“The Freedom Theatre,” declared Juliano Mer Khamis, who founded TFT in 2006 with colleagues Jonatan Stanczak and Zakaria Zubeidi, and ran it in the Jenin Refugee Camp until he was assassinated on 4 April 2011, “is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation with poetry, music, theatre, cameras. The Israelis succeeded [in destroying] our identity, [and] our social structures, political [and] economical. Our duty as artists is to rebuild or reconstruct this destruction: Who we are, why we are, where we are going, who we want to be” (The Freedom Theatre 2010). “We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theatre, cameras, and magazines,” declared Mer Khamis (2010). His goal was for The Freedom Theatre to “generate a political artistic movement of artists who are going to raise their voices against women’s discrimination, against children’s discrimination, against violence” (TFT 2010). To this end, The Freedom Theatre teaches courses in film, photography, creative writing, political cartooning, runs a nursery school; has a three-year training program in theatre; and has performed adaptations of the famous Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Suicide Note From Palestine, Return to Palestine, and Athol Fugard’s The Island – which highlights similarities between life under apartheid and life under Occupation.
Alice in Wonderland, co-directed by Zoe Lafferty, who co-directs The Siege, addresses the Israeli Occupation, problems with the Palestinian leadership, arranged marriage, the hijab, homosexuality, and relationships between unmarried men and women. In TFT’s production, Lewis Carroll’s familiar figures are framed by the story of an arranged marriage: Alice’s father insists that she marry Ahmad, and when she protests, he slaps her. Left alone, Alice tries on bright red lipstick at her dressing table and dances around fantasizing about love. Her dream-time comes to an abrupt end when her mother violently yanks Alice’s hair into a tight pony-tail for the engagement party (demonstrating that women can be and often are part of enforcing traditions that subjugate themselves and their own daughters), at which Alice, the only woman not wearing a hijab, is given a ring. But as the engagement is about to take place, a White Rabbit takes Alice to Wonderland. Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole is one of disorientation: she is spun around and around on a revolving stage by the Rabbit until she lands in front of a writhing, hissing, black-clad punk-rock Caterpillar (Mo’men Switat) who reveals her destiny: she will free Wonderland from the Red Queen (Maryam Abu Khaled) with her engagement ring and restore the White Queen (Micaela Miranda) to power. Alice refuses; she urges the inhabitants of Wonderland to free themselves. Wonderland rebels, but since they do not have a leader to replace the Red Queen, their revolution fails. The Red Queen’s power and personality are so overwhelming that she literally takes over the entire stage as she lip-synchs the Blondie song “One Way or Another/I’m gonna find ya/I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha!” Eventually the White Queen, who embodies the subconscious desire for a messianic leader and has spent most of the play in a cocoon-like web of gauze, emerges, takes shape, and takes over the leadership role that Alice has refused. Alice returns to reality, where she confronts Ahmad and tells him she will not marry him: in the last line of the play, Alice tells Ahmad that her engagement ring freed Wonderland from the Oppressor, and Wonderland freed her from the ring.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party embodies and exemplifies what is so important about The Freedom Theatre’s work. The Mad Hatter (Eyad Hourani) enters in red striped tights, red leather gloves, a cape, and sparkling Boy George-style pants. To the tune of Freddy Mercury’s “I Want to Break Free” he struts, vogues, and catwalks his way across the table top, kicking teacups out of the way in a campy dance that celebrates some of the more overt stereotypes of homosexuality, such as flamboyance: clearly the Mad Hatter wants to break free from the restrictions of heteronormativity that are prevalent in Jenin, one of the more conservative cities in the occupied territories. This dance goes on for some time as the Mad Hatter literally takes time and space to rebel against the cultural norms that oppress him. Alice joins him on the table-top, and they tango seductively together, expanding their rebellion to include prohibitions against contact between unmarried men and women: This was the first time that a boy and a girl danced together on the stage in Jenin; it was the first time a boy and a girl touched on stage in Jenin; and it was the first time a boy and a girl used their bodies sexually and suggestively on stage in Jenin. Alice is community theatre in the true sense of the term: it provides a political and artistic education for the actors, a platform for them to express themselves, a showcase for their work, and employment. For the residents of the refugee camp TFT provides much-needed entertainment, and it asks residents to question some of their deeply held assumptions about gender, sexuality, the role of women in society, and the strategies of the current Palestinian leadership, often functioning as a means of generating conversation within the camp.
When asked what he would want people to know about The Freedom Theatre, Zakaria Zubeidi said, “That the Palestinian people are alive. That we live under Occupation,” and he continued, quoting poet Mahmoud Darwish, “‘On our land in Palestine, we deserve life.’” Mer Khamis said: “When we sat to discuss the name of The Freedom Theatre, we said that the values we’re going to implement or teach for or work with are not based on some kind of political agenda – state, party, flag, army – we want to deal with values that are more universal, that are more on the human level. The Freedom Theatre is not a national Palestinian theatre. It’s freedom” (Mer Khamis 2011).