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From Palestine to India: Freedom theatres

Joining forces with street theatre group Jana Natya Manch, the Freedom Theatre takes its message of cultural resistance to the streets of India
White haired Sudhanva Deshpande talks to students from The Freedom Theatre during a morning workshop. (Rahul M / Courtesy Jana Natya Manch & The Freedom Theatre)

NEW DELHI, India Surrounded by bustling markets and raucous food vendors, kaleidoscopic rivers of sari-adorned women flow through the alleyways of Shadipur. Nestled in the centre of this quintessential Delhi neighbourhood lies Studio Safdar, a pioneering theatre space, and the host of a unique project that is uniting two countries.

Jana Natya Manch (Janam), a street theatre group from Delhi, is joining forces with the Freedom Theatre from Jenin in the West Bank, for the first ever India-Palestine theatre collaboration: the "Freedom Jatha".

Inextricably bound by common tragedy, both groups use art as a weapon of resistance. Just as the founder of the Freedom Theatre, Juliano Mer Kharmis, was callously murdered in 2011, so too was the Janam co-founder, Safdar Hashmi, 22 years earlier.

Just outside the studio, Middle East Eye meets with Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, an actor from the Freedom Theatre, and co-director of the production with his Indian counterpart, Sudhanva Deshpande.

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa (right), an actor from The Freedom Theatre, and co-director of the Freedom Jatha, sitting directly outside Studio Safdar (Rahul M / Courtesy Jana Natya Manch; The Freedom Theatre)

Exuding charisma, Faisal speaks of life growing up in the Jenin refugee camp - the perils of Israeli occupation, living through an intifada, and the hopelessness of regular home demolitions in the camp.

"You speak about a place where it's full of anger, full of disappointment, full of fear... The people are in so much pain, and me too to be honest."

Considering the precarious circumstances in which he has lived, it is perhaps surprising that Faisal would find himself drawn to a career in the theatre, but he has longed to be a performer since he was a child.

In fact, his journey to the Freedom Theatre began even before the Freedom Theatre itself.

"It started when I saw 'Arna's Children' for the first time," he recalls. "It really motivated me, because I know people (in) the film; I know them well, they are neighbours, they are family."

The poignant documentary charts the harrowing journey of a group of young children in Jenin during the First Intifada, and Juliano’s mother Arna, in her attempts to establish an alternative education system and theatre there.

By chance, Faisal discovered one of his cousins was featured in the film. In one memorable scene, a buoyant and fresh-faced youngster is asked, "Ashraf, what is your dream?" Grinning cheekily, he replies "My dream, is to be a Palestinian Romeo." The Israeli army's brutal invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 would later take Ashraf's life.

Even in the face of such tragedy, Faisal was encouraged that someone from his family had shared the same passions and ambitions as himself. "I also want to be a Palestinian Romeo, but I don't want it to end like this."

After a brief intermission whilst he takes a phone call, the conversation turns to the collaboration with Janam and the excitement of touring in India.

“I’m a curious guy, I like to discover new things, so I enjoy it very much,” he says enthusiastically , “It’s like a great adventure.” This adventure will see the group perform in 10 cities across India over the next three months, before taking their show to the streets of Palestine.

But what does the "Freedom Jatha" mean?

"'Jatha' is an interesting word," explains Deshpande, a left-wing activist from Janam, and veteran of the street theatre scene in India. "It's something that is understood from north to south, across the country."

The word "jatha" means to journey, a procession across cities. It has progressive connotations and Sudhanva says it evokes memories of India’s anti-colonial struggle in the 1930s and 40s, where “anti-untouchability” jathas were commonplace. “People would literally walk from one village to another, breaking the barriers of caste.”

It is by drawing parallels of India’s own experiences of anti-colonialism that the production hopes to raise awareness of the occupation of Palestine.

Faisal gives advice to actors from The Freedom Theatre and Jana Natya Manch at an evening rehearsal (Rahul M / Courtesy Jana Natya Manch; The Freedom Theatre)

Solidarity: A two-way street

“This is our resistance, this is how we fight, this is how we shoot. We shoot through production. We shoot through plays. Through art,” says Faisal laconically. He is upbeat as he transmits the message the Freedom Theatre has espoused since its inception; cultural resistance remains as critical as ever in rebutting flawed narratives, so prevalent in the Western media.

