Thirty days: A farewell to Juliano Mer-Khamis

Today marks the shloshim (30 days) from the funeral of Juliano Mer-Khamis. Below are some reflections written on the day of the funeral itself.

Thirty days: A farewell to Juliano Mer-Khamis
Juliano Mer Khamis’s presence was unmistakable, yet he was extraordinarily difficult to place. The son of a Jewish Israeli mother and a Palestinian Arab father, he played fierce Sabras or equally fierce Arabs in his film roles; the son of a mother who took  part in the Nakba – at one point, she was the jeep driver of the chief ethnic cleanser of the Negev – Juliano later followed that same woman deep into the refugee camp of Jenin, a living repository of the Nakba in the depth of the West Bank. The son of an Arab communist father, he shunned party politics and was seen by critics on all sides as an Israeli – for better or worse, usually for worse.

Contrary to the eulogies that have appeared since his death in the Israeli media, Juliano went far beyond being tormented or torn by this dual identity. Others like him–born to a mixed marriage, or, like a chunk of a later generation of Arabs, given Jewish names to ease their survival in a thoroughly racist society — had to choose between the side of the privilege and the side of the underdog, the mother or the father, the side of the oppressor or the side of the oppressed, to confront their own duality or to walk away. Juliano ignored the rules of our chessboard of identities: He cut across the lines, disregarding tactics of survival and zero-sum games. He chose to be both Jewish and Palestinian, delighting in the complexities of both, sucking the marrow out of each, using these inseparable, interlocked components of his identity as amplifiers for his unique voice, speaking the truth to everyone he met. He ignored the role of the king offered to him as a rising star of screen and stage and instead dedicated his life to those seen by the grand figures of the conflict as infinitely expendable pawns — the children of Jenin. Yet bound and committed to that cause he may have been, he was free. He had the gift of coming and going as he pleased, not giving barriers, checkpoints, gunfire, racism, and death threats any more attention than needed to underscore his snarling, furious contempt for any such limitations imposed on free human beings. What made him a symbol of bi-nationalism wasn’t his mixed heritage, but how he chose to employ the instrument and inroads that this mixed heritage afforded him. After his death, many said this was proof positive that a bi-national struggle was impossible; we, Palestinians and Israelis, will never accept each other. But for nearly a quarter of a century, ever since he became politically active, Juliano proved the exact opposite: That the bi-national struggle is possible, and what a glorious struggle it can be. His killers’ final act cannot be allowed to outweigh all that Juliano achieved before.

Juliano despised borders, but his sense of limits was also infamously fraught. On the stage of Othello, rather than pretending to strangle Desdemona he really did choke her, prompting, at one stage, a doctor in the audience to rush to the stage to give the actress medical attention. An actor of the screen and a public figure expected to be deaf to heckles typed in online comments and snarled at the TV screen, when called a “stinking Arab” by a theatre-goer, Juliano promptly walked through the fourth wall and punched the heckler in the face. Decades earlier, a similar incident was the single most memorable violent moment of his service in the elite paratroopers platoon — knocking out his officer, who humiliated a Palestinian detainee. And this fall, a birthday party to which Juliano arrived particularly intoxicated turned ugly, after complaints over his excessive and unwanted attention to women there joined a later argument over the music and exploded into a furious, Wild West brawl, with punches and headbutts liberally thrown between fellow activists. It is a lasting tragedy that to many, appreciation and admiration of his work will be mixed with a feeling of personal hurt that is not likely to ever be appropriately resolved.

But Juliano also couldn’t be written off as a bully or a chauvinist. The liberation of women is a fight that can be fought and won by women first and last, but few men in Israel-Palestine have done as much for that cause as Juliano: Building together with the girls of the refugee camp an outlet for creativity and womanhood conservatives in the camp would dearly like to quench; not a shelter, a hideaway, but a stage to stand on before their community and their parents, and to declare, “I’m me, this is my talent, this is my spotlight, this is my voice.” His last project — which may well have been another reason for his murder — was a film on Anitgona in Jenin.

And Juliano’s approach to violence also did not allow him to be squared in as a pacifist or a mindless cheerleader. He openly and unabashedly supported the Palestinians’ right to armed resistance, distinguishing between guerrilla resistance in the occupied territories and suicide bombings in Israel proper, and constantly drawing attention to the fact it was a response to the much greater, omnipresent violence of the occupation. He stressed he didn’t want to pacify the kids in his theatre, to turn them into docile subjects of occupation, but he gave them another weapon with which to resist just as proudly — the weapon of self-determination, of identity, of language, of theatre, of art; liberation of the heart and of the mind as an instrument to liberation of society and land; a never-ending supply of explosives with which to demolish the walls put up by the conflict and blast open the concrete of forgetfulness, which the occupation pours over Palestinian history, literature and future with a mechanic relentlessness. In their wildly poetic, vivid obituary, his children, his actors, referred to this as “the cultural gun,” an equal and very potent weapon with which to face the army of real and metaphorical bulldozers.

The enemies of this wild, luminous figure were the racists, the ultra-nationalists, the clerics. They were solid, serious men. Where he saw endless possibilities, luminous colours, the brilliant flowers of theatre lights, the wild free wind rushing open the curtains of the stage, they saw grim facts — walls, limits, barriers, societal codes, black and white, either us or them, and the indisputable, grey, heavy, unmerciful, and fundamentally boring fact of what they told themselves is the will of God. They had very simple, very plain ideas of just what resistance should be, just what a woman’s place in society should be, just who should own her; leaders in their own eyes, they approached the Palestinian revolution with all the imaginative power of a small, bullying schoolteacher, and the service of God with all the generosity of an obtuse tax clerk. To them Juliano and his theatre were pretenders, a khimera, an illusion, an anomaly that needed to be resolved for the world to be plain and understandable again, for things to fall into their place under an immovable grid.

On a Monday afternoon, Juliano drove up to the theatre to read through the text of a new play, accompanied by his year-old son. Two hours later he emerged through the theatre’s door into the late-wintery, cloudy street, the air wet with the smell of rain, and got into the battered old car to drive home. For one brief moment, Juliano the actor, the pretender, the illusionary, the wizard, the poet, the dreamer, the border-breaker, the turncoat, the half-breed, was all of this and nothing but himself — a tall man, broad-shouldered, straight-backed, carrying his child in his arm.  As if to underscore the moment, somebody called the actor’s name. He turned, as himself as he ever was. His assailant, the angry follower of serious men, was masked.

* * *

It’s two days later. In a few hours, Juliano will be laid to rest, in the lush green hills of the eastern Carmel ridge, under Palestinian flags and songs hanging thick over the cemetery of a  kibbutz established in 1948. For now, we are waiting for buses to take us from the Al-Midan theatre in Haifa to the Jalame checkpoint, where many more of us will say goodbye on the other side of a barrier that never seemed more irrelevant than today.

As we wait, the red funeral car passes the theatre square. Juliano, a giant of a man, is inside, in a box bound in purple cloth. You can never understand, how someone can be in a box, and suddenly you get it: It’s not that he’s in a box, it’s that he isn’t here, at all. His presence, which you could feel unmistakably in a dark room or in the midst of a crowd, is gone. He’s not here, he isn’t. He isn’t any more.

And then, for a fleeting moment, he is. Someone sees the car and shouts Jule, Jule. And us crowd of mourners suddenly burst into applause, wet eyes under the bright April sun. It’s an encore, Juliano’s been called back on stage and he is waving from the poster taped to the side of the car. The applause grows. It’s a standing ovation. Juliano is beaming. He grins one more time, waves one more time, turns, and exits the stage.