Youth theatre? It’s a respite from bomb­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - BY JACEY HER­MAN

IN JENIN refugee camp, nar­row al­leys of un­paved gravel me­an­der be­tween cin­derblock homes and con­crete slabs, with rub­bish col­lect­ing in heaps along the road.

This is the home of Zakariya Zubeidi, the 32-year-old for­mer com­man­der of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Mar­tyrs’ Brigade in Jenin. For years, he was one of Is­rael’s most wanted men, ac­cused of or­gan­is­ing shoot­ings and sui­cide bomb­ings.

Then, in July 2007, Is­rael an­nounced it would in­clude Mr Zubeidi in an amnesty. But nearly a year later — hav­ing de­voted him­self to a chil­dren’s theatre project ever since — he warns that he has not re­nounced vi­o­lence for good.

“I’m tired. The ac­tivists paid the heav­i­est price of the con­flict. My friends and fam­ily were killed. And what did we achieve? Noth­ing. I’ve put down my weapons for now to see if things im­prove, if Is­rael meets its side of the bar­gain and if the oc­cu­pa­tion ends. But I’m not hope­ful. I’m not re­ally op­ti­mistic. If I have to, I’m pre­pared to take up guns again.”

Mr Zubeidi sits in one of the chairs inside the theatre he has helped re-es­tab­lish in his home­town. Soft-spo­ken, his face is dis­fig­ured by shrap­nel from a bomb he mis­han­dled five years ago.

“If by the end of this year a Pales­tinian state has not been cre­ated, there is go­ing to be war here. Mark my words. It will be a war against the Pales­tinian Author­ity. Not against Is­rael or be­tween Ha­mas or Fatah, but against the PA which hasn’t ful­filled any of the prom­ises it made to the Pales­tinian peo­ple. Life here is get­ting worse — never mind bet­ter.”

For now at least, he has re­turned to the am­mu­ni­tion of his child­hood and is work­ing in Jenin’s Free­dom Theatre, a throw­back to the theatre group that he, his older brother and four friends grew up be­long­ing to. Started by Is­raeli ac­tivist Arna Mer-Khamis, it aimed to en­cour­age un­der­stand­ing be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans.

But Mr Zubeidi found him­self in prison at the age of 14 for throw­ing stones at Is­raeli sol­diers. Soon af­ter his re­lease, he was im­pris­oned again for four-and-a-half years for throw­ing Molo­tov cock­tails. Of the six young­sters who were the main­stay of the theatre, four are to­day dead while Mr Zubeidi’s brother is serv­ing a 16-year jail sen­tence for ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties.

This is the only com­mu­nity theatre in the north­ern Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries. The theatre ad­joins a com­puter cen­tre and an arts and me­dia li­brary and of­fers theatre, mu­sic and dance classes, to­gether with reg­u­lar film screen­ings.

On the stage, chil­dren belt out their lines, tak­ing them­selves very se­ri­ously. For a mo­ment they can es­cape into the lux­ury of a make-be­lieve world.

“You can give chil­dren weapons, but what does it achieve? They don’t know how to ex­press them­selves,” says Mr Zubeidi. “Theatre is an­other way to give chil­dren some­thing to live for. I use it my­self as a way to ex­press my ideas and thoughts — through it I can ex­plain why I used to use weapons or why I once thought of blow­ing my­self up but no longer do.”

“I’m try­ing to con­vey a mes­sage of our cul­ture in Pales­tine,” says 16-year- old Ka­mal Awwad, who dropped out of school three years ago. “We are not just about re­sis­tance and op­pres­sion.

“The theatre shows me I can do some­thing — I can dream, I can act, I can live. Life is not just weapons and guns. I have a fu­ture.”

PHOTO: AP

The for­mer mil­i­tant leader in front of an ex­hi­bi­tion in Jenin’s theatre

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