Jenin, West Bank: Juliano Mer-Khamis, one of the co-founders of Palestine’s ‘The Freedom Theatre’ (TFT), was murdered in 2011. The identity of his assassin still remains unknown. A second co-founder, Zakaria Zubeidi, has faced arrest by Israelis and detention by the Palestinian authority. Mohammad Faisal Abu Sakha of the Palestinian Circus School and Loai Tafesh of the Naqsh popular art troupe too are under the Israeli detention.
These examples illustrate that cultural performers and artistes in the West Bank, part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are every bit dangerous in the eyes of the Israeli occupation, as those who are part of the armed resistance.
According to Mahmoud Muna, manager of the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem, culture is the last wall of Palestinian defence against Israel, “Palestinians have been stripped of all their rights, political representation and freedom. Culture is our last wall of defence, which Israel is trying very hard to break down. But if our culture, history, narrative and language are occupied, we are then slaves of Israel.”
In Palestine’s occupied West Bank, different kind of theatre, music, circus and dance are thriving, and serve not just as entertainment or leisure, but a means for Palestinians to assert life, their living and existence.
Nabil Al-Raee, creative director at TFT said, “If as a coloniser, your aim is to dismiss all history and culture, you don’t want any voices which will disprove the Israeli narrative that nobody was here in this land, or that nobody was living here. Our culture is powerful because it negates the Israeli narrative.”
“Culture has formed part of the resistance since the Ottoman colonial occupation and also against the British rule. But it was not called cultural resistance or defined as such. Now people want to define its role and what it means,” added Al-Raee.
There are over 200 performing groups active across the West Bank in locations such as Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Turkarem. While groups operate in the Gaza Strip as well, tight restrictions on movement in Gaza prevent physical collaboration with groups in the West Bank.
As part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, and with a view to explore the idea of culture as resistance, TFT organised a forum on cultural resistance in Jenin last month. Mustafa Sheta, general secretary of the theatre at the forum said, “There was a prevalent idea that only armed resistance could defeat colonial power and other forms of resistance were not so important. But we have the examples of writer Ghassan Kanafani, who was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine. They did not have a gun, but they lighted the way for revolution.”
Speaking to The Wire, he said, “There were also others like Naji Al-Ali and Sameh Al-Qasem who stressed on the cultural heritage and identity of the Palestinians, and whose impact continues to be felt.”
Cultural resistance is but a part of the range of possible resistances, according to Al-Raee, who said, “Cultural resistance is part of the general resistance in Palestine. No one form of resistance can explain the other. We explain the use of guns in our theatre work. It is our right to defend ourselves under the international laws. Culture can explain guns too, like through our play The Seige which focused on a set of Palestinian armed fighters and explored who these fighters were and why they fought.”
Like in other countries and cultures, Palestinian theatre has served as a means to stand up to orthodox beliefs and practices. Actress Diana Swety, who is one of the major protagonists of the play Searching for Handala by the Yes Theatre, had to face tremendous opposition from family when she decided on a career onstage. Swety, who is from South Hebron Hills, said, “My family was against it and asked me to do something else. They said I could do a small or minor role. But my first play was about sexual harassment where I landed the lead part.” Now, Swety feels that as more women coming on stage and are becoming successful, audiences are also becoming more receptive. TFT also faces opposition for being a theatre where both men and women work, and challenge rigid social beliefs and traditions.
The India connect
Despite the Indian government’s close ties to Israel, India’s theatre and art world upholds Palestinian cultural resistance and are reaching out to Palestinian groups also. For example, the Indian street theatre group Jana Natya Manch collaborated with TFT, as part of which the artists from both groups visited and performed in each other’s countries. Both groups have a shared history; the founders of both groups Safdar Hashmi and Juliano Mer-Khamis, were murdered. Sudhanva Deshpande of Jana Natya Manch said, “We live in times when multiple oppressions and exploitations intersect. But no oppression is sustained only on the strength of the gun. Oppression is at its deepest when the oppressors’ logic is not just accepted but internalised by the oppressed. It is this that cultural and artistic work counters.”
Deshpande also feels the need for further cultural collaborations with Palestine: “Palestine matters to India because it represents the ideal of a non-sectarian, secular, inclusive struggle for human dignity. We have a lot to learn from Palestine, and therefore it is imperative for Indian and Palestinian artists to get to know each other, to learn from each other, to appreciate each other’s art and our respective social contexts.”
Graphic artist Orijit Sen who was part of the India-Palestine theatre collaborations described it as part of “an initiative that goes beyond governments and their changing priorities.”
Sen said, “For three weeks, I travelled in Jenin, the Jordan Valley, Hebron, the South Hebron Hills, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem. I had read and heard about the Israeli occupation before but witnessing firsthand the oppressive reality was something else. I see Palestinians turning towards many forms of expression to articulate their resistance to Israeli occupation. Cultural resistance through art and creative forms of protest have an urgency and centrality in the lives of people. Unlike in many apparently peaceful countries, where art hovers on the edges, performing mostly as a distraction for the wealthy, art in Palestine is often out in the streets. It is highly politically charged and constantly challenging and inspirational.”
Sen participated in the making of three public art pieces within Palestine. One of them (below) is a mural expressing India-Palestine solidarity and shows Safdar and Juliano together.
Urvashi Sarkar is an independent journalist and was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for three weeks as part of the Freedom Ride and Cultural Forum organised by The Freedom Theatre.