Palestinian play criticizes local politics

George Orwell's 1945 satiric novel "Animal Farm" was performed with a distinctively Palestinian flavor.

palestinian theater animal farm 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian theater animal farm 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
In scene one of the play, Farmer Jones assassinates the animals' leader. In scene two, the animals - a few horses, a donkey, a crow, a chicken and some pigs - rally around a revolutionary sow named Snowball, who leads an uprising against their oppressive master. "Intifada!" the animals scream, using the Arabic word for uprising. Strobe lights flash and heavy metal music blares as they chase Jones from the farm. George Orwell's 1945 satiric novel "Animal Farm" was performed with a distinctively Palestinian flavor this week at the Freedom Theater in Jenin. It was the debut production of the West Bank's only full-time drama school. While addressing the classic theme of revolutionaries imitating their oppressors, the play's mere production here represents a revolution of sorts. The fact that such a school can raise the curtain in a camp once known for vicious battles with Israeli troops shows how far this part of the West Bank has come in its return to normalcy. But the choice of play also represents a challenge to Palestinian traditions, said the theater's general director Juliano Mer Khamis, the son of a Jewish mother and Palestinian father. "We lack a culture of criticism. We lack a culture of free thinking," said the bearded Mer Khamis, dressed in a black shirt, jeans and jacket. "One of our roles is to challenge this." Such close-mindedness turned the theater into a target for protests, some of them violent, said Mer Khamis, a stage and film actor in Israel. Last week, someone lit fire to a neighboring music school, he said, although it was stopped before spreading to the theater. Violence also affected artistic decisions. The theater initially selected "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a satire of armed resistance by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, for the debut production. But the play was shelved after someone smashed the window of Mer Khamis's car. The cast worried that the play's message would be ill-received after Israel's recent Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. So the theater chose "Animal Farm" as a back-up, even though a Ramallah theater refused to let the Jenin cast use its facility and a Palestinian cultural foundation declined to provide funding. Both worried the play would stoke controversy, Mer Khamis said. Animal Farm is a commentary on the Stalin era in pre-World War II Russia. After banishing farmer Jones, the animals suffer under the increasingly corrupt leadership of a group of pigs, who gradually adopt human habits, like walking upright, wearing suits and drinking alcohol. The story ends when the head pig meets with a human to discuss farm business, the ultimate selling-out of the revolution. Director Nabil al-Raee said the Jenin production explores this original theme, while commenting on Palestinian politics. "What happens in Palestine all around us is connected to Animal Farm," he said. Certain production decisions highlight this comparison. After the "intifada," the head pig, Napoleon, flanks himself with two black-clad, Kalashnikov-toting dogs who dress like Palestinian security forces. And after moving into the farmer's house, Napoleon hangs a large picture of himself in a dark suit and striped tie above the farmyard - similar to photos of Palestinian politicians that hang in government offices. The human who comes to talk business at the play's end wears a green army uniform and speaks Hebrew - a not-so-veiled reference to cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. Al-Raee said the show criticizes Israel, but also knocks the Palestinians for letting internal struggles divide them. After Monday's opening night, the director plans to take the play to schools and universities, or bus in audiences from surrounding villages. The drama school, with a first class of 10 students for its three-year program, opened in September. It builds on the work of Mer Khamis's mother, Arna, who ran a makeshift theater in the Jenin camp in the 1980s to help children there deal with trauma. The theater was destroyed in 2002, during fierce battles between IDF soldiers and Palestinian terrorists. One of the acting students is Rabea Turukman, 23, a former gunman in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Abbas' Fatah movement. During the second intifada, which erupted in 2000, Turukman was shot three times and lost friends in battles with the IDF. In 2007, he gave up his gun and accepted partial amnesty from Israel as part of a political deal. Al Aqsa carried out scores of terror attacks against Israelis, but Turukman denied he was a terrorist. "I never carried the rifle so I could die. I did it because I wanted to live," he said. "I went into the theater after I gave up fighting because it, too, is a kind of freedom." Some of his former "colleagues" have questioned his choice. "They say, 'You left the resistance and left the gun so you could go play on a stage?'" he said. Even his mother had a hard time understanding why he gave up his gun to be an actor, he said. Then she saw the show. "She told me to keep acting," he said.