Acting Class in Jenin with Monty Python's Michael Palin

May 25, 2009
*Special to asia!

Unfazed by the international star power of the British comedian, Palestinian youths proved that they can hold their own on stage next to him,with an impressive improvisation act that needed no translation.

one wall


A Palestinian told the other day that the West Bank is so small you could drive across it in 20 minutes. He was trying to prove a point that his people had been given such a bad deal from the Israelis they barely have any land left. My mistake was to take him literally.

Today, I learnt that it takes about two hours to drive from Ramallah in the middle of the West Bank to Jenin up north, and this was without any delay at the three Israeli army checkpoints along the way. They waved me through in my Palestinian-registered taxi, while the tour bus carrying the rest of the Festival party got pulled over.

I guess it is a little easier to smile coyly at a soldier boy from a cab than the high windows of a bus. These soldiers of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) may carry guns and wear stoniness like an army-issue, but they are after all

like other young men the world over, not impervious to the female charm.

Back in the cab, conversation had run dry between my Palestinian driver and I, unable as we were to speake each other's languages. Being the hospitable young guide he was though, he duly pointed out the Palestinian towns we passed.

“Tulkarem!” he turned around and exclaimed. The Israeli settlements were passed, unmentioned. They had their own Hebrew road signs posted.

It took a bit of asking-for-directions when we reached Jenin for my Ramallah-based driver to find the Refugee Camp. I was headed there to catch an acting class held by Michael Palin - most famous for his roles in the BBC comedy series Monty Python - and acclaimed British playwright and crime-novelist Henning Mankell.

Jenin the town became famous after it was overrun by Israeli army bulldozers in April 2002 during the Second Intifada. The IDF said attacks were being launched from there against Israeli villages. According to them it was a hotbed of Palestinian insurgency, and a series of targeted killings were carried out against militants here then.

As I got closer to the refugee camp, I saw posters of deceased suicide bombers and “martyrs” - the name given to all Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. They papered the walls of the dusty, low-rise buildings, and hung from the lamp-posts in the streets.





In this hostile climate is where the Freedom Theatre is situated. An outfit born out of reconciliation between an Israeli and the Palestinians, it is the legacy of Arna Mer Khamis, an Israeli Jew born into a Zionist family. During the First Intifada of 1987, Arna set up the Care and Learning Project in Jenin for Palestinian refugees living under a state of war. Palestinians still speak of the Israeli Jew who came to reach out to her “enemy”.


jenin camp

The Jenin Refugee Camp which houses the Freedom Theatre


The Freedom Theatre now holds performing arts classes for young Palestinians and sessions for children of the refugee camp. I watched about ten Palestinian acting students – all in their late teens and early twenties - were preparing a skit for an upcoming performance in Germany. They had been assisted by a Norwegian group for the last two weeks, and Mankell and Palin would help them further polish it today.

With no apparent stage fright, these young Palestinians gave a preview of their performance for the two British acting veterans.

Here's an excerpt.


Dramatising the tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with minimal props

At the end of their presentation, Mankell praised, “You showed us that you don't need words to explain to us very complicated political situations.” 

They demonstrated in his words, that “a rich theatre is a poor theatre.” With minimal resources, they simply devised their own methods to get their message across. And that they did, unapologetically.


acting tips

Acting tips from novelist-playwright Henning Mankell

“The most important thing is to give children confidence,” Mankell added. “If a child loses confidence in himself, he loses everything. If you give a child confidence, he can change the world.”

Displaying much confidence, these young people readily raised their hands to participate in every acting exercise instructed by these strange white men, sometimes understanding the instructions in English, at other times obeying the translation. They never held back, performing with gusto in every exercise, whether it was to learn how to listen to another actor, or to make fun of Palin playing a clueless visiting World Bank official.


dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi