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Death and Art in Palestine

Nabil Al-Ra’ee and The Freedom Theatre

Nabil Al-Ra’ee
Nabil Al-Ra’ee. Photo courtesy of The Freedom Theatre. 

Nabil Al-Ra’ee, artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Palestine’s occupied territories, has been arrested and interrogated by both the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority and faces the constant threat of reprisals for his work. The danger is unequivocal. The Freedom Theatre’s former director, Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli/Palestinian actor and director (who used to say he was 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish), was shot dead two years ago by a masked man as he left the theater. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “Israeli occupation forces have repeatedly raided the theater and beaten and arbitrarily arrested employees.” The theater is under siege from all sides—by the forces of the occupation, religious conservatives opposed to change, and the Palestinian Authority. But during his recent visit to Washington, DC—a guest of the Kennedy Center, where he participated on a panel entitled “Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater” with participants from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US—Nabil dwelt less on the threats to his safety and more on the quotidian challenges of teaching cultural resistance and using theater to awaken hope in the Refugee Camp of Jenin.


The Freedom Theatre’s former director, Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli/Palestinian actor and director (who used to say he was 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish), was shot dead two years ago by a masked man as he left the theater.


The camp, founded in 1953 for Palestinians forced out of Haifa and surrounding villages in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, has a population of 17,000, all of whom live in one square kilometer. The Freedom Theatre aims to provide an alternative kind of education, one which encourages imagination, through its theater and professional training programs which expose young people to acting and the performing arts. Its theater school—the first in Northern Palestine—works to restore in its students a sense of agency, self-awareness, an understanding of the reality around them, and the ability to dream.

“One of the most important things the occupation has succeeded in doing,” Nabil says, “is to kill hope, to shut down the mind, and to kill the imagination. You can’t dream. You have a limit.” As a first exercise, students are instructed to seriously consider what they want for themselves and their lives. “It’s very difficult when you ask someone what is your dream and he says I want to die,” Nabil muses. “This is what you hear all the time.” That difficulty—like all the others—has only solidified his resolve to change lives through his work with the theater.

The Freedom Theatre was established in 2006 when Juliano Mer Khamis went back to see what had become of the young boys who had attended a theater school his mother, Arna Mer Khamis, had begun in 1992. She won the Alternative Nobel Prize for her work with the children there and with the prize money established the Stone Theater, built on the top of one of the boy’s houses. During the second Intifada (2000-2005), in 2002, the Stone Theater was demolished, like most of the houses in the camp. Juliano, tracking down the children who had been his mother’s students, found that all but one was dead. (Juliano documented his search in the film Arna’s Children.) With the surviving student, Zacharia Zubeidi, and with the help of Swedish citizen Jonatan Stanczak, they founded The Freedom Theatre. Juliano invited Nabil to direct the theater’s first production. It was a success. After a hiatus in Japan, Nabil has stayed with the theater.

Nabil Al-Ra’ee with his daughter on her first birthday. Photo courtesy of Nabil Al-Ra’ee. 

Of his introduction to Freedom Theater, Nabil says, “From the first moment Juliano shook my hand and said ‘Welcome to the Revolution,’ I thought, okay, I understand that word but I don’t know exactly what you mean, what is revolution, but I understood: the struggle every day to create some hope, a platform for dreams; to exist; to feel that you are normal and you have grief and can laugh, and inside of that situation it’s not an easy thing.”

In the first year of the three-year theater program, students devise their own plays. In the second year, they mount professionally directed and designed productions of plays chosen in collaboration with Nabil, plays that speak to their situation in an oblique fashion. One of the plays the theater chose to perform was George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  “We believed that it was really perfect for the political environment at that time. It was perfectly amazing to show the cooperation between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority and how the Palestinian Authority became the hands of the Israeli Occupation, how they started to behave like the pigs in Animal Farm, living in the house like human beings instead of animals and instead of helping their friends.” The production had its costs. Nabil was detained and interrogated by the Palestinian Authority for three weeks after the run of the play and was not allowed to leave the country for a year. 

