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    Theatre as a Medicin – Or a Weapon
    Palestine as a Model of Theatre Education in Crisis Regions

    Despite the difficult situation in Palestine and the harassment of the Israeli occupation, there are an astonishing number of active cultural centres there, and artistic work is done with children and young people in the majority of the refugee camps. Theatre and theatrical means are a key element of this. There is therefore promising scope for theatre education in Palestine.

    Under the slogan ‘The occupiers can take everything from us, but not our culture’, many young Palestinians are immersing themselves in cultural and social activities. They are learning to play traditional instruments, and are increasingly orientating themselves towards Palestinian music, poets and painters, with the aim of preserving Palestinian culture and maintaining their Palestinian identity, which is bound up with it. In this way a movement is emerging that is practising resistance through the medium of art, conscious that education and creativity can be a way of reacting to the occupation. Many Palestinians are turning away from those who consider violence to be the only solution, and the only response to violence. More and more often, theatrical means are being deployed – at demonstrations, for example, in order to organise a peaceful protest that delivers powerful visual imagery. We may, for example, see protesters in handcuffs, blindfolded or gagged, following the demonstration in silence. With the help of social media, these images then travel around the world and raise awareness of the Palestinian cause. Foreign aid and peace organisations support this movement; they may even have contributed to its development. They finance numerous projects, and encourage theatre education work with children and young people.

    Application of theatre education

    The political, economic and social situation in Germany is a very different one, but here too there is growing interest in theatre education, and it is increasingly recognised. In the social sector in particular, as well as in educational establishments, theatre work is appreciated more and more. Theatre is used as a medium for language development, therapy, research, and communicative processes. In some federal states, Performing Arts is taught as a subject in schools and can now even be studied as part of the school leaving certificate. Many summer camps that offer successful courses in ‘German Through Theatre’ have been highly praised by education ministers. These summer camps encourage integration: children from immigrant backgrounds are supported in their speaking and writing of German through a combination of daily theatre work and the performance of a play at the end of the project. Theatre work is now found everywhere: in prisons, in businesses, in hospitals, old people’s homes, in deprived areas, in women’s refuges, in some asylum seekers’ accommodation centres, and in city councils. Theatres themselves, both city and state, could no longer imagine not having their own theatre education department, which is responsible for dialogue with schools and with the young audience.

    Theatre education, which focuses on work with people of various ages, various backgrounds, and with the most varied of careers – i.e. with so-called ‘non-professionals’ – is often criticised by fellow actors and directors, who complain that not enough attention is paid to the artistic work, and that the focus on the process rather than the product affects the quality of the result. But why shouldn’t a product that develops by way of a good process be all the better for it? The work of theatre education is a constant balancing act between artistic and pedagogical work, whereby ‘pedagogical’ in this context signifies encouraging social skills, interaction within the group and the capacity for reflection and conflict management.

    The role of Bertolt Brecht

    Bertolt Brecht was the most famous theatre practitioner who, alongside his activities as a dramatist, poet and director, also worked with theatre pedagogy. He wrote texts in the form of a Lehrstück (teaching play) which were intended to contribute to political education. One of the most famous of these Lehrstücke is The Measures Taken [Die Maßnahme]. As in most of the Lehrstücke, the idea was to bring together people from various different levels of power and, through them, to examine social structures, invert and even reshape them. Brecht, for example, made apprentices in a factory the protagonists of a Lehrstück: they were then able to put themselves in the position of either a boss or an underling. The play used theatrical means to promote self-reflection and to play with reality. The actor thus left the theatre with valuable insights into the theatre of his own experience. The idea of the ‘role’ also took on a new significance. It is not only the actor on stage who plays a role: every one of us slips into various different roles according to the situation in which we find ourselves.

    Inspired by Brecht, the theatre practitioner Augusto Boal developed this form further with, among other things, the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ in Rio de Janeiro. This is characterised by the lack of separation between stage and audience, and its aim is to work on finding social and political solutions using theatrical means. One of Boal’s best-known projects was the ‘Legislative Theatre’, which he developed during his time as member of the city parliament for the Workers Party, between 1992 and 1996. He worked with an affiliation of artists and judiciary officials to promote the active participation of the population in politics and its decision processes.

