ON A BARE, black-walled stage, five teenage heads are bent in discussion. Minutes later, a Muslim mother berates her unveiled daughter, and a father beats up rebellious sons, in an improvisation on the theme of domestic violence.
The performance has all the passion of teenage youth. In their hooded tops, baggy jeans, and art-work T-shirts, the young actors might be from any school drama department. But the students and theatre are less ordinary: this is the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, on the edge of the second largest refugee camp in the West Bank.
The camp’s 15,000 inhabitants live on a square kilometre of land. Nearly half the population is under 15, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Home to militant groups such as Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad, it has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the second intifada.
“My classmate was shot inside her home,” says Batool, her small face framed by a mass of dark hair. “She was studying by the window, and the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] wanted her brother.”
Twenty years ago, a courageous and determined Israeli woman, Arna Mer-Khamis, started a theatre project in the camp, believing that creative play could help children who had witnessed violence and death, and enable them to overcome their fear and depression.
Her death from cancer in 1995 brought the project to an abrupt end, and the building was destroyed in the bombing of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when the IDF launched an attack on the city, in retaliation for a spate of suicide-bombings within Israel.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did not uphold Palestinian claims of a massacre, but accused the IDF of war crimes, notably the refusal to allow medical aid to the wounded.
As an act of resistance, the theatre was rebuilt. Determined to carry on his mother’s legacy, Mer-Khamis’s son, Juliano, a professional actor and film director now living in Haifa, continues as its director: fund-raising, auditioning students, and producing plays — a passion that is said to have lost him work within Israel.
Jenin remains traumatised by its memories: a survey carried out by Médecins Sans Frontières found violence on every level. “There is violence inside the home, within the whole family, in the street,” says Petra Barghouti, a drama therapist who works with the most severely damaged children.
Martyr posters dominate the camp: young men clasp automatic rifles to their chest, or raise them in victory — poses that every small boy learns to imitate as soon as he is old enough to hold a plastic gun.
“They all want to be martyrs and freedom-fighters,” says 17-year-old Laith Al Ghoul, one of the teenage actors, and a student at the Latin Catholic school near by.
On one wall, however, alongside the familiar photos of dead heroes, sits a poster of clowns with red noses, advertising the Freedom Theatre. “We are hoping to change the culture,” says Jonatan Stanczak, the theatre’s project manager.
The warm apricot-coloured buildings of the theatre and its courtyard, shaded by olive trees, is an oasis among the drab rows of concrete houses, which are balanced against each other like dusty cardboard boxes along the narrow streets. Small children sit hopefully outside the theatre door, or crowd around pictures of past productions. Teenagers wander in and out to chat and drink coffee.
A secure environment, explains Mr Stanczak, who trained as a paediatric nurse, is the first step towards healing. “A child must feel the confidence towards the space to open up parts of himself that maybe he’s not aware of, or that he fears.”
The “Bad Boys”, a group of seven, now aged between 15 and 19, perhaps most accurately reflect the theatre’s purpose. Khamal was 14 during Operation Defensive Shield, old enough to be stripped of his clothes and held prisoner throughout a cold night, on an open piece of ground with about 2000 other men. “When I act, the anger inside me grows less,” he says.
“The Bad Boys used to hang around in the street, attracted by whatever was happening,” Mr Stanczak says. “With them . . . there has been everything from big celebrations of wonderful productions to the pulling of knives.”
A team of six staff, which includes students from the nearby Arab American University, alongside international volunteers, also teach film-making and computer studies. The results are sometimes unlooked for.
A skinny eight-year-old, Jihad, discovered entrepreneurial skills for which there is little place in the depressed life of the camp. “After two months of sending ten emails every day, he would sell user names and passwords to boys at school for one shekel,” Mohammed Ibrahim, a multi-media co-ordinator, said.
Not all parents are happy about the changes in their children, however. “I don’t want my daughter to come to the theatre,” one mother said. “She has started to say what she wants.”
If there is a clash between the culture of self-expression and some of the stricter Muslim households, other parents (particularly the mothers) have enthusiastically taken up what the theatre has to offer.
MER-KHAMIS’s original vision of the theatre as a place of enchantment has not been lost: it is changing lives.
“Before I came here, my destiny was to be a martyr, but now, we join the teachers: we have found something to live for,” says Mohammed Assadi, 17, one of the Bad Boys.
For all their apparent normality, the teenage group on stage has both an innocence and an experience not found in their British counterparts. “We were in shock . . . a theatre in Jenin?” said Laith, describing their first encounter with the stage. “The first time we came here, it felt like a party: we just jumped and screamed,” said Batool. “We can defend our country with the theatre. Resistance is not just a gun.”
Sally FitzHarris is a freelance writer, and frequent visitor to the West Bank.