A review by Komita Dhanda
Edited by Johanna Wallin; Designed by Sherna Dastur
Published by LeftWord Books in association with The Freedom Theatre
To you who stole the future:
Your airplane is powerful,
It flies faster than a storm and destroys a whole city.
But it has one defect:
It needs belief.
– an excerpt from Suicide Note from Palestine (2013-14)
It is not a coffee table book.
Rehearsing Freedom: the story of a theatre in PALESTINE is not a book that you can read while sipping coffee during your leisure time with stretched legs and a cushion for your backrest. It is a book that would make you restless and inquisitive. Those who already know about The Freedom Theatre (TFT) would want to know more after reading this book. And for those who do not know anything about TFT or the Israeli occupation or Palestine, this book is a perfect entry point to a landscape of cultural resistance, hopes, and dreams. This book is TFT’s “own voice”.
Centered around TFT’s work in Jenin Refugee Camp, the book (with photographs and texts) spells out the history of the Camp, its people and their struggles against the occupation. This book has a quality of an essay but does not follow the conventional structure of an essay. Usually, one expects a chronology of events in a biographical text. This book does not follow the linear timeline. Purposefully selected and placed texts, and photographs break the spatial and temporal boundaries without losing the context. The design of the book is such that it keeps the sequence of events at play-forward-pause-rewind mode. This departure from the linear narrative is one of the strengths of the book.
What do you see in first few pages of the book? A sign marking territories, young men (and a woman) running away from tear gas shells, a portrait of an old woman followed by excerpts and photographs from a TFT play and then you see a mural that says – The Freedom Theatre. Its almost like waking up from a nightmare (with a broken sense of space and time) that ends with you being in front of a theatre space. This, in a way, sets the context for the reader. The story of TFT against the backdrop of Jenin Refugee Camp begins here. Drawing upon TFT’s experiences in last ten years, the book, tells you that theatre could be a space for continuous resistance for a community that is occupied by one of the most oppressive states in the world.
Sherna Dastur’s design is incredibly narrative oriented. She has an equal grip on the context, text, and design of the book. It is remarkable that she never lets the form overrides the content. Rather, she cleverly uses her design to tell stories about TFT and people associated with it. For instance, the section on Juliano Mer Khamis (one of their founder members), and his assassination in 2011 by the unknown assailants is all in black. While going through this section one gets a sense of extremely emotional and dark times encountered by TFT after Juliano’s killing. In this section, you get to know Juliano as ‘a person’. Before that, you have already seen him in action. Here, you see him laid to rest. It breaks your heart until at the end of this section you read “As Juliano would say: The Revolution must go on!” with a photograph of Jenin Refugee Camp (clicked perhaps at twilight) taken from TFT’s premises. It seems as if the theatre is looking at the Camp and asking ‘now what?’ You turn the page. And there is a lovely picture of young TFT actors performing Playback Theatre in midst of a pile of debris and an unfinished building in the background. This photo of actors in action, on a page with off-white margins, helps break away from the gloom that the reader may have felt just a few seconds ago. The photograph insists that making art is the only way through which cultural freedom fighters would not lose their battle even when they are faced with grave setbacks. From here a new chapter begins. All the performance photographs are placed on the black background. It feels as if one is watching a play in a black-box theatre. The recurring interplay between off-white and black background keeps changing the mood, tone, and pace throughout the book.
Another design factor that retains your active engagement with the text (visual and written) is that the book is designed to be read from right to left like Arabic and Hebrew scripts. For those who are not used to reading the script that way might feel a bit uncomfortable in the beginning but as one goes along, it becomes easier. One gets used to it. The only difficulty that continues is in reading the credits or the references at the end of the book. Two-column format adds to that difficulty.
Nonetheless, the design of the book is never on your face. You think about it afterward not while reading the book. And that’s the brilliance of it.
Texts used in the book are of different genres. Press Releases, testimonies, descriptions, captions and quotes from people, form a major part of the textual content. You hear Arna Mer Khamis speak. In a freeze frame from the documentary Arna’s Children you see young Ashraf Abu Alhayjaa say, “I want to be a Palestinian Romeo”. The caption below says that he became the Al-Aqsa Brigade fighter and was killed during the Battle of Jenin in 2002. There are few more such texts narrating similar stories. You hear the variety of voices through the text thoughtfully amalgamated with photographs. You get to hear almost everyone – Founders, teachers, ex-students, participants in TFT’s theatre workshops, local community members along with the voices of solidarity from the international community.
In this visual essay, photographs used are thought-provoking and provide readers with an opportunity to create their own sub-narratives. There are photos in which ‘we look at the subject’ like outsiders, and then, there are photos in which the ‘subject looks at us’. The gaze is turned around. There are many photos in which we see Palestine and Jenin from the lens of local youth (both women and men) trained as photographers by TFT. These photos capture their daily life, portraits of children and elderly in the community, crowded and deserted landscapes of Jenin. In some instances, you can also see these young photographers being photographed. To see young Palestinian women shooting with DSLR cameras is delightful! Women form a significant part of TFT’s story, but voices of women are not heard in the book as much as of men. One might say it is reflective of the present Palestinian society and the discourse around gender in it.
The maximum number of photos in the book is of children. We see children watching performances, attending summer theatre camps, playing in TFT Play School and so on so forth. We see them holding stones, holding martyr’s framed picture, holding flags and then holding TFT show tickets! On one page we see young martyr’s body and on another page we see a child lying on the floor with his eyes closed and Juliano (out of focus) in the background during a theatre workshop. It’s a lovely moment in the book.
Arna and Juliano are extremely important characters in TFT’s story. But they come across as real people and therefore never emerge as larger than life figures. The book never over-valorises them for what they had been able to do through their theatre work in the Camp. And that is why they always remain accessible as people to the readers. The sole protagonist of this story is The Freedom Theatre itself!
Sometimes such a book can make its readers take a condescending approach especially when it is an organization that works in extraordinary circumstances and has faced violence so closely. But this book, neither lets its reader become patronizing nor does it let Palestinians come across as victims. Reading this visual biography of first ten years of TFT makes you angry, sad, inspired and hopeful. Not for a moment does it let you pity the Palestinians. It talks about the cracks of possibilities through which a whole new generation of cultural freedom fighters have been built and rebuilt.
The Freedom Theatre was destroyed more than once. It has seen its actors die as young adults for the liberation of their country. It has lost its leaders more than once. But there never was a time when TFT lost hope and belief in the struggle for liberation through theatre. It is this belief that the occupier lacks as said in the beginning lines of this piece.
Once you finish the book, with the belief in your heart and smile on your face, you would feel like having some nice hot Arabic coffee.