Saturday, April 10, 2021

A space of destruction and creation, legacy and weaponising theatre

By Ruth Regan - April 09, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [Freedom Theatre ] [culture]

Ahmed Tobasi stands alone on stage in a haze of smoke, performing the story of his life.

He has done this on stages from London to Edinburgh, and will do so soon in Norway and Zimbabwe. But today Tobasi stands on the stage as the subject of his story, as a member The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Camp.
Tobasi’s coming of age story depicts his growing up as a kid in Jenin refugee camp. Torn between the spell of the then Stone Theatre - the orginal name of Freedom Theatre- where the straight-talking Juliano Mer-Khamis taught acting, and the allure and pressure of becoming a resistance fighter, pursuing the latter led to Tobasi’s imprisonment aged 17. Released from jail at 21, he pursued his passion for acting and found his way out of Jenin to drama school in Norway. It was only a shocking incident back home which pulled him back to Palestine.
Once Ahmed Tobasi was released from jail, Juliano Mer-Khamis asked him to perform again. Here he plays percussion with water. Source: Henry James. 
It is on the very day of this performance, April 4, seven years ago, that the founder of Freedom Theatre, Juliano Mer-Khamis left his theatre for the last time. With five bullets, he was shot dead in his car, his infant son on his lap. This was what brought Tobasi home.
The play 'And Here I Am’ is the autobiographical story of Tobasi’s life and by association, intertwines with that of Mer-Khamis’. It was put into words by Iraqi-British playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak.
The play is littered, just as it speaks of the “glorious bags of garbage everywhere” in Jenin Camp, with dark humour. On the train to Oslo, Khamis remarks, “considering how the [Oslo] agreement turned out, they owe me a Norwegian passport!” Even in his period as a resistance fighter he finds absurd hilarity, mixing up throwing the lighter rather than the grenade out the car and whilst later in jail, finding release by performing for cellmates, he yells, “It’s like showtime at the terrorist Apollo!”
His one-man physical embodiment of the violence of the Second Intifada is remarkable.
The Juliano Mer-Khamis in Tobasi’s play by all accounts reflects the actual man. Direct, unapologetic, extraordinary. Mer-Khamis was the product of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father from Nazareth. With a “crazy Jewish mother” on one side and a “crazy communist Arab father” on the other, “Juliano was bound to go into theatre!” Tobasi jokes in the play.
People are “drawn to Juliano like a moth to a flame,” the play also describes. In Arna’s Children, a film made by Mer-Khamis himself and screened as part of the festival, you can observe this character in how he speaks to the children. Most of the children in the film were later killed or arrested during the Second Intifada. One who survived, Zakaria, was there to open up the anniversary event. “I see Juliano in the work here every day,” he said.
The dialogue between the two men, Tobasi and Mer-Khamis, are some of the most poignant of the play.
Mer-Khamis tells Tobasi that “theatre can be as violent as a gun.” Ever more affecting when thinking of the assassination to come. In the play, Tobasi calls this out. “Cut the crap, those words just sound nice when you say them to a western reporter.” “In this theatre I’m going to get the world to see you as a human being,” Mer-Khamis tells Tobasi. “Cultural resistance, my ass,” Tobasi says back.
During his time in Israeli jail, Ahmed Tobasi impersonates a famous Palestinian TV actor, attempting to amuse his Palestinian comrades because they all looked depressed. Souce: Henry James. 
There was a seven year gap over the period of Oslo between the original incarnation of the theatre, The Stone Theatre, and the current Freedom Theatre set up by Juliano Mer-Khamis. The Stone Theatre was created at a time when the army had closed schools and there was nowhere for children to play. Its name was a nod to the First Intifada, symbolised in stone. But “we faced different stages through our struggle,” said the theatre’s artistic director Nabil Al-Raee. As Israeli attacks changed, so too did Palestinian resistance, Al-Raee said. “So we had to start to look, what was our main purpose? … What do we want? What are we longing for as Palestinian people? That’s why we chose the name Freedom Theatre.”
April is also the anniversary of the Battle of Jenin in 2002, a ten day siege during the Second Intifada where 60 Palestinian civilians and resistance fighters were killed, along with 25 Israeli soldiers, a significant number for the strong military force. Taking attendees of the anniversary festival around Jenin Camp, where 17,000 live in one square kilometre, the theatre’s Operations Manager Adnan Naghnaghiye points out where Israeli bulldozers tore down entire buildings to clear the way for tanks. 500 homes were reduced to rubble. He points to the width of the streets now and explains this was an order from the Israeli military upon rebuilding, to ensure tanks easy potential access in the future. When they emerged after the invasion, Naghnaghiye remembers how you could see one side of the flattened camp from the other, such was the devastation. People searched for their homes. “It was here, but where is it?”
When the play ended, the audience were on their feet. With love, Tobasi tapped the photos of the martyred faces he had stapled up on the curtain throughout the performance. Amongst them, a childhood friend killed during the Second Intifada, and Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Lead photo: Ahmed Tobasi acts out the violence of the Second Intifada, with drumming noises for bullets and smoke for tear gas. Source: Henry James. 

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