Jerusalem24 – Another day, another attack on Palestine’s cultural scene. A familiar scenario for Palestine’s many writers, artists, musicians, and performers.
Last week, it was the arrest by Israeli forces of Bilal Al-Saadi, Chairman of the famed Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp, which has been targeted on many occasions by Israeli authorities.
Al-Saadi was detained at the Zaatara checkpoint on his way back to Jenin on 11 September, after a meeting with Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Saif.
Mustafa Sheta, Director General of the Freedom Theater, who was with Al-Saadi when he was arrested, tells Jerusalem24 of the updates (or lack thereof) on Bilal’s condition; of attacks on cultural institutions coming from within Palestinian society; and of what the Freedom Theater can do – and is doing – to change the situation, as a mouthpiece for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian narrative.
Paying the cost
The Freedom Theater family believes that the first time it was directly targeted by Israel was following the 2011 assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the theatre’s co-founder and artistic director. “Until now, no one knows who killed Juliano,” Mustafa emphasizes. “They hid all the evidence.”
At the time of Juliano’s killing, Israeli forces arrested members of the Freedom Theater including Bilal, as well as former artistic director Nabil Al-Raai, and the operations manager of the theater Adnan Marmaria. They were released four days later.
Mustafa believes that art and culture are significant tools in telling the Palestinian story and that this makes them an obvious target. “I think Israel knows the power of the culture in Palestine: it’s a global language. Look at two months ago when they closed the six organizations in Ramallah.”
The upcoming Israeli elections are also playing a role in escalating the reality on the ground, says Mustafa, and Palestinians are paying the cost of it.
Attacks from without… and from within
Mustafa believes the past and current attacks on Palestine’s cultural scene are happening “by design”, rather than chance. This is especially true for the Freedom Theater whose international partnerships and global reach have truly made it a target.
But while the Israeli occupation may have obvious reasons for targeting cultural institutions, analyzing recent attacks by the Palestinian public and certain institutions against Palestinian performers, educators, or museum curators, requires a more complex and nuanced approach.
“I think people feel miserable when they look at the political part, they lose something,” ventures Mustafa. “And then they try to occupy some places, and then some religious or conservative ideas come to occupy this space.”
“If they don’t come to you, you come to them”
Speaking last month on the subject of attacks from within Palestinian society, Professor of anthropology Misleh Kananaa told Jerusalem24 that a solution would be to create “some sort of a platform or a network in order to mobilize people who are against the attacks.”
Mustafa agrees with Kanaana, in that “it’s very important” to have a bridge with the public. “We need more work to push people to come to see and attend our cultural events and engage with them.”
The Freedom Theater follows the philosophy, “If they don’t come to you, you come to them.”
“So we organized our work and activities to be present in camps and cities through street theaters,” explains Mustafa. “At the end, people support and accept you.”
Culture as usual
Despite the arrest of their Chairman, and ongoing worries about his whereabouts and wellbeing (Mustafa expects Bilal’s current arbitrary detention period to be renewed), Mustafa says that the work of the Freedom Theater goes on just as it has every time it has been targeted in the past. “We continue with the theater school, the children’s program…”
The theater is also getting ready for “a huge production” in the West Bank and Gaza, exploring the relationship between these two pieces of fragmented Palestine.
Listen to the full interview on Vibes.