Freedom Theater in Jenin

On 6 September 2021 six Palestinian political prisoners freed themselves from the high security Gilboa prison in Israel. Two weeks later they were all found and brought back to prison. One of the six men, Zakaria al Zubeidi, was one of the founders of the Freedom Theater in Jenin.

In this podcast episode I speak with Mustafa Staiti, who is from the Jenin refugee camp, but currently lives in Holland, about the Freedom Theater and how the theater had an important impact on his life.

The theater activities in Jenin refugee camp started in the 90s with the work of a Jewish Israeli woman who was married to a Palestinian, her name was Arna Meir Khamis. She also established the Women in Black to protect Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians crossing checkpoints. Arna used to live with Mustafa and his family and was like a second mother to him. She died of cancer. Her son Juliano made the film Arna’s children about the children in the refugee camp. One of the boys that features in this film is Zakaria al Zubeidi.

Later he became an important leader of the resistance in the refugee camp. He put down the weapons and together with a Swedish Jew, Jonathan Stanczak and Juliano Meir Khamis, they established the Freedom Theater in which theater was not only fun but also therapeutic.

Here you can read the full transcript:

Kristel: [00:00:00] Mustafa, we met first in 2007 or 2008, I think. I don’t really remember exactly. And after that, we have met several times in the following years. Now we haven’t seen each other for quite a lot of years. And since I am in touch with you again, I found out that you’re actually living in my country.

You are living in a city, not far from Amsterdam, married or not married, but at least in relationship with a Dutch woman and having a child. And it’s so good to be in touch with you again, and to see you. Thank you very much for giving me some of your time. How are you?

Mustafa: [00:00:42] Thank you very much for this. This is a beautiful country and I am married to a Dutch woman. Sanne, my wife’s name and we have a beautiful child. This is funny, this is how life goes. You are in my country. I’m in your country.

Kristel: [00:00:58] Then let me ask you, what did you eat tonight?

Mustafa: [00:01:01] Tonight we had a burger and then for dinner we had salad. Arabic salad with egg plant in the oven.

Kristel: [00:01:12] Ah, did you cook?

Mustafa: [00:01:13] Yeah, I cook most of the time, yes.

Kristel: [00:01:17] I was going to stay Dutch cuisine is not really the most amazing.

Mustafa: [00:01:21] It’s actually not bad. I like a kroket a lot, a frikandel and haring and kibbeling is everyday something.

Kristel: [00:01:31] Fish is something I don’t eat a lot here, even though my mother in law she cooks fish sometimes, but we had fasulia today. We had some left over barbecue from yesterday because yesterday was Yom Kippur and then they closed all the roads here.

And so a lot of Palestinians at home stuck, we can’t go anywhere. So we did a barbecue. Yeah, it’s really nice to see you Mustafa. I think I was in my early thirties when we first met and I don’t know what’s your age right now? I’m 43. What’s your age?

Mustafa: [00:02:02] I’m 35

Kristel: [00:02:04] Yeah. Okay. Then we have a little bit of difference. So how old were you at the time when we met?

Mustafa: [00:02:10] I was young and fool. I was 22.  And it was just start working in the freedom theater. So I met you in Beit Sahour, I think. You were doing African dance. You still do that?

Kristel: Yeah. Yeah. I still teach Zumba classes and actually we found a dabka teacher from Ramallah who comes sometimes to teach us, Afro dabka a combination of African dance and dabka.

Kristel: [00:02:44] So yes, yes. It’s still my passion to dance. So, yeah, we met here in Beit Sahour. And then I think I came and visited you in Jenin. Can you tell our podcast listeners maybe a little bit about Jenin before we talk about the Freedom Theater. What is Jenin like, and especially the refugee camp.

Mustafa: [00:03:04] Jenin is a beautiful city. I think it’s one of the most beautiful landscape in West bank of Palestine. It’s in the north side of Palestine. Mostly people live there are working in agriculture since it’s have the most open land for growing vegetables that can be provided to the west bank. And even before ‘48 they were exporting watermelon mostly to the Arab countries and Europe.

