Acting class in Jenin with Monty Python's Michael Palin

May 25th, 2009

Unfazed by the international star power of the British comedian, Palestinian youths proved that they can hold their own on stage next to him, and impressed with their improvisation theatre that needed no translation.

one wall

A local mentioned the other day that the West Bank is so small you could drive across it in 20 minutes. This was to prove his point that his people had been given such a bad deal from the Israelis that they barely have any land left.

Today, I learnt this was not true, the 20 minutes part. It took about two hours to drive from Ramallah in the middle of the West Bank to Jenin up north, and this was without delay at the three Israeli army checkpoints along the way. They waved me through in my Palestinian-registered taxi, while the coach carrying the rest of the party was pulled over.

I guess it is a little easier to smile demurely at a soldier boy from a cab than the high windows of a bus. These soldiers of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) may carry guns and wear stoniness like an army-issue, but they are after all like other young men the world over, not impervious to the female charm.

He held his gun and smiled, letting us through. 

My Palestinian taxi driver was taking me to the Jenin Refugee Camp to catch an acting class held by Michael Palin - most famous for his roles in the BBC comedy series Monty Python – and acclaimed British playwright and crime-novelist Henning Mankell. Our inabilities to speak each other's languages ensured that conversation in the cab ran dry before we even left Ramallah, though being the hospitable young guide he was, he duly pointed out the Palestinian towns that we passed.

“Tulkarem!” he turned around and said. The settlements went by unmentioned. There were Hebrew road signs posted.

Jenin had hit the headlines as the town overrun by Israeli army bulldozers in April 2002  during the Second Intifada. The IDF had entered, saying that attacks were being launched from there against Israeli towns and villages close by. The refugee camp that takes its name is located among dusty, low-rise buildings. Posters of deceased suicide bombers and “martyrs” - the name given to all Palestinians killed by Israeli forces – papered the walls and hung from the lamp-posts in the streets.




Here is where the Freedom Theatre, an outfit borne out of reconciliation between an Israeli and the Palestinians, is situated. It was fitting then, that this was where I would hear the most eloquent call for  peace between the two warring sides.


jenin camp

The Jenin Refugee Camp which houses the Freedom Theatre

The Theatre today continues the legacy of Arna Mer Khamis, an Israeli Jew born into a Zionist family. During the First Intifada of 1987, Arna set up the Care and Learning Project in Jenin for the Palestinian refugees living under a state of war. Now the Freedom Theatre holds performing arts classes for young Palestinians and sessions for children of the refugee camp. Palestinians still speak of the Israeli Jew who came to reach out to her “enemy”.

For two weeks, a Norwegian theatre group had been working with the Theatre. The small group of about ten Palestinian acting students – all in their late teens and early twenties - were preparing a skit for an upcoming performance in Germany. Before the two visiting British drama veterans, they played out some parts of it, and it was theatre that transcended the language barrier.


Dramatising the tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with minimal props


“You showed us that you don't need words to explain to us very complicated political situations,” praised Mankell at the end of their presentation. With minimal props, they demonstrated in his words, that “a rich theatre is a poor theatre.”

“The most important thing is to give children confidence,” he added. “If a child loses confidence in himself, he loses everything. If you give a child confidence, he can change the world.”


acting tips

Acting tips from novelist-playwright Henning Mankell

These young people were ready, if not change the world, then at least alter their situations, and the image of them as victims. During the session, they readily raised their hands to participate in every acting exercise instructed by these strange white men, sometimes understanding the instructions in English, at other times obeying the translation. They did not hold back, performing with gusto in every exercise, whether it was to learn how to listen to another actor, or to make fun of Palin playing a clueless visiting World Bank official.


Heckling Michael Palin who played a hapless World Bank official


The two girls in the group held their own against the boys. One of them put herself forward, taking over the translation, when it became apparent the one doing it was having problems keeping up with Palin's long expressive sentences. And this gung-ho young lady was someone too young to join the acting course because she was still in school.

Not to say that the boys were in any way inferior. I spoke to 23-year-old Haroon Al-Rashid Abu Arra. When he is not in the acting class, he works as a DJ at a local radio station called “Farah” or “Happiness”. Just one month into the job, he told me he was already in charge of eight hours of programming every week, and had put forth two very popular programmes.

In the first, listeners called in to vote for their favourite of four songs shortlisted that week. The response was so overwhelming that Haroon said the phone did not stop ringing long enough for him to play the songs. His second programme was a sort of a collaborative Aunt Agony show. People rang to talk about their problems while other callers dialed in, offering their advice.


Haroon Al-Rashid Abu Arra

Haroon Al-Rashid Abu Arra, the aspiring actor/ radio celebrity from Jenin who wants to fight oppression through the Internet 

These radio programmes made Haroon a sort of a local celebrity. According to him, he now gets more than 50 emails a day from fans that he is unable to reply to. He is a busy young man with another project planned – internet radio.

“Anyone can make a website. It's what you put on it,” explained Haroon, as I asked him if it was going to be a difficult task.

Haroon wants to set up a station that talks about the oppressed and oppression. He does not want to just highlight political oppression or the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The station will explore oppression all over the world, and include as well oppression from society and family.  He has got other young people from Switzerland, Spain and Italy, who want to take part in this internet radio project, and is looking for more.

“Are you on Facebook?” asked Haroon.

Of all the questions that I could have anticipated in a Palestinian refugee camp, this was definitely not one of them.

Haroon told me that he has set up a few groups on the social networking site, one of which is called “Peace for life”. His goal was to bring together people all over the world who are “pro-peace”.

I asked him if he would be willing to work with an Israeli.

“I will not work with someone who kills or has killed,” declared Haroon. “But anyone who works for peace, he is my brother.”

“You ask me about the Israeli people? He is my brother, if he wants peace.”

An Israeli girl has already contacted him on Facebook to discuss the possibility. Haroon acknowledged that if he did work with an Israeli, he would have problems with some other Palestinians.

“But it is OK for me. If they like peace and (want) Palestine to have freedom, it will be OK,” he said.

With a twinkle in his eye, he continued on to explain for me the different internet connection charges  (“128 kps is 16 shekels a month, 256 is 18...”) and how he would take the first letter of the countries of all those that will be a part of his internet radio project to form the name of the station.



The view from a building under reconstruction in Jenin

Haroon is living in a town, dotted with rubble, where the stench of urine permeates the air in some areas. Many of the buildings are in need of restoring. Yet he was lively and ethusiastic, like the children running around in the backstreets, smiling and asking the visitors that one English question they know.

“What is your name?”

I told them, and made a mental note of their names of these children. They have hope, they have confidence. I would like to believe Henning Mankell, that tomorrow, they are the ones who will change the world.


Jenin children

Children of Jenin




You are not logged in:

dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

[email protected]