ADAPTED from South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed under apartheid, to an Israeli prison cell, Athol Fugard’s play “The Island” has opened to packed audiences in the Jenin refugee camp on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Confined to a concrete floor set in a sea of sand, two cellmates keep up their morale by rehearsing a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, in which a woman chooses to die rather than obey the king’s decree not to bury her brother, a political dissident. “You won’t sleep peacefully,” Antigone tells the king when he condemns her to death.
Despite its transposed setting, the play retains its poignancy. Almost every Palestinian on the West Bank has a brother, father or husband whom the Israeli authorities have, at one time or another, locked away. At present, 4,500 are behind bars. Jenin may have the highest rate of any town. Imprisonment has become a male rite of passage, as well as a place of higher education: many opt for distance learning at Israeli universities.
Ahmad Rokh, one of the actors in “The Island”, who has served four prison terms, was first put inside at the age of 14. The refugee camp in Jenin was a prime source of suicide-bombers during the second intifada (uprising) that lasted from 2000 to around 2005. Nearly a decade on, it has recovered a sense of humour. The audience laughs at the prisoners dressed in drag.
The theatre has had to overcome a troubled phase. Two years ago its founder, Juliano Khemis, a half-Palestinian, half-Jewish actor, was killed in circumstances that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities have explained. The Freedom Theatre has reopened its drama school after a hiatus of more than a year.
Though the number of Palestinian political prisoners has halved since the height of the second (and most recent) intifada, it is still twice as high as it was a dozen years ago. Those behind bars include hundreds of stone-throwers, 15 members of the Palestinian parliament and 170 people held without trial under “administrative detention”. The Palestinian Authority also runs its own prisons, where scores of leading members of Hamas, the Islamist group that rejects Israel’s existence, have been locked up.
When an Israeli production of the same play was performed at the Hasimta Theatre in Jaffa three years ago, the director, Alon Tiran, observed members of the audience leaving “in a different mindset from when they arrived”. He could not ask for more than that, he said. In Jenin, reactions have been more pronounced. “We are all Antigone,” says Ahmad Jbarah, better known by his nom-de-guerre, Abu Sukar, who attended the play’s opening. “The more the oppressor condemns us as criminals, the more heroic we are,” he says. Mr Sukar was in prison for 27 years for his part in a bombing in Jerusalem in 1975 that caused 15 civilian deaths.
This article appeared here