War is the most extreme expression of man’s arrogance. It maims, it suffocates and then it kills. Victory does not end a war; it merely incentivizes the beginning of another. Only destruction lies in the wake of combat. Nothing can survive. Not art. Not culture. Not peace.
Children who survive the explosion of hate, live running from the bullets of fear. In such turmoil, creating a safe haven is the work of a brave and humble soul.
Juliano Mer Khamis is the embodiment of that soul.
Born to a Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father in 1958, Juliano served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) when he was 18. His job was to carry around a bag of weapons and place guns next to the dead bodies of innocent people. His father, Saliba Khamis was against Juliano being a part of what he called a fascist entity. But he wanted for Juliano to see for himself, what he was doing.
It didn’t take long before Juliano’s conscience caught up. Story goes that when Juliano’s commanding officer in Jenin asked him to search an old man for no reason, he punched the officer in the face and spent several months in prison. He was released only when Arna, his mother requested her cousin, the first head of Mossad to let him go.
In 1987, Juliano went to Philippines. He spent his time mostly consuming mushrooms. A year went by with him in a daze, talking to monkeys and proclaiming himself the Son of God. He said the mushrooms helped him gain clarity.
“I lost all my identities,” he said.
In 1993, Juliano’s mother Arna, started The Stone Theatre in Jenin. Juliano was there constantly, directing plays, conducting rehearsals and drama therapy. His mother believed art was the only form of escape for the children in Jenin.
The theatre became a form of expression of the innocent minds, experimenting in a world gripped in fear to live free, to express and bare one’s soul without any borders.
Arna provided artistic relief until 1995 when she succumbed to cancer. Juliano didn’t set foot in Jenin for 7 years after that.
In 2001, when Juliano learned that two of his students offered their services to Islamic Jihad and killed four Israeli women, he decided to come back to Jenin and finish filming ‘Arna’s Children’ – a documentary on his mother and the work she did. Despite receiving death threats, Juliano continued in his fight to bring out the reality of the people, the real sufferers of war. This paved way for the very famous ‘The Freedom Theatre’. He began scripting plays that were politically provocative, picking actors by wandering through the camps. Some of them were thieves. Some were fighters. All were willing.
Juliano’s fight to expose the truth of the times through his plays eventually brought upon extreme anger and hatred from those who wanted to suppress his thoughts and ideas. Those who opposed him viewed his theatre as a brothel where men mingled with women. For them, Juliano was turning their daughters into whores and their sons into women.
Gilad Atzmon, novelist and friend of Julian Mer-Khamis from Tel Aviv says, “Our language is shrinking because of political correctness. In this world only an artist can shed light on the truth without any fear, without being contained within political or religious boundaries. It is an artist, who can express himself freely, produce new meaning with new metaphors.”
Juliano’s expression of freedom was much bigger than a piece of land. He embraced the liberation of women, freedom of expression, freedom from religious oppression, personal and sexual freedom. He encouraged his actors by bestowing them with the title of ‘freedom fighters.’
His attempt to document Palestinian refugee camps eventually turned into a poignant record on the catastrophic results of war. Arna’s Children, his documentary that went on to win the Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival showcased an intensely distressing image of occupied territories, forcing the world to further see how war is never an answer. Arna’s Children came as a rude awakening to that will continue to oppress our world until we strive for peace.
On 4th April, 2011 he was shot and killed in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. The killer is still at large.
In an interview, Juliano joked that he would be killed by a Palestinian for ‘corrupting the youth of Islam.’
On 4th April, 2011 he was shot and killed in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
The killer is still at large.
“Juliano managed to tell the truth about the Palestinians living in refugee camps with no prospects,” says Atzmon. “He was born into a privileged family where he could have had an easy life, but he decided to bond with the side of the truth.”
Juliano took a huge step and he was incredibly brave to document his journey. “He paid for his bravery with his life,” laments Atzmon.
My feet search for open spaces,
On cobbled roads of bullet shells.
Where screams drown humanity.
Where tears wash away blood,
Let me forego my fears and step careless,
Let me dance with abandon.
Let me hear the music of silence I pray.
If peace must come my way.
In peace, art is culture. In war, art is an escape. Juliano will be remembered for providing a glimmer of hope to those contained in the hopelessness of refugee camps in a war torn era.
Thank you for liberating those who found freedom through your theater in a world so scared and dark. You were the Hope Amidst Losses Directing Alternate Roads, Juliano Mer Khamis. Thank you.