They fought with weapons and survived arrest. In 2011 their mentor was murdered: A Palestinian theater company now uses it art to defend itself against the occupation.
Actor Rabee Turkman is in mid-sentence when he lifts up his t-shirt and says, "Here, the scar where four Israeli bullets hit me."
Rabee was just 16 in the year 2000 when the second intifada broke out. He joined the Al Aqsa Brigade, an armed wing of Fatah and years of fighting followed. "I slept in the mountains and on the road for seven years," he said. When Israeli soldiers came to arrest him, his little sister ran into the line of fire and was killed.
Today, on stage in Berlin, Rabee is an "unarmed freedom fighter." Alongside him are four other actors, all graduates of the Jenin Freedom Theater. The troupe are guests of the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a Berlin theater which specializes in the themes of migration and displacement.
Freedom Theater's work, "While Waiting," is an interpretation of Samuel Beckett's renowned "Waiting for Godot." The fact that Rabee's company performs today in New York, Finland and Berlin can be attributed to Juliano Mer Khamis.
It was in 2006 that the renowned actor, the son of an Israeli Jew and a Christian Palestinian, established the Jenin Freedom Theater. He saw the theater as a revolutionary, non-violent act of resistance and hoped it would be a place where young Palestinians could perform freely.
With these ideals, he made few friends among conservative Israelis and Palestinians. On April 4, 2011, an unidentified assailant shot Juliano Mer Khamis in front of the Freedom Theater.
Absurdity on and off stage
Juliano Mer Khamis' death deeply shocked his drama students, who decided to dedicate their graduate work to their mentor.
"Beckett's absurdity fits perfectly with this senseless murder," said Udi Aloni, an Israeli theater director and friend of Mer Khamis. Aloni jumped in and took over the work of his murdered colleague.
Rehearsing was challenging as the Israeli army constantly arrested Freedom Theater employees and drama students, like Rami Hwayel. The actor sat in jail for a month before any charges were made. There, he wasn't allowed to learn his lines.
"The uncertainty of it all means we have to have all the roles covered by two people," explained Aloni.
Two revolutions in one
"They have therefore taken our rights?
No, we have given up."
This Beckett dialogue, spoken in Arabic by two Palestinian women, breaks several taboos and conveys a very strong message for Udi Aloni.
Samuel Beckett strictly forbade women from playing the roles of Vladimir and Estragon, central characters in "Waiting for Godot." But what is even more revolutionary is that the two female actors on stage are from Jenin. Batoul Taleb (Estragon) and Mariam Abu Khaled (Vladimir) are the first women from the occupied Palestinian territories to perform theater alongside men, which has caused them to be frequently insulted on the streets of Jenin.
Jenin is one of the West Bank's most conservative cities. Hardly any women can be found on the street after 4:00 pm. Loud music, laughter, and most western culture is rejected by many.
In Juliano Mer Khamis, the actors had learned to combat what he called an "occupation of the mind."
Since the death of their mentor, the five-member troupe of drama graduates live together in Ramallah, a city where culture is valued and they can enjoy more freedom to pursue their passion. Their performance of "While Waiting" was celebrated by the Ramallah audience, where as in Jenin the reaction to the one performance was subdued.
The actors are afraid to return to Jenin. Those responsible for the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis have still not been found.
"Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities are specifically looking for the culprit. Instead, they randomly arrest members the theater's staff," said actor Rabee Turkman.
Just a few days ago, the Israeli army took Turkman's colleague, Artistic Director Nabil Al-Raee, from his house to an unknown location in the middle of the night. No allegations have been made against him, nor has anyone said when he would be freed.
It is precisely this type of volatile situation, this waiting for freedom which inspired the actors from Jenin to create the play that they are currently performing in Berlin.
Our culture is our weapon
As the Berlin audience takes their seats, chairs are scarce in the theater and about 30 people sit on the floor at the edge of the stage. A renowned stand-up comedian Adi Khalifa welcomes the audience in German.
"If I want to come to Berlin, I book five days in the city and three at the airport - that is how long the Israelis interrogate me," commented Khalifa, a Palestinian from the Israeli city of Nazareth. The company's joker, he often needs to jump in and take the place of an actor who is suddenly forbidden from traveling.
"Israel has more problems with the theater than they would have if we were to throw stones," Khalifa said. "They can fight against stones, but when Palestinians use culture as their weapon, they get scared."
The Berlin audience cheers loudly for Milay. She is Mer Khamis' 11-year-old daughter and plays the role of the nameless boy in "While Waiting."
"We don't want to be famous actors," company members say. "We have only one message: We are not terrorists. We do not want our culture destroyed. We want to be like you. We want to be treated as humans."
Author: Bettina Kolb / bos
Editor: Kate Bowen