- The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine ed. by Ola Johansson, Johanna Wallin, and: Rehearsing Freedom: The Story of a Theatre in Palestine ed. Johanna Wallin
The companion volumes The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine, edited by Ola Johansson and Johanna Wallin, and Rehearsing Freedom: The Story of a Theatre in Palestine, edited by Johanna Wallin, set out to tell the story of The Freedom Theatre in their own words (The Freedom Theatre, 11) and to look back on the work of the theatre in order to think critically towards the future. Yet, the statement, “in our own words” (11) presents a question as to who is implied by “our own?” Popularized by the film Arna’s Children (2004), The Freedom Theatre (TFT) grew to be recognized worldwide as synonymous with Juliano Mer Khamis and the Palestinian youth with whom he worked in the theatre, resisting Israeli occupation with drama and song. However, tragically, Mer Khamis was shot by an unknown assailant in April 2011.
While much of the content, particularly in the first part of The Freedom Theatre, focuses on Mer Khamis’s strategic and artistic vision for the theatre, Wallin lets the reader know early in her introduction to the book that “The Freedom Theatre was never a one-man show. It was and is a collective effort of many voices and experiences, most of them born as refugees in Jenin refugee camp” (19). It is through these collective experiences then, particularly those of refugees from the Jenin camp, that one would expect the story of TFT to be told. Unfortunately, these are not the voices that are strongest in the two texts.
Though Wallin intended these books to be complementary volumes, one textual and one visual (11), this bifurcation creates enormous iniquity in terms of power and representation: In The Freedom Theatre, the mostly international artistic and administrative leaders of TFT represent themselves through self-authored chapters, whereas in Rehearsing Freedom, Palestinians from Jenin are primarily represented as visual objects through photographs, in roles in which they are being directed or taught or performing for others. Further, there is very little Arabic in either book. Particularly notable in Rehearsing Freedom are English scripts alongside images of seminal productions, performed originally in Arabic, with no mention of translation. What this ultimately does is perform an erasure of Arab identity by portraying TFT’s work as international rather than Palestinian.
To be fair, Wallin and Johansson took great care to include many Palestinian refugees’ voices in both books. However, the texts featuring Palestinian refugees are not usually self-authored pieces intended for these collections, but rather reprinted materials compiled from other sources, annotated second-hand stories, or interviews led by international TFT staff. In addition, other than Wallin’s acknowledgement that she was a bit hesitant to edit these works because “I am and will always be a foreigner in Jenin” (TFT 12), the books never again mention the ways in which subjectivity and positionality factor into the international staff and artists’ relationships with Palestinians and the work of TFT, nor do the editors discuss the ways in which their subjectivity affects the editorial choices and framing of Palestinians’ voices and bodies. What this does overall is allow international voices to construct the narrative and speak with authority through academic essays and in-depth firsthand accounts, while Palestinian refugees’ voices and images are inserted to support a narrative and representation that is not of their own making. [End Page 180]
This critique is not meant to take away from the remarkable work and impact of The Freedom Theatre, which these volumes brilliantly highlight. In fact, it is because these texts are so thoughtful, self-reflective, and critical about the work of the theatre and its role in Palestinian society, that the failure to consider...