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From Aida to Shuafat, Part 3

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By Ruairi Henchy - April 11, 2015
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Section: [Main News] [In Pictures] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Jenin] [refugee camps] [Jenin Freedom Theater] [Jenin Refugee Camp]

This is the third segment in a series of articles to be published by the Palestine Monitor focused on the plight of Palestinian refugees throughout occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our correspondent, Ruairi Henchy, will be visiting a handful of camps in order to give voice to their grievances and to highlight the distinctly unique character of each camp. To read the first two segments in the series, click here and here. All photos by Ruairy Henchy.

Cut off from the rest of the West Bank by the northern mountain ranges and haphazard road connections to Nablus and Ramallah, and similarly disconnected from Nazareth and other Palestinian communities in the Galilee by Israel’s separation barrier, Jenin is one of the more isolated cities in Palestine.

Jenin camp has a population of around 17,000 people living in one km², a five-minute drive from the city center. The overall population of Jenin is about 70,000 people, meaning more than one in four of Jenin’s residents are refugees, most of them originally from Haifa and the surrounding areas.

Having arrived in the city center, I soon found a shared taxi heading to the camp. My fellow passengers seemed bewildered that I was joining them on their route. It seemed foreigners and tourists were rare in Jenin, but rarer still in the refugee camp. I immediately noticed the old lady next to me handing the driver an extra five shekels for my fare. I tried to protest and give her the money, but “welcome” was her only response as she smiled warmly.

No more than five minutes passed in the journey from the city center before the driver pulled over and told me we had arrived. On the camp’s edge is one of Jenin’s most famous exports today, the Jenin Freedom Theatre. Decorated with murals from the local youth and flanked with olive trees, the courtyard entering the theatre is an oasis to sit and rest, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Freedom Theatre has its roots in a project called “Learning and Freedom,” set up in the 1980s during the First Intifada by Arna Khamis. Arna was an Israeli Jew who had fought in a Zionist militia in the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the Israeli state. She later married a Palestinian Christian from Nazareth, however, and eventually decided to teach arts and drama in the Jenin refugee camp.

Her project is documented in the film “Arna’s Children,” made by her son Juliano Mer Khamis. Juliano in turn established the Freedom Theatre in 2006, with the stated aim of fostering “cultural resistance” in the camp. 

The Jenin refugee camp has long been connected to the idea of armed resistance, chiefly due to the Second Intifada. During the so called 2002 Battle of Jenin, militants from the camp withstood an invasion from Israeli battalions for 12 days, dealing heavy casualties to the army with unorthodox tactics and an intricate web of booby traps.

After arriving, I was given a quick tour and shown a 10-minute movie detailing the theatre and its history. Shortly afterward, I met the director and a few of the actors coming out of rehearsal for their upcoming play “The Siege,” which details the historic stand-off between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the Second Intifada.

After chatting about the play for a few minutes, they invited me to join them for lunch and afterwards I sat down with Faisal Abu-Alhayjaa, a resident actor and drama teacher at the theatre, to talk about the unusual situation of having such a cultural resource in a refugee camp.

Faisal told me that after seeing Arno’s Children when he was 14, he was inexorably drawn toward theatre. “One of the actors in the film, he’s one of my cousins, Ashraf,” he said, “and in one scene Juliano asked him what is your dream [Ashraf was a child at the time]. He said, 'my dream is to be a Palestinian Romeo.’”

Ashraf later became a fighter, and in the next scene of the film, Faisal watched his cousin being shot dead during the 2002 Israeli invasion of the camp. “I knew after this moment, I realised I also have the same dream - to be a Palestinian Romeo, but I don’t want to get killed,” he said.

He started to take drama classes soon after. “I found myself as an actor, and day by day, this idea of cultural resistance started to become bigger and bigger...I tasted culture here in this place, and I believed in it because it changed my life as Faisal, as a guy from Jenin refugee camp,” he said.

I was struggling to fully grasp this concept of cultural resistance, so Faisal explained to me how it had worked for him. “This place is not only a theatre, it’s identity as a Palestinian… because the occupation for me is not only the wall, killing, to be arrested. The occupation is deeper than this - it’s in the mind, in the thoughts,” he said, explaining that refugees struggle with their identity more than anyone else. 

“Can you believe that from here to Haifa is only 40km. You can go with your bicycle to the beach. I’m 26 years old, and in all my life, I never went there,” said Faisal. The only way he can deal with this absurdity is by expressing his frustration through creative means. 

