Jadaliyya is tremendously saddened to report the death of Juliano Mer Khamis earlier today. Juliano, 52, who was the Artistic Director of The Jenin Freedom Theater and the co-director of the award-winning documentary Arna’s Children, was shot by unknown assailants in Jenin as he was leaving the theater. We offer our deepest condolences to his family, his friends, and all who worked with him and loved him.
Juliano was born in Nazareth in 1958. He was the son of Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was at one time the secretary of the Israeli Communist Party, and Arna Mer Khamis, a Jewish Israeli who spent her youth in the Palmach but became an anti-Zionist activist and a fearless fighter for peace, justice, and human rights. In interviews, Juliano would tell a story that marked the “racial lunacy” into which he was born: his mother went into labor while taking part in a protest against the imposition of martial law on Palestinian villages in Israel. She was rushed to the hospital, “but the doctors refused to stitch her and she nearly bled to death,” he said. “They knew she was married to an Arab.”
Growing up, Juliano for a time adopted his Jewish maternal name and joined an elite fighting unit of the IDF. “For a whole year my father wouldn’t talk to me. He simply kept silent,” he told an interviewer. But in 1978, while stationed in Jenin, he refused an order to forcibly remove an elderly Palestinian man from a car and ended up in a fight with his commanding officer. He was imprisoned for a few weeks and then left the army. Ultimately, he came to identify himself, as he put it in 2009, by stating: “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”
He worked extensively as an actor in film, television, and stage, beginning in the 1980s; during this time, he also began to work with his mother on the original Freedom Theater project in Jenin. Funded in part by the prize money that Arna Mer Khamis was awarded when she won the Alternative Nobel Prize, the theater was part of a larger project, “Care and Learning,” set up by Arna and a number of volunteers in the Jenin Refugee Camp. She was the vision behind the project until her death in 1994.
In 2003, Juliano collaborated with Daniel Daniel to produce and direct the documentary Arna’s Children. The film lovingly documented the work of The Freedom Theater, and the lives of the children from Jenin who participated in the plays and theater workshops. The film is also a document of the horrific destruction visited upon the Jenin Refugee Camp when it was invaded by Israeli forces in April 2002, and an account of the Battle of Jenin fought against this invasion. Following the lives and deaths of the young people who participated in The Freedom Theater, as well as the destruction of the theater itself in the Israeli invasion, the film was regarded by many as a masterpiece, and was awarded the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. In the words of one reviewer, the film is “a work of art, because it was made with a trembling hand, with the stammer of someone who does not know whom to mourn most: his mother, the boys from the Jenin camp or the trampled hopes of people yearning to be free.”
It is also a film made with tremendous courage and honesty, two virtures that were the trademark of Juliano’s art. Elias Khoury wrote of Arna’s Children: “It was not an ordinary film. I do not know from where Juliano drew the courage and bravery to create this masterpiece, which appeared before my eyes as a testimony stronger than both life and death together.”
The reaction to Arna’s Children helped lead to the possibility of rebuilding and expanding The Freedom Theater in Jenin. In 2006, the theater opened its doors, and since then, it has offered a wide variety of workshops and other opportunities to young people in the camp, along with training in filmmaking, and the first Acting School in Palestine was opened at The Freedom Theater in 2008. The theater has also produced a number of plays, including Men in the Sun and Animal Farm. The theater’s most recent production, Alice in Wonderland, co-directed by Juliano, opened in January to standing-room-only crowds and rave reviews. All this constitutes a rare legacy, achieved through a tremendous collective effort, and Juliano was the visionary behind it all.
Juliano Mer Khamis was a fearless artist, and a fearless human being. Arna’s Children and The Freedom Theater are only the two most visible parts his legacy, a legacy that bespeaks the role artistic creation can play even amidst the most horrible depths of injustice and suffering. “The Freedom Theatre will provide the children of the camp a tranquil environment to express themselves and create,” he wrote, describing the vision of the theater in 2006. To imagine the possibility of opening up a space of tranquility, of expression, and thus of possibility, in Jenin Refugee Camp, whose name has become synonymous with the most vicious and destructive brutality of the occupation, might be seen as madness. Its very existence is a testament to the power of the artistic tradition that Juliano embodied with such beauty and power.
In Arna’s Children, Juliano documented, tenderly and fearlessly, the many ways that martyrdom comes to the young artists of Jenin camp. He showed us that every life lost in Jenin needed to be seen and understood as an unspeakable tragedy worthy of our remembrance. As Khoury wrote, so movingly, on the establishment of The Freedom Theater in Jenin: “It stands on ground laid down by the child martyrs, who found that the meaning they learned in Arna’s theatre led them in their early youth to create the epic of Jenin Refugee Camp, through its heroic resistance in 2002. These are the children who we watched in the film Arna’s Children, dying and their blood covering their dream of becoming actors and artists. They are the true owners of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp.” Juliano has joined them. The loss of his voice is an irreplaceable one.
SPECIAL TOPIC | JULIANO MER-KHAMIS | ARNA’S CHILDREN
In honor of his life and work the film Arna’s Children, a documentary about Mer-Khamis’ mother and her struggle to fight Israeli and Palestinian injustice from the stage.
Arna’s Children can be purchased on DVD here, with all proceeds donated to The Freedom Theater in Jenin.