After two hours of cramped, hot bus rides I'll say that the most memorable sight along the way was a cow's head ripped in half at the jaw, the top half being hung from a hook by its nose so that the roof of the cow's mouth and its molars were facing the street, facing our bus. This was no anomaly: one, two, three equally freakish half cow-heads adorned the porches of the markets in the village preceding Jenin. My roommate had told me earlier that this is done by the butchers to show that their meat is fresh.
When we arrived, we were told that the director of the play had some visa issues with the "Is-rah-ay-lees" (the proper Palestinian pronunciation) and the play had been postponed until later next month. We should have called the theatre beforehand. But, keeping with high standards of Palestinian hospitality, a young man named Mustafa invited us inside the main office and gave us some history of the theatre. For the sake of length, and because the Freedom Theatre has its own web site, I won't go into too much detail. I will say that the roots of the theatre lie in a program started by an Israeli Jew named Arna Mer Khamis, who recruited scruffy boys from the Jenin refugee camp to act in plays that she directed in the early 90s. However, she died of cancer in 1995 and the program died with it, leaving the young actors with nothing but anger and deprivation once again. In 2004, the Washington Post published a tragic story on how these rising stars, suddenly without the direction of Khamis, became fighters and "martyrs" during the Second Intifada.Unsurprisingly, the Freedom Theatre is heavily funded by European donors (including that extra-special friend of Palestine, Sweden). There were comfortable couches, a large flat-screen TV, a computer lab...and a prominent portrait of Che Guevara in the lobby. "A hero to the Freedom Theatre?" I asked. "A hero to everybody," replied Mustafa, smiling. Mustafa is an openly liberal Palestinian; his difference is somewhat evident by his afroed hair and laid-back demeanor. As he smoked a cigarette he talked about his desire to push the Jenin community gradually towards more progressive stances on social issues, which would mean less sexual segregation and more liberties for women, among other things. But the process is slow, and in order to avoid appearing like a holier-than-thou foreign entity, the Theatre still operates in a somewhat conservative fashion. For instance, there are specific days for male practice and specific days for female practice. "We want to get on their level and bring them up with us," he said.
He showed us a brief film about the Theatre, in which there was a compelling bit in which Palestinian girls talked about their lives with surprising candor. "We go from our father's home to our husband's kitchen," said a teenager, to a chorus of agreement from her girlfriends. The girls complained about being cooped up indoors, having their dreams stifled—indeed, if you ever come to a Palestinian city, you'll notice that perhaps 80% of the kids walking the street are boys.
Mustafa led us into a snazzy editing suite and showed us a film made by some of his young Palestinian pupils. Each of the filmmakers had a father that was physically disabled; the effect of this on their relationship with the father was the focus of the film. One father had been beaten so badly that he had been reduced mentally to the level of a five year-old, while another had a bullet permanently lodged in the top of his skull.After the tour of the theatre was over, Mustafa agreed to give us another tour: this time, of the Jenin refugee camp. Oh look! Here come pictures to take some weight off of the beleaguered writer...