The first time I went to Jenin was when we did the Walking the Wall project – to hike the length of Israel’s wall in the West Bank. When we started, I was hugely worried about it all – we didn’t know whether we could do it, we didn’t know what the experience would be. We walked each day with translators and a lot of them didn’t understand what we were trying to do, which was partly our fault for not explaining it properly, but also because rambling isn’t a big pastime in the West Bank.
The only person who seemed to understand it was Juliano Mer-Khamis, the director of the Jenin Freedom theatre. I had gone there on the urging of a friend, and because I was intrigued by the idea of this theatre in a refugee camp. When we arrived and told Juliano what we were doing and why – how we were trying to talk to as many people on our journey as possible – he said: “Oh fuck, we were going to do that.” We got on like a house on fire and I loved what they were doing. Juliano was charismatic and would talk about human rights being at the centre of the work. And true to his word, the first production they put on was Animal Farm, as an obvious critique of the Palestinian National Authority.
We went back a few times. The theatre challenges our perceptions of what a refugee is. This notion that they just sit around until Bob Geldof comes along is ridiculous. The sin and shame here is that these camps are so old, but people have aspirations and desires, people want to act and perform, people want to see creative work. But the theatre has a tense relationship with some conservatives in the region. It has been attacked with firebombs, and staff have received death threats. In 2011, Juliano was gunned down outside it.
It was, and is, devastating. But his work continues. Four years ago, I sat in on a rehearsal of The Siege, a play about the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was brilliant to see people doing something so creative.
I had been thinking about setting up a comedy club. Earlier I had talked to a Palestinian guy about the idea, and where we should do it. “What about Nablus?” I asked. “No, they’re too shrewd,” he said. “Hebron?” “No, they’re too stupid.” “Ramallah?” “No, they’re too bourgeois.” I loved that they had regional stereotypes – they aren’t necessarily helpful, but showed a sense of fun and playfulness. “What about Jenin?” “That’s a great idea.”
The Freedom theatre was up for it, so we made a few trips back and forth to Jenin. Our requirement was there had to be women on the comedy course, as well as people from outside the theatre. At the beginning of 2017, I devised an intensive programme of sessions with my friend Sam Beale, who teaches standup at Middlesex University.
Ten people took part in our first workshop in January, and we returned in April. We had four female pupils, including one who was the manager of a women’s student hostel – she loved standup but had never performed before in her life. Another guy who was disabled had found a theatre course too physical – but he was able to do comedy with us. The theatre tutors learned, too.
I knew there might be problems as a result of the theatre’s complex relationship with the camp. Some people don’t think women should be on stage, some think men and women shouldn’t be rehearsing together, and so it was quite fraught at times. We were putting on our comedy show in the middle of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, which created tension, with people questioning whether we should do it.
In the workshops, one of the things we did was put up two lists on the wall, written in English and Arabic. One included activities – milking a goat, doing heart surgery, telling a friend something important, cooking – and the other listed attitudes, such angry, zealous, righteous, suicidal, manic. You had to take one word from each list, say a “manic brain surgeon”, and act it out. It felt as if nothing was off-limits.
I was fascinated to hear all the different voices, speaking out about living in the camps, about the intifada, about the occupation, the rage people have about how inept, corrupt and incompetent the Palestinian National Authority are and how they collude with the Israeli occupation. But also there were some who made jokes about just wanting to get a girlfriend, or how their parents treat them badly. One of the most challenging performers was a young woman who impersonated a male Palestinian boss, and she was genuinely radical. It was brilliant.
We put on two shows – around 120 people turned up for the second night, and around two-thirds were women. It’s very funny when you see the women perform, and make a joke about men, and it was the women who were laughing, too. The performers later put on their own night, and two of them, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, are coming to the UK to work with me on the new show Showtime from the Frontline, about the Jenin comedy club.
I had gone there with this grand vision of Palestinians talking about their experience of the occupation, that it would be some Palestinian equivalent of socialist realism. But actually the most exciting thing was just these ordinary voices – for people to have their own voice, not an official voice and a flag, was the most radical thing.