From Palestine, Dramatic Therapy for the Human Soul

The Palestinian troupe visits Khalsa College, Delhi. Credit: Rahul M

The Palestinian troupe visits Khalsa College, Delhi. Credit: Rahul M

“I had seen the sea, it’s just a few miles away from my house. But I have never been there” said Ihab Talahmeh, a 20 year old from the freedom theater of Jenin in Palastine, as his co-actors admired Diwali rockets go up. The Freedom theatre describes itself as “a theatre and cultural centre in Jenin Refugee Camp… developing the only professional venue for theatre and multimedia in the northern West Bank, Occupied Palestine.”

The actors compared the unfamiliar bursting crackers with the familiar bomb strikes in Gaza strip, as they walked on crowded Shadipur roads. Ihab had never been to the sea and he regrets it; Osama, a co-actor, had been to the sea twice, and hates it: the first time he went, he was a child and was with his father in a small car stuffed with people, and the second time he accidentally ended up on the Israeli side, where the sea is. “I couldn’t stay there even a minute, I needed to leave.” After a few checks and jumps into the pits, Osama finally reached home, feeling devastated.

Osama told his story on the terrace of the theatre space where Jana Natya Manch operates. The idea for collaboration between Jana Natya Manch and Freedom Theatre started when JNM’s Sudhanva Deshpande watched a film called Arna’s Children on a friend’s recommendation. The film is about how an old woman uses theatre as a therapy and as a mode of living in Jenin, one of the poorest refugee camps of Palestine. The old woman in the film is the mother of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder of Freedom Theatre. “I immediately wrote an email to Juliano. We had to meet.” Sudhanva said, “ A few weeks later, as I was going through my Facebook timeline, someone had posted a news item about the assassination of a Palestinian actor. I hoped it was not Juliano. And I remember reading ‘Juliano Mer-Khamis dead.” Sudhanva was devastated. “I never met Juliano. But I know him. And his untimely death is similar to Safdar’s,” said Sudhanva, remembering Safdar Hashmi, the theatre activist who founded Jana Natya Manch, and who had keen killed like Juliano. What followed was a chain of emails leading to more connections and conversations between Freedom Theatre and Jana Natya Manch, and out of those the present collaboration was born.

Six actors and their director from the Freedom Theatre are in India now to collaborate with JNM. These actors often fight with the spices their bodies refuse to digest and are constantly excited by everything around them. “Some of the actors have never been in a train or in a flight in their lives,” Mouhawia from the multimedia department of Freedom Theatre explained.

“The Freedom Theatre is now relocated to Shadipur,” Sudhanva said, “In the mornings, the actors have workshops and during the evenings they practice with Jana Natya Manch actors.” These sessions ended last week. The Palestinian troupe has been  introduced these actors to some of the best performers and theatre practitioners of India such as Sunil Shanbag and Maya Rao.

Sunil Shanbag’s sessions about memory and history brought out the personal stories of the actors, which then became texts for performances. The skill sets of the actors seem deeply connected with the stories they narrated. For example, Ameer, the youngest of the group, recollected and performed a memory of his uncle not letting him sing. Ameer ends his performance by reaffirming his desire to sing,“I will never stop singing.” Ameer is the singer of the group.

Actors rehearsing at Studio Safdar, Delhi. Credit: rahul M.

Actors rehearsing at Studio Safdar, Delhi. Credit: Rahul M.

Ibrahim who recollected a story about a tank attack at night and how he managed to survive it by the way he moved, is the circus artist of the group and can twist his body in the most unimaginable ways, and is sometimes seen standing on his hands during the breaks. Samah, who loved dancing and acting more than her studies, sneaked out of her home for the love of theatre instead of her tuition, and is one of the most expressive actors in the group. Raneen, the other female actor adds her intense expressions and bodily movements to the collaboration.

The group has worked on a play over the past two months, one that will deal with universal themes like world politics, oppression and inequality. The group kickstarted its  Freedom Jatha with a performance in Lucknow and will proceed to  other cities across the country.