Guest columnist by: Muhammad Karkoutli
“I am your cousin,” said a 7-year-old boy whose understanding of the world was more like that of a young man and was not in line with children his own age. There was no room for childhood, especially in the Palestinian city of Jenin. Instead of toys or the YMCA, the young man was subjected to chaos, fear and ruin. What will be expected of him? What will his world look like at the age of 18? What will happen to his concept of hope?
This past summer, I participated in the Olive Tree Initiative trip to the Middle East as a part of Chapman’s inaugural initiative to promote conflict analysis in the form of experiential education centered around informed discourse. What I experienced on this journey, particularly in the West Bank city of Jenin, has profoundly shaped my concept of what the future of the young Palestinian generation may look like. In particular, the Freedom Theatre, which generates cultural resistance to the reality of occupation, attempts to strengthen hope in the young generation despite being located in Jenin, a town that some have referred to as the “martyr’s capital of Palestine.”
The West Bank has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. The U.S. State Department, as well as the international community recognizes the current situation as an occupation. In 2002, the Jenin refugee camp, where the Freedom Theatre is located, was one of the targets of a large-scale military operation in the West Bank, which was launched by the Israel Defense Force during the Second Intifada, according to Human Rights Watch. During this operation, Human Rights Watch extensively documented the Israeli Defense Forces’ actions, which included the destruction of residents’ homes at the hands of armored bulldozers, and the prevention of the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the camp in order to help non-combatant civilians. The trauma of the 2002 military operation is cemented in young Palestinian life, which has made it difficult to envision a future with any semblance of hope. What will be the expected reaction of the young Palestinian generation to such events and how will they cope?
I was taken aback after revealing to the young man my Syrian heritage. He could not help but that insist he was my cousin. He resembled my cousins in his age and dress, yet he had a mature understanding of life that was tinged with grimness — but he still insisted that he was my cousin. Perhaps his enrollment in the Freedom Theatre played a role in his endearing persuasiveness.
The Freedom Theatre instills hope by offering an alternative to chaos, fear and ruin, the triad that rules the lives of many young Palestinians in Jenin. Film, theater and drama are taught to enable the younger generation with the tools to have their voices heard on the global stage. Without these creative tools, the young man, like much of the Palestinian youth, would be relegated to carrying out his life under occupation with little to no hope.
As this young man grows up, it is only a matter of time before the idea of hope is associated with the fantasies of childhood. When this 7-year-old can persuade the world that he is not only my cousin but is also your cousin, then hope will have prevailed. It is this creative initiative set forth by the Freedom Theatre that will hopefully strengthen Jenin’s youth’s concept of hope but only so long as we, the global audience, are willing to listen.
The stage is set, the actors are prepared but only the audience is missing.