In the crypt of a church built into the face of a cliff, I wait to meet the action director of the Palestinian Freedom Theatre, Nabil Al-Raee.
The theatre group was touring across the UK, so I decided to take the train to Hastings and meet the director during the production of The Siege. In particular, the play focused on the events of the 39-day standoff between Israeli army snipers and Palestinian groups at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
This dramatisation is not just entertainment. The voice of the theatre echoes from the Jenin Refugee Camp to whisper a forgotten history, one mixed with the blood of our own colonial past.
The history of a people who resist the terrorism of occupation.
From the darkness, a man walks towards me and smiles. We shake hands and sit down to a strong coffee.
It warms us. Can you tell me about the theatre? I ask Nabil.
So the Freedom Theatre as an idea started a long time ago, not today, not 2006 when the Freedom Theatre opens.
It is a continuation of another theatre called the Stone Theatre which was a total initiative by a Jewish woman, a Jewish/Israeli woman who was married to a Palestinian man from Nazareth.
Arna met Saliba Mer-Khamis at a Communist Party meeting and fell in love.
She was one of the Palmach, the first Jewish militant group at the time that was dismissed, forcing people to leave their homelands when the occupation started in 1948.
They were a terrorist organisation…
Yes (pauses). There are so many people who do not know this actually. She was part of that and (at a) certain point she understood what was happening and she stopped the whole idea.
She was even dismissed by her family after getting married to Saliba… her father was a big Zionist actually.
Then she came to Jenin Refugee camp and she started to work with people. Many people do not know actually that when I mention Jewish/Israeli women, many people think that it’s that idea.
Everyone in the entire world wants to put Israeli and Palestinians together and that we should love each other, as cousins we should kiss each other… it’s not that at all.
She was taking a serious initiative.
Of course people doubted her will, of course people looked deeply and asked themselves what she wants from our life. Then little by little, they started to trust her because they saw what she was doing. She was actually working in the street.
Little by little the idea started to grow and they started to establish children houses – everywhere – until they won the Alternative Nobel Prize, and it was $50,000.
This is the Alternative Nobel Prize, as opposed to the Nobel Prize that is now given to economists and people who fuck up the world?
Yes, exactly, given to Arna and I think her partners as well. So they decided to build a theatre and they call it the Stone Theatre.
(They) built the theatre with whatever was available at that time. Lights, sounds, technical stuff and worked as a team, a great team. The main trainer was her son Juliano who was a very famous actor in Israel.
He used to come and work, train theatre students. The theatre worked until 1995 when Anna died (of) cancer actually and then there was some kind of continuation of the theatre but then they have to close for several reasons. The Second Intifada started.
Most of the students… they were closed in so many different ways and so they had to fight back.
Most of them joined the armed resistance, most of them there was no choice ahead of them. So they became fighters.
(In) 2002, the Israelis invaded Jenin Refugee Camp and around 500 houses were destroyed at this time and most of the (students) were killed. There was only one survivor, who became head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and that guy believed all the time that a gun without culture doesn’t mean anything.
Many people ask why the Stone Theatre?
It is because the First Intifada was all the time with stones, to fight back against the occupation with stones, whatever was available at that time so he always believed in culture, he always believed in arts and the role of the (theatre) was very important in his life
Then Juliano decided to come back and follow the story of what happened to these guys, why they became, why they get killed, why some of them join the armed resistance.
He was in a terrible mess in his head, as he used to describe to me and to many people, performing to Israeli soldiers on so many different nights and coming back to Jenin that just, you know…
A split world.
He quit totally being an actor, left everything, came to Jenin and divided his life between Haifa and Jenin so he made that film [Arna’s Children”].
Together with Swede Jonathan Stanza and Zakaria Zubeidi from the Brigades, they decided to open the theatre and still Zakaria was wanted by the Israeli’s but he was so much involved in finding space.
So they did find the space, which was a warehouse where the United Nations used to supply people with sugar and oil… flour.
They thought about the idea, what are we going to call the place? Many people said we are longing for freedom so let’s call it the Freedom Theatre.
In 2006, the Freedom Theatre officially opened its doors. I believe I came at the end of 2006 and I started to direct the action.
I have been there for 10 years now. During these years many great things happened and many bad things happened. A lot of tragedies like the assassination of Juliano himself.
Juliano was murdered by [an] unknown masked man.
You still don’t know who?
We don’t know until today but the greatest thing about the Freedom Theatre is that we believe in an idea and I think the Freedom Theatre is built by many people, of course Juliano was a great, amazing character.
