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Art as a Weapon (Youth Against Invasion), Part Two

Read part one of the conversation here!

The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian community-based theatre and cultural center located in Jenin Refugee Camp, in the northern part of the West Bank, Palestine, has long been the center of cultural resistance. In September 2023, New York-based company Al Límite Collective participated in The Freedom Theatre’s Feminist Festival, devising a new play with young women from the theatre school, and experienced an invasion by Israeli armed forces while watching a performance by Salwa Nakkara. Upon their return to the United States on 7 October 2023, a wave of devastating violence began, and they have been an active part of the cultural resistance actions in solidarity with Palestinian artists.

Following a raid on The Freedom Theatre—in which artistic director Ahmed Tobasi, producing director Mustafa Sheta, and company member Jamal Abu Joas were attacked and detained—Al Límite Collective joined other New York City artists at the Cultural Resistance March on 13 January 2024. At this march, members of Al Límite Collective and Palestinians of Japan performed passages from Youth Against Invasion, featuring the words of Aya Samara and Chantal Rizkalla. Youth Against Invasion was created by The Freedom Theatre and Artists On The Frontline. The text was written by students of The Freedom Theatre, facilitated by Yasmin Sameer, with project coordination and additional translation by Naqaa Samour.

On 16 March 2024, artists from these groups came together to discuss the work of The Freedom Theatre and its school, the creation of Youth Against Invasion, and the performance of that text in the Cultural Resistance March. Participants from The Freedom Theatre included the head of The Freedom Theatre School, Yasmin Samir, and student artists Chantal Rizkalla, Aya Samara, and Naqaa Sammor. They were joined by Leah Bachar and Monica Hunken, co-founders of Al Límite Collective, as well as moderator Manatsu Tanaka, a dancer, actor, and artist who performed in the Cultural Resistance March. The following is the second and final installment of this conversation, which has been condensed from the initial HowlRound TV livestream.

Two dancers perform at a protest.

Performers from Anikaya Dance Company at the Cultural Resistance March.

Yasmin Samir: Manatsu, as I understood, you did Aya's text, didn't you?

Manatsu Tanaka: Yes, I did.

Yasmin: How did it start? How did you get involved in solidarity with Palestine? And also how did you get into the Youth Against Invasion project?

Manatsu: Right. So in terms of solidarity work with Palestine, as much as I am very ashamed to say this, I admit with accountability that I'm also one of the millions of people who were too late to wake up and speak up for Palestine and actually know what's going on in Palestine. Around November, I was like, "I don't know what to do. What is my role as an artist?" I soon realized that no, this is an atrocity that's happening on humanity, on humans, done by humans. I have to engage with this very present as a human being first. Not as an artist, not as a dancer. It was after that finally when my perspective really spread out.

I got in contact with Al Límite Collective, where I was doing small autonomous projects. I did an art action that's called Tears for Palestine, which is where we draw red tears on a canvas in the honor of the martyrs. That was in partnership with Palestinians for Japan, the Tokyo organization. Al Límite Collective was also a sponsor of it. The way I got to know Al Límite was because Al Límite has been doing so much solidarity work with Palestine through their platforms.

And fast-forward: because we did the Tears for Palestine projects, Leah has kindly invited me to be a part of the culture resistance march where they asked if I can be one of the readers for the Youth Against Invasion, which is Aya's monologue. Yeah. So yeah.

I remember right before reading your words in front of the crowd, the people… I never get nervous or shaky, but my legs were shaking. It was different from being nervous.

Yasmin: Can I ask something? When did you first learn about Palestine?

Manatsu: The very first time I learned about Palestine, and I'll be completely honest, was back when I was in junior high, when I was in Japan in world history class, But as it was world history class—and I don't know how the United States world history class and the Japan world history class teach differently—but what I learned in that class was that the state of Israel and the state of Palestine have been in conflict since 1948. That was the deepest that we got, and we didn't touch much on it, but that's where I first learned about Palestine.

Naqaa Sammor: Wow.

Manatsu: It has been very recent that I really got to listen and educate myself and do research. And as allies, we do bear witness of what's really happening in the West Bank and Gaza.

Aya Samara: So Manatsu, how did it feel to perform my words in front of that huge crowd in the street with the counter-protesters behind you? Tell us.

Manatsu: I will be very honest: at the moment, I did not know that there were counter-protesters behind me. I only learned that there were counter-protesters behind us when we were performing after I saw the footage. But I knew that someone was yelling and someone was making noise.

Also just the experience of reading your words and the words that came straight from Freedom Theatre and Jenin refugee camp—I felt the weight of your words. I remember right before reading your words in front of the crowd, the people… I never get nervous or shaky, but my legs were shaking. It was different from being nervous. And after reading, I was thinking, why was my leg shaking?

I am ashamed, but I admit it: I don't think I've ever committed to such a weight of words to deliver the whole weight of the messages and the intentions via words through my body, through the voice that I have. I don't think I've ever committed to bearing and delivering that much weight. And I think that's why my legs were shaking because it was the first time to bear such weight. And I'm really honored and grateful that I got to read it.

Two artists with scripts in hand performing at a protest.

Manatsu Tanaka and Keri Eglimez performing pieces from Youth Against Invasion during the Cultural Resistance March.

Monica Hunken: Yeah. We were so thankful that Manatsu was able to continue that because that was the moment that the counter-protesters joined us. Before that it was very smooth. We'd taken the streets, and the performances were happening. Then the counter-protesters stayed with us, yelling the whole time with big megaphones throughout the rest of the march. And as you all said so eloquently, that's because they know how powerful we are and how powerful cultural resistance is.

In the performance right after Manatsu spoke, we had a singer, and her voice was so bell clear and so powerful and beautiful that it silenced the protests for that time. There were like five hundred people with us; they were all quiet for that moment in the street in Times Square, one of the noisiest places in New York City, in the world.

