Creative Resistance in Palestine’s Juliano Mer Khamis

Published May 18, 2011 3:44 PM

The life of a beloved freedom fighter, Juliano Mer Khamis, was ended by five bullets on April 4. He was assassinated as he was leaving the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which he co-founded with his mother, Arna Mer Khamis.

Juliano Mer Khamis was a fearless artist and human being. His legacy speaks of the role artistic creation and culture can play as a weapon against oppression, even amidst the most horrible depths of injustice.

The Freedom Theatre is a community-based theater in the city of Jenin in Palestine’s northern West Bank. Its refugee camp is home to 16,000 people, 50 percent of whom are under the age of 20. The camp, surrounded by electric fences, is one of the most deprived areas of Occupied Palestine. Its youth live in poverty and isolation under a repressive occupation, with the constant menace of military incursions.

When the Israeli military invaded Jenin in 2002, part of the refugee camp was reduced to rubble, with almost every child traumatized by fear, frustration and violence after witnessing first-hand or threatened death and destruction. The Freedom Theatre was established to offer a safe space where youth could be free to dream, play, hope and express themselves. Its aim is to heal, help capture lost childhood and provide skills for healthy development.

Juliano Mer Khamis was born in Nazareth to a Palestinian father and a Jewish Israeli mother. He self-identified as 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish. His father, Saliba Khamis, was at one time secretary of the Israeli Communist Party. His mother, also a communist, became an anti-Zionist activist and fearless fighter for peace, justice and human rights. During her pregnancy, at a protest in Israel against the racist imposition of martial law on Palestinian villages, she went into labor. She was rushed to a hospital, but doctors refused to treat her because she was married to an Arab, and she nearly bled to death.

When Mer Khamis grew up, he joined an elite fighting unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. In 1978, while stationed in Jenin, he refused an order to forcibly remove an elderly Palestinian man from his car. He ended up in a fight with his commanding officer and was subsequently imprisoned. He then left the army.

Beginning in the 1980s he worked as a film, TV and stage actor. The original Freedom Theatre Project was his mother’s vision, and Mer Khamis worked with her on the project, which was partly funded by prize money awarded to her for winning the Alternative Nobel Prize. She died in 1994.

The original Freedom Theatre was destroyed during Israel’s 2002 invasion. But in 2006 it was rebuilt and expanded and now offers various programs, workshops and filmmaking training.

Eight years ago Mer Khamis collaborated to produce and direct a documentary called “Arna’s Children,” which documents the theater’s work, the lives and deaths of the children who participated in the plays and theater workshops, and the 2002 unspeakable tragedy of the Israeli invasion. The film won the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival.

On May 4 a commemoration celebrating the life and work of Juliano Mer Khanis was held in New York City’s Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Musical tributes and video slides of Mer Khamis in various settings were shown throughout the evening. Among those present who gave tributes were poet Remi Kanazi; filmmaker Udi Aloni; civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara; actress Kathleen Chalfant, who read a statement from playwright Eve Ensler; Linda Chapman, representing the New York Theatre Workshop; and playwright Tony Kusher, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner. A quote from Che Guevara was also included.

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