Another play chosen by the theater for its symbolic echoes of the Israeli occupation was Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. In Nabil’s view, the play lays out the kind of bad communication that exists in Palestinian society. “We can look at each other but we don’t hear each other, we can listen but we are not actually listening, we can talk but we are not really speaking our heart or our mind. And at the same time it’s a very good example for the occupation. Someone came as a guest and he’s sitting in the house and he wants to take the house from that guy and this is what happened with us in Palestine, this is how the Israelis came to Palestine and took it and presented their own story—that land was empty, and no one was there.” As the final month of rehearsal neared, Nabil was arrested by the Israeli army. During his forty-day detention, his interrogators asked him why he was doing plays that focused on the occupation when there were supposedly bigger problems in Africa and a conflict in Syria.

The Freedom Theatre has toured internationally in America, Brazil and Sweden with two of their productions: The Island and Suicide Note from Palestine. Although The Freedom Theatre has workshops in photography, journalism, and writing, as well as theater, in Nabil’s view, theater is an especially powerful tool. “Theater is a place where you really can try and try and repeat and make mistakes and evaluate them and analyze them and reflect on them and present different stories. These stories need time to grow. The learning process takes really days and years for the one who is inside of the theater to grow up and understand himself first and then the others. Theater is a way of showing directions, to create actors on the stage of theater and on the stage of life. We believe in freeing the individual and then going to the collective freedom that we are looking for.”

The day before the panel presentation at the Kennedy Center, Nabil received news that three young men had been killed in the camp in an army raid. “It’s very difficult when you go to the family of one of these young people killed and…what can you say, what can theater and art bring? But if you believe that you need to live, this is the most important thing. You don’t have to die, to sacrifice yourself, no. No, you have to live. That’s why theater is important. It’s a place where you can secretly in public scream about your problems, your own pain, your dreams, you can share and many people will see it and many people will hear your story and the story of your friends. You don’t have to die for them. You have to live in order to hold their stories, to put those stories on stage, to make a film about it.”

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Freedom Theatre reminds us all of the necessity of imagination and creativity in people´s lives, and the dedication people like Nabil Al Ra´ee and Juliano Mer Khamis are willing to go to tell a story, to teach, and to share. The living example of the Freedom Theatre´s activities in and outside of Palestine is inspiring.

The story of the Freedom Theatre is an important one to tell, but why no discussion of the unsolved crime or Mer Khamis' assassination? Or the complex story of co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi who has gone from leader of the Al-Asqa Martyr Brigades to renouncing violence, but has been imprisoned by Palestinian Authority without charge since 2012?

Point being that it's a very complex narrative with unanswered questions and in many cases, neither the Freedom Theatre's admirers nor detractors know the full story.

Ian, I had a word limit and, since this is an article for HowlRound, I wanted to keep the focus on theater, how Freedom Theatre uses theater and why. I didn't mention Zakaria Zubeidi's detention, though I linked to the Human Rights Watch report, which describes it, because by the time I was writing the article he had been out of prison for quite a while and had been cleared of all charges (he was in prison for 4 months and then formally charged and released on bail in the fall of 2012. He was finally cleared of all charges on March 5, 2014.) To go into Juliano Mer Khamis' death would have required a longer, investigative article. Again, Human Rights Watch does a good job of outlining it. The point I was making in mentioning it is that there is an atmosphere of danger and intimidation, and the staff of Freedom Theatre confronts that atmosphere daily. The fact that his death is unsolved and unpunished must contribute to the sense of danger there. Here is a long article that does go into detail about the various theories surrounding his death, including Nabil al-Ra'ee's: http://jfjfp.com/?p=51843

The Freedom Theatre is one of the great educational, artistic, and peace-building initiatives, most likely, in the world. Thanks for high-lighting their amazingly important cultural and humane work.