 I was born and grew up in Jenin although my father is from the camp, my father is a refugee was born in Haifa and left as young baby with his family in 48 to Jenin refugee camp. Jenin refugee camp is like any other refugee camps for Palestinians inside Palestine and outside.

It’s very crowded, very hard conditions of life, minimum resources, food, the health care.    Also the camp has been, and probably still, under heavy attack during the first Intifada especially mostly in the second Intifada. It was destroyed in 2002 by bulldozers of the Israeli army after a long 12 days of battle.

So it was hard somehow to grow up in such an environment. But beside that we had quite a nice time. In the time where there were not heavy attack or heavy war. It’s a beautiful city, beautiful people. Everybody is connected to everybody. Once you live in the hard situation, somehow it makes people more close to each other.

So it’s hard at some point. For me, it was hard since I was born in 86 and the first Intifada started in ’87. So from ’87 till ’94, the Oslo agreement, it was kind of a tense first years of my life. Also mentioning that my father was arrested by the Israeli army in ’89. And he was released in ‘98 the last time.

And then from being involved also with Arna Meir Khamis, also talk about later, you know, if you talk about the theater, it’s all of my life. So as I said, you know, once you have a hard time, suddenly you find another window open in your life to give you hope to get you going and for us at that time, it was Arna Meir Khamis, she built the Stone Theater.

And my mother was her personal assistant. So I was involved in these cultural activities every day. And it was big, big help for me to, to get back into having hope in life.

Kristel: [00:05:37] Yeah. Before you continue to tell us about the freedom theater, did you attend school and did you manage to finish your school and the high school and study?

 Mustafa: [00:05:48] Yeah, I studied in Jenin city. I finished my high school with a good mark. And then I went to university in Nablus and that was 2004. It was still Intifada going, so we decided to move to Jenin Arab American university to finish my study, because the situation was a bit hard. So I studied management information systems that I don’t know what does it mean right now.

Kristel: [00:06:14] And then you got involved in the Stones Theater. Can you tell a bit for people who have no clue who is Arna and what is the Stone Theater?

Mustafa: [00:06:23] Yeah, Arna Meir Khamis, she’s a is Israeli Jew. She was born in a Zionist family in the early fifties. Her family came from Poland and she was involved first in her life in Palmach group up. And the Palmach was one of the Jewish Zionistic group that were armed, before establishing the State of Israel in ’48, then later on her life, she started to you know, grow up mentally and  then she changed her ideas about the whole situation.

And then in sixties, she met a Palestinian Christian, a man from ’48, from Reina. Then he was also in the communist party. He was one of the first people who established the communist party in Arab community in Israel. So she fall in love and she had three children from him.

She became a peace activist and then she became later very strong freedom activist. She was like saying that I’m not here to make peace between victim and criminals. I’m here to provide these people as much as I can in my life, especially with children, the hope for freedom. So in the late eighties, she met my mother while she was working on something called women in black.

So Arna established a group of middle-aged Jewish women that they go to the Israeli prisons mostly and try to prevent the soldiers to be violence. So they were mostly protecting the Palestinian families in jail from the Israeli soldier behavior, since they are also old and respected and they have done in their lives, they have a kind of a power over these young soldiers.

And they were also going to the streets, they were doing all of this. And she met my mother and she had the idea of coming to Jenin and opening a center for children that at least they can draw and play with toys you know, minimum of the basics of any child in the world would need in his life at the time.

And the first Intifada, we had long curfews also. There was likely so many years that we didn’t go to school at all. Some years, we went to school for two months only, altogether three months. So education system totally fall down at that time and it was the only alternative was to open the center, that first children cannot go to the street or get themselves killed by coincidence or not, but to be a place that they can do cultural activities and this improved into being the Stone Theater and it became a professional theater when Juliano, her son, did his own journey of founding himself being in the army and then being kicked out of the army, being in Asia and being in India, doing meditation, doing all of the spiritual activities you can think about. And then realizing that he was there for a reason, and he had this power for a reason and he decided to join his mother and make it from very basic amateur center into a professional theater that was in ’92 till ’94. And then ’95 Arna died and Juliano found himself alone.

