Scared to death by dramatist

By Julia Pascal, April 15, 2011
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Does theatre matter? Jewish/Arab director and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis was gunned down by masked gunmen in Jenin last week. He had prophesised on Israeli television that he would die this way. Mer-Khamis was born, as he put it: "One hundred per cent Jewish and one hundred per cent Arab".

The child of Israeli Communists, his mother was Arna Mer, who left Israel to form a community theatre in Jenin's refugee camps; his father was the Christian Arab intellectual, Saliba Khamis. Murdered at the age of 52, while his Finnish wife Jenny was pregnant with twins, Mer-Khamis was buried, not with the sounds of the Kaddish but with the cry of Allah Akhbar, as his body was lowered next to his mother's in a kibbutz cemetery.

Mer-Khamis, once a paratrooper in the Israeli army, was assassinated because his work caused offence to those who hate women's equality. Today, in Jenin, posters proclaim him "The Martyr for The Freedom of Culture". He believed the Third Intifada should be one that relies on art and not guns.

Mer-Khamis was no stranger to the fury of conservatives; his theatre was twice the victim of arson. In 2006, he changed its name from The Stone to The Freedom Theatre. He paid dearly for encouraging dreams of freedom.

Theatre has always been a potent weapon against terror

His 2009 production of Animal Farm, with actors provocatively dressed as pigs, was seen as a critique of a corrupt Palestinian Authority. During its run, he revealed to friends that he was receiving death threats. His latest "crime" was to allow girls to participate as actors. He openly encouraged them to train and perform in his theatre knowing this would inflame Islamic zealots.

Although Hamas has not admitted responsibility, many believe they are behind this assassination. Of course, Hamas has no problem sending a woman into the public arena if she has explosives strapped to her body. Any female desire for an independent, creative life onstage cannot be tolerated, however.

This appalling murder has provoked international outrage. Brighton-based, international theatre director Faynia Williams, who has been working in Gaza with her playwright-husband Richard Crane, has expressed her disgust. New York Theatre Workshop's Jim Nicola and Linda Chapman, who were working with Mer-Khamis, see the shooting as "an assault on art and artists, peacekeepers and the creative lives of young people who live under the constant threat of violence". Irene Bokova, Head of UNESCO, deplores this cowardly act.

Although Mer-Khamis was also a respected film actor (he was in John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl and Amos Gitai's Kippur), it is his trail-blazing work in Jenin that has most excited admiration. If his mother's pro-Palestinian theatre inflamed many Israelis, as it seemed almost to support suicide bombings, Mer-Khamis himself has widened the struggle to challenge Palestinian society's view of girls' and women's rights.

This year, his production of Alice In Wonderland, about a girl avoiding a forced marriage, has infuriated those who prefer to see women hidden behind the veil. The production was sold out and a clip reveals a wildly modern Alice who would look at home on the London or New York stage. Mer-Khamis believed in a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, one in which women and girls would be free from the prison of religious fundamentalism.

The battle for land and women's rights were the causes that made him dangerous. Now Mer-Khamis has become a martyr, whose legacy is more powerful than any suicide bomber's. Although he had feared that this would happen, having said, "I do not pretend to be a hero. Of course I am scared," he added: "but I'm not one for running away".

Theatre has always been a potent weapon against terror. That the death merchants see it as a threat, even when produced by one who seems to support their cause, shows that the stage is as powerful as the gun. Terrorists believe that they can annihilate those who empower girls and women. But they forget that once a girl has seen Alice make her journey into her own wonderland, she can never go back to a home that crushes her hopes.

Julia Pascal is a playwright. Her 'Crossing Jerusalem' was staged at The Tricycle Theatre and the Karlsruhe Staatstheater. It is published by Oberon Books.

Last updated: 9:21am, April 15 2011