Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, speaks about his journey with Freedom Theater, the lessons he learnt from his mentors and how working with children has healed him.
It was in Germany last year that I first heard about the Freedom Theater. I was talking to Palestinian friends about the Intifadas, and the role of children in the movement of resistance. Their stories had left me shaken. I didn’t sleep peacefully for a many days.
Palestine has been under occupation for over 67 years. Children have been the most affected by the ongoing conflict. Arna Mer Khamis, through her unique initiative, Care and Learning, used theater and art to address the chronic fear, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in Jenin Refugee Camp after the first Intifada. Later she set up the Stone Theater for the children, which was destroyed during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp in 2002. In 2006, Arna’s son, Juliano Mer Khamis revived her dream and set up the Freedom Theater. The theater aims to generate cultural resistance through the fields of popular culture and art as a catalyst for social change in the occupied Palestinian territories. Its goal is to develop a vibrant and creative artistic community that empowers children and young adults to express themselves freely and equally through art.
Early this year, I was excited to know that Freedom Theater was in India to collaborate with Jan Natya Manch, JANAM, India’s own radical theater group. As a part of this collaboration, they toured through the country performing their play, ‘Hamesha Samida’. After I saw their play in Bangalore, I spoke to Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, director and actor at the Freedom Theater. Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Faisal, let’s start with your journey in theatre. How did you choose theatre, or rather how did theater choose you?
I like that expression ‘theater chooses you’. I believe art in general, not only theater, but also film making, writing, storytelling, dance, singing and so on, it’s the art that chooses you. My story with theater started when I first saw the film Arna’s Children, which is a documentary about a theater group in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine. I think I saw it in 2004. While I was watching the film, I realized that one of the children featured in the film was my cousin – Ashraf Abu Alhayjaa. I was thrilled that one of my family members was in the film. In a scene in the film Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the theater, asks my cousin “Ashraf, what is your dream?” And Ashraf replies “My dream is to be a Palestinian Romeo”. In the second scene of the film, I saw Ashraf being killed during the invasion of Jenin refugee camp in 2002. I was shocked. I knew I was not watching fiction. It was not a Bollywood or Hollywood film. This was reality. At around the same time, this thought was seeded in me – I want to be a Palestinian Romeo too but I don’t want to be killed. So that is how I started to dream about being in theater.
Do you remember your first day at the Freedom Theater?
How was it like?
I remember it clearly. I was very scared to go to the theater. It was 2006 and we were still in the Intifada. All the talk around me was about martyrs. It was a time filled with pain, disappointment and hopelessness. And I remember, when the Freedom Theater course started, a lot of rumors had spread about it – that they will bring foreign culture, they will rape our minds as Muslims, they will change the values of Islam, and they will have men and women together on the stage. So it was not easy for me, to walk into the theater that day. Also, I didn’t have any experience of theater or performance. I had seen some theater on TV, but I hadn’t even seen a real play yet. I remember being very confused – should I go or not. Finally, I was brave enough to go. There I met Juliano Mer Khamis, one of the founders of the Freedom Theater. I asked him “What is this place? What do you do here?” And he replied “This is a theater school. We also have multimedia departments, film making workshops, photo exhibitions, and we teach creative writing”. I was stunned. All of this was happening in the refugee camp that I had lived in and I didn’t know about it!
So I joined the school because I was in love with theater and acting. And through these years I have realized that I am not only an actor, I am also a fighter. I am throwing stones as a Palestinian, but not on the streets. My stones are my plays, my work, and my voice. The Freedom Theater became a place where I could express myself, as a child, as an artist, as a human being.
Faisal talks to the audience in Delhi
Faisal, tell us about those people and moments in your life so far, that you feel, changed you completely as an artist, as a person.
Juliano Mer Khamis has had a very deep impact on my life. He was a very strong and charismatic teacher and artist. I remember this incident very clearly. Initially my family didn’t support me and my work. Juliano’s mother was an Israeli Jew, so there were a lot of speculations on the motives of such a program. And of course, for my family what I was doing was haram, forbidden. And then something changed when they saw me on stage. I remember, we were performing the play Animal Farm. It was the first professional production of the theater school. I was playing the horse, Boxer. We had adapted the play in the Palestinian context. It was a big production and there were many challenges. There was a lot of pressure and I used to cry a lot. We were pushed to deliver our best. And just before going on to the stage, when there was so much apprehension, everyone was on their toes, nervous; Juliano came to the back stage and said something that has stayed with me. He said “Faisal, the audience don’t know the play. So if you make any mistake, the audience will feel that it is the play. And you will still exist” This was life changing for me. Because sometimes as an artist we tend to worry about what other people think about us. We feel we are playing to an audience and we need to please them. But I realized that, when an artist becomes merely a audience pleaser, it will be his end.
So we performed the play, and it went very well. At the end of the play my brother came to me and said “You know Faisal, if we bring a hundred politicians to talk about Palestine, it would be so boring. They would give us a headache. But through your play, we were so inspired that we could see ourselves on stage” My family’s biases against me and my work, had changed in an hour, through a play! And that’s when I realized the power of this medium.
Juliano, he taught me another important lesson about time. Once, one of us came in late for a rehearsal. Juliano walked up to him and said “You know, we have been fighting through our work – we have been throwing stones, fighting to protect our camp, our city, ourselves. And you are the one who is responsible to protect our camp. But you didn’t come; you didn’t turn up on time, while the rest of us did. So what is your excuse for this?” That is when I realized that what I am doing is not merely theater. My work is connected with the resistance, and he showed me the importance of time and disciple. This has inspired me to give myself completely to the stage.
Faisal, you joined the theater as a young artist and over the past few years have been training other students on stage tell us about your experience of teaching children at the theater.
