It's April 2002 and the Second Intifada has engulfed cities across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In Bethlehem, a group of armed fighters have fled to one of the world's holiest places to seek sanctuary- the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. Around 200 Palestinians are also sheltering inside, hiding from the Israeli incursion into the city. In response, Israeli soldiers place Bethlehem under siege and completely surround the Church.
The siege lasted 39 days. Over those weeks eight Palestinians were killed and 40 injured as snipers picked them off one-by-one. In the end, a deal between the fighters and Israel was reached- the fighters would surrender and accept permanent exile from Palestine.
The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian theatre company based in the West Bank city of Jenin, has re-created this key moment in Palestinian history in their play "The Siege". The play has come to London as part of its international tour, but not without difficulties- protests were held outside their venues and British newspaper The Daily Mail, launched an attack on the tour under the headline: "UK taxpayers fund 'pro-terrorist' play: £15,000 of public money given to show based on the words of Hamas killers."
However, attempts to place a dampener on the group's UK tour failed and on the opening night in London on Tuesday, the theatre company performed to a packed audience in the Battersea Arts Centre. Tickets for the upcoming performances in the London leg of the tour are now completely sold out.
Memo spoke to assistant director Alaa Shehada on why the group chose this particular event as the subject for their latest play. He told Memo that the group wanted to challenge the narratives of what happened. The siege of the Nativity Church made headlines across the globe at the time as a result of the sanctity of the church, but the reporting told a different version of the events which were not accurate, says Shehada. He says that this kind of unfair representation or distortion of the truth by international media outlets with regards to the situation in Palestine is still occurring. "We want to show the real stories that happen in Palestine," says Shehada. "We are Palestinians living under occupation and we have the right to tell our stories."
The Siege is a gripping portrayal of this defining moment in the Second Intifada and it is told in a way that breathes life into the events. The play is narrated by a tour guide, who leads the audience through the historical and spiritual significance of the church. His tour then introduces us to the story of the Palestinian fighters and we are transported back 13 years to their entry into the Church of the Nativity. The Siege focuses on six of the fighters and their relationship to one another, with the Israeli army outside and to the clergy within the church. We follow their journey through the 39 days holed up inside the church and gain an insight into the difficult decisions and complex emotions they must have dealt with during their time there.
The play is based on the real-life testimonies of these fighters. The Freedom Theatre conducted hours of interviews with those who still live in exile and their families. With the help of immensely talented actors, original footage and realistic sound effects, the audience is transported into the heart of the Second Intifada. It was not an easy watch- the play did this so successfully; at times it was hard not to look away. It is uncomfortable and painful, but passionate and moving. At times, the English translation of the Arabic speaking was out of sync or it was difficult to tell whose line was whose. Some native Arabic speakers also commented that the translation sometimes diluted the meaning of what was being said. However, this did not diminish the ability of the audience to stay connected with what was happening.
But what does the theatre company hope will come of the play's UK tour? "We wish through our plays that we will make changes in the heads of the people and that they can then affect their governments," says Shehada. "We want to show the British community that we came from a cultural place. We are artists, we are photographers, dancers, actors, directors- we are not terrorists as they call us. We are peaceful people and we love our life." He added: "It is our right as Palestinians to show our culture and our identity. We want to tell our stories."
For Palestinians, the work of the Freedom Theatre provides a space for creativity and a way to challenge the occupation in a different way, says Shehada. "You don't know how many generations get killed by their mind because of the occupation…we have several occupations in our mind, in the society." He added: "One of our main goals is to give space, to find new colours, because there are no colours in our life, no space for imagination or creativity and no area for dreams."
"Here is the magic of theatre", he says. "I believe 100% that through my art I can do anything".
Images by thefreedomtheatre.org