And they decided to go back to Israel and continue life, until he decided again, to come back in 2006.

Kristel: [00:09:52] When you were younger, younger boy, you already met with Arna and you met with Juliano and then he left out of your life again. Do you remember that moment or how did that feel? When somebody who came and invested in you as children then disappeared again?

Mustafa: [00:10:11] Well, Arna was living in our house mostly. So she had a big impact on us. She was like a second mother, to be honest with you, because we were six children and it was my mother busy so we needed also somebody. She was helping also my mother. Also raising us up. If you, do something, if you deal with your sister with a violence way, she was always, so she was part of the family. Basically. She was like a second mother for us and for so many children, but mostly for us, she sleeps in our house.

For Juliano at that time he came as like a big star. He was already in Hollywood. He was already, you know, he traveled all over India on a motorcycle. He was like shining of power. So as ten years old, nine years old boy, that has no chance to really have contact with him at that time.

So it was like only this idol coming back, talking to children who are older than us, but he was a big idol for me. You know, He was like the hero of mine. I seeing him how he act, how he talk, how he move was big thing, but to be honest with you, even though when he left after ’95, he was coming to visit from time to time.

He came to visit his friends before the second Intifada I’m talking like from ’96, he came ’97. He was coming almost once a year or once every two years. So he was coming from time to time, but I didn’t have any personal connection with him at that time until 2006, where he recognized me. By then we started to be friends and he started to be my teacher and probably everything in my life.

Kristel: [00:11:46] He came back and something happened so that the Freedom Theater was established. And I think there were some other people involved, including Zakaria al Zubeidi?

Mustafa: [00:11:57] Yeah. He made a movie, he made his movie Arna’s children. They collected the footage he had and Zakaria was in the movie. And then there was, there were three of them who started the Freedom Theater. There was Jonathan Stanzack who was a Swedish activist and he’s also a Jew and there was Juliano Meir Khamis and there was Zakaria.

And the start happened between Jonathan and Zakaria, where they met and then Zakaria suggested to contact Juliano since he had experience and yeah, have done it before.  But Jonathan was the provider for the international connection and basically the starter of the money to build up the theater with the equipment.

So yeah, three of them were the main founders for the Freedom Theater.

Kristel: [00:12:41] And what do you think was their main aim? What was the goal with starting a theater in middle of refugee camp?

Mustafa: [00:12:48] It was clear Kris, at the time you see the impact of the violence, of the Intifada on the faces of the children. I’m not going to even talk about the faces of the older people, because for me, it’s like very hard to deal with those.

They somehow managed to build up a way to close down themselves. And I think it’s too late, the most problematic were the children who had no experience of how to deal with these emotions, how to deal with these difficulties, how to deal with this huge amount of brutality of life. They lost hope in everything.

They lost hope in life. And that was very dangerous. Most of them, they just wanted to die. And the others were like blaming themselves for this because they don’t deserve a better life. So you were dealing with children. You can see in their faces, they are old people.

They are 12 and 13 years old, but you see a face of 95 years old boy, a man or a girl. So it was clear that you have to do it for the children to at least provide hope in life. Like there is some kind of a hope that maybe that your life can change. Maybe he can enjoy life, maybe there’s way to do this. And if it’s a theater, a theater, you create a new reality, you get into the room, when the theater is black box and then you can create totally different, you disconnect totally from the outside world, mentally and physically. And then you can show what life can be, show open up imagination, all of this. So that was mainly the reason.

Kristel: [00:14:26] How did it work in practice? Who were the trainers? Did they bring in people? Was it very professional? Did they really try to make a performance to perform, or was it actually more like a sort of social therapy kind of session? Because you also took part in it, right? You have this personal experience as a child or not as child. You were more like a teenager, I guess?

