Interview with Rawand Arqawi of the Jenin Freedom Theatre

After we  interviewed Jacob Gough, Acting General Manager of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, Rawand Arqawi, Acting School Coordinator of the Theatre, sat down and did a short interview with us after we had watched some promotional videos. We were tired, and didn’t expect another interview, but we jumped up to the occasion and talked with her for about 20 minutes. A life-long refugee in the Jenin camp, she was more soft spoken than Jacob, with a more careful and tenuous grasp of the English language, and offered a very valuable and unique perspective.

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The problem with our students is they have no high school. Its different than any theater. The targeted group here are the people who had the traumas, so its different from the people who just want to be actors. Most of them have not finished high school because of the occupation, because of the invasion [2002] most of them left the school. Things here are very bad.

Its been 9 years since the battle of Jenin. How is the community working to rebuild? What are some of the challenges, and how is the Freedom Theatre helping your community rebuild?

After what happened with the invasion, everyone had stories from the occupation, because the occupation hurt everyone here. Everyone was shocked and everyone had traumas because of what happened, because most of the people saw their parents or members of their family killed in front of them. So most people were thinking there is no life, everyone is dead, just tanks and blood were the life for everyone. But when this theatre opened, because of Juliano- Juliano was a wonderful man who pushed the people to deal with their problems in a good way. So when this theatre opened they started to improve, the children had drama therapy, this has helped alot. Also for the children to come and see performances, to see that there is life. Not just blood and tanks, there is another kind of life the children did not know about. The people here don’t know what is cinema and what is theater, and in the beginning the people did not accept us because they had no idea about acting, they had no idea about theater. So the people were thinking about resistance, about weapons, about right of return. So when this theater started they started to change their thinking, they started to think ‘ok, we have now some kind of entertainment, especially we have summer camp for the children. This is the best way to deal with these children, instead of to play in the street, to come here and to see performances, to find entertainment here. Also the challenge here for the freedom theatre- the girls, for the first time, they can for the first time express about what they have, what they want, what they need. It is a big challenge here in jenin camp, to show the people also, to send message about palestine, about the problems of the girls- this is a big challenge here in jenin camp.

When the children first come are they usually quite shy, and then more comes out?

Yes. Its not just the students, its everyone here in the theatre. When I first came here, i was overwhelmed. but then because of my work, because of the encouragement of Juliano- he always just pushed, pushed, pushed us- ‘ok, just talk, dont be shy, what you have inside, just talk, express it.’ This is what he did with us. He completely changed our lives, like from the bottom to the top. So we can deal with the people now, we can express what we want, we didn’t have fear, we can deal with our problems. Always he said ‘why are you afraid? Just say why! Nobody will come and cut your head!’

Do women get issues at home when they realize these things? When they go back home and they are more confident?

Yes, I had a fight with my brother last week, he said ‘you are completely different! Theatre changed you! You start to fight…’ Its not just that i am defending my right, because we are a conservative state, so women think that when males say something we have to obey them- no! Now its the time to confront our problems. For me i am convinced of what i am doing, this is my work, and i can deal with my problems, i am an adult, its not like children. From the beginning, if we are all silent, and dont fight about our rights, we will not succeed. Its not only for me, also for all the girls here. If i dont want to fight about my rights- i have rights to learn, to work, to travel- i cant do what i want! Its not because I want to correct my society or change my customs or traditions, no! i want to learn, to travel, i want to discover the world, i want to express what i want, and this is what i have now!

How long did it take you to get to where you are now? How long have you been involved with the theatre?

Four years.

And before you came to the Freedom Theatre?

I was working with many institutions in Jenin, and i did not find the benefits i wanted. Most institutions, you have to be linked to a political party to work. Here it is different, you are free, it is up to you. To me, it is not like i care about politicians. This is my way, this is my life- so i have to not belong to any political party. Most institutions try to convince you to be on this political party, but in the end its my life. You cant push me to belong to any political party. So then I heard about the Freedom Theatre, i came here and i asked Juliano to be a volunteer, and he was helpful from the beginning, he said welcome, he welcomed me, he helped me and supported me from the beginning and i became a volunteer, and then in acting school, and then a coordinator of action school! i quickly jumped up! But I liked the work, and he supported me, he supported me alot.

I’m sure its been very hard for the camp since Juliano died. How have you guys struggled on and kept going?

When we had this crime, everyone was shocked about what happened. Its not easy to lose this man, its not easy for us. Everyone started to break down, you cant imagine what was our feeling, everyone started to be crazy. For the students- always we were sitting here, Juliano liked everything to be clean, the theatre, the place, for when the guests came- so he was very tough, to push everyone to work, and he was also like a kind father. So he had a balance, to be the tough teacher and director, but also very kind like we were his child. He gave us alot. So everyone cleaned, we looked to see him coming, we came just to look, we were waiting for him to come, because we had shock, we were still waiting for him to come. We made the coffee, and just sat. We were waiting until he came to drink with us- this is the way that we had here. Because its not easy for us- suddenly we lost a great man like this, like a father. For me it was three months, I sat here and waited for him to call me, because he used to call me five times a day, so I was sitting here waiting for him to call me. This is the feeling for us, for everyone here in the theatre. Its not easy for us to lose Juliano. It wasn’t easy for everyone. Then when we had troubles for leaflets against the freedom theatre, because all of us were close to him, because everyone had stories from him, he helped the people a lot. So because of him we wanted to continue. He loved this theatre, and he was also killed here, in jenin camp. So the people who loved him, we wanted to continue, we didn’t care- when we had leaflets, some people were afraid, they ran away and hid in their house, but for us, a lot of people stayed here and opened this theatre every day, when the people would visit us, we didn’t close one day. And we started to spread out about Julianos work, about what he did with us. In the beginning people were afraid about the dangerous situation here- the crime, leaflets, threats- and so some people didn’t send their daughters to the theatre, and I cant blame this, it’s a dangerous place here. But because we believe of what we have, because we believe in Juliano, so we continue. We first had problems, we had troubles here with the people in jenin camp- some people spread rumors against the theatre- but even that, step by step- we need time, of course, to refresh the work before. But we opened shows here, for children to come and see movies here, we had a lot of children come to the theatre. This is a good step, step by step, we have to be patient. What we have, its not easy, its not easy, and you cant imagine what we have. But even that, we are here. Even if we have threats- its ok, we do not care. I am a girl from a conservative family, I have family and friends who all push me to leave. But I don’t care, we lost Juliano, what else is there to lose?

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