WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Juliano Mer-Khamis: Actor, Director, Peacemaker

"When I'm onstage, I feel like I'm throwing stones. We won't let the occupation keep us in the gutter. To me, acting is like throwing a molotov cocktail. Onstage, I feel strong, alive and proud." - Ashraf Abu Al Hayja, former student student of Juliano Mer-Khamis, killed in 2002 during the Battle of Jenin.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The next time a politician, pundit, or man on the street tries telling you the arts don't matter, please tell them about the life of Juliano Mer-Khamis, Founder of The Freedom Theatre, actor and "100% Jew and 100% Arab".

Jule, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was born in Nazareth, Israel to a Jewish mother and Arab father. His Mother, Arna, was a member of the Palmach, an elite unit of the pre-Israel Jewish paramilitary armed forces. At the start of the Israeli War of Independence, Arna enthusiastically took arms for the establishment of a Jewish state. By the close of the conflict, she became disillusioned by political Zionism after helping to drive out Arabs from their homes.

Decades later, Arna founded a community center for children in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank. Initially viewed with suspicion, she slowly won over the trust of the Palestinians and provided a refuge for refugee children to paint, dance and play.

In the late 1980's and early 90's, during the first "Intifada" (One of two acknowledged major Palestinian uprisings. Literally, "shaking off".) Juliano, a popular actor of the Israeli stage and screen, came to Jenin to help his mother run the theatre on the top floor of a space donated by the mother of a young boy named Zachariah Zubeidi. During these years, Juliano filmed the work of his mother with the young boys of Jenin as she offered them an alternative outlet for their rage. In words of one of Juliano's students, Yousef:

"I can tell people how I feel. What I want and what I don't want. Whether I love life or not."

Some of the other boys discussed their own prejudices:

"We thought, he's jewish, he's come to spy on us... We thought you were spying for the occupation, but then we got to know you..."

"I thought: Why isn't there an Arab who would do this for us? Why would the jews who are the enemies of the arabs, why would they do this for us? I really wondered."

A few years after Arna's death, Juliano left Jenin to continue his career as an actor. During these years, the theatre went defunct and the boys grew up in the refugee camp as their Israeli and European friends moved on with life outside of the occupied territories. Juliano would not return to Jenin for nearly 7 years.

In 2001, Juliano received a call from a friend who had taken footage of the aftermath of a suicide attack in Hadera that killed four Israeli women. They decided to review the footage to see if they could trace the perpetrators and do something about the tragedy.

In the video above, Juliano describes his pain what he discovered (7:10):

"I discovered that it's my... It's my Yousef... He's the most talented, charming boy... "

Juliano returned to Jenin in 2002 with a camera crew, and discovered that most of the boys he taught as children had taken arms and been killed in the previous weeks. He meets up with one of the survivors, Zacariah Zubeidi, now amongst the IDF's most wanted terrorists and covers the seige of Jenin from the perspective of the Palestinians. The result of this work was the heartbreaking and emotionally honest documentary Arna's Children.

The documentary caused a major controversy, but also attracted worldwide attention and praise. Using the visibility and financial success of the documentary, Juliano made a permanent return to Jenin and opened The Freedom Theatre, a continuation of his mother's work, in the hopes that a permanent arts community in Jenin would provide an alternative to the culture of violence and martyrdom that had plagued the Palestinian liberation movement.

In 2007, a film crew came to Jenin to visit the Freedom Theatre and interview one of Juliano's former students, the sole surviving boy from the original theatre troupe in the 1980's: Zachariah Zubeidi, whose mother donated the first space where Arna would produce her children's plays. Zachariah was now one of the most highly wanted terrorists in the occupied territories and a major figure in Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades.

After the interview, Zachariah made a last minute decision to visit the Freedom Theatre. He had not set foot on a stage in nearly 16 years. At first he came to watch, but by the end of the rehearsal he had been invited onstage to work with the new generation of Palestinian actors. Performing in scenes depicting the occupation, these young artists once again channeled their anger and aggression through the medium of theatre as the original troupe of boys did years before.

After the rehearsal, Zachariah disappeared promptly, returning to his clandestine underground life. Juliano shared these words:

He never was a child... As human beings, if you give them meaning, something to live for, they're not going to become terrorists, they're not going to become violent, they're not genetically violent, they don't look for virgins in the sky...

As Zachariah says, 'I don't believe in guns. I don't believe the gun can free Palestine'. But I believe that culture, poems, songs, books can free Palestine. It's already freeing a lot of people.

Within the year, Zachariah publicaly renounced violence, gave up arms and accepted amnesty from the Israeli government. He became the co-director of the Freedom Theatre and serves in this role to this day. The one surviving son, the last of Arna's children.

Last week, Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered in front of the Freedom Theatre.

The majority of the media coverage has focused on his death and the speculation regarding the motive for his murder. I have chosen instead to ask the question:

What power does theatre have to heal nations? Is it possible that the arts are worth more than entertainment? If the civil rights movement can look back at baseball and the life of Jackie Robinson as a turning point in the struggle for racial justice, why can't we use the arts in the same way for the causes of the future?

The rejectionists of the world are always attacking the arts. From Oliver Cromwell to Joseph Stalin, repression always starts with the control or destruction of our culture. The arts are vital to the lifeblood of a civilization, just as vital as technology and philosophy.

In the aftermath of the Boston Theatre Conference, we've talked about the need to make the case for the arts in America. The arts are not a frivolous expense that benefits the elite white liberal base, despite what many will say. The arts are an investment opportunity with an incredible potential for return.

Juliano Mer-Khamis saw what happened when the boys of the camp were denied their venue for artistic expression. He founded The Freedom Theatre to make sure the future generation of Palestinians would have a real choice between cultural struggle, and useless martyrdom.

In his own words:

"We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras and magazines"

The Freedom Theatre has said they will continue their operations in spite of the violence and threats they've received for their activities. I am donating ten dollars a month in solidarity from now on. Please consider making a donation to support this cause. Find out more about The Freedom Theatre.

Juliano's documentary, Arna's Children is available in it's entirety on youtube.

Solidarity and Love to all,



  1. Yo, there's an article I'm about to send you (if I knew where to link to a pdf or html version I would, but all I've got is my own pdf copy) about musical performance of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. It's not really so much about the ability of art to heal as it is about starting to use ethnomusicology to investigate violence, terrorism, and trauma, but I figured there might be some interesting things for you in there. Here's a quick example of something I think is relevant:

    "Central to this performance-based approach is the idea that violence occurs as a mode of structuring relations of power between victims, perpetrators, and witnesses, drawing from a common lexicon or vocabulary of symbolic action. [...] Whether it is local, regional, national, or transnational, violence must be performed for an audience in order for it to have any social meaning."

    To be absolutely clear, I think this is relevant because if the nature of violence, particularly political and social violence, is as McDonald posits--and I agree that it is--then that symbolic field can be a site of intervention into violent events and dynamics without having to resort to violent means. Theater seems like a natural conduit.

    (The article is "Poetics and the Performance of Violence in Israel/Palestine" by David A. McDonald in Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Vol. 53, No. 1., Winter 2009, if someone should want to go looking for it.)

  2. Interestingly enough, this is the first essay I've read about Mer-Khamis, actually written by a theatre artist.

    Much respect to anyone whose work gives others the opportunity to renounce violence.