“Theater can contribute to ending the occupation”
Marina Barham is the co-founder and director of Al-Harah, a theater close to Bethlehem in Palestine. She strongly believes theater can help both children and adults not only deal with the traumas of occupation, but also to resist it.
In a constantly unsafe situation like an ongoing occupation, theater can help children feel safe again, according to Marina Barham of Al-Harah Theater in Bethlehem in Palestine. She has been involved in making theater in the occupied Westbank for almost three decades, and shares her experiences with interactive theater: “We had heard from schools that children were very inactive, traumatized, they literally wouldn’t move. We decided to talk to social workers and children psychologists about how we can help children get through the daily trauma. We developed an interactive show, with music, exercise, songs, lots of colours. We talked to the children, told them we were scared too, that we also sometimes wanted to close our eyes and just scream to get rid of the tension. Initially they hardly showed reaction, but after ten, fifteen minutes, they started to react, to move, to express themselves.”
Al-Harah Theater is deeply rooted in the community, as the name clearly shows: Al-Harah means The Neighbourhood. Barham is one of the founders, after she had worked for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and for her own consultancy company for some years and tried to convince influential people from abroad to help end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. By coincidence, she became involved in theater. Ever since, she tries to help both children and adults deal with the trauma of occupation, and contribute to a free Palestine.
She herself grew up in Beit Jala, a town close to Bethlehem on the Westbank. Describing the situation Palestinians, and especially children, live in, she said: “On a daily basis, men, women, children and families go through a lot of oppression, with violence around them all the time and with people being arrested, jailed, killed or injured in every family.” She sees how teenagers sometimes want to take part in the resistance: “They want to for example take part in what is happening, want to join throwing stones to Israeli checkpoints and soldiers. But I firmly believe that is not the role of children. They need to smile, laugh and have fun in their childhood. So when we create performance for children, we add a lot of colour, music, a theme that is happy, for kids to enjoy themselves for a short period of time.”
Al-Harah has lived through the oppressions that come with violent occupation several times. Once, the building they used was shelled by the Israeli military, just because it was located opposite to an Israeli settlement. Children were present in the building when it happened. Barham: “They were getting drama lessons. They became hysterical when the shelling started. Luckily we could bring them to the basement and into safety, but this experience changed our views on how we have to protect our children. We found other locations, but the bombings continued, it was during the Second Intifada around twenty years ago. Eventually we moved to a catholic seminary in Beit Jala, they gave us a space and we started rehearsing there.”
Difficulties continued there also, because of ongoing curfews, said Barham: “Every few days we could go out to get food, and then we’d sneak to the seminary via back alleys so we could continue our theater.”
The theater works with professional actors, although sometimes, like with the interactive theater, children are involved. Not only in finding space and time to rehearse requires a lot of creativity, also doing the performances does, especially when it comes to safety. Barham remembers a play about Christmas and Eid al-Fitr, which were, years ago, celebrated around the same time. “We wrote the play taking into account that the children would not come to a location to see it, but that we would come and perform it on a lorry and bring it to the children. We cooperated with a radio and TV station, which would let the population know when the lorry would be where. Children could come to the play and stay close to their families and homes.”
One of the results of theater that remains very inspiring to Barham, is the ‘transformation’ she sees in both children and adults when they become involved. “They become more confident, develop strong characters and start taking responsibility for their communities”, she said.
And it’s the community that all Al-Harah’s work evolves around. “That’s where everything happens”, Barham explained. “There are relationships, there are stories, conflicts, and telling those stories via theater brings you very close to the community and helps social change, create awareness about the Israeli occupation but also about conservative structures in our society, and it can help bring political change.”
Especially now that she has been involved for so many years, she sees the effects on the kids who once came to the theater and are grown ups now. Barham: “Many of them are now important leaders in their communities. They are creative leaders, do voluntary work. What especially keeps me going is the impact theater has on women. Young women who start coming to the theater, are often shy and weak, they are not very aware of what goes on around them, but after they do theater, they start raising their voices, talk about their dreams and aspirations, they become confident and make decisions about themselves and voice what they want.” She said it helps people face the difficulties of occupation and oppression, but it helps to fight the reality of the occupation too, and even contributes to ending it, she strongly believes. “We are on stage in Palestine, but travel abroad too. Showing the stories of the locals in different parts of the world makes people aware of what is happening in Palestine. The language of theater helps people open their minds, especially abroad, to injustices in Palestine. Changes in the perspectives on Palestine happen through art, not through politics.”
But also at home theater helps to end the occupation. Barham: “We have young people who are now active in their communities. Not as politicians or freedom fighters in the street, but active in creating a generation that understands history, their rights, that can advocate against occupation
and knows how to present themselves. This is how we can contribute to end of occupation.” It’s complex though, she admits, with the occupation having continued now for 74 years. “Many ways and methods were used to fight it and nothing changed”, Barham said. And she knows why that is: “We need the world to be equal when it comes to human rights. If the same standards of human rights were applied everywhere in the world, if respect was paid to UN resolutions, the occupation would have ended long ago. But there are double standards. When the international community wants to promote human rights and justice, they have to apply it the same to everybody. Treat Palestine, Yemen, Kurdistan the same as Ukraine. Because of the double standards, we are still going through this occupation.”
She said she feels ‘very connected’ to the Kurdish struggle: “Kurds understand exactly what we are going through and vice versa, and the same counts for Yemenites, Armenians, Syrians. Many stories and struggles are similar, also for example the struggle of black people in the US and elsewhere.”
She criticized international donors too, also the ones that come to Palestine to work with Al-Harah. Barham: “They come to work in Palestine and want to concentrate on freedom of speech and democracy, but when we use the word ‘martyr’ they tell us we are not allowed to use it. You come here to teach us freedom of expression? Then you either fully respect it, or don’t claim you can teach us anything.”
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.