Remembering Juliano Mer-Khamis’ legacy

But Juliano’s rebellion went beyond rejection of army discipline. His insistence that “there is no religion, no identity, nothing, we are just human beings,” struck at the very heart of a social and political structure in Israel that exploits religion as the defining concept and the basis for determining the human being’s place in the hierarchy of privileges and rights.

As an artist, Juliano believed that when people of different cultures and backgrounds worked together to create something they can overcome the intolerance that isolates them and renders them enemies intent on killing each other. In this way he saw the art of acting and the workshops in which he trained young children to be actors as the solution to war.
In Arna’s Children, the superb documentary he directed and co-produced, there is a scene at the beginning when Juliano’s mother, Arna Mer, who founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, where he worked until his death, is surrounded by children from the camp. One of those had just had his family’s home demolished by the Israeli army. We could see him, in an earlier shot, sitting pensively on the ruins bristling with anger. Arna encourages this boy to express his feelings. She bids him to hit her. But he cannot. She continues to work with him until he goes at her with all his might, his clenched fists striking her on all the parts of her body that he could reach over and over until he collapses with exhaustion. 
Arna’s Children was made by a director who knew what anger and hate could lead to. And yet he chose to live and work in Jenin, one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank. It was there that he revived the theatre his mother had established in 1992 which was destroyed in the 2002 Israeli invasion of the camp, and there that he trained many camp children to work together to create plays that would help them work out the difficult emotions that life under occupation engenders. Alice in Wonderland was the last play he directed.
To some Juliano’s work was too subversive. There were those on both sides of the divide who saw in his “solution to war” a threat and wanted him gone. One afternoon as he was leaving the Freedom Theatre a masked gunman emptied five bullets in his body, killing him on the spot.

It is still not clear who the killer was and for whom he was working. Whoever was behind this heinous crime intended not just to murder Juliano but the vision for which he stood. He was primarily an artist who used the very stuff of his complicated life in his acting and directing, one of the few who crossed borders and embodied in his work and person, as in his genes, the ideal of a bi-national and bi-ethnic reality.
And yet amidst the tragedy of the death of this courageous and admired man there was hope. It was one murder that has not been attributed to any Palestinian political faction but was condemned by most sectors of Palestinian society in the strongest possible terms. One of the tributes took the form of projecting his famous film, Arna’s Children, on a large screen in the main square in Ramallah. Numerous symbolic funeral processions took place in most of the major Palestinian cities. The processions showed that more favor Juliano’s “solution to war” than is believed to be the case.
Even so, it cannot be denied that this artist’s path was doomed. The divide between Israelis and Palestinians is too wide to be bridged by a single brave heart. Under present political realities the bi-national ideal espoused by him cannot be realized. But we have in our region a precedent from which we can draw lessons. For over 400 years Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in Palestine under Ottoman rule in peace without a single outbreak of a religious war. It was only after the First World War that the region was fragmented into numerous states with arbitrarily drawn borders, across which many wars have since been fought, bringing untold miseries to all the people in these countries.
Perhaps the time has come to seek inspiration from that early model. It might be the only way of bringing tranquility, prosperity and cultural excellence to a region deprived of all three. Rather than continuing with our attempt at managing local conflicts and expending energy arranging disengagements, why not set our mind to realizing a grander vision for the region, a new Middle East based on the political recognition of all the nations living there united under some form of federation that allows each to realize its specific identity while ensuring cultural diversity and free movement. Only then can the ideal Juliano exemplified become the norm, not the exception.
Raja Shehadeh’s latest book is A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle. He will be speaking about it in Washington, D.C. this week. His book, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, won the Orwell Prize in 2008.


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