Stuck in Emergency Mode

Eight months after the murder of actor-director Juliano Mer-Khamis, his widow Jenny Nyman is grappling alone with raising their children - including infant twins - and adamant that they 'grow up experiencing him through the people who knew him'

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

This past June, Jenny Nyman, 33, was lying in a hospital in Haifa, waiting for a caesarean section to deliver her twins. There was no real medical reason for the surgery, but two months after the murder of her husband, actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis - and with a year-old baby at home - the Finnish-born Nyman felt she would not be able to stand the torment of childbirth.

"I couldn't do it. That was the worst period yet, the couple of weeks before," she explains, in a conversation conducted in English, as she pushes strands of light-colored hair from her face. "I was so heavy, so tired because of everything - but also purely because of the weight I was carrying. It was emotional torture, just the thought that I would have to go there. Of course, if Jul were there, I would go for a natural birth, and wouldn't even think of doing a caesarian, only in an emergency. But in this situation I knew immediately, no way, I'm not going through that ... especially not with two."

Jenny Nyman with a photo of her late husband, Juliano Mer-Khamis.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

The operation itself passed quickly as did her physical recovery: "The days beforehand and lying in hospital were pure torture. And the experience with the children is different when it's a caesarian and you don't go through the process. You're more alienated from the children; it takes longer to connect to them. Plus I was in such a state, anyway, that it was hard for me to connect to anything. And it's different from the first child ... Suddenly there are two more, and one is jealous, and I have to give the other attention ... But it's okay, it's a different situation. We'll get there, I'm sure."

On April 4, Mer-Khamis, 53, was murdered at the entrance to the theater he established and directed in the Jenin refugee camp. Five shots were fired at him by a masked gunman who is still at large.

Mer-Khamis was a familiar and controversial figure. His mother, human rights activist Arna Mer, was Jewish and died several years ago from cancer. His father, Saliba Khamis, was a Christian Arab and activist in the Israeli Communist Party. Mer-Khamis himself was a talented, charismatic and instinctual actor. He appeared in many films, including "Bar 51," "Romantic Stories," "Wedding in Galilee" and "Kippur." He portrayed wonderful roles, but was also sacked in 1998 from the lead in "Othello" at the Haifa Theater after he acted in a violent manner toward his co-actors. Aside from his children with Nyman, Mer-Khamis has an 11-year-old daughter, Milay, from a previous relationship.

In addition to his acting career, Mer-Khamis was also an active theater and film director. The last movie he completed, through the Creating with Keshet project (see box ) - was broadcast yesterday along with several others, on Channel 2. Mer-Khamis worked on the film, made in conjunction with a group of teenagers to whom he taught filmmaking, during the last winter of his life.

Nyman, who did administrative and fund-raising work for the Jenin theater, describes the day Mer was killed. She was in her seventh month of pregnancy, waiting for him to come home to the house they'd rented in Jenin; she now lives in Haifa.

"He was in Ramallah, directing a play for two weeks there," she remembers. "I was in the house, and I was pregnant and very tired and didn't feel like going to the office. My babysitter had gone out with [my son] Jay, and suddenly in the afternoon some people from the theater came to the house with Jay. I said where's the babysitter, and they said: She'll come in a minute. Several people came, and ... something was wrong but I didn't know what."

Did anybody say anything to you?

"After a while they told me he's been shot. And I said okay - what does it mean? Tell me what's the situation. And they said, not good. And I asked, so, he's injured? He's dead? And they said, he's injured and they've taken him to the hospital. Which was not true. I guess he died instantly ... Everyone just told me: He's in the hospital, we don't really know where, it's critical. And then I got a phone call from a television station saying we're very sorry for your loss, and I hung up."

Nyman calmly recounts another call she received, from acquaintance asking about the funeral arrangements: "Nobody had even confirmed to me to my face and told me he was dead. They kept on telling me he's in hospital, and obviously I understood, but I wanted somebody to tell me ... They wanted me to come to the house here in Haifa, full of people, not knowing. It's crazy! I mean, everybody else knew.

"I was in shock for a couple of days," she continues. "The funeral was like some kind of release or acknowledgment, an understanding that this was real, I guess ... Then this journalist comes and that one calls, and people are so rude it's unbelievable."

Several days afterward, Nyman agreed to do a television interview, the only one she agreed to give. In it, she looks stunned and tired, but also surprisingly calm. "I guess I'm still in this emergency mode [there], because at the time Jay was 11 months old, I was still seven months pregnant. I couldn't even lift him up, you know? Just managing day to day, you know, in addition to feeling this sudden loss, like a panic. What am I going to do? How am I going to manage with three small children alone? And I'm still in this day-to-day emergency mode, doing what I have to do."

Do you try to process what happened?

"There are moments when I let it in, but the rest of the time I have to block it out and function. So I don't know; it's going to hit me in a few years. I'm trying to slowly process it. Not to block it out, but to try, even consciously sometimes, to think and understand, because I know I have to. But the rest of the time it's babies and milk and Pampers and babysitters."

