Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gaza: Youth Initiative Promoting Community Theater Through Cyberspace

Youth Voice Mic
“Where Are You Going?” play. Photo: Youth Voice Mic

By: Reham Owda

The “Youth Voice Mic” initiative emerged in the Gaza Strip as a cultural, artistic and community initiative led by a group of ambitious and visionary youths. It aims to bring about peaceful change in the Palestinian society with the end goal of bringing about human rights, women’s right and national unity through the use of creative tools. The initiative consists of theatrical performances for the Palestinian public in order to educate them in the field of civil peace and express the concerns and aspirations of the Palestinian youth in light of both the Israeli blockade and the repeated wars on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian division.

Speaking about how it started, the initiative coordinator Basem Al-Dirawi told that the idea for the initiative began in October of 2019, based on his strong desire and that of his colleagues to make a positive societal change, especially since most Gazan youth still suffer from the effects of the Palestinian divide and their dreams have been shattered by the Israeli siege imposed on the Gaza Strip for more than ten years.

Within the framework of this initiative, the members prepared dozens of theatrical sketches that promote civil peace and women’s rights, which were presented in cooperation with some community institutions in Gaza to educate the Gazan community about women’s issues and human rights.

The initiative implemented a number of youth-based theater pieces that addressed sensitive social issues and boldly challenged prevailing social patterns and the Palestinian political system. Through the framework of the social drama and by using simple and expressive language that is understood by the Palestinian public, coupled with good theatrical performances that mimic the social reality in the Gaza Strip, the performances tackled concepts of love, dreams of marriage, society’s negative view of divorced and unmarried women, issues related to Christians in Gaza, unemployment and the immigration of Gazan youth from the Gaza Strip in search of a better future.

Theater To Express Concerns and Aspirations of the Gazan Youth

Basem Al Dirawi added to that the “YV MIC” initiative received great support from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, and some of its activities were funded by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization “ALECSO”. This organization supported a youth play titled: “Where Are You Going?” which sheds light on the concerns and aspirations of Gazan youth, most of whom are considering leaving the Strip in search of a better life and job opportunities due to the high unemployment rate in Gaza, and the lack of any prospect for a better future due to the internal political struggle between Fatah and Hamas.

“Where Are You Going?” is considered one of the most important youth-based plays implemented by the initiative and was aired online. The play tells the story of a group of young Gazans who tried to immigrate to Europe in search for a brighter future. The young men and women venture through a bumpy road in a remote forest, which is on the borders of one of a European country, in hopes of eventually reaching that country and obtaining asylum. Through their journey to Europe, these youth face the difficulties of travel and the challenges of the road by relying on simple tools such as a mobile phone and a paper map.

With a clear Palestinian-Gazan accent, the actors and actresses of “Where Are You Going?” succeeded in boldly and effortlessly expressing the problems of young Gazan men and women and challenged the stereotypes that prevail in Palestinian society. The cast members, in simple Arabic, dealt with the issue of the immigration of Gazan youth trying to flee the Gaza Strip in order to search for love, marriage, decent work and individual freedom, all of which are enjoyed by most people in western societies, without suffering the restrictions of an Israeli siege or social criticisms.

With simple theater production tools, the members of the initiative succeeded in designing the sets for “Where Are You Going?” They designed a replica of a section of forest on European borders to give the audience the sense that they are seeing the actual forest. They accomplished this by covering the stage with sand and placing natural trees on it, as well as lighting real fires that were used for heating in one scene.

The cast succeeded in expressing what some segments of Palestinian youth feel and why they contemplate immigrating. One character was a young Gazan who is a government employee, but his monthly salary is not enough to cover the coast of life or even marriage expenses, making him reluctant to marry, despite the criticisms he received from those around him for not getting married. So, this employee found immigration as his only solution in order to obtain a well-paying job that would enable him to bear the expenses of marriage and start a small family in a foreign country.

The play also told the story of a Christian girl who immigrated with her brother due to the lack of marriage opportunities for Christian girls in Gaza as most Christian men left the Gaza Strip and married foreign women. Therefore, she believed that it was also her right to search for marriage prospects abroad and find someone who would support her in life so she could become a mother and embrace motherhood like any other woman in the world.

Another story described in the play was of young lovers who married for love without their families’ blessings of their unconventional marriage. The couple decided to flee together so they could live safely, away from the criticism of parents and relatives.

