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The Man with a Hyphenated Identity

Life under Israel's increasingly vicious occupation of Palestine is hard not simply because of the physical conditions of existence, but because it oppresses the imagination and distorts the personality of children. In this country without playgrounds, Juliano Mer Khamis and his Freedom Theatre proved a threat, not only to the Zionist state but also to the Islamic fundamentalists, who could not accept his identity of being equally Palestinian and Israeli.






The Man with a Hyphenated Identity

Sudhanva Deshpande

Life under Israel’s increasingly vicious occupation of Palestine is hard not simply because of the physical conditions of existence, but because it oppresses the imagination and distorts the personality of children. In this country without playgrounds, Juliano Mer Khamis and his Freedom Theatre proved a threat, not only to the Zionist state but also to the Islamic fundamentalists, who could not accept his identity of being equally Palestinian and Israeli.

Sudhanva Deshpande (sudhanva@leftword. com) is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and works as an editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi.

n 4 April 2011, Juliano Mer Khamis exited the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and got into his car. With him were his infant son and his babysitter. Before Mer Khamis could drive away, a young man walked up to the car and shot him several times at close range. The child was unhurt, and the babysitter suffered very minor injuries. The man then put a mask over his head and escaped.

This was not an unexpected attack. The Freedom Theatre had been attacked with Molotov cocktails in the past, its door tor ched, and Mer Khamis himself had received threats. “But what choice do I have? To run? I am not a fleeing man,” he said in an interview. “I am an elite force man, formerly of the paratroopers. The only two things I gained from Israeli culture are Shlonsky’s translations of Shakespeare and adequate field training. Now I need it.”1 In the end, even the field training given to Israeli elite troops proved inadequate to save Mer Khamis.

Economic & Political Weekly

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In his death, the world has lost a brave and imaginative artist.

Juliano Mer Khamis was 52 years old. He was an actor and a director. He had acted in several films, including one opposite Diane Keaton in the adaptation of John Le Carre’s thriller, The Little Drum

mer Girl, and in Amos Gitai’s Kippur. He got many offers from Hollywood, where they wanted to make him the next Antonio Banderas. He certainly had the looks. But he preferred to stay in Israel/Palestine, and work at the Freedom Theatre he had set up in 2006.

The Freedom Theatre itself has a fascinating history. The precursor to the theatre was the Care and Learning Project set up by Juliano’s mother Arna Mer in 1989 during the first Intifada. Arna was an Israeli Jew, and had taken part in the Arab-Israel war of 1948. Subsequently, she joined the Communist Party of Israel and there she met, and later married, Saliba Khamis, a Christian Arab and Secretary of the Party. Juliano was named after Salvatore Guiliano, a handsome Italian bandit who led a revolt of landless peasants against landlords in Italy.

A man with a hyphenated identity, Juliano, then, was an Israeli-Arab- Christian-Jew. Or, as he famously put it, “I am 100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish”.


Arna worked in the Jenin refugee camp, possibly the worst of all camps in Palestine. She drew the children into the theatre. These were children for whom destruction of homes and livelihood was a fact of life. For whom death was a fact of life.

‘We Are Not Good Christians’

Juliano’s 2003 award-winning documentary, Arna’s Children, chronicles this work, and much more. This film is a most remarkable document of our times – it gives an insight into life under occupation, and even more remarkably, it showed the world, for the first time, the faces and biographies of the young men who fought and resisted during the second Intifada. These were preadolescent children when Arna worked with them in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1993, she was awarded the “Alternate Nobel Prize”, the money from which went into the theatre. By the time the second Intifada began in September 2000, the children had grown up to be young men. Many took to arms. Many fell to arms.

