Juliano Khamis (later Mer-Khamis) was born in Nazareth in 1958, to Arna Mer, a Jewish communist, and Saliba Khamis, an Israeli-Arab intellectual and one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party in the 1950s. He was a prominent director, actor, filmmaker and activist. He also established the Freedom Theater in Jenin. He was assassinated on April 4, 2011 by a masked gunman in Jenin refugee camp.
I often try to imagine what it feels like to live in Jenin Refugee camp; debris from makeshift homes, torn up roads, goats and posters of old and new martyrs crowding the alleyways. Heck, the whole camp is an alleyway.
The camp never meant much to me before the infamous massacre that took place during the spring of 2002. I was in high school then, living under curfew in Ramallah, and not sure if I was ever going to get out. We only realized the gravity of the situation after journalists sneaked into the camp and watched bodies buried in mass graves.
The second time the camp occupied a space in my brain was during an afternoon at Birzeit University, when Juliano Mer Khamis screened his film Arna’s Children in our main auditorium. Mer Khamis was stern. He gave a couple of obnoxious students in the back the look of death for being disrespectful. He did it not because it was his film, but because he couldn’t believe that somebody could fail to appreciate the glory of Jenin’s children glowing on screen.
Juliano Mer Khamis, along with a few others, established the Freedom Theater in Jenin. For the past 5 years, the theater has provided the children of Jenin a space to be themselves, whatever that might be. Moreover, The Freedom Theater is the only venue in the northern West Bank for professional acting.
Can you imagine what it felt like to be Juliano? Growing up with both your halves fighting each other from the minute you wake up till you succumb to slumber? With an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father, he was a singular body crowded with a million foreign cells.
When I heard the news of his death, I thought of Ghassan Kanafani, and how when I was little, I used to imagine his car explosion; door slam, key in ignition, explosion, then oranges bursting against the sky. I felt empty because I kept trying to think of Juliano and all I could see were dirty roads. I kept closing my eyes hoping for green grass, just a patch of green grass, but I kept going back to debris.
How is it that we got here, one might wonder, but that’s exactly the dangerous path we must not tread. When Israeli individuals kill Palestinians, the Israeli population never feels guilty, but in the case of the Palestinians, we run to condemn and shame ourselves.
Whoever killed Mer Khamis did not do it in my name, and I do not feel guilty; I just feel sad. Perhaps that’s the real human emotion we ignore for the sake of vindication, and we end up with thoughts of debris and dirty roads.
Juliano, I mourn you not as a symbol but as an individual, not as a victim, but as a father, mentor and son. I mourn you not out of guilt, but out of utter love.