The lives of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the child of parents from two different religions, Nyman, a Finn whose interest in a faraway conflict swallowed her up, and their children, from a young age - all have been labelled by that conflict.

Nyman: "It was a very intense five years. Jul didn't have any separation between his private life and political life, and work ... Everything was one, and we were in this one together ... I'm no longer involved in the theater, but I'm [still] involved in my mind."

When she returns to work, she adds, she wants to "do something new that also evolves from what we did and the lessons we learned over the last five years." She wants "the children to grow up with all this around them, to learn ... What could I tell them about their father if I took them to Finland, where nothing ever happens? How will they understand? It wouldn't be easier in the long run; it might be easier for the short term. I could tell them their father never existed, or tell them stories about here or something, but they will never understand what I'm talking about if they don't grow up experiencing him through the people who knew him. To choose the easy option at the beginning - it's going to hit me in the face later on. Imagine when they are teenagers and realize there's all this history that's been taken away from them: part of their identity and who they are and where they came from."

That is a decision which from the outside might indeed seem incomprehensible.

"They lost their father, but only here can they grow up somehow with his spirit around them. With the people who knew him, with all his stories, his house, the garden, the same environment ... As messed up as it is, this is where their father came from, this is where we met, this is where we were passionate about things, and working toward things. This was our mission together in life, and they came out of this. So I need to give them this, at least to begin with. Maybe in a few years' time, we'll decide it's not worth it ... I don't think it's healthy for them to grow up in a place where their father really doesn't exist at all. He's here."

When she was 16, Jenny Nyman left her parent's home; at 19 she left Finland and moved to England, where she attended university. Subsequently, she travelled around the world for a long time. She found her way to Israel six years ago, as part of an internship at an NGO working with Palestinian youth: "I had had Israeli Jewish friends. I went to a very left-wing university, studied philosophy, so there were a lot of Marxist, leftist people around me, who were obviously very pro-Palestine. And I didn't really know what to believe ... So I decided to have a look. Six years later, I am sitting here in this mess with three small children."

It was early in the summer of 2006. Not long beforehand, Mer-Khamis, along with Zakaria Zubeidi, Dror Feiler and Jonatan Stanczak, founded the Freedom Theater for children in the Jenin camp. In a way he was continuing the work of his mother, which he had documented in 2003 in his award-winning film "Arna's Children." He and Nyman met at a party in Haifa.

"Someone invited me to a birthday party at his house," she remembers. "I heard about him but I didn't even know about his film, and I didn't connect his face and the film, I hadn't seen it. I heard the rumors that everybody else heard, about this crazy guy ... I guess there was some kind of connection as soon as I met him, but I was quite cautious at the beginning because of what I heard [about him]. And then he kept surprising me.

What do you mean?

"He had these crazy sides and periods, but somewhere underneath there was a lot of responsibility. You could trust him. Maybe he was forgetful, but stable. You could rely on him."

Nyman joined the staff of the theater, and the two started dating. A year later they got married in Cyprus. They divided their lives between the house in Haifa, where she and the boys are now living, and an apartment they rented in Jenin in order to be close to the theater. "It wasn't just about culture and theater, it was very political theater, as well, in a sensitive and volatile place," she says.

Regarding their life together, she adds, "It happened fast. I guess he was in a hurry. I don't know if I believe in fate and all that. I never did, but now in the last six months I've started to a little bit."

In a video clip made public a few days after his murder, Mer-Khamis prophesizes the circumstances of his death, and even ponders the possibility that he could be murdered by a Palestinian. He had already received death threats at the time.

"Three years ago, he did a production of 'Animal Farm' at the theater in Jenin, and it was very controversial," Nyman explains. "So at the time, there were some threats. He was a little worried. I guess he created these 'scripts' in his head (he talked about them as scripts, about what was going to happen in the future, in his life ), and they were sad. But one of them was, like he said in that film, that he was going to be shot by 'some fucked-up Palestinian,' and then he said: 'And Jenny will be pregnant.' I don't think he was very serious about these scripts, but sometimes he had some very clear visions of the future."


"We didn't plan to have another child so soon ... [but] then by accident one day I got pregnant when Jay was five months old ... Then we went to a doctor [who] confirmed [I was] pregnant, and then went again. Twins! Two boys. And we're, like, what has happened to our lives? We've been working 24/7 for four years, and now we're supposed to have three small children? We live on very low salaries in a refugee camp in Jenin ...

"Jul had a lot of 'What does it mean?' moments ... We weren't able to find a reason why it happened at this point, and so soon. You are driven to think that maybe there was a reason for all this, and then I try to tell myself that these are thoughts that are no more than an attempt to make myself feel better. Nevertheless, I started to believe in fate, just a little bit."

