An early morning five hour dash across the Sinai desert from Cairo airport, the red sun ominously raising a gong-like stop light; over the Suez canal Peace Bridge, a five kilometre bleached dinosaur’s skeleton, arching over slow motion cargo ships, the pure simplicity of the desert, the suddenness of the glorious eastern Mediterranean. Me, the lone white-pinko-grey UK middle-aged man, at first refused by the Egyptian authorities at Rafah, submitting to the border café where I spent eight hours waiting in April. Then entry at last!
Driving from the Egyptian-Gaza border area and the town of Rafah back towards Gaza City you are met with a haunted landscape.
Your way takes you through the land formerly annexed and used for Israeli settlements; 40 % of the territory of Gaza for the 7000 settlers with the accompanying military and security services. Travelling along the settlers’ well made-up roads, stories are told of how after the ‘disengagement’ Gaza could breathe more freely but also of how the exploitation of natural resources carried out by the settlement had drained the Gaza aquifer. Sucked dry, spat out, ravaged.
Gaza is home to 1.6 million Palestinians; many are refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967. These latter originate from, or still abide in, eight camps set up by the United Nations (Jabalya, Shati/Beach, Nuseirat, Bureij, Deir El Balah, Maghazi, Khan Younis and Rafah)
When the Israelis left in 2005 they destroyed the luxury hotel by the sea and other residential and administrative buildings. Some polytunnels remain, grey implants of uneven development. If the polytunnel produce had been released onto the local food markets it would have destroyed the small-scale local agriculture characteristic of Gazan society,
I came to Gaza to meet my colleagues from, Theatre for Everybody, a theatre company set up in the first Intifada of 1987. From 2002 we collaborated on a project initiated by Az Theatre called War Stories that brought together theatre companies from Algeria, Kosovo, Serbia, Palestine, Italy and the UK, working in all these countries as well theatre festivals in Romania and Turkey.
Since the Israeli attack of 2008/9 we had together set out to develop work started by Theatre for Everybody after the second intifada of 2000 with young people who were suffering due to the stresses of displacement, economic underdevelopment, overcrowding and military action. Our ‘Gaza Breathing Space’ programmes are operating within and in collaboration with the Deir El Balah Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Violence and the Jabalya Rehabilitation Centre; the latter specialises in helping deaf children.
Throughout Gaza the rehabilitation centres in most instances were the UNWRA food distribution and administrative centres. As the UNWRA’s role (no longer food distribution but focusing on school provision) has diminished these centres were taken over by the communities and became active centres during the Intifada of 1987. The focus of the work at this time was physical rehabilitation of victims of Israeli military violence. As the decades have passed and certainly after the recent Israeli attack the dimensions of psychological damage have become more evident and have received more attention. This has happened alongside the arrival of new disabilities due to the congenital deformities produced by the Israeli’s use of white phosphorous explosives in 2008/9. The prevalence of deafness amongst children is attributed to a combination of intermarriage linked to overcrowding and paucity of health information services that would offer the relief of early treatment.
There is a danger in giving an account of the human damage sustained there that an image will be given of Gaza as a society of victims. Gaza is an exceptional social, political and economic space full of extraordinary paradoxes. It is not a bomb-site. In fact the rubble from destroyed buildings has in large part been reused in replacing infrastructure. This has been made even more necessary by the embargo imposed by the Israelis on construction materials. Yet Israeli goods are available in supermarkets and stores. It is unclear how dependent certain parts of the Israeli economy are on this trade. The Israeli shekel is the currency. There are hundreds of tunnels beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. One is a pipeline pumping gasoline/petrol to tanker vehicles for distribution to Gaza stations. Property prices in downtown Gaza City have undergone a boom in the last three years. The economy is becoming more centralised with the attendant redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich. The centralised order imposed on Gaza by the Hamas-led government has favoured larger businesses and has frozen out small traders and smaller businesses. One face of the governing group is the street presence of well-uniformed and armed young police and ‘civil guard’. The control of public space and allegiance is being finessed through dress code and behavioural constraint imposed on women. However the imposition of a ban on women smoking shisha in public café’s proved unenforceable and led to a rebellion from owners facing a loss of income. Thus the coat of religious principle has to be cut according to the cloth of commercial consideration. The Hamas Ministry of interior Border plain-clothed police who offered me polite and gentle welcome in the VIP border lounge with its geometrically arranged sofas centred on the altar of plasma-screened Al Jazeera told me all was well in Gaza. One, a Health and Safety graduate who talked about the lack of factories to inspect, confessed his reluctant engagement in the police service. Hamas have an effective taxation system taking a percentage of all the tunnel trade but all public service operations except for security are taken care of by the NGO sector mainly operating though international donation.
Looking out on the skyline of Gaza City the stranger could easily believe they were in Beirut or any other city of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. The hamam in the old city is steamy and a relaxing step back to the former Ottoman age, another step would take you to the Roman and, before that the Greek, trading centre that Gaza once was. And then there’s the scintillating light that warms the eye from the inside, right where our sight meets our heart. And the sea.
As we emerged from the warren-like passages of Deir El Balah camp to be met with the aquamarine and white-crested undulation and wash of it, our guide exclaimed: Yes, thank god for the sea. Perched on the shore a line of plastic chairs made me start to count in my imagination the human hours spent there dreaming of freedom. At the same time I remembered the previous day seeing a photograph at the Palestine Trauma Centre of a child being encouraged to overcome their terror of the sea and of a drawing by another of his fisherman father’s death by missile attack on his boat. His body was never recovered.
