Page last updated at 00:23 GMT, Saturday, 28 March 2009

Animal Farm rankles the West Bank

Animal Farm
Freedom Theatre's production has proved controversial

By Nikki Jecks, BBC World Service
BBC News, Jerusalem

George Orwell's 1945 fictional satire of Stalinist Russia, Animal Farm, is being performed in the West Bank with a decidedly Palestinian twist.

The debut production by the drama students of the Freedom Theatre is being staged in the Jenin refugee camp.

Not that long ago Jenin was a stronghold for Palestinian militants and widely considered a no-go area for foreigners.

Now, Freedom Theatre, the West Bank's only full-time drama school, is bussing in audience members from Ramallah, Bethlehem and surrounding villages - even from Israel.

The play is a sign of a slow return to normality for a camp once renowned for its violence and bitter battles with Israeli troops.

But the production has not been welcomed by all.


Both the theatre's director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, and the director of the play, Nabil al-Raee, have been targets of violence, and just days before the production opened, someone tried to burn down the theatre.

We planned to make the play really suitable for our situation
Nabil al-Raee, Director

"The main entrance was set on fire, which was meant to set on fire the whole theatre, but we were very lucky and the fire didn't catch... I don't think we need to say more," explains Mr Mer-Khamis.

The company also planned to tour the production to Ramallah, but the theatre there has withdrawn its co-operation.

An application for funding for the production from a Palestinian cultural foundation was also declined.

So why is the production proving so controversial?

Mr Raee says much of the anger stems from the choice of play - with its theme of revolutionaries imitating their oppressors.

But the group has also updated it so that it now also includes references to Palestinian politics.

"We planned to make the play really suitable for our situation, we [adapted it] it to be Palestinian," says Nabil.

Actors in Animal Farm

So for example, there is an "intifada" rather than a revolution.

And the pigs don't just learn to walk, they also learn Hebrew as well.

There also references to corruption and collaboration.

Enemy within

Mr Mer-Khamis is himself the son of a Jewish mother and Palestinian father.

He says the production wants to challenge Palestinian traditions and Palestinian views of the "occupation".

The aim, he says, is to look at Palestinian society and the politics of the West Bank rather than Israel and its occupation.

But their take on it has proved too challenging for some, and the play and its cast and director have become a target for protests, some of them violent.

"We are fighting here a generation who is rejecting what we are doing. We are fighting a lot of fundamentalists that see what we are doing as a disgrace," Juliano says.

"We are fighting a lot of enemies, before, before we get to the Israeli soldiers."

The Palestinian Authority has varying degrees of control in the West Bank, but Israel ultimately controls the Occupied Territories.

Juliano mer Khamis
To be free is to be free first of all of the chains of tradition, religion, nationalism
Juliano Mer-Khamis, theatre director

The Israeli army, in occupation of the area since it seized it in the 1967 war, restricts all travel with more than 500 checkpoints, roadblocks and earth mounds, which it says are necessary to prevent Palestinian militant attacks and suicide bombings.

But for Mr Mer-Khamis, the most present and immediate enemy is not Israel or Israeli troops.

Instead, he says, it is the unspoken restrictions Palestinian society imposes on those who want to challenge the Territories' political leadership.

"I believe that if Nabil or me will not be free as individuals, will not be independent as people, we will not be able to free ourselves from Israeli occupation."

The two directors want to break what they call the "internal siege".

"To be free is to be able to criticise, to be free is to be able to express yourself freely, to be free is to be free first of all of the chains of tradition, religion, nationalism, then you can start for yourself," Mr Mer-Khamis says.

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