A Culture of Resistance
As Palestinian company Freedom Theatre of Jenin prepare for their Scottish debut, Mark Brown talks to artistic director Nabil Al-Raee
When the Freedom Theatre, from the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, open their play The Siege at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre on June 17 they will be making a little bit of Scottish theatre history. The performances will mark the debut in Scotland of what is, surely, one of the most remarkable and unlikely theatre companies in the world.
The Freedom Theatre was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer-Khamis, a remarkable self-defined “Palestinian Jew” who was murdered in Jenin, aged 52, in 2011. His mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, had created Freedom Theatre’s predecessor the Stone Theatre.
Making its work within the Jenin camp, Freedom Theatre is dedicated to giving the Palestinian people, youth and women in particular, a voice through art. Now, as it approaches its 10th anniversary, the company is touring the UK.
The play, The Siege, is based upon real events in and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Pursued by the tanks and helicopters of the Israeli military, a group of armed Palestinian fighters took refuge in the Church. Alongside more than 200 clergy and other civilians, they found themselves enduring a siege which would last for 39 days.
Freedom Theatre alighted on this particular story, artistic director Nabil Al-Raee tells me, because it is symbolic of the situation of the Palestinian people in general. “We picked up The Siege as a story because it relates to the bigger concept of siege [of the Occupied Territories by Israel]”, he explains.
“It also discusses the armed resistance. The fighters were locked inside the Church and they told people why they fought, what they were fighting for and what their message was.”
For Al-Raee, this latter point is crucial. The demonisation of Palestinian fighters as “terrorists”, whether by the State of Israel or much of the mass media in the West, prevents a serious consideration of why mainly young men and women take up arms against a much more powerful enemy.
“I’m not saying [the armed resistance] is bad or good”, the director continues, “but at least let us discuss that term ‘armed resistance’ and why that resistance exists.”
Almost inevitably, there were those in the UK who were, even before the British tour began, denouncing The Siege as mere pro-terrorist propaganda. “The most sad thing about the people who are saying that the play is advocating for terrorism is that none of them came and saw the play”, says Al-Raee. “They don’t actually understand what they are talking about.”
The director is proud of the drama’s capacity to promote discussion within its international audiences. “In the world outside [of Palestine/Israel], in the Arab world as well, people are starting to see how Palestinians make and present their art.
“As we open our art to the world, people begin to ask questions. This is the most important thing.”
Al-Raee is, he says, “thrilled” by the reception for The Siege in the UK. “People are saying that this is the first time they have been able to see the Palestinian armed resistance portrayed in this way. They want to understand who these people are.”
The Siege is at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, June 17-20. For more details, visit: w ww.tron.co.uk.
There will be a post-show discussion with Nabil Al-Raee and other members of the company on June 17.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 7, 2015
© Mark Brown