You will never meet someone like him in your life.
Believe me, I have lived with this man for 5 and a half years and I know his energy, I know his charisma. I know his ideology.
When I met him the first time he said; “Welcome to the revolution”. I thought about it, what do you mean? With that I understood that theatre is a revolution if we believed in a real theatre and real art makes people think and makes some change in the hearts and minds of some people.
When we have a lot of strategies and ways to do, we never picked a theatre for entertainment. We always [have] been identifying ourselves as a political theatre because we have responsibility.
Art and responsibility are walking only a very thin line between them. So as artists we have to be responsible. I am not only also talking about only about Palestine.
Of course I am talking about Palestine since it is still a case and we are still fighting, and not also fighting on a very nationalistic side. I hate countries. I can’t really deal with countries, I don’t like countries and I don’t like borders but we are fighting since we have a cause to fight for.
So we pick up every subject, we have to analyse what is going on now and then say OK now we talk about this, we talk about that – that’s why we see the Siege of an example, as a play it’s very important because it’s the story.
Yes it is a story within a big story but still, it is talking about a bigger level of Siege, it is talking about the bigger concept of layers and layers of occupation.
Different styles of life – politically, socially. How people manage, how people cope with such a situation.
So these are the kind of subjects which we are creating. The necessity of bringing back the story of the Siege because it is a story still happening because the guys who were sent across Europe into exile, they never came back.
13 years after what happened they never came back. They never managed to get back of course because the deal around that was totally mysterious.
Do you think they were imprisoned in the European countries for what they did?
I totally think so. I totally think talking to these guys and chatting with them personally I know very well three of them because they grow up in the same camp as me… but I believe most of them spoke about the first year they spent when they were sent to exile in Europe.
26 of them were sent to Gaza and many people say “yeah but Gaza is Palestine”. Of course but as a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank, I can’t see people in Gaza. I have a family, a whole family in Gaza – I never saw them.
Two people in Ireland, both of them can’t see their families – one of them had a child, never saw him – he was sent to exile two days before he was sent out. He had a boy – until today he never saw him.
He never saw his boy. He never saw his wife, he never saw the rest of his family.
They are still at Siege.
Yeah but you know, they are saying prison is different from one place to another but it is the whole idea. The main and the most important thing, that we spoke about a lot in the play, is that when you are not given a choice then you are in a total prison as a human being.
The most important comment I have heard from people.
It’s the first time for us to identify with the Palestinian resistance away from terrorism. Because these guys were discussing as any human;
Missing your food, missing the water, missing your dreams… the play was full of hope in a way.
It is full of hope, you know, in order for you to dream in such an awful situation that’s an amazing thing. I am very happy, I am very glad that people called them fighters. Finally. Finally.
People want to discuss what they called conflict and I disagree with this term actually. I disagree with this now. OK. So what is happening now.
No. If you call that a conflict you are putting two people in a balance. Which is not true.
So if you want to understand, you have to go back and connect with history.
Ilan Pappe wrote a very interesting book called the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. This guy is just amazingly important because he is professional, it is not only enough as an Israeli to present the right history but also to dig so deep and bring back the fact behind what happened.
So very important for me, I was just on the phone to him one week ago and he said, ‘we have to be professional to make people understand what is going on. It is not enough always to complain and to be emotional and to say yes they killed us and who?’
You have to go back and connect with history, as you said exactly, understanding is a very important starting point to get the idea and as Ilan said, you can’t actually separate history from the present circumstances.
So people need to go back and see what happened before in order for them to start, as they call it, a very complicated conflict which is not very complicated.
It’s not, obviously the major misconception is between the word Zionism and the word Judaism and unfortunately this is driving everything.
I walk outside the crypt with Nabil to smoke a cigarette. I ask him how he got from the West Bank to Sussex and he tells me he was interrogated for 40 days by the Israeli military before he was allowed to leave.
“I did not feel afraid any more,” Nabil smiles as he takes a breath of seaside air.
“I looked at my interrogator and knew that I was stronger.”
He tosses his cigarette and walks back into the darkness of the theatre as the deafening sounds of artillery echo throughout the crypt.
Interview by Joe Reynolds
Photography: One year after Operation Protective Edge, Palestinian solidarity activists blocked the entrance to UAV Engines Ltd, in Shenstone, Staffordshire. The factory makes engine components for drones used by Israel and the company itself is a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, an Israeli company. 19 activists were arrested on the 6th July 2015 for protesting peacefully outside of the factory. Charges were dropped five months later after it became clear there was no legal case.