In the final story, one of the heroines of the play depicted the suffering of a divorced woman who suffered domestic violence during her marriage, and after her divorce, suffered even more from the negative view of society and family of a divorced woman.

In the play, the main characters directly blame Palestinian division and the Palestinian leaders fighting among themselves over parts of the homeland for their decisions to immigrate and flee the Gaza Strip. In a descriptive scene, the characters are seen fighting over the map of the forest, which eventually is ripped in two, a metaphor for ripping the map of Palestine.

Online broadcasting to accommodate the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak in the occupied Palestinian territories, the significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the Gaza Strip, and the local authorities declaring a state of emergency and imposing curfews and restrictions on gatherings in the Strip in order to limit the spread of the virus, the initiative members faced a major challenge: how to present their theatrical work directly to the public? This forced them to search for online solutions to overcome the problem of putting on the play in a face-to-face setting during the Corona crisis.

Therefore, the team decided to utilize technology and social media to share their theatrical works with the audience. For example, they shared links to their play “Where Are You Going?” on their Facebook and YouTube pages to serve as their first digital play that can be viewed online.

The team was not satisfied with only posting the play on social media sites, so, they also organized several virtual meetings through Zoom calls with young men and women, university students and intellectuals where they would showcase the play and follow it with an extensive discussion of the main issues the play tackled with the audience.

Being able to showcase the play through Zoom gave the team opportunities to invite a virtual audience, not only from Gaza, but from the West Bank, Palestinian Diaspora, and from some Arab countries such as Tunisia. This resulted in breaking the cultural blockade imposed on the initiative team due to the closure of borders, enabling the initiative members to soar freely through virtual skies.

The Female Actress and the Social Challenges

The initiative highlights female participation in theater. The team includes five young women who are responsible for coordinating, following up and assisting in artistic production. In addition, three women play the costar roles in “Where Are You Going?”, which indicates the initiative’s willingness to showcase the role of Palestinian women and girls in cultural and theatrical work, to promote the issues of Palestinian women in a society that places several restrictions on women’s freedoms and their general limitations in participating in day-to-day life.

Diana Ziyara, one of the main actresses in “Where Are You Going?” told, that she’s loved acting since she was a little girl, but she faced many challenges in convincing her husband and his family to accept the nature of her work as an actress. At the beginning her husband was opposed to it and prevented her from acting for ten years, which caused her to fall into depression. However, at the recommendation of her doctor, her husband was forced to allow her to return to acting.

Diana also added that acting gave her an opportunity to achieve her dreams in the art world and allowed her to set a great goal that she wants to achieve in her life, which is to promote women’s rights issues through theater. Despite the criticism she faces from society for being an actress, which sometimes requires her to stay out late, she defied these circumstances and succeeded in proving herself as a professional actress. She also succeeded in changing the negative perception that her relatives and neighbors had about women working in the field of acting, especially after she played a major role in the series “Anqoud,” that aired during the month of Ramadan in 2020. She played the role of a Gazan wife who suffered from the recent war on the Gaza Strip. Her performance made many people around her sympathize with her character and they were convinced that art has a sublime message of conveying the suffering of people during times of war and crises.

Diana aspires to become a world-famous actress, and she is now on the verge of completing the final episodes of a new drama that will be aired next Ramadan, in which she will play the role of the wife of a Palestinian resistance fighter.

As for the actress Fa’eqa El Najjar, who played the role of the Christian girl in “Where Are You Going?”, she told that she faced several great challenges during her career, especially when she would be out late at night to film night-time scenes, as there are social restrictions on the movement of Gazan women at night. It caused some problems with the local authorities in the Gaza Strip. But with her husband’s continuous support and confidence in her, Fa’eqa succeeded in challenging society’s negative perception of female actresses, even though some people around her used to make fun of her work.

Despite some of the difficulties that Fa’eqa faced proving herself as a professional actress living in a traditional society, she continued her artistic work. However, at the same time, she adhered to the conservative customs and traditions that prevail in the Gaza Strip, which made her more selective of her acting roles. Fa’eqa avoids playing any romantic roles between her and any man that may include, for example, expressing feelings of love and affection, in order to avoid embarrassment and social criticism. Through her experience in the world of acting, she found that there are people in society and around her that confuse reality with acting and burden her with the fictional scenes that she acts in whether in movies or on stage.

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