Mustafa: [00:14:52] Yeah. Now we talk about the Freedom Theater, the Freedom Theater at the end for me, the end was 2011 and I was still going. But from my experience at the end, it was very professional theater. And we have people from all over the world. Very good people, very experienced people in the field of theater and cinema, by the way.

In the beginning, it started as social. Of course, even it was therapeutical all the way all the time. So the show was kind of therapeutical for the audience, which is mostly the children that practice the trainings for the olders who became actors after, because we opened an acting school in the Freedom Theater and that was also therapeutical.

So all of these guys who now basically famous actors, like Iyad Hurani he did already two or three movies in Hollywood with famous people. Now we have so many actors from the Freedom Theater that they have done their journey of success, but also it was kind of a therapy process of learning the theater, but mostly the main contained of teaching and training was Juliano Meir Khamis himself.

But as I said, we have so many other people. I was involved in the theater activities in the beginning, mostly the social one and the therapy one, but later on, we decided to open also a media center, which we start to do also filmmaking together with the therapy also. It was therapeutical and revolutional with the topics and with the quality of the work we had.

Kristel: [00:16:25] And what was the response of that adults in the camp, the parents, the people who were not coming to the theater to see what was going on, like for them, maybe it was a new concept.

To be honest with you, I’m going to be like frank. So many people do not like the idea of the theater.

Not rather than looking at the details of like having boys and girls training together, having international people all the time. And the behavior also of because you know, to build up an actor, you can just contain him in a box. Being an actor is being free and being in control of yourself, which is very important the basic of being an artist.

So being an artist and being in the refugee camp and being in a conservative environment does not work all the time. So we had a lot of complaints from the people here and there. Also, it was like long term of building up a trust relationship, first with the neighbors, because they are the most effective ones, the neighbors who are not involved in the theater, they just happened to be living next to the Freedom Theater.

And it was like long process of like building up a trust with them. It was also a long process of building up trust with the camp itself. And to be honest with you, that was mostly Zakaria’s and all of them, people who are from the camp role to build up the connection. And just to explain to people this place is for the children of the camp. Is not to corrupt them, just to pull them up and give them hope. And this is exactly what we were doing, but yeah, so many people are not happy about it. That’s right.

What was the response of the Israeli military or the people in charge of the camp from the Israeli side? Because I don’t know how would they see the theater and what was going on there? They were always looking for people who were the fighters in the camp, the people who were fighting for their freedom. And they were oppressing that, but all of a sudden, there’s this theater in the camp. What kind of response did that create?

Mustafa: [00:18:24] To be honest before Juliano was killed, we didn’t have any incidents to be touched or in contact with them, the Israeli army or Israeli government. I think they have seen us as just a group of crazy people trying to prove something. So I don’t think we were a danger or we were considered a problem. But I think also it was problematic if it crossed some lines, I don’t know like  also being political, talking about the Palestinian case, especially abroad, that was something they would concern, but we didn’t have any issues with the Israeli before Juliano was killed, but after he was killed most of the employees have to be interrogated for information.

Kristel: [00:19:08] Can you tell us more about that? Because Juliano was killed in 2011, I think. Yeah. What’s the story behind it. I guess some people may have heard things but I’ve never heard anything firsthand until now. Is there something you can tell about that?

Mustafa: [00:19:25] So many  people heard things, somebody people said some things and there’s so many scenarios I even stopped thinking about them, but to be fair and also, again, to be honest with you, I don’t know for sure, like nobody is know. And I was not there even during the incidents that also made it more confusing.

For me it took me years to decide not to think, because I think part of the crime was creating confusion. And I think it succeeded. As well as killing Juliano  is to create confusion who were there? They were Israeli, they were Arabs, they were Muslims or his friends? There were like so many scenarios.

For me I decided not to think about why and who killed it rather than think who is Juliano. And the reason that he was there, what did we learn from him? This is more important because otherwise you’re going to get lost in between. But still for sure, we don’t know.

