There are no playgrounds back home, children have no place to go out to. It’s really hard growing up in camps in Palestine. You are forced to live inside a black box,” says Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, 26. Abu Alhayjaa and his friend Ahmad Rokh, 27, are both actors of Freedom Theatre, a community-based cultural centre in Jenin Refugee Camp, West Bank. In India for the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (January 11-12), the duo stopped by Delhi to meet the crew of Janam, aka, the Jana Natya Manch, at Studio Safdar.
The theatre actors were barely in their teens when they witnessed the second intifada, a major Palestinian uprising against Israel in the early 2000s. Abu Alhayjaa says, “There’s occupation, there’s Fatah, there’s Hamas, there are other political parties… there are killings, there are intifadas; there is no freedom. So we have learnt to use art as a tool to resist the occupation. Freedom Theatre is a place for men, women and children to express themselves. In a place divided by checkpoints and patrols, it becomes important to keep the sense of a community together.” Art as a weapon of resistance was a way propagated by Juliano Mer-Khamis, who established Freedom Theatre in 2006. Mer-Khamis was killed by a masked gunman outside his theatre in 2011. The story is an echo of Janam’s Safdar Hashmi, who was killed while performing a street play in 1989.
In India, Freedom Theatre made its debut with a South African anti-apartheid play The Island (English; 50 mins), written by Athol Fugard. A tale of two prisoners, The Island was performed for sold-out audiences in Jenin, then across Sweden and the US in 2013. Says Rokh, “We chose The Island because at that point of time, there was a hunger strike in the prisons back home. We wanted to do something to show our support for the prisoners, and against edaari, under which Palestinians can be jailed without a hearing for two years.” Abu Alhayjaa adds, “Every family has felt the brunt of this system in some way or the other, through friends, fathers, brothers or children. We see ourselves as freedom fighters. India also has a history of occupation and resistance. Freedom Theatre through this play, questions why the world repeats itself in different places — South Africa, India, Palestine or elsewhere.” Their home, the Jenin Refugee Camp, has over 16,000 Palestinian refugees.
Besides The Island, their internationally travelled and well-acclaimed productions include Fragments of Palestine (2009) and Suicide Note from Palestine (2014). “Alice in Wonderland, The Island and Fragments… are just some of the plays which have helped people see how theatre can help in understanding things,” says Abu Alhayjaa, who shares a tale of “indirect” censorship in Palestine. “In 2008, we had staged George Orwell’s Animal Farm, after which unidentified people attempted to burn the theatre down at night, twice. That’s how censorship works in Palestine; it isn’t official,” he says.
Currently, their team is working on their next big production, The Siege, which will tour the UK this year.