The first time I met Zakaria Zubeidi, I was participating in my nephew’s class project by taking a laminated paper doll (“Flat Stanley”) with me everywhere I went, photographing him with different people all over.
I told Zubeidi where “Flat Stanley” and I had traveled. He looked at the paper doll incredulously. “He’s seen more of the world than I have,” Zubeidi said with a grin, and more than a hint of wistfulness.
“Flat Stanley” and I visited Jenin just five months after Zubeidi had been granted amnesty by Israel, whose wanted list he had previously topped, and just over a year after he had co-founded The Freedom Theatre in Jenin’s refugee camp. Zubeidi’s tongue-in-cheek comment referred to his own lifetime of limited freedom of movement: There were the five years of his youth spent in Israeli prisons (first for throwing stones, then for throwing a Molotov cocktail), followed by the years he was lived in hiding after becoming a fighter during the second intifada, and in 2007, according to his amnesty terms, he could not leave Jenin.
Today, Zubeidi’s confinement is even tighter, and perhaps more troubling, than when imposed by Israel. He has been in the custody of the Palestinian Security Forces since May 13, with no charges or evidence of wrongdoing presented. On September 9, after yet another arbitrary continuation of his detention, Zubeidi announced that he was embarking on a hunger strike and would refuse food and fluid.
Zubeidi was one of 150 Palestinians arrested as part of a sweeping crackdown in May after the Jenin governor’s home was shot at, leading to the governor’s death by heart attack. Although the majority of those arrested have since been released, Zubeidi has continued to be held.
Perhaps, Zubeidi’s ordeal is partially connected to his role in establishing and continuing to advise and support The Freedom Theatre.
Juliano Mer-Khamis, Zubeidi’s partner in founding The Freedom Theatre, was gunned down by an unknown assailant on April 4, 2011. Since then, the theatre’s staff, board members and students have endured a continual barrage of harassment from the Israeli authorities, ostensibly under the auspices of investigating Mer-Khamis’ murder. The latest outrage was the arrest and five-week imprisonment by Israel of Nabil Al-Raee, the theatre’s artistic director.
It’s not difficult to surmise why Israel would want the theatre’s doors closed; its very establishment was an act of cultural resistance to the occupation.
Zubeidi’s connection to the theatre project runs very deep. The original “Stone Theatre” started by Mer-Khamis’s mother (Arna Mer, a Jewish-Israeli anti-occupation activist) was built during the first intifada on the top floor of Zubeidi’s house, and Zubeidi’s mother worked closely with Arna. Zubeidi was among the child actors, and is one of the few who survived the second intifada, as documented by Mer-Khamis’s acclaimed film, “Arna’s Children.”
Zubeidi used his influence within the camp as a respected fighter to ensure that the multi-ethnic theatre effort got off the ground.
Mer-Khamis once put it like this: “[Zakaria] is the one who says, ‘Jews are allowed here, as long as they come for peace and for freedom.’”
Long before Zubeidi laid down his weapon, he recognized that it would not free Palestine. Rather, it was a vehicle to get the world to understand that Palestinians were resisting the occupation. Zubeidi came to believe that this message could be transmitted far more effectively through theatre.
“Through theatre, you can talk to the world and give a different message than the way they see us as terrorists,” Zubeidi once said.
But The Freedom Theatre also critiques oppression from the Palestinian Authority—which may be one reason that the PA is determined to punish Zubeidi.
Another reason may be understood in the protests currently roiling the West Bank, reflecting long-brewing discontent which is partially rooted in the feeling that the PA functions as Israel’s sub-contractor. Zubeidi’s detention might be an extension of the PA’s “security cooperation” with Israel, trying to neutralize the revolutionary theatre in Jenin’s refugee camp.
Zubeidi’s Kafkaesque ordeal mimics the experience of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Zubeidi has been shuffled back and forth between civil and military courts, and had his detention extended repeatedly without justification. The torture he says he’s experienced includes being pushed down a flight of stairs with his hands tied behind his back, being forced to stand for two straight days with his arms shackled above him, being forced to drink toilet water, and being tied outside to an iron door during the heat of the day.
And now, like prisoners in Israeli jails, he is using his one available tool of resistance: a hunger strike.
If the PA does not release Zubeidi, he likely has a matter of days to live.
It will be beyond tragic—and more than a little ironic—if Zakaria Zubeidi, whose life was shaped by experiencing, and resisting, Israeli violence—were to die in his resistance to Palestinian oppression.
During one brief visit that Zubeidi was permitted from friends at The Freedom Theatre, he ruefully underscored his enduring belief that theatre remains the best way to expose injustice:
“I keep thinking—we could do a play about this.”
Jen Marlowe is an author, documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. Her latest book (written with Sami Al Jundi) is The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey From Prisoner to Peacemaker and her most recent film is One Family in Gaza. She serves on the U.S.-based board of the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre. Follow her on Twitter at @donkeysaddleorg.
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