Today, Nyman's life now revolves around caring for her babies. Her mother came from Finland to help her, her older son goes to kindergarten, and in general, she says, "I'm trying to have people around me who will help a little, do all the practical things that need to be done. But I'm totally disconnected from the world. I don't turn on the news, I don't talk to people. I am meticulously organized, with a clear schedule, and am managing my own private preschool. It takes a lot from me now; I try to give whatever I have to make sure the children will be happy. So 100 percent of my energy goes to the children, and that leaves me nothing else."

Juliano had so many friends. Are they somehow involved in your life right now?

"There were a lot of people around for a while ... I'm open to people, but I don't come and go - I don't have time to develop relationships, neither do I have patience. Some people are also shy to come or call ... Maybe they don't know what to say or do. I don't know, maybe they're thinking I'm sitting and crying all day."

Maybe that is what they expect you to be doing.

"Yeah. What will happen to the children if I sit and cry all day? I have my moments, and there are hard moments - and, yeah, I break down sometimes. But most of the time I have to control [myself]. I think the hardest time is going to be when I have to start talking to the children, and explaining to them. You know, I can manage with myself, but when I have three innocent boys and I have to explain to them what happened, and why - that frightens me.

"I myself don't really know why it happened," Nyman adds, her voice breaking. "I think that [doubt] is going to bring my weaknesses out. Also he used to travel so much, sometimes he was away for long periods of time, and for a long time you just have this feeling he could just walk in the door. And then there are moments when it hits you again and you realize and ... then you go back to routine and it's hard."

Not long after the murder, an organization of victims of terror called on the Israeli authorities not to recognize Mer-Khamis officially as a victim of terror. Nyman says she never sought any such recognition.

In the Channel 2 interview held just after the murder, she said she did not feel anger at the assassin, and that she and various parties assessed that he had acted out of some sort of traditionalist-conservative motivations. Now she says: "That was less than a week after the murder, but in general, it is a strange feeling to be angry. There are so many other emotions that are so much stronger in this situation."

What do you mean?

"Rationally I'm angry, but that is not the prime emotion. I can't define it. They didn't find the person who did it, and I don't know for sure why he was murdered. I have my speculations. But nothing much is happening with the investigation. And for sure people know. That makes me more angry: I know there are people who know, and they're not cooperating."

"Nothing is going to bring Jul back. Maybe the anger will come later. But now I'm more angry at the people around, who remain silent. You can't have somebody killed in the middle of the street in broad daylight and nobody knows who, it's impossible. Plus, I'm sure the person wasn't working alone. It's a group of people, and it's a community where people like to gossip, and somebody is even going to feel very proud that they did it, I swear. That they did society a 'favor.' So people know, and this is what makes me very angry. I'm sure many people know, and they aren't talking."

There was a claim that a Muslim extremist murdered him.

"It's not about religion, it's about traditional values, about tradition. He was murdered because of the values of tradition and conservatism. It's a traditional society. And I think there are some people who have a big interest in preserving the status quo - the very patriarchal, conservative status quo. And the theater was threatened. When we staged 'Animal Farm' they tried to burn it down, on two occasions. We always walked a very thin line, and we worked hard to get the community on board and to explain to them. We tried to show that it is a means of expression that can be useful to children, to learn how to stand up for themselves and to speak. The theater was becoming more and more successful, and I think somehow the success was what brought it down."

Are you still active in it?

"Now I don't have any connection, I can't have any connection with the theater or with Jenin - so long as nobody's cooperating with the investigation, or speaking out. There was no public outrage in Jenin against this act, no condemnation was voiced. People should have the courage to stand up in public and say this is wrong. If that were the situation, I wouldn't have a problem to be in touch or to help them ... But what I saw was people who bowed their heads even lower, [went] down on their knees, and said, 'Okay, just don't kill me. I will say what you want me to say, just don't shoot me.'

"It's like saying, it's okay to kill somebody for their ideas, we'll just modify the discourse a little bit if you let us carry on. For me, this is a very big disappointment. It feels like a failure. If you asked Jul [what he would feel] in a similar situation, he would say: 'Screw them, we'll close the doors and go work somewhere else where people want us.'

"One of his favorite expressions was, 'It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.' And that is what he did, and if they forced him down on his knees he would have left. So he died on his feet, but at least he wasn't a hypocrite. And I'm not going to be either. There are still some really good people there, who do good work. But the principle for me is that you cannot carry on working in a place where somebody was killed on a doorstep for what he was doing inside.

"The people just sit, as if nothing happened. This is where my anger is directed, to these places, because that is where the results of our work, where the real change should show. Nothing is going to bring Jul back, even if they catch the killer, I want to see justice, but anger is not going to bring him back. It's not constructive."

What are you going to tell your boys when they're old enough, about the circumstances of how their father died?

"I'm going to tell them what happened. That we were trying to work with this society and they killed him. Sometimes I ask myself what I'm going to tell them, I really don't know. I guess I will have to tell them the truth. But I don't want them to grow up angry, either. I hope they won't be angry with the Palestinians as a whole because some Palestinian killed their father. It's an injustice that happened in the context of a greater injustice. I don't know what to tell them. I still have a few years to decide."