11 February 2011, by
In the Jenin refugee camp this week, there was one man who looked like he had been hanged. A rope tied around his body, he rocked back and forth for several long moments - bearing a striking resemblance to the effigy of Egypt’s president strung up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But in Jenin, it was the bad servant of the evil queen who was hanged - in a performance of "Alice in Wonderland," based on the story by Lewis Carroll at The Freedom Theater. The audience cheered when they saw the hanged man, portrayed by the amateur actor Amjad Melhem.
The directors of the play are Juliano Mer-Khamis and Zoe Lafferty and the scriptwriter, a temporary resident of the camp, artist Udi Aloni, whom the program described as being from the U.S. The play’s producer came from Britain, clothes and props were handled by people from Portugal, Germany and Sweden; the wonderful acting troupe was comprised of residents of the Jenin camp. Jenin residents also handled publicity.
Dozens of excited children and teenagers assembled one afternoon this week in the modest but well-kept auditorium located on the edge of the camp - a hall that features black walls, cheap carpets and simple wooden benches. A few hours before the start of the production, some of these youngsters swept the theater area clean, while director Mer-Khamis roamed about the camp’s alleys, distributing flyers that called on children to attend the free performance.
The children’s play was laden with highly pertinent political messages. Mer-Khamis turned to the audience, half-smiling, before the production, and announced: "This is a dangerous play with subversive messages, and so anyone who talks will be thrown out of the auditorium." But nobody uttered a word; no one disturbed the play, apart from a young child or two who cried when Alice was supposed to wed someone in an arranged marriage.
Then a miracle occurred: the magic rabbit rescued Alice from this unhappy marriage, and brought her to Wonderland, whose freedom she was to gain by using her engagement ring. The good servant rebelled against the evil queen, and everyone expected Alice from Jenin to lead the liberation of Wonderland. But Alice refused to play the role designated for her; instead, she called on residents to free themselves from the oppressive regime by using their own powers. And, indeed, the residents of Wonderland did break free of the evil queen. But their country was left without a ruler - the white queen existed only in their imagination, a symbol of freedom.
Did we say Egypt? Was this about the Israeli occupation? The song, Queen’s "I Want to Break Free," played by the camp’s talented orchestra, said it all. During the next school vacation, readers should consider taking their children to Jenin’s Freedom Theater, which features a revolving stage, pyrotechnics and acrobats, music, colorful costumes, and high professionalism. The theater’s performances are not for children only, though the kids in the audience heartily applauded this production with earsplitting whistling and clapping.
Afterward, they departed the dark theater and entered the daytime darkness of life in a refugee camp - a life of want and crowding, unemployed youths, card games at the local cafe, children playing with junk on the streets and adults sitting at store-fronts, staring hopelessly into space. This is a reality of idleness and lost hope, of despair.
The Freedom Theater was founded many years ago by Juliano’s mother, Arna Mer-Khamis. Children who took part in its first cycle of plays were fighters in the first intifada; many of them are no longer alive. This week, it was hard to stifle ominous thoughts about what might happen to the children at the production of "Alice in Wonderland": what does the future hold in store for this current generation of youngsters?
This week, Jenin’s wonderland was to be found in Egypt. Residents of the refugee camp closely followed events in the land of the Nile, in a mood of melancholy jealousy. Each night they crowded into homes to watch television and see what was going on in Cairo. But no winds of change are blowing in the West Bank. No solidarity demonstration was staged; not a single poster of support was to be seen on the streets. The pining for freedom is to be found only in the Jenin theater.
Camp residents saw what just a few days of popular protest can do - topple a tyrannical regime that has been in power for decades. Yet here in the camp, a struggle that has lasted decades, a mass, armed and sometimes violent campaign for freedom, has changed nothing. All is despair. At the end of last week, the IDF once again invaded the camp and in the dark of night whisked four young men from their beds. Nobody in the camp knew why this happened, or where the men were taken. That’s just the way the world turns.
Peddlers hawked their wares this week behind the iron gates of the Jalameh crossing point, hoping that Arab citizens of Israel whom the state has graciously allowed to enter Jenin might want to purchase something. However, the stores that line the street leading to Jenin, a street currently undergoing a well-funded renovation, were mostly closed, due to the lack of customers. Meantime, some 500 municipal workers in Jenin staged a strike, protesting a wave of dismissals; their places were taken by scabs, supplied by contractors. One municipality employee, Jamal Zubeidi, a dear friend who has accompanied us on visits to the camp for almost a decade, told us this week from his home: "The entire world is changing, and just one thing never changes - the wages of a Palestinian worker. Gold prices rise and fall, currency rates of the shekel and dollar fluctuate, and just one thing never rises or falls - our workers’ salaries. For 20 years, it has been 50-60 shekels a day. A kilogram of sugar cost a shekel, and now it is five times more expensive, but the wage remains 50-60 shekels a day. A gas tank cost 20 shekels, and now costs 70 - and the worker’s wage remains 50-60 shekels. The Palestinian worker’s salary is like God: it remains the same thing forever."
