The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has chalked up one more tragedy—the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a well-known actor, activist and theatre director. Mer-Khamis, like his mother Arna, was a controversial figure, stridently opposed to Israel and the Islamist elements in the territories. What does his death mean, among the deaths of so many? By RICHARD POPLAK.
On the day in 2008 I broke bread with Juliano Mer-Khamis, I took a taxi from Jerusalem to visit the project he founded in the beleaguered city he chose to call home. The West Bank is dotted with small, concrete settlements, and a few subsistence farms in the south. The northern part of the territories is a series of high, rolling hills cut through with natural terraces of bright quartz. Olive trees flash silver in the sunlight. The hills beyond are pock-marked by distant settlements, each sign-posted by a minaret. Rusted vehicles lie in mass graves on the outskirts of most towns, attended by young men coated in grease, cigarettes dangling from their lips as they pick through the automotive offal.
Jenin is a hill-town and a rather pleasant one despite its reputation. It is located high in the far north of the West Bank, gently caressed by a cool breeze. Even the misery of the camp is broken by bougainvillea, and the occasional street is lined with midget palm and oleander. As we roll into town, we honk to clear the road of girls in striped tunics, carrying their laden backpacks. The camp itself is signalled by a low, decaying archway framing a sprawl of concrete buildings, all of which seem to be under construction, sprigs of iron poking from their walls. A vast Persian rug hangs over the roof of one such building, a splash of rich red that pulls the eye toward it, into it – what was once woven as an escape portal from the monotony of the desert is a now a way out of a desultory refugee camp. A tractor driven by a teenager roars by me, an econo-sized package of toilet paper balanced on the hood. I hear goats chatter.
There is almost no sign of traditional Arabic dress in Jenin. The Rambo lone-warrior ethos is everywhere in evidence, but never more so than in the martyrdom posters that are the only form of decoration anywhere in the city. I walk into a pool hall, which is a large concrete room with two pool tables, wherein Palestinian men show off how many cigarettes they can smoke and occasionally knock some balls around. The room is pasted with dozens, if not hundreds of these sheets, broken only by the odd Abu Masr poster (Jenin, like most of the West Bank, is still nominally a Fatah stronghold).
In those posters, young men are dressed like Hollywood action heroes toting a machinegun in each hand, grenades strapped to their body. They’ve meticulously based themselves on 80s Hollywood movie action heroes. Indeed, these posters are advertisements. They have two functions: Commemoration, yes, but also, and perhaps more importantly, inducement. The brilliance of this – and can I call it anything other than a campaign? – is that it taps into the only form of escapism any teenage boy enjoys in this place – the action flick – and twists it so it applies to another purview. Hollywood doesn’t make these boys suicide murderers, but the very principles that make films like that so enjoyable are used by older, craftier men to recruit them. Be a hero, those martyrdom posters say. Kill the bad guys, and get the (72) girl(s).
By the time I get to the Freedom Theatre, the sun is high and the town is sweltering. Juliano Mer-Khamis’s brainchild is a community project honouring a woman named Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli Jewish actress who fell out with Israel due to its Palestinian policies and came to Jenin to help the children. She died of cancer in 1994, her journey detailed in the documentary “Arna’s Children” (2003), directed by her son, once a well-known Israeli theatrical actor in his own right, and came to be director of the foundation.
Before 1948, Arna Mer-Khamis was in the Palmach, an elite fighting unit. When the state of Israel was established, she veered firmly and irrevocably left, marrying a Christian Palestinian and a Communist Party leader named Saliba Khamis. She morphed into a human rights activist, started the NGO Care and Learning, dedicated to helping kids in the West Bank. The documentary details the journey of several Palestinian youths under her care, as they lose the dew of their childhood and are moulded by circumstances into the hardened killers one sees on martyrdom posters.
The documentary is nominally about Arna, dying of cancer, her hair disappearing in tufts. It’s one of those stories that should be heartwarming, but is unfortunately made by filmmakers, in this case, Juliano, along with someone named Danniel Danniel, whose souls have been swallowed by stridency, their view of the situation so utterly binary and hopelessly narrow that the film explains nothing and illuminates even less. Footage of a dying Arna Khemis spewing vitriol in front of a packed auditorium is supposed to move me somehow. It doesn’t. Instead it brings to mind Herman Melville’s words on Palestine: “The whole thing is half-melancholy, half-farcical, like all the rest of the world.” I keep thinking the whole affair is a parody of human rights activists directed by the creators of “South Park”.
It’s with “Arna’s Children” in mind that I meet the theatre’s volunteer administrator, a tiny, solemn Swede named Jonathan Stanizak. He was a male nurse who came to Jenin to volunteer, but when he heard Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade’s head, Zakariah Zubeida, speak about reopening the theatre in the wake of the second intifada, he was inspired. “It was marvellous to hear,” Jonathan tells me. “The Zionist Entity had destroyed this place, the children here were shattered and many of the young men Juliano and Arna knew were dead, martyred.” Zubeida himself was once one of Arna’s “children”.
Like much of Jenin, the theatre was razed to the ground. There was nothing resembling culture in the city. In February 2006, the only community theatre in the north of Palestine was reopened, along with an educational cinema, that “will not show Schwarzenegger number 14” insists Jonathan.
“I see. And who sets the educational syllabus,” I ask.
“Everything is done by consensus. We have 17 employees, most Palestinian, and five support organisations. We have a political and educational mandate,” says Jonathan, by way of obfuscation. “We have to be really sensitive with cinema. The whole society is becoming more and more conservative. A conservative society guided by fundamentalists will try to drown out culture. By doing what we’re doing, we are challenging some of these taboos. By involving girls in these activities, we are challenging.
