Juliano Mer-Khamis made the movie Arna’s Children about his mother’s Jenin theatre company, the children he taught there when young, and what became of them.
When I told my 21-year-old daughter Ana about Juliano’s death she could just not figure out why. She said more eloquently than I can precisely quote: “Why would they murder someone who was trying to heal people, trying to use a peaceful means to resolve issues or using acting and art as a way for people to explore their lives.” She could simply not understand why the director of this beautiful and moving theatre in Jenin, where she had spent a full day about a year ago, had been murdered. We had driven to Jenin from East Jerusalem. Jenin was different than other West Bank cities we had visited. Pictures of Palestinian “martyrs” were on the lampposts and there were Palestinian military on the corners with large weapons. While I always felt safe, this was clearly a militant Palestinian city. And of course, it was the home of the Jenin refugee camp that had been brutally attacked by Israel in April 2002.
But the theatre was like an oasis. We parked our car in the front of a building built of Jerusalem limestone and spent a remarkable day. Part of it was with a young man who taught photography. Many of his students were women and their large color photos were mounted in an exhibition hall. Each one told a story. Sometimes it was of oppression within their own family—there was a particularly strong photo of a very ripe tomato split in half, its red juice flowing on to the pavement and symbolizing the blood shed in an honor killing; sometimes it was the oppression of the Israelis and the inability of the refugees to return to their villages symbolized by a fish looking bug eyed out of a fish bowl. Each was the story of a young photographer grappling with a difficult reality. We asked the teacher how it was for the teenagers when they returned to their homes in the camp. He said it was difficult, especially for the girls. They were doubly or triply oppressed: oppressed within their families, by the Israelis and sometimes by the Palestinian government as well. Ana was so moved by the photographs that she asked the teacher to send them. She reproduced them digitally and had a small photo show at her college.
The teacher himself had his own story of oppression. He showed us one of his student movies, for while he was a photo teacher he was also a movie student. The movie was about his teen age sister who had dared to speak to a boy at school. When he heard about it from friends, he came home and hit his sister. It was a shocking scene because there we were sitting next to this wonderful, gentle man. But he had learned and the movie was part of his long apology to his sister.
We also saw part of the Animal Farm play. It was based on the Orwell book, but in this version the human oppressors were the Israelis and the animals the Palestinians. As the animals revolt and take over, they eventually oppress their own people. But this was not politics grafted on to a play. This was Juliano and others working with the young people to bring out their own experiences of oppression and anger and act them out in the play. However, the political message could not be missed. The PA (Palestine Authority) was the oppressor. I asked Juliano how the PA let him get away with it. He said, they would come to performances, sit in the front row, sometimes laugh, but let him and the theatre be.
We then had a long lunch with Juliano and his partner. They recently had a baby. Juliano was a bear of man and affectionate. He talked and talked about his life, his acting career and his theatre. And politics. Let there be no doubt, he was highly political. While he opposed Zionism, he was not enamored of the PA. He understood the power of theatre and art to transform people’s lives. When I think of his murder, of course, I think of this wonderful man and his young child who will not get to know and love him. I also think of the scores if not hundreds of young people, like those we met at Jenin, who may no longer be able to move from repression and anger to the place where Juliano hoped his theatre could take them.