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Waiting for Freedom
The Freedom Theatre of Jenin's While Waiting
Juliano Mer Khamis and his colleagues Jonatan Stancyk and Zakaria Zubeidi opened The Freedom Theatre in 2006 under unusually difficult circumstances. The Jenin Refugee Camp has a population of 16,000 people who were expelled from their homes in and around Haifa during the 1948 Nakba (in Arabic, “catastrophe”) and in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Mer Khamis estimated that 70% of the population in the camp is unemployed. During the 2002 Battle of Jenin 1,400 homes were destroyed or partially demolished, 1 in 3 people were again rendered homeless, curfews were imposed, and homes were invaded by Israeli soldiers. Residents suffer from a lack of secure housing and from rampant malnutrition.
“The Freedom Theatre,” declared Mer Khamis, who ran the theatre until he was assasinated on April 4, 2011, “is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation with poetry, music, theatre, cameras. The Israelis succeeded [in destroying] our identity, our social structures, political [and] economical. Our duty as artists is to rebuild or reconstruct this destruction. Who we are, why we are, where we are going, who we want to be.” In a 2009 interview with the BBC, he said: “To be free is to be able to criticize. To be free is to be able to express yourself freely. To be free is to be free first of all [from the] chains of tradition, religion, [and] nationalism (in a dark way I mean). Then you can start to free yourself from others.”
“We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras, and magazines” declared Mer Khamis. His goal was for The Freedom Theatre to “generate a political artistic movement of artists who are going to raise their voices against women’s discrimination, against children’s discrimination, against violence.” To this end, The Freedom Theatre teaches courses in film, photography, creative writing, and drama therapy. the company offers a three-year theater training program and it has produced original adaptations of the famous Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun,[i] George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
In fall 2011 the first class of graduates from the theatre’s training program toured universities in the Northeastern United States, speaking to students, training with professionals, and performing While Waiting, their culminating project with the Freedom Theatre (directed by Udi Aloni in the wake of Mer Khamis’s murder). As a supporter of the group and an organizer of the tour, I had an opportunity to see this extraordinary production several times.
An adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, While Waiting begins with a comedy routine about what it’s like to tour a production from Palestine: “Palestinians suffer from a lot of discrimination,” a performer informs the audience. “Not only at the checkpoints. Most people arrive at the airport three hours before their flight. But we, the Freedom Theatre, when we booked our flight we booked fifteen days in New York, and three nights in the airport. The airport stay was like a spa: it was hot, I was naked, and I got a special Security massage…And then, when we got on the flight, I saw that the bathroom says ‘Occupied.’ Occupied! You have been occupying my bathroom for 63 years!” This comic monologue, delivered by Adi Khalefa, specifically locates the production in occupied Palestine, centering the production as a whole on what Didi (Maryam Abu Khaled) and Gogo (Batoul Taleb) do while waiting for freedom, while waiting for a state. This production asks who and what one becomes while waiting, how to behave toward those who share the wait, and how to live a semblance of a normal life without normalizing the Occupation, without giving in to it or giving up on the notion of freedom.
This production asks what happens to the humanity of those who are waiting. It is also examines the ways in which Did and Gogo fill their time with endless acts of creativity in order to survive; in this sense it is also about the power of theatre. Freedom seems like it will never appear. A young girl (played by Milay Mer, Mer Khamis’ daughter) seems to know Godot is out there somewhere, but she has never met him directly, and has no information to offer about what he is like. Freedom, like Godot, is a remote and vague concept, more rumor than reality.
Didi and Gogo are both played by women here. Gogo is not tortured by stones in his boots, but by high heels: by fashion, by socially determined notions of beauty and normative definitions of appropriate behavior for women. For her Godot also represents freedom from gender discrimination.
Pozzo (Rami al-Awni) is extremely wealthy: he wears a crisp white suit with a dashing tie, and carries a basket of appetizing chicken, which Gogo pounces on as if she has not eaten in days. Pozzo has two servants, (Moemen Switat and Eyad Hourani) both dressed poorly, and suffering under the weight of luggage they carry on their shoulders like refugees from the Nakba.
During rehearsals cast members were continuously harassed by the Israeli army: al-Awni was held for three weeks without access to a lawyer, and Switat was forced to attend interrogation sessions daily both before and after rehearsals. As a result, the company decided to cast three people in the role of Lucky so that one would always be able to rehearse; in New York there were only two actors playing the role because the third did not obtain a U.S. visa.
In a post-performance discussion at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, the young actors talked about what the play means to them. For Abu Khaled the drama is about her personal situation after Mer Khamis’ death: “We are waiting for Godot, waiting for some
thing, waiting for our future.” For Taleb, Beckett’s tragicomedy is about “waiting for freedom.” Hourani said: “I’m waiting for all of us to be human.” For Mustafa Staiti, who created the video clips used in the production, “it’s not only about sitting and waiting, it’s about doing something, and start[ing] to take responsibility, because all the Palestinian people have been waiting for a leader. It’s about: stop waiting and start doing something. This is what this play means to me.”
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