“We haven’t done our own plays yet,” he says, “but our intention is to break the psychological and physical barriers of the people who live here. They see killing, death, destruction all the time. The occupation has broken down the identity of the individual. He has lost his own comprehensibility, any notion of himself. He is broken. Children have been robbed of childhood. We try to reinstate childhood. And with teens, we try to reinforce capabilities, to train for certain skills, the ability to stand up and speak in front of people, to cooperate, to work alongside one another.”
Is the Freedom Theatre something the people of Jenin want? Death threats are constant and the premises have been torched a couple of times. Jonathan is resolute on this. “We are joining a cultural resistance that comes by request of the community. We’re reinforcing their own agenda and ideas. We make these people individuals so that they can make a choice – and, what’s more, have the tools to accomplish this choice. We do not say that they should continue the armed struggle. And we don’t suggest that they shouldn’t.”
“So there isn’t a specific non-violent message?” I ask. I’m used to NGOs in the region tub-thumping the usual Ghandi-esque proclamations.
“Listen,” says Jonathan, “the circus is a free haven for the children. The pantomimes question gender taboos and the kids love them. We did ‘Cinderella’, the handicapped version, where she can’t go to the ball because of her disabilities. We also do a theatre of the oppressed – in which we include what we call “spect-actors,” where the audience is allowed on stage to add to or correct or change the narrative.” The local girls will be performing in a rendition of “Animal Farm”, dressed as animals, which gets the theatre around the thorny issue of woman on stage.
Some minutes later, Juliano Mer-Khamis makes his entry, and we sit around a small “majlis” and eat lunch of hummus, falafel, pita and pickles. Juliano holds court, joking with one of the volunteer circus teachers. Our dislike for each other is instant and palpable. He repeats Jonathan’s lines in not so many words, coughs up the usual knocks on the Zionist fascist police state, brushes crumbs off his pants, gets up and leaves. This was a man without a shadow of a doubt. He saw no grey. He was the picture of righteous self-confidence.
Following lunch, Jonathan sits me in front of a computer to watch a streaming promotional video. As I wait for it to download, I listen to the echoing chatter of the “shebabs” who, at noon, are gathered in the forecourt with nothing to do. When I hit play, a kid who can’t be much older than six comes to stand beside me – snotty nosed, in a dirty T-shirt, grubby.
It’s a bad Internet connection. The movie is jagged, comes through in blips. I see Arna standing in front of an audience, her hair gone, in full harangue. Then the film cuts to a clown, who drives through Jenin on a scooter. The kid beside me starts giggling. He pulls at the sleeve of my shirt. “Mira.” More. I play the clown section again. The clown music comes through in digital gasps. More giggles. Jonathan breezes through and tries to scoot the kid away, but my companion is attached, limpet-like, to the images on the computer. “Mira. Mira.” For 10 minutes, I listen to him laugh at that digitally stuttering clown. Later, when I tell Jonathan about this, he assures me the clown has a deeper meaning: “He is meant to represent Arna’s spirit, her spirit of play.”
“Not to take anything away from my little friend, Jonathan, but I’m not sure he got that out of the viewing experience.”
“The sense of pure play is an important component of what we do here,” insists Jonathan.
It should, perhaps, be the only component. But when I look up at the whiteboard, scheduled for that evening is “political discussion”. What could that be but a recycling of anger, I ask Jonathan, a hearing for impotent rage, especially given the politics of those who run the show? He shrugs. “This is what we do here.”
Later, the kid and I keep watching. Snippets from a pantomime. He howls when he sees the dame – Cinderella’s evil mother – be-stubbled and hamming it up. More badly downloaded clown footage and my viewing companion is in stitches. I leave him there, joined by a few cronies, hoarding over the screen like pigeons on breadcrumbs. I walk past the “shebabs”, their afternoon lassitude at full sail, as if walking past those children’s destiny. There have been many prayers in Jenin, for many different things, but I’m sure my small invocation as I leave is a first: I hope those kids live long enough to watch Schwarzenegger number 14. And I hope they don’t end up crappily photo-shopped onto anything that resembles the film’s poster.
On 4 April this year, a youth on a motorcycle drew level with Juliano Mer-Khamis’s car, and pumped several bullets into his head and torso. It bore all the hallmarks of a targeted assassination, but no one has yet owned up.
The Palestinian Authority has a man in custody, but he is denying involvement—a rarity in a conflict that tends to advertise culpability. This was the final act in a pantomime of resistance that, in the final reckoning, will amount to what, exactly?
I couldn’t figure out, after leaving the Freedom Theatre, what exactly made me feel so angry? The conflict, of course, the destruction of culture certainly, but also the man at the helm. The Palestinians need better leaders than Mer-Khamis, more nuanced, wiser. But that doesn’t mean he needed to die on a dusty street. I hoped desperately Mer-Khamis would live to see some kind of resolution, which would no doubt be exacted under principles far more subtle and pragmatic than his own. By people who are not so sure of themselves. By people who see shades of grey. As it stands, he is one more martyr in a city of martyrs.
They tell me his poster is already up, lining the pool hall. DM
Photo: Palestinians mourn next to posters depicting Arab-Israeli actor and director Juliano Mer Khamis during a rally outside the Freedom Theatre, owned by Mer Khamis, in Jenin refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Jenin April 5, 2011. A senior Palestinian security official said on Tuesday police had arrested a “top suspect” from Hamas for the April 4 West Bank killing of Mer Khamis. Mer Khamis, 52, was shot dead by a masked gunman outside the theatre. The sign reads: “The martyr of freedom and culture, the talented Palestinian ideologist, Juliano Khamis”. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine