Waging Life in a War Zone

From Gaza’s colorful neighborhood to its underground theater, resistance is an art.

Mohammed al-Saedi and Abu Adnan Nayef work with residents in their “colorful neighborhood” in Gaza.

YES! photo by Hamza Saftawi

Mohammed al-Saedi leads me through the densely populated Gaza City neighborhood of al-Zaitoun. Walls are painted in blues and pinks, with wooden shutters of purple and yellow. Plants are potted in colorful buckets at each corner. 

“Color and flowers give the human positive energy, relax him, and provide much-needed comfort to the soul, heart, and mind,” says al-Saedi, a slender man of 57, wearing a paint-splattered shirt. 

“Our idea became bigger: to make all Gaza Strip as beautiful as possible.” 

The initial idea had been small in scope: to beautify his home with flowers and paint. But neighbors took notice and encouraged al-Saedi to spread the beauty. Some donated funds, others labor or ideas. Abu Adnan Nayef was experienced with wood and iron and offered to partner with al-Saedi. “Our idea became bigger: to make all Gaza Strip as beautiful as possible.” 

Nayef points to an overhead lattice with colorful bucket planters and lanterns dangling from hooks. “These are broomsticks. Don’t be surprised! We make beautiful things with simple materials.” Tires, wood, iron—all are salvaged and recycled to adorn al-Zaitoun. 

“Paintings and flowers are psychological treatments to reduce the severity and pain of poverty. It brings self-reliance,” al-Saedi says. They believe the beautification project helps lessen the pain in Gaza from wars, siege, and destruction, especially for children.  

Throughout Gaza Strip, painters, photographers, theater artists, musicians, and filmmakers are using their art not just as a form of therapy, but also as a tool of resistance.

“What we did in the street is a strong reply to the occupation,” al-Saedi explains, referring to Israel’s 48-year military occupation of the Palestinian territories. “The occupation insists on killing the Palestinian people and destroying us psychologically, culturally, and scientifically, in addition to destroying our civilization, history, and future. But the occupation will figure out that the Palestinian people can make life from death.” He points to war debris that had been converted into planters. “We say to Israel: Destroy as much as you’re able, and we’ll build and plant [again].”

Nayef receives Facebook messages from people all over Gaza Strip who want to start similar projects, but lack of resources limits expansion. Tamer Institute for Community Education, a local nonprofit established during the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, and Kinder USA, founded by American physicians and humanitarian relief workers, have provided some much-appreciated support, but much of the funding has come from the pair’s pockets. “We have many talented people,” al-Saedi says. “[With enough resources,] you’d see something new daily.” 

A large tank shell lies overturned next to a community garden that they planted. The shell is a remnant of last summer’s war on Gaza, in which 2,205 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed. Nayef lifts the missile upright and places a pink rose on its nose. “I’m going to make something beautiful from it,” he says. 

Tamara and Sarah Abu Ramanda, 20- and 23-year-old sisters from Gaza City, are also committed to making something beautiful: music.

Tamara began playing violin two years ago, primarily teaching herself with YouTube videos, and Sarah is a singer. “The violin is small but makes a large sound,” Tamara says in her soft yet confident voice. She relates to the instrument. “Even if you’re small, you can create a lot of music. You can make others really hear you.” It’s not easy for young people trapped in Gaza to be heard outside, Tamara explains. “I can talk through my violin. I can tell the world that we exist.”

Music provides the sisters an escape from the pain of war, the injustice of occupation, and the isolation from living under the siege imposed by Israel when in 2007 the Islamic party Hamas wrested control of the coastal enclave. It’s also how they fight back.

“The main purpose of any entity who wages wars on a weaker country is to break the will of the people,” Tamara says. She practiced violin during the 2014 war despite criticism from friends who thought it inappropriate to play music while people were being killed. “I have to continue to [play violin] to show the world that the occupation can’t destroy our will and determination,” Tamara insists. “It’s a kind of resistance not to give up. We don’t want to submit to the occupation.” 

Israel wants Palestinians to be regarded as primitive and backward, Tamara says. Through music, she feels she challenges those stereotypes. And traditional music is a vehicle to claim Palestinian heritage in the face of an occupying power that expropriates Palestinian land, resources, and also culture. “It’s a way to say we’ve existed for a long time, and our culture will continue to exist,” Tamara explains.

The sisters are also resisting internal oppression through their music. “Because both the occupation and [the Hamas] government,” Sarah begins, “oppress talents,” Tamara finishes. 

Sarah recalls months of rehearsal in 2013 for a project called Gaza Singing for Peace. The morning of the concert, the Ministry of Interior in Gaza informed the group that they couldn’t perform “because boys and girls in the group were singing together in front of people,” Sarah says. After placing calls to various high-level officials, the young musicians eventually obtained government permission and performed in front of an enthusiastic audience. But the incident served as a reminder that culture in Gaza is controlled by Hamas. 

Theater artist Ali Abu Yassin and filmmaker Khalil al-Muzain are well aware of Hamas’ control of cultural expression. There can be no overt sexuality in their scripts or screenplays. Women’s costumes must adhere to conservative Islamic values. In one film, al-Muzain didn’t follow these norms. “The day of the screening, [government officials] took all the material, the machines, and closed the venue,” he says.

Friends warned Abu Yassin against producing his play “The Cage” because it was critical of the political leadership. He produced it regardless and escaped consequences, but believes it was because he is well-known. “If someone else produced this, I think that Hamas would arrest him,” he says.  

