Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembering Juliano Mer-Khamis

Yesterday, Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered in Jenin just outside the entrance to The Freedom Theatre. He was holding his infant son while sitting in the front seat of his car, with his babysitter the passenger seat. A masked gunman shot him, and he died instantly. The photos showed pools of blood on the ground next to a red car with the door ajar. News reports showed the ambulance stretcher carting his body away, his face paled by death.

I first heard of Juliano Mer-Khamis last year when someone recommended his documentary Arna's Children to me. I purchased a copy of the DVD at an East Jerusalem bookstore, and soon watched it upon my return to Canada. I was deeply impacted by the documentary, which chronicles the work of a Jewish-Israeli female human rights and peace activist, Arna Mer-Khamis (Juliano's mother), who builds a children's theater (The Freedom Theatre) in the West Bank city of Jenin. The film shows the power that art has to help children literally and metaphorically express the frustration, anger, bitterness, and fear they feel while living under occupation and war in the West Bank. I have to watch the film again to retain the exact details, but Juliano Mer-Khamis shows the development of the theatre and follows severeal of the youth from their involvement in the theater to their lives caught up in violence and war. When he visits them years after they ave left the Freedom Theater, one of them committed a suicide attack in Hadera in 2001, another was killed in the battle of Jenin, and another leads a resistance group.

Juliano Mer-Khamis's enthusiam for the principles of the Freedom Theatre that his mother founded was obvious throughout the film. He took up the general operation of the Freedom Theatre when his mother died in 1994, and lived locally in Jenin.

Despite the many reasons circulating about his murder, it is nevertheless a serious tragedy. The Guardian reported that his murder is an attack on all who strive for justice in the Middle East. For in his life as in his work, he was a living metaphor for Palestinians and Israelis working together. As Amira Hass from Ha'aretz wrote: "Juliano embodied the potential of a shared life (ta'ayush in Arabic) while striving for equality...he was born of two cultures [his mother was Israeli-Jewish and his father was Christian-Palestinian], and chose to live in both. He saw no need to explain." Hass's article mentions how angry Mer-Khamis was about the situation in the West Bank. For him to be angry as an Israeli was acceptable, but as a Palestinian living in the West Bank showing emotion, especially anger, is difficult, because "Palestinians must conquer the anger, mellow it; they must tame it, repress it, sublimate it" or risk getting arrested, wounded, or killed. For Mer-Khamis, The Freedom Theatre was a mechanism to express these intense feelings in a safe way. I believe that was the message he was trying to convey the the children who attended the Theatre. It reminds me of one of my friend's favorite quotes from Stella Adler: "Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one."

Even though many (myself included) are saddened and even devastated by his death, I am glad to hear that the organizers of The Freedom Theatre will keep it running despite the vacuum that his death leaves behind. I also cannot stop thinking about his wife, who was pregnant with twins, and his infant son. I wonder if acts like this can be transformed into positive over time. I imagine the children of Juliano Mer-Khamis growing up and listening to stories of their father, utilizing their father's passion in their own lives. Who knows how they will live their lives or what they will become. But just as Juliano Mer-Khamis was a representation of ta'ayush, so then are Juliano's children.

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