 Kristel: [00:20:24] And Mustafa what is it that you learned from him and from the theater? What do you see now that you’re older that you can say, yeah, this is something that changed my life or that I take with me for the rest of my life, from that period?

Mustafa: [00:20:39] I have so many things. I really can’t put it in one thing, but I think mostly it’s courage of being myself. It’s like, I’m not afraid of being myself of expressing myself and the way it is because I was built up and grow up on fear. When I talk about fear, I’m not only talking about Israeli occupation, I’m also talking about all aspects of life. You have fear in school, you have fear in home, you have fear in the street. You only have fears and you only act out of fears and that’s cue to behave in a way that you would please, or you would not put yourself in a danger.

So you create some different personality out of yourself because you are afraid to express yourself as who you are. And I think the most important thing I’ve taken from there just be myself because I believe I’m a good person. I’m a good guy. I have a good heart. I have no reason to be afraid from what so ever.

Just be myself. Basics. That’s it, be yourself.  That’s I would give for Juliano.

Kristel: [00:21:39] Now that you are abroad and you are so far away from Palestine, if we look on a map, but I guess with your heart, you can never be far away from here. And especially with what’s been happening in the last week. Can you give us a little bit of insight, how does it make you feel? What does it do with you? How is Palestine still part of your life when you’re in Holland?

Mustafa: [00:22:00] Of course Palestine is me. That’s who I am and I can’t be something else, but also it’s not only about the political situation that I live, that is not only me.

I am a human being, living on this earth. I react and influenced by everything going around me. So I think if you contain yourself in a certain box, I think even Palestinians should be open more to different aspects of life. But Palestine is in me. It’s what I grew up, it’s what I’ve done all my life.

It’s what built me up and I feel worry when I know that the situation can blow up. I feel worried for my family, for my people, for my history, experiences, memories, in this place. And really when I came here and I know what is normal life, what is to just, you can walk without being worried that you, at night, you can travel without a passport, just like basics of life.

And you just feel sad.  My happiness is not completed because I know my people are there. And so of course, whatever happening in Palestine is affecting me, all of the news, if it was a war, if it was closure or tension, I’m always following up and feel like I’m there.

Kristel: [00:23:17] It’s interesting because you know we just came back from a long stay in Netherlands for the summer holidays. And I realized with my children who are five and seven, that now they start to know that there is a difference between the country and the way we live in a country. And especially the oldest one, Louisa, she is seven and she’s also pretty smart, I have to say, she started to realize that things here are more complicated, more limitations.

There is checkpoints, especially that we have to cross check points every day. You go to school, you pass by the soldiers. And we talk about settlers. When she hears sounds here, she’s always on edge. She’s like, mama, what is this? And the other day she was asking me, are they going to start bombing again? You know?

And when we were three months in Holland, she would not ask me about these sounds. And she wouldn’t ask me about violence. And here I’ve, yeah, I’ve had to talk with her about death already, especially in May when we had all the killing going on in Gaza and in Jerusalem. And it’s not the topic that I imagined I will be talking about with my seven year old, you know, and this is maybe something we would not have to do in Holland, but yeah, I can see that growing up here or being in Holland, there is, I always feel that it’s a kind of tension that you live here all the time and you almost normalize it, but then when you come to another country, then you just feel like, oh yeah, that’s not normal. Like this, this should not be the daily reality. And that’s why I think a theater, for example, it’s so important.

I’m actually hoping to enroll my kids in theater or in the circus school, Palestinian circus school, I should also do an episode about that, because I think what you said, being able to express yourself, is so important and being able to come very close to your identity and to know who you are and what is your path in this life, is super important.

And maybe that brings me towards a kind of closure of our conversation. You mentioned to me that you were in India and I’m little bit interested to understand your path, because if you go there and you go meditating and you become more like knowing yourself deeply. What is it that you find for yourself that is your true you or your true path?