Mustafa Sawaf, Hamas’ acting minister of culture in Gaza, admits that artistic work might be censored if it doesn’t “match the culture of the society” but claims that political criticism is welcome. “Any government has to accept criticism,” Sawaf says. “We are human, we make mistakes, and the aim of art is to deliver a message about societal improvement and evaluation.”

Abu Yassin also used to criticize the former ruling party, Fatah. The difference between criticizing Fatah then and criticizing Hamas now? “Now I feel afraid,” Abu Yassin says.

“The aim of art is to deliver a message about societal improvement and evaluation.”

Censorship of Palestinian culture is not new. According to Palestinian theater historian Samer al-Saber, the Israelis practiced it (and in some ways still do). In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Israeli military governor (or his appointed committee) censored plays either because the content invoked Palestinian nationalism or because “performances constituted public gatherings, which were often banned without regard to content,” al-Saber says.

On matters of principle—freedom of women, political pluralism, human rights—al-Muzain doesn’t compromise. But he avoids triggering Hamas’ censorship by expressing his ideas diplomatically. It’s either that or clashing with the Hamas authorities, staying silent, or emigrating—options he’s eliminated. “I know my society; I want to develop it,” he says. “France doesn’t need me, America doesn’t need me. But Gaza needs me.”

“In 1970, Gaza had 12 cinemas,” Abu Yassin says. Today there are none. Gazan society has become increasingly conservative over the years, a trend that has intensified since the Islamic Hamas movement came into power, Abu Yassin says. 

The absence of liberal culture left a void, he says, in which intolerant, inflexible viewpoints have flourished. Abu Yassin believes his art will ultimately lead to more freedom, cultural awareness, self-respect, tolerance, and knowledge about how to defend one’s rights, but it’s a long, uphill struggle. “I don’t think that we can have a country, a [Palestinian] state without theater and cinema,” he says. 

According to Sarah, one of the musical sisters, young women in Gaza rarely sing, especially in public. “[Many people believe] it’s forbidden for a girl to sing, for people to see her. So this is what silences us, but I refuse this. When I sing, I feel freedom.”  

The number of female actors has also decreased. One of Abu Yassin’s apprentices, a vivacious 19-year-old named Yasmeen Katba, joined his Ashtar theater troupe at age 11, but in 12th grade, her father forbade her to continue. “[People in Gaza think] what we do [in theater] is impolite,” Katba says. Community members often assume that acting is akin to belly dancing or that their plays include love scenes, “but that’s wrong,” she continues. “And when they come to see our plays, they change their minds.” Eventually, Katba found the confidence to confront her father. “I told him I’m old enough and I know what I’m doing. He accepts—I can’t say 100 percent—but he’s accepting it because he knows it’s part of my life.”

Katba and Ehab Elyan (another student of Abu Yassin) both believe that theater can tackle the internal social problems facing Gaza’s economy, education system, youth, and women, as well as powerfully communicate Palestinian suffering and humanity to the world.  

“Theater doesn’t fix problems,” Elyan says. “We only highlight them.” Though Elyan would love to act in comedies or romances, he says, “We are a nation under occupation … this is the issue we must talk about, not love.” 

According to Abu Yassin, people appreciate theater if their issues are portrayed and actors “express things ordinary people cannot say.” The reality that Abu Yassin’s art reflects is often defined by war, blockade, and crushing poverty. But his plays also provide temporary relief from those hardships. “When I see someone laughing because of my words, I feel that I own the world,” he says. 

“More than anyone else, artists must have hope and must create hope for the people.”

Al-Muzain wants audiences to leave his films affirming humanity and wants his art to support Palestinian unity. Isolating Gaza from the rest of Palestine, as if it were an independent kingdom, only serves the agendas of both Hamas and Israel, he insists. But the enforced separation between Gaza and the West Bank makes it difficult for al-Muzain to create relationships with other Palestinian artists, and the nearly sealed borders with both Egypt and Israel make it almost impossible for him to travel with his films to international festivals.

Though Skype has opened to Abu Yassin some level of communication with fellow artists, and YouTube has allowed him to view artistic work from around the world, he’s rarely able to bring his productions to the outside world. “Our work is kept locked here,” he says. “Our dreams are killed.”

The siege means a lack of construction materials for sets and props, and there is a dearth of trained actors, especially women. Gaza’s chronic electricity shortage brings an ever-present hum of generators—making it challenging to record clean audio. Damaged film or a broken stage bulb might take weeks to replace. During the 2014 war, al-Muzain happened to bring home his external drives with all his footage, which he kept in an office in the Basha Tower. The Basha Tower was bombed that night; the director’s lifework narrowly missed being buried under rubble. “The best movie to make in Gaza is about making a movie in Gaza,” al-Muzain jokes.

He recently produced an outdoor human rights “red carpet” film festival in the war-devastated neighborhood of Shejaiya. Rubble from destroyed houses provided a backdrop for the projection, and a resident whose family had been wiped out in the assault cut the ribbon. Those honored by walking down the red carpet? Children who had endured profound trauma. Al-Muzain says the audience was brought to tears. “The stars were the people of Shejaiya.” 

Al-Muzain’s love for his people is matched by his apprehension about their future. “I’m afraid for Gaza,” the filmmaker says. “I don’t know where we, as a society, are going.”

Abu Yassin shares Al-Muzain’s trepidation, yet refuses to surrender hope. “More than anyone else, artists must have hope and must create hope for the people,” he says. “[My art] is community resistance and political resistance—resistance by insisting on life.”