Jenin and the Freedom Theatre

On Sunday 21st of June the major daily Aftenposten prints a full one-page article on the city and refugee camp of Jenin on the West bank. One would imagine that there would be at least a mention of the Jenin “massacre”. Richard Starr, at the time the managing editor of the Weekly Standard, introduces an editorial like this:

PRECISELY A MONTH AGO, on April 8, the Palestinian news agency Wafa was reporting that Israel had committed the “massacre of the 21st century” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. “Medical sources” informed Wafa of “hundreds of martyrs.” This was a lie, concocted not only for local consumption–to keep the Palestinian people whipped up in a patriotic, Israel-hating frenzy–but mostly for export to the West.

That same day, you could hear breathless reports of the supposed Israeli atrocities in Jenin being spread by Palestinian sources on NPR, CNN, and elsewhere.

Aftenposten’s journalist Åshild Eidem however, choosed to emphasize the postitive aspects of the city on page 16 in the Kultur (culture) section of the paper edition of Aftenposten, Sunday 21st of June.

Photograph: four youths, three of which are reclining against a window, with the fourth taking a picture of the other three. Text: Rami Awni (in the middle) and Ahmad al-Rokh (to the right) are attending the final year at the Freedom Theatre’s theatre education. Until they started (studying) here, they dreamed about sacrificing their lives for the Palestinian cause. Now they want to become directors and actors.

Gangsters in new roles

- Gathered “baddies” to theatre school in Jenin

Rami Awni and Admad-Al-Rokh dreamt of becoming martyrs. Then in the middle of the refugee camp, which was a centre for Palestinian suicide bombers, a theatre opened.

Åshild Eidem – Jenin, Westbank

 

Something explodes in Jenin. Rami Awni (19) and Ahmad Al-Rokh (20) are on their way home after a day at a hip-hop course. It is evening, the moon shines above the mosques. Jenin refugee camp lies right next to Jenin city, but people there do not set their feet in the camp, which used to go by the names “Capitol of martyrs” and “Capitol of terror”.

The streets there are decorated with posters of martyrs – heroic images of men with rifles and bomb-belts. The cries from the minarets strike between the houses like whiplashes, echoes from barking dogs, roosters calls sounding like the cries of humans.

And then it explodes. Small explosions. It is balloons. The boys are popping them.

- I love the sound of something going off. I am used to hearing such since I was little, so it is part of my life, says Ahmad.

Then came the theatre. For only a few years ago the explosions in Jenin were from the war. During the second intifada a considerable number of the suicide attacks against Israel were organized from here, and in the spring of 2002 Israel answered by levelling large parts of the refugee camp with the earth.

In the following years Rami hung around with the rebels in the camp. He dreamed of sacrificing his life for the Palestinian cause. Then, for three years ago – in the ruins of the intifada – a theatre opened in the middle of what is one of the Westbank’s most war-ravaged areas. The founders consisted of the following unlikely trio – an Israeli actor, one of the most wanted terrorist leaders of the intifada and a Swedish nurse. The theatre focused on gathering the rebels of the refugee camp – among them were Ahmad and Rami.

- The group we called Bad Boys consisted of the worst cases in the refugee camp, they were gangsters. They walked around carrying knives and kept getting into fights, says administrative director Jonatan Stanczak, the Swede.

They all have close friends or family members who have fallen or been executed, they all bear scars from Israeli bullets or violence, almost all of them have been in Israeli jails and been subjected to torture. They no longer have anything to loose, and do not fear to give their lives for the cause. At the same time it is they who carry the potential ability and knowledge to lead change in the future, he says.

Sold ammunition. Rami’s face is marked by knives. He got into fights every day, he stole and sold rounds of ammunition.

- People hated me. They used to run away from me – they couldn’t stand me, he says.

Ahmad was arrested when the refugee camp was bombed, and when he was released, almost a month passed before he found his family again. The following years he spent in the streets of the refugee camp, making trouble. Until he suddenly started going to the Theatre School.

- The idea of a theatre in Jenin was really strange. All we were familiar with was computers, Internett and gunfire, he says.

- What made you decide to join?

- An empty life. The theatre was something new, which could provide us with a change.

Rami knew nothing of focus, systems, concentration and commitments before he began.

- The theatre has changed a lot in my life. Instead of spending time on nothing and being useless, I go to the theatre. I spend all my time in the theatre or at home, he says.

Free zone. Now Ahmad and Rami dream of becoming actors and directors.

- There is clear evidence of theatres creating social change. The Freedom Theatre is a free zone, where room is given to contemplation and creativity. Emotions, stories and memories can dance and play. Mental blocks and fear is slowly changed into self confidence, self consciousness and the ability to communicate. This new feeling of maybe mattering and being able to accomplish something is something these kids and youths spread around themselves. They defend the right of hope and belief, says Stanczak.

- Even the plays which are presented at the theatre, light a spark of this, in the same way as meetings with other cultures and religions through the thousands of guests who visit the theatre every year, he says.

Fires and death-threats. But the theatre is far from only welcome in the conservative refugee camp of Jenin. Since the beginning the theatre has received multiple threats, and during the last months the director has been threatened for his life and two attempts have been made of setting the main building on fire. On one of the occasions the door to the main entrance was set on fire. Also a music centre in Jenin was set on fire, and a poster which identified the employees at the theatre as immoral, was hung in a mosque.

- Most of the cultural institutions in the Palestinian area have the same problems. For the first thing culture is in itself a threat against society. Our goal is for people to think for themselves. For the second thing it is the role of the women. We give them a very central role in the theatre – and this is a very patriarchal society. In general this has to do with power, and the Freedom Theatre has started to upset the established hierarchy, says Stanczak.

 

They do not know who stands behind the attacks, but suspect people from the camps and the local organizations which desire control and do not like the new competition for development aid funds. 

Die for freedom. Ahmad did not dream of becoming a suicide bomber, but of fighting Israeli soldiers who seized Jenin. If there were a third Intifada, he says he would work with the theatre and art instead of fighting.

- Why did you once desire to sacrifice your lives?

- We have seen dead people and destroyed houses all the time. Of course there is no such thing as childhood, says Rami.

- Everyone in Jenin wanted to become martyrs. To achieve freedom, we die, explains Ahmad.

- Now I want to live for freedom.

 

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