Since the start of the demonstrations in Egypt, Zubeidi has been glued night and day to Al Jazeera broadcasts. Egypt’s revolution instilled a spark of hope, yet for him, it has not broken the spell of gloomy despair that grips the camp. "We also had demonstrations," he says. "These were staged in protest against Al Jazeera’s disclosure of the documents. We have more democracy than anywhere in the world. They use speakers to call us to come out to demonstrate; the Palestinian Authority even sends us buses to transport us to the protests. In Egypt, it’s forbidden to demonstrate; here they send us buses. But they are not the right sort of protests."
Zubeidi continues: "I watch Al Jazeera all day long, and I know what to believe, and what to disbelieve. All the residents of the camp support the demonstrators in Egypt. They say: If only this were to happen throughout the Arab world. But there is a major difference between a regime and an occupation. A struggle against an occupation lasts a long time. In Egypt, this is an internal struggle. Should we get a state, it will be more democratic than Egypt’s. We have much more experience with uprisings.
"One of the reasons for our failure is the Arab regimes, which haven’t helped us. We are not angry with the Arab people; our anger is aimed at its governments. These regimes never helped us. All they do is pressure Mahmoud Abbas to engage in another round of negotiations with Israel. They give him money, not to fight the occupation, but rather to pave roads. That will not take us anywhere. Now, after Tunisia and Egypt, we have hope regarding the Arab world. We always said: there is no war without Egypt, and there is no peace without Egypt. Perhaps Egypt and the Arab world will strengthen now, and begin to assist us. Iran has become stronger, as has Turkey, as well as China and India; it’s only the Arab world that hasn’t gotten stronger. Should it strengthen, should it become more democratic, it will help us."
He continues: "The situation here and in the Gaza Strip resembles Egypt. People have no work, and there is no food, and talking is forbidden. But, with us, each time people want to protest against Fatah in the West Bank, and Hamas’ regime in Gaza, they are told: There is an occupation. Fight against the occupation. You will remember that before the second intifada, there was a desire to rise up against the Palestinian Authority; people set fire [to PA] jeeps and police stations; however, following Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, the uprising was directed against Israel. Now the occupation seems a bit distant, but should protest erupt against the Palestinian regime, it will, again, be redirected in opposition to Israel.
"There were no demonstrations here in support of the Egyptian people, because our regime has ties to the Egyptian leadership, and it does not allow protests. But a new intifada could erupt here at any time. Voices are stifled in the West Bank, and they are stifled in Gaza; and the majority of the Palestinian people, the silent majority, knows that what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia can happen here. Here, too, there are young people who studied in universities but have no work. There are many hungry people - we have that too. Here too there are people who are not allowed to speak out. Corrupt politicians - we have that too. And who opposes them? In Jenin there are 200,000 residents, and 500 policemen and soldiers. The ratio is the same in Hebron, Nablus, and Ramallah. What would they do with hundreds of thousands of people rising up against them? The only question is when this will erupt.
"The problem is that since 2006, the Palestinian people has been divided. You remember how in 2002 we fought together - all forces, Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front, united. Those days are over. The people are divided. I am now 55 years old, and I will not take part in another uprising; but my children (you will remember that my son was six when the second intifada started ) will not ask me about their own participation. I think that demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt learned from our own experience. During the first intifada we had popular committees, and in Egypt, neighborhood residents have organized in a similar fashion.
"We face a lot of pressure. I do not live in Gaza, but the pressure is strong there, as it is here, on the West Bank. I know a lot of people who have changed the way they look at our leaderships, Hamas and Fatah. Everyone on the legislative council has a Jeep, suit and tie; each one has built a palace. In the end, there will be an explosion here. It’s particularly dangerous in the refugee camps. The situation is very bad. But in Egypt and Tunisia, protestors had one goal, to oust the ruling regime, and that can be accomplished quickly. With us, it will take many years, dozens of years, to attain the goal. All of Palestine is the size of one neighborhood in Cairo, but we face not only our own regime; we also face Israel.
"I would have hoped that it would be the hungry people who protested in Egypt, but that’s not what happened. When we were young, we believed in the Popular Front, in revolution, but since then each one of us has turned into a teacher, doctor, merchant - nobody remembers having belonged to the Front. Only the hungry and poor remain in the same place; and so I hoped that they would lead the revolution in Egypt. That didn’t happen, and perhaps that won’t happen in our own case," Zubeidi concludes.
We went out for coffee at an establishment located on the second floor of the city’s main bus depot. A large television screen was broadcasting Al Jazeera; it showed shots being fired on the streets of Alexandria. But nobody in the cafe had energy left to stare at the screen. A group of young people, off-duty security men, played cards; all the other men were looking down at what was going on in the street, averting their eyes from Egypt.