Friday, April 04, 2014

Juliano Died a Martyr, but his Work goes Marching on

 'My dream is that The Freedom Theatre will be a major force co-oporating with others in generating a cultural resistance carrying on its shoulders universal values of freedom and justice'           


THREE years ago today, on the afternoon of April 4, 2011, Juliano Mer Khamis stepped out of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp, occupied Palestine, where he worked. He got into his old red Citroen car, with his baby son Jay, to go home.

As he set off, a man in a balaclava came out of an alleyway and told him to stop. The man then shot Juliano five times, before escaping back down the alley, throwing away his mask. Juliano, the theatre director, was killed, though Jay survived. The killer has never been caught. Nor is it known for sure who was behind this murder and what the precise motives were, though Juliano's friends and colleagues have their suspicions, and they are not the only ones.

Juliano Mer Khamis was 52 when he died, the same age as union leader Bob Crow, and like Bob at the height of his career when taken from us. Though the two men came from different countries and backgrounds, both were loved and are sadly missed; and both were hated by reaction, because though they worked in different ways, both were men of the Left.

Juliano Mer Khamis was an Israeli citizen, and his mother was Arna Mer Khamis, who came from a Zionist family and served in the left-Zionist fighting force the Palmach (as did Ariel Sharon). In the 1948 war she drove a jeep. It was only after the war, when the forces of the new State were used to clear Bedouin in the south, that the young woman began to ask herself what she supported, and look for other ideas.  This led her to the Communist Party, and it was at a party conferene that she met Saliba Khamis, who came from a Greek Orthodox family. He was active in the party in Nazareth, where it came to lead the city council, and he wrote article for the party paper al-Ittihad. 

Arna had been a teacher, but was sacked for marrying an Arab. Welcomed by her new family, she was less well regarded by her Jewish relations, and badly treated in hospital when Juliano was born in 1958. After her death from cancer in 1995 it was almost impossible to find a cemetery where she could be buried.

Although Saliba Khamis was a communist in politics he was not so progressive or liberal as a Dad. Juliano later said he first learned about politics ‘at the end of my father’s belt’. As a youth he tried to identify as an Israeli, serving in the army with his peers and joining the paratroops. For a time he tried dropping the Khamis from his surname.  But he could not close his eyes to the crimes and casual brutality of  the Israeli military, and his breaking point came when he was ordered to beat an elderly Palestinian man at an army checkpoint. Juliano refused, and punched his officer in the face instead. He was thrown in the slammer for refusing orders, and then dismissed from the forces.

Juliano's subsequent career had its ups and downs, from acting on stage and in films to bumming around at home and abroad, drinking, experimenting with drugs, and sleeping on a beach. He was brought to a more stable life when he met Mishmish Or, an Israeli costume designer, from misrahi (Eastern Jewish) background, moved in and became stepfather to her 2-year old daughter Keshet. Then he was persuaded to follow in his mother's footsteps, working in Jenin.

Arna was working with Palestinian mothers, trying to maintain education after the Israelis had closed schools. She took toys and banned literature to people's homes. She taught art, and invited Juliano to teach drama. In 1993, they started the children's theatre, on the top floor of Samira Zubeidi’s house. Juliano was there constantly, directing rehearsals, and filming his mother and the children for what became Arna’s Children. Samira Zubeidi was shot by an Israeli sniper. The theatre on their house was demolished. But by then Juliano Mer Khamis had become a fiend of Zakharia Zubeidi, her son, who went on to become commander of the Al Aqsa brigade of Palestinian fighters.

In 2004, Juliano brought out the film Arna's Children, which showed how the children of the camps, growing up under occupation, became fighters and martyrs. People in Jenin celebrated, and among them Zakharia Zubeidi. But afterwards, he and Juliano Mer Khamis discussed the fate of the second Intifada, and how Palestinian society and culture could resist and rebuild, rather than depend on its armed heroes.  They decided to restart the theatre.

Not everyone liked what they did. Some distrusted co-operation with any Israeli, even one like Juliano who declared himself "100 per cent Jewish and 100 per cent Palestinian" and had been on the run with their own. They resented any distraction from "armed struggle", though Juliano never condemned the fighters, and Zubeidi could hardly be accused of cowardice. Then there were those in the Palestinian Authority who didn't like anything critical of their own collaboration or corruption,and may well have taken umbrage at what young Palestinians were making of Orwell's Animal Farm.  Last but not least, there are conservative religious elements, those who object to any modern culture in their society, and are scandalised by talk of teenage boys and girls acting together on stage, and tales of immodest dress, drink and drugs - not pausing to ask where these tales originate, and whether the occupiers might be stirring the pot.

All the same there is a gap between dislike and deciding to kill somebody, and it is not often that Palestinians attack someone who comes in solidarity. Juliano was careful not to cause unecesessary offence to religious people. But as with Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian solidarity activist murdered in Gaza, suspectedly by a salafi group, there are religious fanatics, possibly not even Palestinian, for whom the concept of solidarity against the Israeli occupation is meaningless, compared to their desire to impose their own reign of terror under the banner of religious "purity".

Whatever the circumstances of Juliano Mer Khamis' martyrdom and the motives of the murderer, or whoever sent him, it has not stopped Juliano's work. Besides its many fans and supporters in Palestine, the Freedom Theatre has won friends and admirers overseas, and a UK Friends group is preparing fundraisers and a tour in Britain.

ARNA IN LONDON   at a vigil on the steps of St.Martin le Fields, near Trafalgar Square, remembering Palestinian children killed during the first Intifada. The woman in white with the red flower is Arna Mer Khamis.

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