willing to accept the Israelis as a partner, than the Israelis are accepting them.
Intifada: In your film „Arna´s children“ you show how children under the circumstances of occupation develop from actors in a theatre to resistance fighters and even to suicide bombers. Do you think your film changed the public opinion in Israel about Palestinian resistance? Is arts in general the key to bring the two peoples together?
Juliano: As the director of the film of course I hope and I believe that it changed something. And I met some people who told me that it changed them. But I don´t think that one film can change so much. Also in general it is naivety to think that culture, that Bach and Chopin could bring peoples together. Don´t forget that Goebbels and Eichmann were Mozart lovers. That doesn´t protect us from anything, from any barbarism. I think that art can be a place, it can reflect, it can generate ideas, it can build up a critical thinking of people. It can able youth - specially at places like this - to have tools of expression, to be able to deliver a message, to talk to you, to stand in front of you. But this is not the solution. The problem in the Middle East between Palestine and Israel is not a problem of hearts or arts, it´s a political problem.
Some people try to diffuse it into a problem between two peoples, but this is not the case. This is not about dialogue, or holding hands or pissing together. It´s a political problem of a nation who occupied and ethnically cleansed a place for its own sake. This is the case in Palestine. It´s a very simple case. It complicated through the years, but the essence is that of occupied and occupier. And if you put occupied and occupier 24 hours in a sauna, it will not solve the problem, because they gonna get out the same they got in. Maybe they´ll be more understandable, but still the occupier will occupy the occupied. So it´s a political problem. I do think that this kind of artistic exchange and dialogue can help the majority on both sides to be able to negotiate on solutions but the solution will not come from the theatre. The solution will come from the resistance to the occupation.
Intifada: Do you think a cultural boycott is a reasonable way to put pressure on Israel?
Juliano: I support the boycott clearly with no doubts. I think people should put pressure on Israel. Israel should not act as if nothing is happening, because this is not a normal situation. But I would be very cautious about what I´m boycotting and whom. Specially I don´t think we should boycott culture. You boycott economy, you boycott institutions who use culture as propaganda tools, you boycott academical institutions who support the occupation, but I don´t think it´s about boycotting a film. I will boycott the director of the film who is using it to help the Israeli propaganda. But I would not in principle boycott culture.
The Interview was registered in October in Graz, Austria, by Bjarne Köhler. It will be published in issue No 30 of the magazine "Intifada", forthcoming.