In a small cafe in Berlin, I found myself surrounded by Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk who knew and loved my friend Juliano — a man who was 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.
By Udi Aloni
When I landed in Berlin on April 4th, I realized that it was the first time since the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis that I wouldn’t be holding a memorial service for him. I thought that I would buy a bottle of Black Label on the plane, Jul’s favorite whiskey, and down it that same night with Mariam Abu Khaled, his wonderful student who today is a successful actress in Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. We would bring up our favorite memories, then cry, and then laugh.
Juliano’s murder five years ago in front of the Freedom Theater in Jenin refugee camp, which he established with love and endless talent, changed our life completely. The sound of those five bullets piercing through the air and hitting his body still echoes in my head today — its ripples inform my political and artistic work today.
Fate, however, has its own plans. As I landed in Berlin, a Palestinian friend of mine invited us to an event in honor of Juliano.
Before I go on, let me first introduce Mariam Abu Khaled, an Afro-Palestinian actress from Jenin refugee camp. A wonderful person whom Juliano took under his wing when she was just 17. Mariam conquered the stage from the very first moment. I first met her when I moved in with Jul at the refugee camp, while we worked on “Alice in Wonderland,” in which Mariam played the evil Red Queen.
When Juliano was murdered, we were left traumatized and orphaned. The Arab Spring quickly turned into a cruel winter, and I moved with 12 students to Ramallah. They became refugees for a second time, and I was an Asheknazi Israeli Jew in a Palestinian city. Our tightly knit group brought “Waiting for Godot” to the stage, as well as our film “Art/Violence.”
We felt Juliano was with us the entire time. Everywhere we went we discovered another community of artists who remember him and continue his legacy. If at first we thought we had to fight to commemorate him, now it is clear that there are many communities that remember him and continue making sure to maintain the connection between high quality art and radical politics. Or like we said in the Freedom Theater: quality is resistance.
Between Yarmouk and Berlin
Five years without Juliano. Mariam and I are sitting at the memorial event in Berlin. On the wall is a slide with a photo of Jul, we’re surrounded by Palestinians, most of whom we hadn’t met before (and we thought we knew most of the activist community). We were asked to say a few words. Mariam choked up and couldn’t speak, I said very little. Then we suddenly realized that the Palestinians sitting with us are from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, and that Germany had granted them asylum after fleeing the massacres at the hands of ISIS.
A Palestinian friend from Acre who was with us asked about her family members in Yarmouk. All of a sudden the history of the Nakba comes to life before us, after all they should have returned to Palestine, not fled to Berlin. A refugee from Yarmouk sings a beautiful rendition of an Umm Kulthum song accompanied by a keyboard, and we all sink into a deep sadness. We begin to experience the depth of our collective tragedy. The Yarmouk refugees sit around us and all of them tell us about which city or village they are from in Palestine, and how they heard about Juliano and came to show respect for the Jewish-Palestinian martyr.
A message was waiting for me from a Palestinian pianist from Yarmouk, whose piano was burned by ISIS and received a new one in Berlin. He asked that I join him for a meeting with the mayor, and I remembered my German Jewish neighbors from when I was growing up. They played piano every day at 4 p.m. out of a longing for their homeland, managing to flee right before the great darkness took over their country. Imagine how much hope and desire for forgiveness it must take for a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk to invite a Jewish Israeli with him for an event in honor of the pianist with the mayor of Berlin. Mariam and I weep and smile that the refugees remember Juliano. A flash of optimism in a sea of despair.
All of a sudden the singer starts a dabke song, and a giant circle opens up in front of Jul’s photo. I, an Israeli Jew, start dancing dabke in Berlin with Palestinian refugees who were expelled to Lebanon and Syria and now fled to Berlin instead of returning home. They are teaching me the basic steps and holding my hands with care.
I remember that I once wrote that Edward Said taught me how to think bi-nationalism, but Juliano taught me my first dance steps, to feel bi-nationalism on my body. I was once asked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) why we insist on the term “bi-nationalism” rather than one state — one person, one vote. We explained that bi-nationalism includes the universal values of PFLP, but also the values based in the particular identities of Jews and Palestinians who share this land.
Today the answer to that question is more relevant than ever for our ability to think about bi-nationalism and one state as two concepts that complete each other. Juliano was 100 percent Palestinian, 100 percent Jewish, and 100 percent human. I owe him so much, he taught me that another life is possible.
Udi Aloni is the director of ‘Junction 48.’ This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.