I think Freedom Theater, pulls the children out of their lives filled with violence. It gives them the space to look at themselves, from a distance. When I joined the theater, I began to realize how important my work is. And I believe that it is important to feel what you are doing is important. And you have to find the reasons as to why it is important. I feel if you are affected by theater, then it’s your responsibility to send this message to the new generation. Just like the way I was affected by Ashraf in the film. It was just the one scene in which Ashraf speaks about his dream. It changed my life. I wondered how many Ashrafs are there in the Jenin refugee camp? How many Ashrafs are there in Palestine? How many Ashrafs are there in the world? Ashrafs who have dreams, but they don’t have the power of choice – of the place and the situation.
The children at Freedom Theater…they are so energetic and also very crazy at the same time. They are very smart, and they understand everything. So I discuss everything with them, about the play, the stage and the entire process, while giving them examples from their own lives. I realize all the examples of their lives is of freedom fighters, of martyrs, of violence, of pain, of disappointment. But you need to give the child the space to look back and say “But here, in this place…things are a little different”. We need to give them the space and time to look at other stories, from other contexts, other colors…other messages. In our curriculum in the school, the first year is spent with each student engaging with this question ‘ Who am I?’ It is about them discovering their identity.
I did this play with the children called ‘Who is the enemy?’ Children were asked to probe themselves and bring in material from their lives about who they thought were their enemies. The answer that we got after a very complicated process that involved writing, interviewing, discussions, improvisation, film, music – was that ‘I am the enemy’. I am my own enemy, for most limitations are rising from within me.
Freedom theater members performing in India
Faisal, you also mentioned that working with children has healed you. Tell us how.
A few years ago, I did this play called Tuwani. Tuwani is the name of a Palestinian village in south Hebron Hills. The circumstances are difficult in these villages. They are surrounded by Israeli colonies and there is constant tension and conflict. So the army has been pushing these people to leave. And they have been resisting this for a long time. The people of this area are mainly shepherds and farmers. Many times the Israeli army poisoned their sheep, destroyed their farms. I used to visit this community to perform plays. One such time the children narrated a story to me, an incident from their life that I would like to share with you.
One day, a few years ago, the children in Tuwani decided to have a summer camp. There were 30 to 40 children between the age group of 7 yrs to 14 yrs. But the children didn’t know what a summer camp was. The only thing they knew was that summer camps happen in beautiful places. So there was a mountain in front of the colonies and the children decided to have their summer camp there. Then they cleaned up the place, made it look nice, pitched their tents and brought a lot of tyres. In fact they brought hundreds of tyres and painted them with Palestinian flags. And so they prepared the space beautifully.
After some time, one of the Israeli settlers came and stole one of their tyres. The children noticed that. Then the children, without thinking, very spontaneously, had a demonstration through the colonies. And to enter the colonies in Palestine is very dangerous because there is security, there is army, there are bombs. But the children, marched fearlessly on the streets shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’. Soon their families heard the noises, and they came running to warn and bring back the children. But when they realized what was happening and when they heard the slogans, they joined them. Soon there were many more people marching and shouting ‘We want the tyre… We want the tyre’. Then the Israeli army came, with the police and the management. There were hundreds of soldiers, with guns. They started to say that Palestinian terrorists were attacking the colonies. But then they noticed that they were just children, demanding a tyre!
So after a lot of negotiation with the children, they tried to convince them to go back to their side. But the children stayed and shouted ‘We want the tyre…we want the tyre’. But the army refused. They said they don’t have any tyre. The children had noticed that the one who had stolen the tyre was a rather chubby man. And the children knew him well. So they started to shout again ‘We want the tyre. We want the tyre. It’s the fat guy, the fat guy, the fat guy, who has taken it’ The situation became almost comical, and a few people started to laugh. The officers became annoyed and they said “Guys, these are just kids, and they want a tyre! Give them any damn tyre!” So they brought out a tyre and gave it to the kids. The children realised that it was not the same tyre. So they said, we don’t want this tyre, we want our tyre with the Palestinian flag on it. So the chants continued ‘We want the tyre … we want the tyre’. Finally, the soldiers became tired and the children got their tyre back. Then the procession continued towards the mountain, with the tyre as the trophy. And the children chanted ‘We got the tyre back…we got the tyre back’
So when I heard about this story from the children, I was very amazed by this kind of resistance. I grew up in a refugee camp and I knew how dangerous this could have been. I asked them “Why is this tyre so important for you? It’s so easy to find a new one on the streets. If you lost one, you have so many others. In fact, you have hundreds of them” Then one of the children replied “Today is the tyre… tomorrow it will be the mountain. Now they know that they cannot even take a tyre from us. So they will not be able to kick us out from here”
I was so inspired by this story that it became one of the main stories of the play, Tuwani. And I swear, every time we reach that scene where the actors shout the slogans, the entire audience is up on their feet shouting ‘We want the tyre’. So when you these children, who are in such tough circumstances of occupation, of prison, of death yet find the strength to fight for their rights… they make me re-look at my own life. And all my troubles and problems seem so trivial. For me they are my heroes. They heal me.
Juliano Mer Khamis, Faisal’s mentor, and one of the founders of the Freedom Theatre was assassinated in Jenin on 4 April 2011 by masked militants. Faisal and his colleagues at the theater continue to take his vision and legacy ahead.
Note: This interview was first aired on Teaching and Learning Moments’ second season in March 2016. Teaching and Learning Moments with Teacher Plus is a program on education and various aspects of teaching and learning in and outside the classroom and it is brought to you in Collaboration with Bol Hyderabad, a campus based community radio channel in Hyderabad Central University.
You can listen to the complete interview here
Interview and article by Lakshmi Karunakaran