(Nabeel Al Raee, Zakaria Zubeidi and their children. Credit: The Freedom Theatre)
Let us imagine for a moment that Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, was arrested by a foreign army and held in detention for over a month on hazy charges, without trial and without being allowed to see his friends and family for weeks on end. Let us imagine, too, that a month into this unlawful detention Eustis went on an open-ended hunger strike. It is not unreasonable to assume that the uproar in the American and international theatre community, as well as in the media, would be deafening. And rightfully so.
Such a nightmarish scenario was the recent reality for Nabeel Al Raee, the artistic director of the renowned Freedom Theatre of Jenin, located in the northern part of the occupied West Bank.
Al Raee—who was, until a month ago, in the midst of directing the Freedom Theatre’s acting students in an upcoming adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker—was abducted from his house by Israeli soldiers on June 6, 2012, at approximately 3 a.m and held for nearly five weeks, much of it incommunicado.
Al Raee’s detention came in the wake of nearly a year of harassment of the Freedom Theatre community, which lost its co-founder Juliano Mer Khamis last year to an assassin’s bullets. Initially charged with withholding information about the murder of Mer Khamis, Al Raee—who denied the charges as absurd—was held without access to his lawyer or his family for two weeks after his arrest, according to a statement released on July 5 by the Freedom Theatre. Later, in a court hearing, the initial charges were altered and Al Raee was instead accused of being involved in “terror activities” because he had given rides to and shared cigarettes and food with his colleague and TFT co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi, a former resistance fighter who was granted amnesty by Israel several years ago (only to have that amnesty revoked in late 2011).
During Al Raee’s incarceration, his lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan, stated, “This shows that that they are desperate and that they don’t have anything to hold against [Al Raee]. If these are crimes then it means that everybody in Jenin camp is guilty of them.” Al Raee’s wife Micaela Miranda was similarly skeptical of the charges against her husband, saying, “It’s obvious that they are trying to find a justification for having kept Nabeel incarcerated for so long.” And TFT managing director Jonatan Stanczak declared, “[The Israelis] thought we would break down when Juliano Mer Khamis was assassinated, but we kept on and now they are trying to suffocate us slowly but surely by harassing our employees, members and supporters with various accusations, one more absurd than the other.”
To those familiar with Israeli military proceedings, the constantly shifting charges and long detentions without access to lawyers is a hallmark of the Israeli occupation and is a fate suffered by the thousands of Palestinians who are detained by Israel, sometimes without charge. (ADDAMEER, a Palestinian human-rights NGO, reports there were 4,659 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers as of June 1—192 of them children.)
According to the Freedom Theatre, Al Raee went on an open-ended hunger strike beginning July 6, as did Zubeidi, who is currently in custody of the Palestinian Authority, also without access to lawyers or family. The decision to go on hunger strike is not surprising: The past year has seen the widespread use of open-ended hunger strikes by thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails (around 2,000 of whom went on mass hunger strike on April 17, 2012. Pushing the limits of survival, such acts have attracted international attention and drawn comparisons to Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers of 30 years ago. One of the most recent Palestinian hunger strikers was Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national soccer team who, in his third year of detention without charge or trial, went without food for close to 90 days this spring before securing his release back to the Gaza Strip on July 10. Zubeidi has intermittently continued his hunger strike in response to changes in the conditions of his detention.
While there has been little media coverage of Al Raee’s plight here in the U.S., friends and allies of the Freedom Theatre in both Europe and the U.S. were outspoken in condemning the arrest of Al Raee and calling for his immediate release, as well as insisting the charges are fabricated and meant only to undermine the important work of the Freedom Theatre. Perhaps the highest profile intervention thus far was a June 25 statement calling for the release of Al Raee and Zubeidi, signed by nearly 200 U.S. artists, writers and intellectuals, including Maya Angelou, Tony Kushner, Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, Ken Loach and Oskar Eustis. “Nabeel Al Raee is an artist, not a criminal,” the letter states, “but apparently in the West Bank, being an artist at the Freedom Theatre is now a crime. The IDF, in its continuing harassment of the Freedom Theatre staff, has taken a man into custody who has chosen to resist through purely artistic means. We believe that Al Raee is being targeted as an effort to intimidate and harass the Freedom Theatre because of its vital work in serving and empowering refugee youth and its artistic expression of political viewpoints.”
Al Raee was released on bail on July 12, and returned home to his family, exhausted from his ordeal. “It was very, very hard but now I’m home with my daughter and my wife, thank God,” Al Raee said.
What will happen next to Al Raee remains an open question—his next military court hearing is scheduled for the end of the month. But perhaps the larger question is whether Palestinians who use theatre and other art forms as their method of resistance will continue to be harassed, targeted and subjected to arbitrary raids and arrests. If so, it is an indication of the extent to which the Israeli government is willing to go in order to repress nonviolent freedom of expression. It is also a comment on the power—and danger—inherent in theatre made in opposition to oppression.
Ismail Khalidi is a playwright and a past member of the board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre. His play Tennis in Nablus premiered at the Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2010 and will be produced this season at New York City’s Culture Project. His writing has appeared in Mizna, the Nation and the Daily Beast. He was the co-author, with Naomi Wallace and Erin B. Mee, of American Theatre magazine’s February 2012 article about the Freedom Theatre.
Jen Marlowe is an author/filmmaker/playwright and human rights advocate. Her books include The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, and Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. Her films include One Family in Gaza, Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home and Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. Jen is writing a book about Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia despite a strong innocence case. For more information about Jen’s work, visit www.donkeysaddle.org.