Mustafa: [00:25:50] First of all, I want to comment, about what you said about your children, asking about situation. I think you are more Palestinian than me because you have a choice to do this and to put yourself and your family in such heavy reality. Because I know how much you love Palestine.

I think you not only deserve a Palestinian passport, but you probably deserve a diplomatic Palestinian passport. But India was freedom for me, as I said, I lived all of my life and this situation, and it was continuous daily life political and trying to find out the reasons and the questions answers all of this.

And I just decided to live the Mustafa, out of this, for a while. I just disconnected from whatever I lived, whatever stories I have done, whatever thing happened in my life and just live my soul as clear, pure born. So in India, and it’s a huge country, beautiful, so many beautiful, simple people, who just live their moment of the moment. They wake up in the morning, try to find their food, go back home, sleep.

The basics, enjoy life, living every breath they have. And that was the thing I was looking for. Meditation came after. The technique, the ways of connecting to your higher self, to put yourself in peace. But what I was looking for, just living yourself connected with the nature.

That’s what we should do. That’s what we are here for. Enjoy nature, life connection, relationships, love. All of this. It just only the basics of life is enough for you to be happy. That’s what made me happy. And that’s what I’m doing right now. So I had to find the basics of relationship and connection to the nature and do my journey. 

Kristel: [00:27:44] I’m going to ask you this question, because this is something that’s keeping me busy and you may be the person who has some kind of insight because for me and people who listened to my podcast, they know that, meditation, mindfulness and being at peace with your heart has been so important in my journey.

But now I’m thinking always, and this is kind of controversial maybe, but for those people who need this too. But how do you find this if you are growing up and living in a refugee camp where you have no privacy where you have every night, Israeli soldiers entering into the camp and arresting people and continuously you hear about violence and all of the difficulties that these people are struggling. How can someone who is there and who cannot leave and just go to India, how can they connect to themselves and find this peace of heart? Is that even possible?

Mustafa: [00:28:44] Of course it is. And meditation is only a way to get to that point.

And the point is feeling connected to yourself, connected to your environment and living the moment. This is the goal. This is what everybody’s looking for, happiness. And meditation is one of the ways to do this, but also meditation is not the only way. Theater, what we had in the Freedom Theater was meditation.

When a kid came into this black box and saw this play, he was in the moment, his head was not on his fear. He was not in his father going to beat him or his mother, he was in the moment. So there is so many ways. Theater is one of the ways. All cultural activities is one of the way to do this. And Juliano was trying to prove people, what we’re doing here is not an alternative.

What we do is not secondary. What we are doing here is primary activities that really what the Palestinians need right now, especially the children. So I would say if you can’t travel right now with the COVID, everybody, you can’t travel, it’s not only Palestinians. And if you don’t want to try to know more about meditation and yoga ANY activities that you like to do is a meditation.

Even prayer, if you pray, as a Muslim, as Christian as whatever you prayer, if you do it out of your heart and you connecting with it is good enough to put you in a peace with yourself rather than do it, because you want to go to heaven? Just do it for the sake of connection of loving it. So any kind of activities is good enough.

 As Palestinians, what we need right now more than growing agriculture and like trying to provide our own food is also cultural and artistic activities.

Kristel: [00:30:24] Yeah. I guess that’s what I’ve also been doing here with my Zumba classes. And that’s been for myself and for the women and men also now who are joining, that being in that moment and just dance, it’s kind of a form of meditation, you’re right.

Mustafa thank you. I really appreciate that you gave your time and shared with us a bit of your experience. It’s really a journey your life. And I’m so excited that I’m back to be part of that and to be able to follow up on what you’re doing now. So I really hope next summer, I’m going to be able to visit you in Holland.

Mustafa: [00:31:01] Thank you very much, Kris . And one of the things I miss in Palestine, just to drink coffee in Singer Cafe in Beit Sahour.

Kristel: [00:31:09] Next time you come, coffee is on me!!

Mustafa: [00:31:13] Inshallah.