Gaza: Secrets and Lies

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UNBEARABLE PAIN: Darwish throws his life’s work into the air, in an expression of anger and frustration.

The Photographer, a play staged in Gaza, evokes Palestinian nostalgia

BY Sami Abu Salem

The 800 seats at Rashad Shawwa Cultural Center’s old theater in Gaza City were all taken, with dozens of people standing at the back or sitting on the floor, waiting for the curtains to open and the lights to be dimmed signaling the beginning of the The Photographer, a monologue play.

The first act of begins, and silence fills the air. ‘Darwish,’ the main character, played by Ali Abu Yassin, is a photographer from Gaza. He spends his days in his small studio surrounded by old cameras scattered across the table with portraits of different sizes hanging across the walls.

In this lonely studio, a rusty iron door flings open and an elderly lady—Suma— enters. Darwish had taken a picture of her teenage son Atallah six years ago, but he was recently killed by Israeli soldiers.

Suma asks Darwish for a copy of her son’s photo. He searches Atallah’s archive of thousands of pictures among the photograph, and as he flips through the images and undeveloped films, he relives and narrates the stories of the people frozen in those shots.

Each of those pictures brings back memories of incidents that carry a national dimension, which the director, Hussein Al Asmar, expertly captures in Darwish’s tales.

The roaring of the sea, sounds of bombing and shooting, and breaking news tracks, forms the soundtrack to a riveting narrative.

Darwish recalls the Palestinian Nakba or Catastrophe and the story of his parents who fled from Yaffa under Israeli bombardment in 1948.

He then takes the audience through the hard life that Palestinians had to suffer in refugee camps scattered across neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and as a dispersed diaspora across the world.

The stories of both Palestinian intifadas (uprisings), in the 1980s and in 2000 against the injustice of the Israeli occupation also make their way to the photos that Darwish flips through.

But the play is not solely about drama and wars. Romance also features in The Photographer as playwright, Atef Abu Seif, takes us through Darwish’s love story with a young Palestinian lady living in one of the refugee camps. Abu Seif, a Palestinian refugee himself who is based in Gaza, holds a PhD in political and social sciences from Florence, Italy. He has published five novels to date, and four plays to date, as well as short stories. His last novel A Suspended Life (2014) was shortlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF).

Darwish’s flashbacks delve deep into a time when he was a young boy and had fallen in love with Salwa, his neighbor’s daughter. It was a forbidden love limited to eye contact and little else.

Forced emigration as well as the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are featured themes, moving many in the audience to tears. There are few in Gaza who have not lost a loved one to the occupation—to the morgue or to Israeli jails.

Hundreds of Gazans shouted from outside the locked theater doors, having arrived late. To their dismay, they were not allowed in, as there were no places left to accommodate them.

The play, which runs for about an hour, also sees Darwish’s dark side. The smiling photographer feels discarded by humanity. He berates himself about his clients, who he feels are only interested in their photos but never pay attention to him as a human being. He, too, has his own pain.

As he casts all his images to the sky, Darwish screams in anger and frustration. His internal rebellion is not only aimed at the world at large, but also at his own.

Al Asmar told Newsweek Middle East, the play “is a true expression of the mass memory” of the Palestinian people. “This memory has begun when the Zionist military gangs [the precursor to the Israeli Army] committed genocide against the Palestinian people and [forced] them out of their cities to establish Israel in 1948.”

The play is an indictment of the illegal Israeli occupation; it encourages the audience to take a firm stance on the freedom of Palestinians, according to Al Asmar.

“Everyone, be it a photographer, a writer or worker should act against the Israeli siege, occupation, against the internal Palestinian division,” he added.

Atef Abu Seif, who is 42, hails from Yaffa. He said he tried to present the pain of the people onstage. According to him, Darwish is a Palestinian man in an existential search for answers. “The play steals the secrets of people’s lives and puts them on stage,” he added. “The issue is not just a poster; each martyr is a normal human with his life and details,” Abu Seif told Newsweek Middle East.

Abu Seif pointed out that people are living in a state of internal tension that is made clear when the photographer inspects the photo of “Atalla.”

Monologist Ali Abu Yassin, 52, told Newsweek Middle East: “Monodrama is the most difficult [genre] of all drama acts. The performance was full of internal and external tension. We have rehearsed for this over 50 times,” said Abu Yassin, who participated in a number of drama courses across the world.

“I witnessed the killing of a boy by Israeli soldiers in Gaza; I myself lived the details in my life, this is one of the secrets,” Abu Yasin said.

Nazir Alfarra, a member of the audience, said he had come to the theater to attend a cultural activity. “Even if the play is not good, it’s fine to let theater in Gaza move forward [sic],” Alfarra, 28, said. “This event made me optimistic.”

The print version of this article attributed a quote by Abu Seif to Abu Yassin. It has been rectified in the online version and the error regretted.

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