We've gone on lots of marches and protests, and there's something very different about when you bring art and you theatre and music into protest. It shifts how people can enter that space, and it connects them, as you all said, to their emotionality, to their spirit, to their heart, to their imaginations. And I think that that's something that can help sustain this fight for longer. Otherwise, we get so worn down and so burnt out from just protesting, but art creates this foundation for us.

Leah Bachar: On that same route of the march, another artist, Natalia de Campos, an activist, also read Chantal's words towards the end of the march. And again, these counter-protesters… I mean the noise, it was just a lot of screaming to try to shut us up. We pushed forward, knowing that we had a responsibility to the words that we were going to say and knowing that we were connected all the way across the world to other people.

With art, we're actually creating a new version of the world, new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of being with each other, new ways of spreading information. Even while we're being attacked, we know other people are listening to what we're saying.

What this is doing for everybody around the world is waking us all up, but together, and realizing that we are no different in many ways. It's not that there's somebody across the world and we don't understand. That could be us. And we all need each other to be in solidarity that way because we also face issues of censorship and our government.

Even if I don't know you, I haven't seen you in person, I know you because I'm reading your words, I'm saying them. And that alone carries a lot of weight, as Manatsu was saying. It's heavy, but in a powerful way, not in a negative way.

A group of protesters carrying a sign in support of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

Marchers at the Cultural Resistance March.

Manatsu: Art does connect people. Yasmin, how do you build connections with other artists in other countries during these times?

Yasmin: As you just said, it is a very powerful tool to use arts to find connection between you and another human being.

The other day we were kidding. I was saying, "I think we are trending now. Palestine is trending now." Since we're trending and a lot of people have a lot of opinions about it. Mostly we really are finding a lot of connections nowadays with people who are searching for ways to be in solidarity with Palestine, who are researching more to know about Palestine and about what is happening in Gaza and what is happening in the West Bank and all of it.

It's very human to find a connection with someone on a very... I don't know. I really can't find the word to express it, but it… you found a way to connect with someone on a human level about something that is really inhuman. Talking about something really is very brutal and hard and harsh.

Naqaa: I think that the relationships are easy to form because we have many acquaintances in theatre, and also the activities that we do and the writing makes us get to know people more and form a relationship. Every year, for example, we hold a festival with Monica and Leah. And many artists from different parts of the world come to it. This is good for forming many actors' relationships.

We would love to have more freedom of speech. We would love to have a free Palestine. We hope for a lot.

Manatsu: What advice would you give to other young theatre artists?

Aya: I would say to them, keep living your emotions and feelings as they are. Because for us, we possess a lot of feelings, and sometimes it's hard to express that feelings and emotions. They accumulate. We find ourselves stuck in the image of heroes, so that is a stripping away humanity. It's okay to feel weak or helpless. Fight the obstacles and keep going because art and theatre is a need, not a luxury.

Naqaa: I can say a sentence. You'll not truly understand what we are going through as an actress process unless you're Palestinian and study theatre in the middle of the Jenin camp.

Manatsu: What are your hopes for the future of The Freedom Theatre?

Yasmin: I really hope that all of these students that will be the leaders of The Freedom Theatre and will be taking the word from all the generations that passed through the years.

And yeah, to grow. To grow. We would love to have more freedom of speech. We would love to have a free Palestine. We hope for a lot. And of course, we will keep on fighting as The Freedom Theatre to go there and to be free, of course, for liberation in all aspects of life.

Chantal Rizkalla: I hope to feel safer. That's it. A simple hope. Simple dream.

Aya: The same as Chantal. I hope things get better and to become more safe because now we can't consider any place as a safe place.

Naqaa: And we want freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom.

Yasmin: Definitely.

Naqaa: Yes.

Yasmin: Monica, Leah, what do you hope for The Freedom Theatre? You're part of the family.

Monica: We hope that you’re safe. We hope that it gets built even bigger and that everyone, anyone can access it. That Mustafa gets free soon and safe and that all Freedom Theatre members are protected and safe. That we can come work with you again.

It's a historic, incredible space that people around the world love and know, and everybody knows the name of The Freedom Theatre now. We become more free by you being free there.

Leah: The Freedom Theatre really is this oasis in the middle of all these stories of conflict. It's not just conflict: it's power, it's resistance, it's beauty, it's art. All of us now are here to help spread that word for many generations to come, after we're long gone as well.

Yasmin: Growing the family of The Freedom Theatre is really very empowering for us. The support and all the things that you are doing, not only for The Freedom Theatre , but also for Palestine in general, is very appreciated. Always I'm asked, "How can we support? What can we do? How can we get more involved?" And I think there are so many ways.

Before, it was possible to come to Palestine and be, and soon it'll be again possible for people to come to be in The Freedom Theatre in Palestine and in the acting school and on the stage of The Freedom Theatre to volunteer, to work, to do anything you would like to do. And also, I would like to say that we see everything that you are doing and we also try as much as possible to stay connected with people. Reading the text, The Revolution’s Promise and Youth Against Invasion always is very appreciated.

So yeah, I mean, you can always support, you can always give solidarity and be in solidarity. You can go to our website, read more about the projects that we're doing, look at the schedule for the performances that we are doing currently around the world. Maybe you could come and see and meet us in person as people who work in The Freedom Theatre.

Thank you very much, everyone. That was really, really nice. And yeah, I mean, that was very heartwarming. And maybe next time we can do it bigger and with more people. And maybe next time it would be sitting next to each other in The Freedom Theatre in Palestine, yes?

Leah: Yes.

Monica: Yes. Thank you everyone who joined us online as well. Please amplify and help get the word out about The Freedom Theatre. Thank you.

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