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Art as a Weapon (Youth Against Invasion), Part One

The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian community-based theatre and cultural center located in Jenin Refugee Camp, in the northern part of the West Bank, Palestine, has long been the center of cultural resistance. In September 2023, New York-based company Al Límite Collective participated in The Freedom Theatre’s Feminist Festival, devising a new play with young women from the theatre school, and experienced an invasion by Israeli armed forces while watching a performance by Salwa Nakkara. Upon their return to the United States on 7 October 2023, a wave of devastating violence began, and they have been an active part of the cultural resistance actions in solidarity with Palestinian artists.

Following a raid on The Freedom Theatre—in which artistic director Ahmed Tobasi, producing director Mustafa Sheta, and company member Jamal Abu Joas were attacked and detained—Al Límite Collective joined other New York City artists at the Cultural Resistance March on 13 January 2024. At this march, members of Al Límite Collective and Palestinians of Japan performed passages from Youth Against Invasion, featuring the words of Aya Samara and Chantal Rizkalla. Youth Against Invasion was created by The Freedom Theatre and Artists On The Frontline. The text was written by students of The Freedom Theatre, facilitated by Yasmin Sameer, with project coordination and additional translation by Naqaa Samour.

On 16 March 2024, artists from these groups came together to discuss the work of The Freedom Theatre and its school, the creation of Youth Against Invasion, and the performance of that text in the Cultural Resistance March. Participants from The Freedom Theatre included the head of The Freedom Theatre School, Yasmin Samir, and student artists Chantal Rizkalla, Aya Samara, and Naqaa Sammor. They were joined by Leah Bachar and Monica Hunken, co-founders of Al Límite Collective, as well as moderator Manatsu Tanaka, a dancer, actor, and artist who performed in the Cultural Resistance March. The following is the first installment of this conversation, which has been condensed from the initial HowlRound TV livestream.

In simple terms, The Freedom Theatre shows how art can change the world and how important it's to keep fighting for what's fair.

Manatsu Tanaka: As a theatre person, I've been really holding The Freedom Theatre very close to my heart. So today I'm very honored that I really get to see your faces and have a conversation with all of you. I'm very grateful, and I have so many questions.

This is open to anyone: what was your first experience with The Freedom Theatre?

Naqaa Sammor: My first performance in The Freedom Theatre was in Diligent Case 74. I consider theatre a part of me at the all times because actually I always searching for the truth, like theatre. I think theatre, it's me. Chantal?

Chantal Rizkalla: I stumbled upon The Freedom Theatre while reading books actually. Two books: Mornings in Jenin and Jenin 2002. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to learn and to be a part of it. The first time I had the opportunity with The Freedom Theatre was in a workshop in the university that I participates in.

Aya Samara: I also had a workshop before joining the theatre. I always heard about the theatre, but never imagined that I will be part of it one day.

Manatsu: What does The Freedom Theatre mean to you?

Chantal: The Freedom Theatre means a lot to me because it's a safe space where I can express myself through art, standing up for what I believe in. And it shows how strong and determined people are when they use theatre to speak out against unfairness and give a voice to those who are often ignored. The theatre gives hope and shows that even in tough times, we can fight for what's right. In simple terms, The Freedom Theatre shows how art can change the world and how important it's to keep fighting for what's fair.

Manatsu: Thank you for that. The Freedom Theatre is in the Jenin refugee camp. What do you want people to know about Jenin?

Aya: I want them to be able to know that Jenin is full of life. It's full of beautiful things. I love Jenin. There are lots of dreams, lots of stories.

Naqaa: People in Jenin, it's very simple and beautiful. In Jenin, it is practical because they are a terrorist resistors. They wake up in the morning, dissipate the grief sense and difficult roads, and continue their life path. So people in Jenin are very strong.

It's a vibrant community with a rich of heritage and resilient people and a strong sense of identity. Despite the changes they face, the people in Jenin are creative, resourceful, and determined to build a better future to themselves and their families.

Chantal: I want people to know that it's more than just a place associated with conflict and hardship. It's a vibrant community with a rich of heritage and resilient people and a strong sense of identity. Despite the changes they face, the people in Jenin are creative, resourceful, and determined to build a better future to themselves and their families. It's important for others to understand the complexity of Jenin and to recognize the humanity and dignity of its residents beyond the headlines and stereotypes.

Yasmin Samir: There's something that gets you addicted to this city. It's unbelievable. I've been a lot of places in Palestine, internationally, all of that, but there is something about Jenin. It's very rich, as Chantal said, a very rich country with a very distinguished identity to it. I think also that's why we see a very, very strong line of resistance there. They do have a very special way of resisting.

But what I find astonishing about Jenin is that it is very alive and vibrant all the time. Despite everything that is happening. 

Manatsu: Thank you. Monica, Leah, did you have something you want to add on?

Leah Bachar: Well, obviously Jenin is site of attacks by the Israeli army. So that means that there's an attention there, an energy, a movement. It's not just conflict. That’s maybe the media's way of summing it up, but in reality, when you peel it apart, one of the best things about Jenin that I love is I laugh so much when I'm in Jenin. There is a humor there that is so resilient, so deep, so funny that that's part of this familial feeling. There's always somebody making sure you're okay: “Are you okay? Do you need to eat? Do you want a ride?” Whatever it is. You forget about the military occupation. And then all of a sudden something appears, and you continue to work through that. And by the time you're on the other side of that, you feel this power inside of you.