In the film, we see young Ala sitting listlessly on the rubble of his home. Arna talks about it to the children. Why did Ala sleep in his aunt’s home last night, she asks. They tell her. Sitting next to Ala is Ashraf, with an angelic face. His house was next door to Ala’s. It got destroyed when they destroyed Ala’s house. Who did that, asks Arna. The Israeli army, says Ashraf. What will you do to the army, asks Arna? I will kill them, says Ashraf. Show me, says Arna, I am the army. Ashraf gets up, and starts hitting Arna playfully. She then gives the children paper, which they tear to shreds. All right, says Arna, this is anger. And when we get angry, we have to express it. She then gives them paint and paper, and asks them to express their anger in a painting.

Years later, when Ashraf is already dead and Ala has become a fighter, Juliano meets him and asks if he remembers the painting he had done as a child in Arna’s workshop. Yes, says Ala. It was a house with a Palestinian flag on it. At the end of the film, Ala is dead too.

One of the critiques of the film has been that Arna’s work did not prevent the children from taking up arms in later life. Such a critique misses the point of the work that Arna – and Juliano – were doing. It would have been so nice had Arna been a simple do-gooder, who healed tormented children by drawing them into the world of art. But Arna was not a dogooder. She was a militant. In an interview with Maryam Monalist Gharavi in 2006, Juliano spoke about his mother’s work, as well as his own in the Freedom Theatre:

You don’t have to heal the children in Jenin. We didn’t try to heal their violence. We tried to challenge it into more productive ways. And more productive ways are not an alternative to resistance. What we were doing in the theatre is not trying to be a replacement or an alternative to the resistance of the Palestinians in the struggle for liberation. Just the opposite. This must be clear. I know it’s not good for fundraising, because I’m not a social worker, I’m not a good Jew going to help the Arabs, and I’m not a philanthropic Palestinian who comes to feed the poor. We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle. ...We’re not healers. We’re not good Christians. We are freedom fighters.

Country without a Playground

Arna Mer died of cancer in 1994. Her theatre was demolished during the second Intifada in 2002. Four years later, the Freedom Theatre was born. “The Freedom Theatre will provide the children of the camp a


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tranquil environment to express themselves and create”, wrote Juliano. Some of the key people involved in the establishment of the theatre, apart from Mer Khamis, were Zakaria Zubeidi, a former military leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Jonatan Stanczak, a Swedish-Israeli activist and Dror Feiler, a Swedish-Israeli artist. A number of artists from across the globe have also gone and worked with the Freedom Theatre in the past five years.

Working in Jenin is not easy. Try doing an image search on the internet for “Palestine children”. Thousands of images show up – of children injured and dead, of boys throwing stones at Israeli tanks. Yet, strikingly, there is none of a park or a playground. Palestine is a country without a playground. Working with children in these circumstances poses its own challenge. “Each and every one of our students bears marks of bullet wounds, severe beatings, torture or psychological traumas. This is the language of the occupying power”, Mer Khamis said in an interview. Israel has destroyed libraries, cultural centres, schools in the Palestinian areas, and has prevented people from one area to communicate with others. It is as if “the switch of light and life of the Palestinians


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was turned off”, as Mer Khamis put it. Life under occupation is hard not simply because of the physical conditions of existence. The occupation oppresses the imagination and distorts the personality of children, it takes away their right to childhood.

Before the Freedom Theatre was established, many residents had not even seen a play, let alone taken part in theatrical activity. The theatre had to win the trust of the community, an incredibly challenging task, given that boys and girls work together, and the theatre often takes up issues that are considered taboo. “One of the aims of the Israeli occupation is to conquer and divide, and I am sorry to say that they are succeeding”, Mer Khamis said. In addition, being under occupation means that the culture and identity of the Palestinians is also sought to be erased. Theatre helps restore a colonised people’s dignity and becomes a weapon in the struggle for equity and justice.

