Freedom Theater
The Freedom Theater in Jenin in April 2011. Photo by Nir Kafri
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JENIN - A slender young woman in traditional dress stood in the courtyard of the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp on Tuesday of this week. Arij Hayisi, from the village of Shanur, had made an appointment with Juliano Mer for that day. With all the media bustle surrounding the press conference about his last show, and the drama of his life and his death, Hayisi stood silent.

She is 21, and has written a play called "Friend, Rooster Time," like the title of a traditional Arab song. The previous day she had rehearsed parts of the play in advance of her appointment with Mer. People had told Hayisi that the person who could help her realize her dream of becoming an actress was Mer; two weeks ago, she gathered her courage and approached him in the lobby of the theater in Ramallah and told him about it.

But on the eve of their appointment, he was murdered.

"Until yesterday, I was only 70 percent sure I want to be an actress. Now I am 100 percent sure. He wanted us to fulfill his dream. Now it is our dream and we must fulfill it."

And what is the dream?

Hayisi pauses and then says: "Huriyyeh." Freedom.

This week the Freedom Theater donned black. Lengths of black cloth covered its walls and black flags fluttered in its courtyard. The modest, well-kept auditorium, with its simple seats, was silent. Just a few weeks ago I had seen "Alice in Wonderland" here, which Jule directed, and the courtyard buzzed with dozens of excited children who had come to the first theatrical performance of their lives. Now a white scrim adorned with a picture of him covered the stage.

In Israel his name was Juliano Mer. "Mer" was the surname of his mother, who fought in the pre-state Palmach militia, and of his grandfather, a doctor who wiped out malaria in Rosh Pina. In Jenin he was called Juliano Khamis; "Khamis" was the surname of his father, a Christian Arab communist activist.

Life went on as usual in Jenin this week. Only an electronic billboard showing a portrait of Mer-Khamis on the roof of the renovated Jenin cinema was a reminder of what had happened. The mourning was mostly confined to the courtyard of the theater, where rather daring plays were put on that were not always to everyone's liking. Alice from Wonderland is no longer here, and it is doubtful she will return. Just weeks ago Mer told a noisy audience: "This is a dangerous show, with subversive messages."

In the portrait now displayed at the entrance to the theater compound, Mer is using the "V for victory" gesture, his beard is graying and his intelligent eyes are as piercing as ever. The caption underneath: "Slain for freedom and culture, the Palestinian thinker, Juliano Khamis."

 

The refugee camp muezzin called for noontime prayers. The press conference called by the theater's administrator, Zakaria Zubeidi, had just ended but no one was able to leave. The handful of blond volunteers from Europe, their eyes red from crying, the journalists from the Arab and Israeli TV channels, activists - all stood silent.

The theater's management distributed a statement: "Jenin, the world of Palestinian culture and the children of freedom have lost the slain Juliano Khamis, who was cut down by black bullets. He was the model of a freedom fighter to the children of the camp, a symbol of our culture and our struggle ... The Freedom Theater will remain a symbol of freedom. Had the bullets that hit his back seen his eyes, they would have begged forgiveness."

A picture of Che Guevara hangs on one of the walls and now a picture of Khamis hangs next to it. The resemblance is striking. Here is Juliano's mother, Arna, with her child-actors, and pictures of the theater. Someone relates that in the midst of Operation Defensive Shield, in 2002, which destroyed a good deal of the camp, Jule walked about in shock, touching the faces of the children in silence. A picture of Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer whom Israel assassinated in Beirut in 1972, also hangs on the wall.

Ismail al-Khatib, father of Ahmad - a child killed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers because he dared play with a toy gun, and whose organs were afterward donated by his father to Israeli patients - is also here. His son's picture too is on the wall. Ismail was also a friend of Jule's, and they met on the evening before he was murdered at the premiere of Eugene Ionesco's "The Chairs" in Ramallah, the last play in which Jule had a hand in directing.

We exit the theater to the street, the scene of the murder. The day before, Juliano had gone out the same way, his baby son and the Palestinian nanny from Bethlehem sitting beside him in the red car, serenely making their way to their home on the hill overlooking the camp. Mer had driven only a few dozen meters when a man suddenly leaped out of an alley and called for him to stop. The man pulled a mask over his face and fired several bullets at short range at Mer, whose car rolled down the hill, hit a wall and eventually stopped in front of the carpentry shop next to the car wash. No one saw, no one heard, no one is prepared to talk.

The assassin fled in the meantime up the alley, and was apparently swallowed up into one of the houses. As he ran he discarded his ski mask.

We continued up the hill, along a road where Zakaria Zubeidi once drove me in his all-terrain vehicle, in the midst of the intifada. He was still the "No. 1 wanted man." Now we drove slowly to the lookout over the camp. The view here was stunning with Afula, Nazareth and Haifa on the horizon. For a moment the refugee camp looked like a calm, serene village in a fertile valley. Once during the intifada, I spent a night in the camp as an armored detail of the IDF trundled though the alleys in the middle of the night.

Two stylish new stone houses stand at the top of the hill, in the shade of cellular antennas. On the ground floor of one is the home where Zubeidi now lives with his family, after the IDF totally demolished his house in the camp. Nearby he built a two-story house for his brothers Yehyeh and Jibril, who are still locked up in an Israeli prison. Until their release, in about seven years, Zubeidi put the house at the disposal of Juliano, his Finnish wife and their baby. The doors of the house are locked and shuttered. Only a baby's bib hangs from the laundry line.

 

A simple stone marker with only the name "Arna" engraved on it, in Hebrew and Arabic, and prickly pears in the background. His mother's grave. Jule asked to be buried nearby, in the soil of Kibbutz Ramot Menashe. And so on Wednesday his grave was dug there, on the slope of the pretty cemetery.

A red van with a photo of Mer-Khamis glued to a window transported his coffin, which was wrapped in purple-brown velvet; they say his body was shrouded in a kaffiyeh. The funeral procession left from Haifa and made its way to the Jalama crossing north of Jenin, where several dozen of his friends from that city joined the others before continuing to the cemetery, which apparently for the first time in its history was decorated with Palestinian flags, and no others.

Many hundreds of people came - Arabs and Jews, leftist activists and actors, but there wasn't a single member of Knesset and there were only a very few Israeli celebrities from the theater world. The eulogies were delivered in Hebrew and Arabic. From time to time people clapped, very unusual at a funeral. And at the end everyone cheered loud and long for their Jule, a final round of applause that refused to die down.

His friend and colleague Zakaria Zubeidi did not come to the crossing, lest he be detained, but addressed those present at Ramot Menashe via a speaker from his mobile phone just an hour's drive away in Jenin, his voice echoing over the graves of the founders of the kibbutz. He was ashamed for Arna, he said, that her son had been murdered by Palestinians in Jenin.