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Staging intifada

sibi arasu | Updated on January 24, 2018

Live act: Faisal Abu-Alheija and Ahmad Al-Rokh brought the story of their intrepid Palestinian Freedom Theatre to Delhi. Photo: Kamal Narang

Theatre is the chosen form of resistance for Palestine actor-activists Faisal Abu-Alheija and Ahmad Al-Rokh

The beach is less than an hour’s drive from the Jenin Refugee Camp in Palestine’s West Bank. But for Faisal Abu-Alheija (FA) and Ahmad Al-Rokh (AR) of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, it might just as well have been in another world, what with the Israeli blockade restricting them to their one-square-kilometre camp, packed with 17,000 Palestinians.

Invited to perform at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK) in Thrissur last month, the actor-activists made a brief stopover in Delhi, hosted by theatre group Jana Natya Manch. The Palestinian duo spoke to BL ink on the sidelines of the screening of the documentary Arna’s Children, which is about the Stone Theatre group, the precursor to the Freedom Theatre that was destroyed during the second intifada in 2002.

Freedom Theatre was started from scratch in 2006. What has your journey been like?

FA: Theatre or art in Palestine is not easy to find. There is little chance to build anything there. Our country’s history is mired with occupations and intifadas, each of them destroying everything, only for us to rebuild. Our journey in the Freedom Theatre has been to create, through our art, a resistance against the occupation. Because we believe art is a strong weapon and has a lot of power to change the community and touch people. We’ve made it so far now and our main goal as artists is to keep the Palestine identity alive.

What is the idea behind Freedom Theatre?

AR: The main goal is creating resistance. All the things we do, we take stories from people, people suffering, resisting every day, so this is part of the resistance. Also, I’d like you to keep in mind that we are people under occupation and all international laws say any people under occupation have the right to resist that occupation. We are not any kind of therapists or heroes. We believe in art, this art has power to change and find space for everybody to express themselves, on the stage, through workshops or on camera.

Can you comment on theatre and war, the relationship between the two?

FA: See, many houses in the camp have been destroyed many times over, our houses included. You know, as we say there, sometimes we don’t die and sometimes we do. But until we are alive, we can work towards keeping our soul, our identity alive. There’s no safety there really, you can’t hide under a table when a bomb falls. But theatre is a kind of protection. Our work protects us and also makes us alive. If you tell a story, tell it well, it’ll live a hundred years. Also, we believe, if you don’t have something to die for, you won’t have something to live for. We find our theatre is to live and die for, and this gives us strength.

You have friends fighting with guns and, on the other hand, your way is theatre. Do they consider yours a lesser fight?

FA: We are not trying to find alternative ways of resistance. We believe in art as a strong weapon to resist. Now in Palestine, no one is fighting with guns, in the West Bank at least. The army has already shut it down, killed or arrested them. We are the new generation and it is our right to find a new way.

AR: Also, to keep our story known for people, that will keep us alive. We are freedom fighters too, and tell the truth about Palestine. A gun, without knowing how to use it, is a weapon against me, but in theatre there is continuous learning. And let me tell you something, art is dangerous, my friend; in the history of Palestine, we have many artists who have gotten killed — the cartoonist Naji Al Ali, Ghassan Kanafani, the writer, our co-founder, Juliano Mer Khemis. I have lost many cousins, friends, my house. They are going to destroy again and we are going to build it. Fighting is fighting. Now we are choosing theatre, we don’t know the future. They say the first intifada was with the stone, the second intifada was with the guns and this is my intifada, we are the new generation, we have the right to choose where and how we fight.

Do you travel often outside the West Bank?

FA: Not a lot, but we do get to travel, especially to other theatre festivals like the one we have come for, here in Kerala. In a year, we travel two or three times. We are an exception though, for most Palestinians it’s impossible to get out even, or should I say especially, to other parts of our country. The borders are always under heavy control. In fact, it’s easier for us to come here than to go to Gaza.

Tell us about some of your productions?

AR: Well, our Kerala act is called The Island. It’s a South African play that talks about the prison systems there. We adapt as well as write our own scripts. There’s a play called Fragments of Palestine, it’s a physical performance and is about our stories. Other productions are an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm. The latter was quite controversial. After it was performed in 2008, they tried to burn our theatre, not once but twice. Also there’s a new one called Suicide Note from Palestine.

Who are your audiences?

AR: Day by day we are beginning to have more audiences not only in Jenin but all of Palestine. Because people are afraid, there is misunderstanding of Islam, there are many other obstacles for our work. At the same time, we do succeed sometimes and have a great audience, especially children. All the children in the camp came to see our shows and we also have regular workshops for children.

Most of our plays are first performed in our theatre, which has seating for about 200.

What about funding?

FA: As of now, we get a lot of funding from outside, but you know, you cannot look at Freedom Theatre as separate from the Palestine situation. All of Palestine is like this, it’s not our choice. It is because we are not allowed to produce anything. The occupation makes us dependent, making the whole country like an NGO.

For the organisation, inshallah, in five years maybe we’ll be an independent theatre.

Future plans?

AR: I stay in Palestine. It’s good to go, learn and be more professional in theatre and bring back what we learn from outside. We hope our group will be a focal point for a cultural resistance, a good example of how we can bring about change. Maybe in the future we hope in Palestine we have big festivals, where we can invite other groups from all over the world. This is what we dream of.



Published on February 06, 2015

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