The upcoming UK tour of a Palestinian theatre company has created a stink over its exploration of a group of fighters that took shelter from the Israeli army in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002. Freedom Theatre’s artistic director and writer of The Siege Nabeel Raee explains why the company’s work is important.
Millions witnessed the Israeli army surround one of Christianity’s holiest sites and prepare for an assault on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity as the dramatic scenes played out on our TVs 13-years ago.
Around 200 Palestinians – mostly civilians, but also Palestinian police and armed militants – had taken refuge inside during an Israeli incursion in April, 2002. Over the next five weeks eight Palestinians were killed and 40 injured as snipers picked them off one-by-one. Several Israeli soldiers were injured too.
With Israel facing a PR nightmare if it attacked and the Palestinians refusing to surrender EU sponsored negotiations eventually began and a settlement was reached.
Thirty-nine days after the siege began and in front of the world’s media, 39 Palestinian’s wanted by Israel were escorted from the church one-by-one, put on buses and left the West Bank for a life in exile.
A different perspective
Thirteen years on the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege takes us back to those events, but instead we join the fighters inside the church; a perspective the 24-hour media coverage at the time was unable to cover, and some would prefer it was kept that way.
“I’m not a judge of those involved in the siege,” says Nabeel Raee, FT’s artistic director, who wrote and directed the play, “but it’s very important to see the journey of a human being before looking at them as a fighter. Our picture as Palestinian freedom fighters has been presented badly for years and years. For many people these are a group of terrorists – particularly in the big news headlines.
“But it’s important to tell their story: who are these people, why did they join the struggle, why are they fighting, and what for? It’s very important for people to look at the side that wasn’t in the news.”
Nabeel said three friends of his were exiled when the standoff ended: one to Gaza, one to Ireland and one to Greece. “I knew these people and I know their choice [to take up arms] was made because they found a reason to fight back. Most of the fighters had several reasons.
“One of them had a hobby to hunt, but when he saw a small kid dying he was ashamed because his weapon was used on animals when he could be defending his people like this child who died.
“Another guy mentioned that his turning point was seeing a guy carrying a dead girl trying to run a kilometre to hospital; he didn’t believe she was dead, so he took her to the hospital, but when he got there they told him she was dead already.”
Such insights are rare, but important for those who have an interest in getting beyond debate-crushing labels: terrorists and terrorism.
The format of the play is akin to a docu-drama: introduced and presented by a Church of the Nativity tour guide reflecting on the historical and spiritual importance of the church, while the dramatised scenes during the siege cut to interviews of the exiled fighters.
The siege continues
But for Nabeel The Siege is about more than humanising the fighters and remembering an historical event. “We’ve been living under siege for almost 66-years of occupation, so when we present the siege of the nativity church, and what happened to the guys inside, we also want people to think about what living under siege means.
“The occupation is not just a physical occupation; it’s a mental one too: the fear inside of people, always living life on the edge, your way of thinking, and if you’re not worried about yourself, what about your children, and if not them, what about others?”
But, he says, it’s not just the Israeli occupation Palestinians – and the Freedom Theatre itself – have to contend with, but societal and personal occupations too whether caused by conservative attitudes or corrupt politics. The Freedom Theatre seeks to challenge all three.
“Theatre is a great way to fight them and to point and criticise, so that’s why I say, when [Palestinian] people see a play and say ‘no, you can’t present that’ then we’re provoking their emotions and minds to think, and that’s not an easy job. Sometimes they like it if it’s about the [Israeli] occupation and sometimes they don’t if it’s a direct criticism or questioning how [Palestinian] society is structured, and we don’t mind both. We’re not here to please all of the people, we’re also here to provoke and question.”
Cultural resistance – Resisting Culture
As well as challenging political and social attitudes, the Freedom Theatre seeks to offer alternative ways of challenging the occupation and still recruits trainees from its base in the tough Jenin refugee camp where many fighters were born and killed.
“People can choose the way they want to fight back: you can hold a gun, but be dead the next minute, but what about art, what about culture? If you have lived enough you can tell the story.
“We ask how can we best serve the [Palestinian] people, but at the same time we are trying to build a professional company that can perform at a high level, and also to bring back the question: what is the point of theatre? It’s not only a tool. It’s also a very important way of presenting different causes.”
However, the challenges the Freedom Theatre faces in using art and culture to promote, question and resist are stark. Its founder Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered four years ago in Jenin. His killer has never been caught, but it’s suspected Juliano was a victim of the challenging nature of FT’s work in what can be a conservative society. Despite being “angry, afraid and hurt” Nabeel said it was not a difficult decision to continue with the theatre otherwise “Juliano was killed for nothing”.
“I think we have a love-hate relationship with art in our society. Not only the Freedom Theatre, but almost every theatre in Palestine is struggling to bring it back. One of the best theatre scenes was in the early 1920s, so art was lost in between and people lost their connection to it. Now we are trying to say that art is also another way of resisting different types of occupation, so if people can think about it in this way they can see art in a better way.”
But for now the Freedom Theatre is focusing on its first tour of the UK, which begins in Manchester on Wednesday and concludes six weeks later in Glasgow. Nabeel says he hopes it will be a two-way experience; not only informing and performing for a British audience, but also to introduce his company to British society.
“The greatest thing for us is to meet people face-to-face. I want to introduce my team and the Palestinians to British society and speak about and discuss our artistic project; this is the best way if we want to reach people.
“But we are also there to perform theatre and bring back the siege because it was presented in the UK in a very bad way, in my opinion, through the news. And since we are artists involved in a social-political environment, we have the responsibility to present ourselves in a different way from the media.
“That is why it’s important to open the questions in the mind of the people when they ask: who are you? What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” An importance confirmed by those who would prefer minds were kept closed and have the play banned.
- Correction: the article had referred to Juliano Mer-Khamis’ suspected murderer being Palestinian. Freedom Theatre have stated that in fact that as they have never been caught they do not know their nationality. The reference to the killer being Palestinian has been removed.