    Boal adapted his concept to the requirements of his working environment. In Europe he found other forms of oppression, and became more interested in working in therapeutic institutions. The ‘visible’ conflicts around social and political oppression increasingly faded into the background, to be replaced by the ‘invisible conflicts’ that take place in each individual. This was in keeping with the zeitgeist, which was less interested in the community and far more focussed on the individual. Thus contemporary theatre pedagogy is primarily concerned with promoting personal development and free expression, and the visual appeal of theatre is also coming to the fore once again. Many today are of the opinion that theatre work can only claim to be educational and emancipatory if it is an aesthetic experience that also entertains.

    The development of theatre education with its many approaches and possible applications shows that theatre has sufficient scope and potential to tackle forms of oppression. Re-enacting a situation enables people to test different ways of dealing with it: one can examine one’s own role models, analyse the interplay of victim and perpetrator, and recognise patterns. This theatre is also called ‘forum theatre’ or ‘prevention and intervention theatre’. The project ‘My Body Belongs to Me’ is one such project: it is invited to schools all over Germany to educate pupils about sexual violence towards children.

    Political theatre

    When politics, society and theatre can coexist so closely, it is no surprise that not only is a lot of theatre work being done in Palestine, but that it is also almost always political. In turn, this political dimension of theatre constitutes a problem for some contemporary Palestinian filmmakers. Their criticism is that aesthetics are often neglected and the theatrical aspect greatly diminished: they complain that the emphasis on the political message means the work often lacks imagination and zaniness, and that humour and the aesthetic experience tend to take a back seat. Yet we are seeing more and more theatre practitioners who do succeed in uniting politics and aesthetics, and who are thus successfully working to promote the development of Palestinian theatre.

    In Palestine, we see that theatre education is primarily focussed on work with children and young people. Theatre education work is done with refugee children in many refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The intention is to enable the children to process their experiences by theatrical means, and to express their grief, fear and anger. Another important aspect of the work is to give the children and young people fresh perspectives and offer them a leisure activity where they get to receive attention and recognition and can allow their personalities to develop in a safe space, removed from frustration and religious or political radicalisation.

    Freedom Theatre

    The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which evolved out of artistic and educational work in a refugee camp, is probably the best-known theatre in Palestine. It is famous even beyond the borders of Palestine because it regularly tours throughout Europe. It was founded as the ‘Stone Theatre’ in the Jenin refugee camp in 1988, during the first intifada, by the Jewish activist Arna Mer-Khamis. Her son Juliano Mer-Khamis took over the theatre in 2006 and worked there as a director and actor. Many people, both Palestinians and Israelis, were unable to deal with the fact that Juliano and his mother were, on the one hand, practising Jews, who, on the other, clearly stood up for the Palestinians. In 2011 Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot in the street outside his theatre. His killer has still not been identified. After this tragic event, Nabil Al Raee took over the theatre, but in the wake of Juliano Mer-Khamis’ death the Israeli authorities prevented the new director and his staff from doing their theatre work: among other things, Nabil Al Raee was imprisoned on absurd charges in 2012. The film Arna’s Children, directed by J. Mer-Khamis and D. Danniel, was released in 2004. It shows the beginnings of the theatre education movement in Palestine, as exemplified by the Stone Theatre, focussing primarily on what motivated the work, how the children dealt with the new opportunity, and whether it helped them forget their daily lives that were blighted by war. In the film, Juliano Mer-Khamis documents both the work he and his mother did and the development of the children involved in their theatre group, following them into early adulthood. The children and their families live through the first and second intifadas; many lose their homes, bombed out by the Israeli army. Arna Mer-Khamis wants to open up new horizons for the children through the medium of culture, to enable them to use art as a way of expressing their grief; she wants to use theatre to rebuild their sense of self-worth and bring colour back to their conflict-riven daily lives.

    The children and young people are interviewed, and asked what the theatre and Arna Mer-Khamis’ organisation mean to them. One boy says that when he stands on stage he feels strong and proud; that it gives him the same feeling as when he throws stones, when he throws Molotov cocktails. When Arna dies of cancer, Juliano leaves Palestine. He returns five years later, but the situation he comes back to is very sobering. Some of the youngsters, now young adults, have died in Israeli attacks. One boy from the theatre group became a suicide bomber and blew himself up. Juliano sets out to track them down, accompanying several of the young men engaged in armed resistance. The question naturally arises as to whether the work made any difference at all, or whether it would have made a difference if it had carried on after Arna Mer-Khamis died.

    Dar Al Kalima in Bethlehem

    Many courses and events also take place on the premises of the cultural centre Dar Al Kalima in Bethlehem. Its annual programme ranges from film festivals, numerous art exhibitions and regular music and theatre courses, to courses providing information on health problems affecting older people.