For Faisal, the use of the arts to project the real image of Palestine, and in particular the younger generation of Palestinians, is integral to this production. “To raise awareness, to build more solidarity around Palestine,” is essential, he says, at a time when India is developing a close bond with Israel.

The clear, pro-Israeli shift that Narendra Modi’s government has taken is something that also concerns Sudhanva. “We believe that the ideologies of Hindutva [the Hindu nationalist ideology adopted by Modi’s BJP Party] and Zionism are very close cousins,” he proclaims earnestly.

“Given that, we feel that it’s really important, in our fight against Hindutva, to have solidarity from the Palestinians… It’s really important because we have been a multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious society - and that idea of India is severely under threat.

“Often I find that when people express solidarity with Palestine it’s almost as if it’s a one-way street, you know? That they require solidarity… I think we require solidarity as well. I think the rest of the world needs to learn from Palestine.”

The other significant aim of the tour is to establish connections that are not through the mediation of arts organisations or funding agencies.

“Most of the funding - this is what is unique - has not come from an institute,” says Faisal. He explains that the project is being funded almost entirely by individual contributions. Both the Freedom Theatre and Janam are raising money independently to pay for the tour, and this is very important to them – to show others that it is possible.

It will be a fantastic opportunity for the students of the Freedom Theatre, Sudhanva adds – the skills that they will learn, the exposure they will get – but it is also an opportunity for Indians to learn. He has set up a series of visits to schools, colleges and activist groups to foster different kinds of interactions. “The learning has to be mutual, that’s the perspective with which we’ve done this.”

Reflecting on the first immersive week with the students, Sudhanva’s eyes light up. “They are lovely, wonderful, beautiful, young people. Full of energy, full of creativity, full of fighting spirit – they are the best example of the human species we have, you know?”

Challenges ahead

So what is the biggest challenge of this historic tour?

The logistics of travelling the length and breadth of such a large country? Raising substantial funds independently? The language barrier? No. When asked the question, Sudhanva’s response is emphatic and without hesitation. "Food, I have no doubt about it!”

The dreaded "Delhi belly" has been a persistent plague on foreign visitors to India for centuries. The strong spices and sometimes unhygienic way in which street food is prepared can have disastrous consequences for unaccustomed stomachs.

The acclimatisation however, has proved no such problem for Ihab Talahmeh, one of the six students of the Freedom Theatre to have made the journey. "When my mother (heard) that I was going to India last year, she started to prepare me for spicy food, and every food she cooked, she put spice in it," he laughs. "So when I came here, the spice wasn't bad for me... I like it so much!"

Ihab Talahmeh (right) rehearsing with Raneen, two of the six students of The Freedom Theatre to have made the trip to India (Rahul M / Courtesy Jana Natya Manch; The Freedom Theatre)

His enthusiasm is infectious. At the age of 22, this is the first time he has left Palestine and Ihab is enjoying his time exploring a completely different land to the one he is used to. "I like everything in India – the street, the nature, the people, the animal ... it's so beautiful."

But life wasn’t always like this. Raised in the ancient town of Dura, just south of Hebron, he dropped out of school to work in a computer company, having had “big problems” with the teachers. In the ensuing two years he went on to open two companies of his own, but his passions lay elsewhere.

Ihab longed to swap the computer screens for those of the cinema. “Since I was a little child, I was always watching movies, watching TV shows, and I was always dreaming of being one of those actors,” he says, “I think this is the best way to deliver my message.”

In October 2013, after encouragement from a friend, he made the felicitous decision to audition for the Freedom Theatre. “They changed my ideas, they changed my life," he declares, recalling the lessons he learned in those first few weeks.

Elaborating, he says he didn’t really understand the occupation before he joined, he didn’t realise the many forms which oppression can take. “One of them – the mind occupation – this is what I had before I came to the theatre.”

After a busy first week that has seen a visit to the Palestinian embassy, a number of specialist workshops and intensive rehearsals, Ihab can’t wait to take his message to the streets of India.

“I will work hard to represent Palestine, to represent my family, to represent my people.”

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