Dramatic Impact

A Palestinian theatre group finds comrades in Delhi

01 March 2015
Faisal Abu Alheja, an actor and instructor with the Freedom Theatre, was one of its first students after it was founded, in 2006, in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Utsa Hazarika
Faisal Abu Alheja, an actor and instructor with the Freedom Theatre, was one of its first students after it was founded, in 2006, in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Utsa Hazarika

THE DAY SHIFT at the Atlas Cycles factory in Sahibabad, in the north-east of the National Capital Region, ends at 5 pm. On 5 January, workers filed through a security check at the complex’s gates and into the cold twilight. A cluster of red flags, each bearing a hammer and sickle, rippled nearby; under them stood a small clutch of activists from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, wearing matching visors. With them were seven actors from Jana Natya Manch, or Janam—a left-wing street theatre group based in Delhi. “Aao aao natak dekho,” the actors cried, inviting the workers to a play. About a hundred of them gathered around.

Janam, founded in 1973, performs regularly at universities, working-class neighbourhoods, industrial areas, city streets—anywhere it can draw an audience. The crowd at the Atlas Cycles factory was fairly typical for a Janam performance, but it also included three unusual guests: members of the Freedom Theatre, a group based in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. The group uses drama and art to resist the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and its experiences and outlook overlap in surprising ways with those of the Indian group.

As a teenager, Faisal Abu Alheja, one of the visitors, was among the first to enrol at the Freedom Theatre after it was founded, in 2006. He completed a three-year course with the group, and stayed on as an actor and instructor. Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the area has seen repeated revolts and reprisals, and widespread Palestinian complaints of human rights violations. Israel continues to build settlements in the territory in violation of international law, and maintains a system of walls and checkpoints that divides communities and severely restricts Palestinian movement. At a discussion at Studio Safdar, Janam’s spare performance space in west Delhi, Alheja described the Freedom Theatre’s own work with street plays, travelling around the West Bank to interview Palestinians about their experiences and acting them out on the spot. “It is important to tell these stories,” he said, “because we normalise the occupation. When we go there and ask them their stories, and put them on the stage again, that gives them the power to continue to fight.”

Utsa Hazarika Utsa Hazarika is a freelance writer based in Delhi.

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