JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) - Braving firebombs from neighbors and risking official wrath, Palestinians in a refugee camp famed for fighting Israeli troops are now battling failings in their own society with political satire on the stage.
In adapting “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s allegory for Stalin’s corruption of Russian revolutionary ideals, the theater school at Jenin says it is holding up a mirror to leaders of the Palestinian Intifadas or uprisings against Israel by staging another Intifada, this time a cultural one at home.
“The armed revolution is over,” said Rabia Turokman, once a fugitive fighter in Jenin and now enrolled in the first class of students at the new Freedom Theater Acting School in the camp.
“I had to look for another revolution,” he said after coming off-stage to rowdy applause this week. “Having a theater in Jenin refugee camp is the biggest revolution for Palestine.”
It was certainly revolutionary enough to provoke an arson attack last week. Damage was slight. But, though unclaimed, it was a reminder that some take offense at what they see as a challenge to tradition or to their hold over the West Bank.
Artistic director Juliano Mer Khamis faces hostility to the project from some in Palestinian society, where leadership is split between aging revolutionaries in the PLO and the rising Islamists of Hamas. He puts it down to a “ghetto mentality” and “dictatorship of tradition” built up under Israeli occupation.
“The project is a challenge,” he says of the opening of the theater school last year and the choice of Orwell’s 1945 classic as its first performance. “It’s not that we want to challenge but we believe the coming Intifada must be cultural.”
“We are not a threat to Palestinian culture,” he said, recalling recent denunciations of the theater troupe as “spies” who were “corrupting” the young. “We are Palestinian culture.”
Theater-going is a rare experience for Palestinians. But the full-house audience of a couple of hundred at “Animal Farm,” many of them high-school students who had studied the text, were quick to respond to the fast-paced hour of drama on stage.
They cheered the animals’ cries of “Intifada!” as they threw off the cruel regime of Farmer Jones. They got the message when the cynical pigs turn their leadership of the revolution into a new oppression, shoot “informers,” set dogs on their critics and, at the end, trade jokes and deals with an Israeli soldier.
“The play reflects the Palestinian reality,” 16-year-old Tareq Mahajneh said after watching the show.
“Everyone here is looking out for himself,” he said.
Many Palestinians complain of graft, factional fighting and other abuses after PLO leaders under Yasser Arafat returned from exile following peace accords with Israel — they also complain their leaders have failed in 15 years to turn those accords into a state and end the Israeli occupation that blights their lives.
“This play has really struck a chord with people,” said the theatre’s program director, Samia Stetti, conceding it was not an easy choice to put it on in a society where criticism of the Palestinian leadership is often branded pro-Israeli treachery.
“People don’t easily accept this idea,” she said. “But in the end, the theater here must talk about everything.”
It may have been some comfort that the opening night drew a crowd that included the mayor, Muslim clerics and members of the new Palestinian security services whose Western-trained forces, in cooperation with Israelis, have brought some calm to the once lawless, gang-blighted streets of Jenin this past year.
“This play was not made for the Palestinian Authority, or for Hamas,” said artistic director Mer Khamis. But he added: “The stage is a mirror for what’s happening. The stage provides a warning to those who take authority that it’s possible, if they’re not careful, that we will end up killing each other.”
The play, put on with a grant from the British diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, scarcely reaches a mass audience. But the theater staff believe they are part of a vital movement.
During the first Intifada of the 1980s, Mer Khamis’s Jewish Israeli mother brought the arts as therapy to Jenin’s children.
Some of those then fought, and many suffered, in the second Intifida after 2000, when the camp was a recruiting ground for suicide bombers. During a famed and bloody battle with Israeli troops in April 2002, an earlier theater was destroyed.
Mer Khamis, whose father was Palestinian, sees a renewal now of a long struggle to promote self-awareness in a society isolated from the wider world behind the wall and fences that a security-conscious Israel has built throughout the West Bank.
“We will not be able to free ourselves from others as long as we are not free,” the director said. “The wall can be taken down in one week ... But this, this is a matter of generations.”
(Additional reporting by Wael al-Ahmed and Mohammed Hassan in Jenin and Roleen Tafakji in Jerusalem; Editing by Douglas Hamilton)
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