Theatre in the camp helps people to safeguard their identity while, at the same time, sending their message to the world about the true nature of the Palestinian cause and their desire to resist. “Because maybe people think that all we want to do is go to Tel-Aviv and carry out a suicide operation and get our virgins because we are terrorists and because of the Muslim culture blah-blah-blah,” joked Faisal cynically.

Faisal said that growing up in the camp, he felt he faced two options: “I give up and go as a refugee to Norway or Sweden to escape and end up cleaning dishes in a European restaurant, or I stay and fight back.” 

“We have to fight back because this is our right to defend our culture, so that’s why I said we are freedom fighters,” he said, going on to explain that for him, acting and cultural resistance are intrinsic.

The establishment of such a project in a refugee camp has not been without obstacles, however, especially in the devastating aftermath of the Second Intifada. “People were afraid of anything new like a theatre, especially for Juliano, because his mother was a Jew and his father was a Palestinian… so there was a lot of rumours. You know, maybe they [Juliano Mer Khamis] are spies, traitors… they will change your culture, etc.,” Faisal said. Indeed, Juliano was assassinated outside the theatre in mysterious circumstances in 2009.

“I found the courage to say I’m going there and I want to see it with my own eyes,” Faisal told me, explaining that the success of the theatre has gradually won people over. “Day by day there is less conservativism towards the theatre,” he said.

As Faisal and the others were heading back to continue their rehearsal, a delegation of Swedish activists was arriving for a tour of the camp, so I seized the chance to be guided around by some of the locals and tagged along. It struck me even on a half hour stroll around the area that the scars of the intifada and the history of resistance are etched all over Jenin camp.

Graffiti and murals pertaining to the resistance and the martyrs were ever present, but at one point I had to stop and ask one of the guides, 25 year old Kamal Awad, if we were still in the camp. I could see the UN school was right beside me, but the streets were wider than in many of the main thoroughfares in the cities, and the houses were conspicuously modern.

Kamal explained that we were in the very center of the camp. “During the second intifada this whole area went,” he said, as he made a flattening gesture with his arm. 

At least 140 houses in the camp were completely destroyed by the Israelis in the 2002 battle for the camp. As the army grew frustrated with the slow advance toward the center and the heavy losses incurred in the close quarter street fighting, they began bulldozing houses where they suspected fighters were holed up, leaving a large part of the center of the camp obliterated. 

The reconstruction was funded by wealthy donors in Arab Gulf States, but only after they agreed to the Israeli demand that the new streets be wide enough for tanks to enter. Making my way back between the new wide streets, and intermittently through the old winding alleys, it was easy to understand their reluctance to engage in street combat. A soldier in full combat gear would barely be able to pass in many points.

The silence was broken by the sound of gunshots no more than a hundred meters away, but Kamal didn’t bat an eyelid. I asked him if it was the Israelis or the PA security forces. He said it was the camp youth firing warning shots at someone outside. As he and his friends examined the fresh bullet casings in the neighbouring street, they confirmed that the shots had come from camp residents, and while they didn’t specify who the warning shots were for, they intimated that the PA security forces were scouting the area.

Back at the theatre I got talking to Mohammed Youssef Hassan, a 28-year-old camp resident known simpy as Youssef to his friends. I asked Youssef how the legacy of resistance affected attitudes in the camp, and if the spirit of struggle is still alive today. “We are proud, because if you know the story, we stood against this army for 12 days - this is not easy in comparison to the capabilities of the camp,” he said.

He explained that the recent war in Gaza served as a chilling reminder to the camp of what they faced previously. “It’s like the old days here”, he said. “The whole camp are with the people in Gaza… we have this feeling of resistance in the West Bank as well.”

Youssef told me he thinks that the matter of a third uprising is a question of when, not if, and that it may be as much directed against the Palestinian Authority as the Israeli occupation. “The West Bank is above a volcano, so you can’t tell when it’s going to blow,” he claimed. 

With regards to the PA, he said “If the PA is upholding their rights people will support them but if this situation continues there will be fights in the next month, just like Balata [Balata camp in Nablus] now.”

“Nobody here is against the rules, but it has to be applied to everybody… If it’s against drugs, all the camp will be with the PA… but if they use this as a pretext to enter the camp for something else, for wanted people for the PA, then it’s a problem,” Youssef explained. “It’s more painful for the people from the camp to be attacked by the PA… because we’re the same people, the same blood. It’s more painful for you when your brothers attack you,” he added.

When I asked how an impasse could be reached in this stand-off, Youssef had a sensible suggestion. “There are other ways. If it’s for breaking the laws there should be coordination with the camp… There are committees in the camp, a group of known, respected people that can solve problems between families etc. so if this happened through this committee it would work,” he said, adding that he has no idea why the PA haven’t tried this approach. 

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