Monica Hunken: Even in our first rehearsal that we had with the girls there, there was shooting that happened while we're... And we just kept dancing, kept moving, kept talking. There's this big juxtaposition, right?

A zoom meeting featuring the authors of Youth Against Invastion.

Monica Hunken, Leah Bachar, Chantal Rizkalla, Aya Samara, Yasmin Samir, Naqaa Sammor, and Manatsu Tanaka in conversation over Zoom.

Manatsu: When I go to protests, a lot of the speakers talk about how the Palestinians are showing the world resistance. And through this conversation, hearing you all talk about Jenin, I think I really understood that on a deeper level. Folks in Palestine are strong and resilient and showing resistance to the world, because the people, you all have this depth of love as human beings.

Why do you think cultural workers and artists in Palestine are under attack?

Yasmin: Very good question. In The Freedom Theatre we believe that everything you do, you do for the sole purpose of freedom. We're really focused on taking the initiative to tell our own stories and to expose everything that is happening. That is not something that an occupation would like to hear at all. In a very simple way, I'm saying that they really don't want their actions against us to be exposed.

Also, in culture and in arts, when you build a new generation that can express themselves through art and through a different way and an approach for resistance, it's dangerous because you are building a new generation of people who can also think and feel and express and advocate for you, for your case as Palestine. Anyone who is resisting is dangerous for the occupation. This is how they view us.

Aya: I believe that the intellectual occupation is the most dangerous type of occupation we suffer from. Intellectual and cultural change could revolutionize awareness, so this exposes the artist to being attacked.

Chantal: Cultural workers and artists who use their platform to speak out become targeted for repression by oppressive regimes or occupying forces. These forces aim to silence dissent, suppress the freedom of expression, and maintain the control over the narrative. Attacks on cultural institutions and artists are often parts of broader efforts to undermine Palestinian identity, culture, and heritage. Despite these challenges, many Palestinian artists continued to use their creativity and talent to resist oppression and advocate for justice and equality.

We're really focused on taking the initiative to tell our own stories and to expose everything that is happening. That is not something that an occupation would like to hear at all.

Manatsu: Around the theatre, the roads have been destroyed. You all keep coming back to the theatre for workshops, but it could be very dangerous to access it, right? So what is that strong thing, that burning thing that's in you all that makes you keep coming back to the theatre?

Chantal: Personally, I keep coming back to the theatre because it's my passion and source of inspiration and purpose in my life. Despite the dangers and risks involved, the theatre is where I feel most alive, creative, and connected to others. It's a space where I can express myself freely, explore complex emotions, and contribute to something larger than myself. And additionally, the theatre has the power to bring people together, foster empathy, and provoke through discussion.

Yasmin: I want to say something. Despite everything that is happening, I want to really point out the courage of the students. Sometimes we're in the middle of the rehearsal or going to a rehearsal, and then an invasion erupts, and special forces are in the camp around the theatre. Sometimes there are invasions into the building of the theatre. We always try to come back.

I really feel that there is a sense of community and a sense of a safe place that you can go express and be. Despite everything that is happening, you can create. This feeling of creating makes you feel that you are still alive and you are still in control, and you can still narrate your own story despite the occupation trying to suppress or oppress your thoughts, your words, your everything.

Naqaa: It is true that it may be dangerous, but for me, the real danger is surrender and not trying. I'm not really afraid to come to the theatre. On the contrary, I feel strong.

A photo of a group of students sitting in a Theatre.

Students and artists from The Freedom Theatre.

Manatsu: With this conversation, I have been receiving a lot of the strength that you all have. I also got to receive it while reading through the Youth Against Invasion monologues. But how exactly did the Youth Against Invasion series begin? What was the process of the work?

Yasmin: Well, it really started after one of the biggest invasions that happened to The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp. After the arrests, it really started for the feeling that we need to let the students talk about what is really happening with their own words.

Zoe Lafferty told me that she would like to start this series of testimonies for the students to write so we can publish on social media. It took a lot of work from the students. Of course, they wrote their monologues. Then we had to translate them, and then they worked on them to be smoother. It was a lot of work of really finding the right way to say exactly what we want in a way that we don't really be in danger. So that was the biggest challenge of it.

Then we started publishing it on social media, and we started to get reviews and more reviews and shares and comments and things. And then it really developed to be this project that really is spreading all over, and hopefully we can grow it even bigger and bigger.

Naqaa: Zoe told me about the idea she had by writing text about what is happening or what we want to communicate to the world. We continue to do this as we struggle to be Palestine resistance artists against the Israeli occupations.

Yasmin: Naqaa was responsible also for communicating with all of the students. They would come back to me, texting me, "Oh, Yasmin, could you please do this and this and that." Also, she was the spokesperson between Zoe and the students. I tried to just watch it from outside, facilitate it. It was a joy to do it and to see it because they did so much effort. I'm so proud of them, and a big hello for Zoe also.

Manatsu: How does it make you feel to see other people performing your words and the works of The Freedom Theatre around the world in support?

Aya: That makes me feel heard and seen. So I'm proud of all the ones that bring out our words to the world, and I really appreciate all the ones who insist to know the truth and call for justice.

Naqaa: This is very touching for me and makes me cry with joy daily.

The conversation continues! Read part two here.

A selfie of a group of students smiling.

Students and artists from The Freedom Theatre.

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