From the team that brought us the searing play Queens of Syria comes a new production exploring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And Here I Am tells the true story of the Freedom Theatre, set up by Juliano Mer-Khamis inside the Jenin refugee camp to offer the community a means of creative resistance. Through the eyes of Ahmed Tobasi, one of Juliano’s pupils and an ex-resistance fighter, we are shown the everyday reality of living in a conflict zone and the power of theatre to lift people out of their oppression.
At the age of seventeen, Ahmed is arrested for his involvement in the Islamic Jihadis’ fight against invading Israeli soldiers. He serves four years in prison, after which he resists the tug of re-joining the battleground by joining the Freedom Theatre. His teacher Juliano is insistent that “theatre can be as violent as a gun”, something that is echoed across the whole play in Hassan Abdulrazzak’s writing. As a child, when Ahmed finds his father’s balaclava, he is surprised by how much he enjoys the disguise. There is a connection between the violence of theatre and warfare when he says, “I feel like I am someone else. I love the theatre of it.”
Part of Juliano’s mission is to humanise the refugees to the rest of the world. By sharing their stories, he adds a three-dimensional quality to the images on the news beyond the role of victim or terrorist. That is just what this production achieves. Ahmed plays football in the street, chases girls in a comically roundabout way that circumnavigates conservative Arabic values, and smiles with the audience in an easy camaraderie. More than a take on the Palestinian plight, this is a hopeful coming of age story. We root for our new friend who guides us around the city, and in turn are given a sensitive glimpse at what turns some individuals to violence.
The play contains a surprisingly wry sense of humour, most of all when Ahmed describes his reception at a Belgian theatre festival. People fuss over him because of the romance of his home in a Palestinian refugee camp, which Ahmed is both bemused by and indulges. And Here I Am itself resists this impulse in the West by instead offering wit, sometimes even farce, in actions like mistakenly throwing a lighter instead of a bomb. These comic moments are light-hearted, but also offer a reminder of the amateur nature of guerrilla warfare. The young are driven to fight by circumstance, not necessarily because they are violent, and if they had been born somewhere else might instead be sitting in the audience.