So the work with children is driven by adults who want to give them the childhood that they themselves never had. The fathers that, in the late 1940s, had come as children themselves to Gaza, maybe having seen their parents humiliated in their displacement, and through pain and hardship had built their houses and brought up families and were maybe understandably scared of the vulnerability of their children; the angry next generation fathers who, unemployed and perhaps inwardly disgraced, exert their power by favouring one child over another, who bark their frustration at the nearest recipient who can’t answer back; the son in our session who, when asked why they were staring with such delight and shock at a photo, explained that they had never seen a picture of themselves before or another who reacted with barely restrained hysteria when the workshop leader called them ‘Ahmed’ explaining how shocked he was to be called by his own name. Hey! You! Boy!
In one instance my friend told me of a particularly stubborn and difficult girl who managed to reveal that she believed she was hated by her father. In response a meeting with him was requested. Do you think your daughter is a problem? Yes. But, my friend, you have to change. She will only change when you change.
Theatre is space. It is space that is provided, space to play, to be listened to, to overcome shyness, to imagine, to dream. This is what the participant children explained to me when I interviewed them at Deir El Balah. They also told me how they shared all the games they learnt in the sessions with their friends.
When I asked the Community leader in Jabalya where the resources for development were to come from to solve the 44 % unemployment in the camp (many of the residents were working in Israel until the border closures; unemployment is 97% in the disabled population), how would the young live and bring up families, who would provide, he very quickly said, they themselves will. He used the adage about not just getting fish to eat but learning how to fish. Immediately my friend interjected that also being permitted to fish the outlying waters currently forbidden by the Israelis was another limit that needed to be broken. All this awareness of being held back simply emphasised a sense of human potential. Resilience and not victimhood characterised the society in which for a short time I was a guest.
The focus on disability is profound. When I asked the Jabalya leader what he wished for most for his community he said, independence. This went for both the Palestinian people and, at an individual level, for the disabled who lived amongst them. One of the key signs of disturbance amongst the children is their withdrawal and isolation. They stop playing. In some instances they can only bear to be in front of a computer. As we went round the Deir El Balah Centre where they ran the only radio station in the Middle East staffed by disabled people, our guide constantly referred to the need to run a project where hearing and deaf children worked together. She exuded a deep human interest in releasing capability. The situation of deafness is a practical problem for the sufferer but is also somehow significant imaginatively from the point of view of the resilience of the whole community. On a number of occasions people expressed disbelief that the world out there (whence I came) could not see what was happening with the occupation, were unable to open their eyes, were in some way blind to what was happening. I remember my friend telling me how, working with deaf children just after the 2008/9 Israeli attack, he was struck by their expressing how they could feel the Israeli bombardment and could see the impact but could not hear it. For him it was like another reliving of it in a different mode and had the effect of making him more conscious of his own experience.
On the first evening of my visit my friends and I went to visit an Egyptian trained theatre director and actor, a centrepiece of whose career had been the development of the national theatre in Mauritania, and who had returned to Gaza with the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords. After my explaining something about our project in Gaza, he asked why I was doing this. Well for me it’s like being in a house where there’s a room you can’t get into. The continuous prohibition just excites the desire to know. Living in this world fully, being present in it fully, is not a matter of merely being physically and sensationally alive. There are direct links between my historical roots in England, in European history and what is happening in Palestine. Many places in the world may excite our interest and ambition because of their inaccessibility but here some other, and to me more important, aspect of my being is articulated.
So not only did I visit the Rehabilitation Centres where our Breathing Space project is currently based but I saw an allegorical play about how the human and animal world deal, without violence, with a obstructive and stubborn donkey. This is in a sandy playground performed from a mobile theatre vehicle to an audience of hundreds of boys at a school in Beit Hanoun near the buffer zone and within sight of the Israeli wall. This play gives an account of the Palestinian situation, a twelve year old boy tells me afterwards in good English. I then learn that there has been a dispute amongst the staff. Who is the donkey? It’s the Gaza government. No. The Israelis. No. The Americans. No. It’s just ignorance of any kind!
Then later, in another project run by the same company, Basma (which means smile), I see young people creating an animation film, carefully and meticulously cutting out card to create flat puppet characters to animate a story of their own invention. The next day I watch as artists from an adventurous visual arts project, Shababeek (which means Windows), tutor young people using a projection screen on which their recent photographs are projected. Then I am in conversation with two psychologists from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme telling me about the comprehensive training they and their colleagues have received in psychodrama from Ursula Hauser and the founding of ‘Psychodrama without Borders’. Being shown round the exhibition at the Palestine Trauma Centre illustrating the working process undertaken by their teams which focus work on young people from the buffer zones (those nearest to Israel and therefore liable to attack and bombardment) and who use puppet work to engage audiences of young people and to help them find those who most need the therapeutic processes with which they engage. Then visiting the haven-like almost brand new beautifully and well equipped Qattan Centre for the Child where the emphasis is on reading and book culture and which services young peoples libraries the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip.
Along with meeting theatre artists, young film-makers, film directors and Community Media Centre activists as well as the families and friends of my friends, all the time with every trip there’s always the brilliant vistas of the sea with its rolling reassurance of change.