    Dyar Dance Theatre meets several evenings a week at Dar Al Kalima to rehearse. It takes its devised shows on tour inside Palestine and in Europe. These pieces are a mixture of classical theatre, Palestinian folk dance, and traditional music and song. What’s special about this theatre group is that, in addition to their passion for theatre, all the participants have a separate career, are at school, or studying, or looking for work. The co-founder and leader of the group, Rami Khader, has worked to create a professional Tanztheater group that is intended, through this particular, very physical and emotional artistic style, to give young Palestinians a platform to express themselves and to critically examine political and social issues, such as gender inequality or unemployment in their society. In turn, this examination, distilled into an artistic performance, is taken out into society with the aim of prompting people to think about these issues.

    The Dar Al Kalima organisation, which was founded by the priest Dr. Mitri Raheb (winner of the 2008 Aachen Peace Prize and the 2011 German Media Prize) and is supported by the Lutheran congregation, has also established the Dar al Kalima College and a health centre in Bethlehem, in addition to the cultural centre. Since 2010 the college has been offering people the opportunity to study subjects such as music, theatre, arts and crafts, or documentary filmmaking. It is thus the first institute of secondary education in the Middle East to concentrate on the fields of art, tourism, multimedia and communication. The theatre department is affiliated, via a university twinning programme, with the University of Osnabrück’s theatre education course, and there are regular exchange visits to discuss the work of both lecturers and students.

    There are also a lot of cultural opportunities in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, including theatre education. For example, it offers theatre courses for children and young people of all ages, who meet for acting classes on a weekly basis. You can see various theatrical performances here, such as a play with a cast of young girls aged between seven and twelve that reflects the girls’ own experiences of living under the occupation. The violence of the army, which searches their houses, tears their families apart and turns them into refugees, is translated on stage into simple imagery. The play is about a powerful person who oppresses and humiliates all those around him, yet the people remain steadfast and defend themselves peacefully by simply being there and sticking together.

    The energy and seriousness of the young actresses is moving, and appears authentic. Nonetheless, it is questionable whether the girls would themselves have come up with the idea of taking these difficult memories as their subject, or whether they are trained to be constantly making political statements and theatre has become a means exploited to this end. The themes of occupation, oppression and injustice are indubitably part of their lives: however, the aspects of those lives in which they are ordinary girls, who perhaps also long to be carefree children, to play, have fun and indulge their imaginations, are forgotten. Instrumentalising children for political ends does not correspond to the emancipatory endeavours of theatre education, which consists above all in teaching people to use theatre as a means of reflecting on themselves and their environment.

    Theatre without an audience?

    In Germany, people are very interested in theatre from crisis regions such as Palestine. Guest companies are invited to give performances, and there are possibilities of sponsorship. Theatre that becomes existentially important to the artist because it puts him in danger, because he subjects the existing regime to critical scrutiny and his theatre can perhaps only continue to exist in exile – this is exciting to the German public, because in many German theatres the necessity of theatre is no longer apparent. The over-professionalisation of theatre makers and actors means that they are very distanced from the problems depicted in the plays, and art for art’s sake often towers over the socio-cultural aspect of theatre. Theatre no longer, or too seldom, touches people, and it often reaches only a highly-cultivated minority of the population. Many theatre makers are currently trying to address this problem, arguing that theatre is insufficiently rooted in society and lacks social and political weight.

    In Palestine, on the other hand, people complain of a lack of professionalism and trained personnel. There is a lack of lecturers with academic backgrounds, for example, and the next generation in academic theatre fields – those who study theatre-pedagogical practice and are able, in their turn, to teach students in various fields – is very thin on the ground. Although they have many professional opportunities, some young theatre practitioners cannot see a future for themselves in Palestine because the political situation makes their work exponentially harder. There are, however, enough creative artists who use foreign tours and co-operation with artists from other countries to detach themselves from their difficult everyday situation, get to know other cultures, and further develop their work in theatre.

    Like society in general, and theatre in particular, theatre education too is in constant flux. Networking and the lively exchange taking place in theatre work on an international level allow differences between individual countries to fade into the background – and the work itself is enriched by the mutual exchange.
    Miriam Lemdjadi works as a freelance theatre practitioner in Germany, France and the Arab world. She studied at the Institute for Theatre Pedagogy at the Lingen Campus of Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    June 2014

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