Zakaria Zubeidi is living testimony to how theatre can change lives. The former militant has given up arms, gained a full amnesty from the Israeli state, and has joined the cultural struggle against the occupation. As Mer Khamis put it, “Zakaria now devotes his life to pave the way for The Freedom Theatre in the hearts of the people in the Camp and protects it from negative elements that see the theatre as a threat to religious and/or traditional values.” The Freedom Theatre today runs a three-year professional theatre school programme, the only one of its kind in Palestine. In addition, it also runs regular photography and video film-making workshops. Visiting artists also offer workshops in different arts and skills. Over the past five years, the theatre has done incredible work, and hopefully Juliano’s comrades will find ways of overcoming the tragedy of his killing and continue the work.

The question, obviously, is who killed Juliano Mer Khamis. One would think that the Israelis would consider his work a threat. Maybe they did. But his work was equally a threat to the Islamic fundamentalist organisations in Jenin itself. The Freedom Theatre’s production of Animal Farm earned their ire because one of the characters is a pig. Alice in Wonderland challenges patriarchal authority. Someone had distributed pamphlets against the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and Mer Khamis was denounced as a Zionist agent. “It makes [the Islamic fundamentalists] crazy that a man who is half-Jewish is at the head of one of the most important projects in the Palestinian West Bank and it is just hypocritical racism”, Mer Khamis said. “I have never been as Jewish as I am right now in Jenin. After all this work at the camp it would be extremely unfortunate to die of a Palestinian bullet”, he added presciently. Unsurprisingly, the man arrested for the murder is a former Al-Aqsa Brigades militant.

A section of the left in India equates the anti-Americanism of Islamic fundamentalists of the west Asia with anti- imperialism. The killing of Juliano Mer Khamis, among other things, underlines the myopia of this approach.

Dying in Palestine

Life in Palestine is unlike anywhere on the planet. But death in Palestine is also unlike anywhere else. When Arna died, it was impossible to bury her. Mer Khamis narrated the story in an interview:

My mother could not be buried because she refused to be buried in a religious ceremony or funeral. Israel is not a democracy; it’s a theocracy. The religion is not separated from the state so all issues concerning the privacy of life – marriage, burial and many other aspects – are controlled by the religious authorities, so you cannot be buried in a civilian funeral. The only way to do it is buy a piece of land in some kibbutzim, which refused to sell us a piece of land because of the politics of my mother. ...I had to take the coffin home. And it stayed in my house for three days and I could not find a place to bury her. So I announced in a press conference that she was going to be buried in the garden of my house. There was a big scandal, police came, a lot of TV and media [came], violent warnings were issued against me. There were big demonstrations around the house, till I got a phone call from friends from a kibbutz. ...They offered a piece of land there. And the funny thing is that while we were looking for a place to bury my mother, there were discussions in Jenin to offer me to bring her for burial there, in the shahid’s [martyr’s] graveyard. They told me there was one Fatah leader, who was humorously saying, ‘Well, guys, look, it’s an honour to have Arna with us here, a great honour, the only thing is maybe in about fifty years’ time some Jewish archaeologists will come here and say there are some Jewish bones here and they’re going to confiscate the land of Jenin’ [Laughs]. They do it. Even if they find the Jewish bones of a dog, they take the place. . . . Every place they confiscate they find the bones of a Jew and that’s how they justify the ownership of the land, by finding bones.

Like his mother, Juliano was mourned on both sides of the divide. He was buried in the same kibbutz, next to Arna. Mother and son, artists and freedom fighters, shining lights in a dark world, getting darker.


1 See id=1423896. For more interviews of Juliano Mer Khamis, see and http://www.jada ano-mer-khamis-%2 820 05%29. Some of the quotes here are from an interview I got on the email from the interview conducted in 2006 by Maryam Monalist Gharavi, circulated on the multitudes e-group, an edited version of which is available at For more information on The Freedom Theatre, see www.thefreedomtheatre. org. Also see the Wikipedia pages on Juliano Mer Khamis and Arna Mer. Arna’s Children can be viewed at cid=9004838847737803917#.

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