Freedom Bus in Palestine

Junoon- a stage for theatre, announced its ambitious new initiative, Mumbai Local, in December last year. The idea was to build a vibrant community life through regular engagement with the arts and science at neighbourhood venues. What was then to be, has now come to pass. The new year has seen the initiative take wing with curated programmes at Kitab Khana, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, MCubed Library and Somaiya Vidyavihar, all for free.

Last Friday Junoon presented Ben Rivers at Kitab Khana. Rivers, born in Scotland and raised in UK and Australia, uses drama therapy to help communities deal with collective trauma resulting from political oppression. For the last three years he has been coordinating the Freedom Bus, an itinerant offshoot of the Freedom Theatre that works in the Jenin Refugee Camp in Israeli-occupied Palestine. One of the slides in Rivers's illustrated talk shows what occupation means. It means a gradual but systematic devouring of the land that once belonged to Palestinians, leaving for them no more than a scattered conglomeration of a few shreds.  

In 1989, Arna Mer, an Israeli Jew married to an Arab Christian, started the Care and Learning Project in the Jenin Refugee Camp, helping its traumatised children gain a sense of themselves through theatre and art. Mer knew that, in a situation in which the young saw no future for themselves, in which the destruction of homes, livelihood and life was a daily fact, it would not be long before they took up arms. Sadly, Mer died of cancer in the mid-nineties. It was to film what happened to the children with whom she had worked, that her son, actor-film-maker Juliano Mer Khamis, returned to Jenin. Once there, he found it impossible to leave. So he gave up his acting career to carry on his mother's work, setting up the Freedom Theatre in 2006. But what he had always expected would happen, did. On April 4, 2011, he was shot dead by a masked gunman. Rivers says nobody knows, even today, who was responsible.

Rivers's Freedom Bus takes Juliano Mer Khamis's work further afield through playback theatre. Playback theatre, as Rivers explains it, is an interactive theatre that gives people's stories back to them. The people of Palestine have experienced the kind of horror that only those living under occupation can know. In the Jordan Valley, the richest source of water, residents have to buy it at exhorbitant prices. When the State would rather you didn't live,  to exist itself is to resist. Yet initially, people find it difficult to open up. It is only with the troupe conductor's coaxing that they begin to talk. And soon a story is told. A slide shows an elderly woman relating her story to the conductor who will then impart it to the actors. The story is about Israeli soldiers torturing her son in an open field with her as witness. Every time she runs to beg the soldiers to stop she is repelled. Meanwhile her son, shattered to have her watch his pain and humiliation, pleads with her to go away.

Trained to understand, assimilate and re-present people's stories on the spot, the Freedom Bus performers act them out through improvisations. When people see their personal stories out there in concrete form, often played out before a mixed audience of cultural activists, journalists, writers and poets from occupied Palestine, Israel and overseas, they realise this is what they want. They do not want sympathy, monetary aid, or a means of escape from their desperate situation as much they want the world to hear their stories.

For the Freedom Bus too, intimidation is never far away. There are checkpoints to pass through on the roads, gun-toting soldiers are part of the scenery and helicopters fly overhead, watching. But when the actors perform, there is laughter and music. A wounded community needs to be put in touch with its cultural heritage. Recognising this, the Freedom Bus troupe includes, besides actors and musicians, the noted Zajaal performer, Abu Naji. Zajaal, Rivers tells us, is a traditional form of improvised, on-the-spot verse-making of which Naji is a rare practitioner. And just as the Freedom Bus actors improvise people's stories through theatre, Naji gives voice to them through poetry and song.

At the end of Ben Rivers's presentation, there is gloom at the knowledge of a repressive State's power to destroy ordinary human lives. But equally, there is a strong sense of the power of theatre to aid resistance and healing

Published On : 26-02-2014