Animal Farm Finds a Palestinian Stage

RAMALLAH – "Intifadah," scream the animals as they chase Jones from the farm. Strobe lights flash and loud music blares as the packed audience sits captivated, eyes trained on the stage below.

"We are exhausted not because we are hungry. We are exhausted because of human oppression, and we can’t work out how to resolve our problems," shouts Old Major, one of the senior pig revolutionaries.

Freedom Theatre, in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern Palestinian West Bank, one and a half hours drive north of Ramallah, has been running a play based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm that was about the corruption of revolutionaries in Stalinist Russia.

The play at the refugee camp is presented with a decidedly Palestinian twist; a cast of animals eventually overthrow their human oppressor Jones, only to then turn on one another.

The play, adapted from the original Animal Farm by director Nabil Al-Raee, is about the social restrictions within Palestinian society and the corruption in Palestinian leadership. And, about the difficulties of living under Israeli occupation.

Busloads of Palestinians, from students to politicians, come every evening from all over the West Bank and Israel to watch the play, filling the 250-seat theatre to capacity.

Rave reviews from Palestinians, extensive coverage in the media, and the extremely controversial subject matter have ensured a lot of attention to the play, not all of it positive.

What are presumed to be fundamentalist elements in Jenin tried to burn down the theatre recently. A nearby music center was burnt down several weeks earlier.

"We are pushing the envelope and deliberately being controversial," Juliano Mer Khamis, the Israeli-Palestinian director of the theatre told IPS.

Freedom Theatre had planned to tour Ramallah with the production, but the local theatre withdrew, scared of the controversy the play would create. The Palestinian leadership based in Ramallah’s government headquarters, or Muqata, does not take kindly to criticism. An application for funding for the production from a Palestinian cultural foundation was declined.

"Part of the anger generated is based on the portrayal of the revolutionaries as being as corrupt as their oppressors, or even more so," director of the theatre’s drama school Samia Steti told IPS.

In one of the scenes, Molly, one of the horses, runs away from the farm. "The corruption here is worse than when Jones was in control," says Molly.

The human who comes to talk business at the end of the play wears green army uniform and speaks Hebrew, a reference to the Israeli military.

"It is a thinly veiled attack on the corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its collaboration with Israel at the expense of Palestinian citizens," adds Steti.

This is presented in several ways. After the Intifadah, the head pig, Napoleon, is flanked by two black-clad, Kalashnikov-toting dogs who dress like Palestinian security forces.

Boxer, one of the horses, remarks: "We have to be obedient to Napoleon. We have to sacrifice for him." Boxer is worked to death, and killed when he is no longer considered useful.

"Our society tends to lack a culture of questioning and free thinking," says Khamis. He is no stranger to critical thinking; the son of a Jewish Israeli mother and a Christian Palestinian father, he straddles two cultures at war, both culturally and militarily.

He is claimed as Jewish by the Israelis and Palestinian by the Palestinians. His mother Arna Mer Khamis came from a prominent Zionist family but grew to be critical of the Israeli occupation.

She first broke the mould when she set up Freedom Theatre’s predecessor, The Stone Theatre, in Jenin camp during the first Palestinian Intifadah in the 1980s.

"During this time she took a number of budding children actors under her wing as a way to help them deal with the trauma of living in a refugee camp under occupation and exposed to violence on a daily basis," Steti told IPS.

In 2002 Jenin refugee camp, including The Stone Theatre, was destroyed by the Israeli military, which razed the camp’s buildings, killing dozens of Palestinians still trapped inside.

A number of suicide bombers originated in the camp.

Khamis decided to follow in the footsteps of his mother and continue her legacy. "I left a good career as an actor in Israel where I had my home and earned a comfortable living to move to a refugee camp in the West Bank and start a new life," Khamis told IPS.

"I felt after the breakout of the second Intifadah that Israeli society had become a society deaf to the situation. The action of political activists was no longer having any effect, Israelis were on board a runaway train."

Freedom Theatre is helping traumatized and deprived Palestinian youngsters in a number of ways. Last year it opened a small drama school for students. It also holds a number of workshops for acting and theatre production, psychodrama, circus, dance and movement, multimedia activities, and computer and IT skills.

Language classes, art exhibitions, summer camps and field trips are some of the other activities. It also offers a film and photography studio.

"We aim to provide children and youth in the camp with a space in which boys and girls can equally and safely express themselves, dare to experiment, take risks, imagine other realities and challenge existing social and cultural barriers," says Steti.

One of the students who has been given a new lease on life is Rabia Turkman, 21, a former gunman from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

Turkman, who plays the role of one of the horses in the play, was in hiding for years as Israel hunted him down as a wanted man.

He was eventually given amnesty, and has swapped his gun for the stage. "I have a new direction in my life. My new life gives me hope and new challenges," Turkman told IPS. "I want to live. I don’t want to die."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.