Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hope and Misery in Jenin

With two Americans and a Canadian in tow, out of Ramallah and off to Jenin to I went for another Sunday excursion. We were going to see the play "Fragments of Palestine" at the Freedom Theatre, an intriguing Palestinian cultural landmark located right on the edge of the Jenin refugee camp. As I mentioned before in the tail end of my post about Sebastia, the camp in Jenin was host to an onslaught of bulldozing by the Israeli army in 2002, which flattened a staggering amount of the camp, leaving thousands homeless.

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...
Off we go! If I can speak like an asshole for a moment: doesn't this shot totally look romantic in a desolate, "post-civ" kinda way?

Criticize the UN all you want – they’re often the only international organization to be seen in these rougher parts of the world.

One of the many interesting murals scattered about the town. This shot features the oft-seen symbol of “Hanthala,” the ragged boy with his back to the audience, empty hands crossed behind his back. This simple illustration has come to signify the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees hoping to return to their homes that they left, or were forced out of, due the conflicts in 1948 and 1967.

A tombstone dedicated to those who died in the Israeli bulldozing bonanza of 2002.

A tattered banner outside of the graveyard. Mustafa tells me Saddam Hussein is a hero to the people of Jenin. Why? Saddam doled out money to the families who had their homes destroyed, as well as the families of "martyrs." Curiously, the manner in which these people became martyrs earned different sums from Saddam. From the UK Telegraph: "Payments are on a strict scale: £350 for a wound, £650 for disablement, £6,500 for death as a "martyr" and £17,000 for a suicide bomber."

A poster depicting one of the martyrs. Mustafa tells me that the posters are placed on the outside of the home in which the martyr's family lives. In Nablus, the especially wealthy martyr's families can pay to have the poster encased in glass and lit throughout the night.

Walking through the narrow, labyrinthine "streets" of the camp. Mustafa says that the Israeli soldiers were scared shitless in these tense, narrow, unknown little alleyways during the Intifada. I'm even a bit nervous at this point; the Palestinians here are a bit less welcoming than those in Ramallah.

Walking up the wide avenue (courtesy of the Israelis; they built it to make it easier for their tanks to traverse the area) we came across this energetic group of rowdy boys. Seeing the camera in my hands, they clamored to be both behind and in front of the lens. They looked at the digital previews of the shots they just took, never to see them again...

Best of all, they let us try out their slingshot! And you thought Palestinian boys merely threw stones.

Sure, it's cute when a ten year old points a fake gun at you, but when an eighteen year old does it without smiling, then puts the said gun to his head, its more than a little disturbing. At that moment I was especially thankful that we had Mustafa with us.

Note: Many of the Freedom Theatre's excellent films can be seen on their YouTube page.

Thanks to linguistic extraordinaire Sarah Grossblatt and Fusha aficionado Paul Notar for these photos. I had taken some of my own, but they're currently trapped in my comatose laptop.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi, I'm a freelance writer based in Beer Sheva and I just came across your blog post about Jenin. It was very funny to read about the cow heads because I went there last Saturday and noticed the same thing.

    Anyways, if you would like to be in touch I'd be curious to hear what you are doing for ICAHD this summer.