Stand up for West Bank's Freedom theatre
Playwright Howard Brenton on how it's time to stop the harassment and detention of members of Jenin's Freedom theatre – and it isn't just Israel
What price the freedom to put on plays? The odd bad review in the Daily Telegraph (if you're me)? Or protesters at Shakespeare's Globe (if you're performing in Habima theatre's Israeli version of The Merchant of Venice)?
Or how about being picked up at a checkpoint because you're an actor, or made to stand by a theatre wall in the middle of the night with your trousers down because you're a theatre technician? Or being taken off to a detention centre and denied a lawyer or family visit ? Or being shot in the head with your baby son in your lap because you're an artistic director?
All these are part of the price being paid by the staff of the Freedom theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp on the West Bank. On 3 April last year, its artistic director and co-founder, the Arab-Israeli actor and peace activist Juliano Mer Khamis, got into his car outside the theatre with his son Jay and a babysitter. Reports vary as to the exact details, but it appears that 100 yards from the theatre he was waved down, then shot five times in the head by a masked gunman, who fled into the maze of the camp's alleys. Jay was uninjured, the babysitter hit in the arm. No one has yet been apprehended for Mer Khamis's murder. From that shocking day there has been what can only be seen as a systematic harassment of the Freedom theatre by the Israeli army.
On 27 July last year, masked Israeli soldiers attacked the theatre in the middle of the night. They hurled blocks of stone, smashing their way into the auditorium. Adnan Naghnaghiye, the theatre's head technician, and Bilal Saadi, its chairperson, were taken away. Then in August Rami Awni Hwayel, a 20 year-old student at the theatre's film school who was about to perform in the theatre's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland – an extraordinary project for the West Bank, typical of the Freedom theatre's élan – was stopped at a checkpoint, singled out from among other students and taken away handcuffed and blindfolded.
And just last week the theatre's present artistic director, Nabil Al-Raee, was abducted in the middle of the night by the Israeli army. His wife, Micaela Miranda, described the scene in testimony published by the theatre: "The dog started barking so I went outside and saw soldiers jumping over the gate and come into the yard of the house. They asked for my husband and I asked what for, for it's my right to know and it's my house. The soldiers replied they were not going to tell me. They then took Nabil, brought him to an army jeep and drove off." Al-Raee is now reported to be in the Jalameh detention centre, north of Jenin, inside Israel. According to the theatre, interrogations at Jalameh commonly involve sleep deprivation, psychological pressure, binding in painful positions.
Now the intimidation of the theatre's staff and their families is ever more frequent – and it's not just the Israeli army. The Palestinian Authority has also joined in the attacks. On 13 May Zakaria Zubeidi, a co-founder of the theatre, was arrested by them and taken to Jericho prison. He has not been allowed visits by a lawyer or his family.
The Freedom theatre began as a community project for young people of both sexes. It has expanded into an arts project for the West Bank that also entertains an enthusiastic adult audience; it has started an acting school, and recently launched a film school to train young people for the growing Palestinian film industry. It is a small pool of enlightenment and joy in a dark place.
Israel: many of us defended your National Theatre's right to perform recently at the Globe in London. From the same argument, stop your attacks on the Freedom theatre and release its artists from your prisons.
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