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Islamic Restrictions Hinder Artists, Singers in Gaza

Unlike their counterparts in the West Bank, Palestinian artists in Gaza are unable to use their talents because of restrictions imposed by Hamas, writes Hazem Balousha.
A Palestinian artist paints a mural in Gaza City in support of Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike in Israeli jails May 14, 2012. One in three of the 4,800 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails began refusing food on April 17 in protest against detention without trial and to demand better conditions like an increase in family visits and ending solitary confinement. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR321GT

Instead of listening to the radio, which often doesn’t work in Gaza’s taxis, the passengers listen to the driver sing traditional Palestinian songs or the songs of famous singers.

About six months ago, Palestinian singer Yousef Hajjaj, 38, was forced to work as a taxi driver for lack of singing opportunities. For years, there has been dwindling work opportunities for singers at concerts as well as at local, Arab and international festivals.

Hajjaj sang for a living for 20 years to support his family of six, but things changed after Hamas took control of Gaza and Israel placed it under blockade.

In an interview with Al-Monitor in his taxi cab, he expressed his disappointment at what is happening to him and to Palestinian artists in the Gaza Strip in general. He was dismayed at the fact that most artists were looking for alternative work opportunities while both the Gaza government and the Palestinian artists union do nothing.

“Since Hamas took over Gaza, things have turned upside down. Local festivals have stopped. There have been fewer wedding ceremonies because of the economic situation. Even the field of advertising, from which I used to make some money, has become very limited as a result of the blockade,” Hajjaj noted.

After the formation of the Palestinian Authority, Hajjaj sang — either solo or as part of a Palestinian heritage band — at various Arab and international festivals, from Egypt, Morocco and France to the Babylon International Festival in Iraq in 1997.

“I never wanted to work for the government because I enjoyed my work as a singer. But now, with the economic stagnation, I am trying to find work anywhere I can to feed my family. I now drive a taxi owned by someone else, with whom I share my daily income of no more than 100 shekels (about $25).”

Rap singer Muzaffar al-Assar, 26, agrees with Hajjaj that it has become unbearable for artists in the Gaza Strip and that work in that field requires the artist to live abroad, because Palestinians in Gaza are too preoccupied dealing with the difficult economic conditions.

Assar works in a clothing shop in the Nuseirat refugee camp because the government has banned rap concerts in the Gaza Strip. If he tries to organize a public concert, he gets questioned by the authorities.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Assar said, “I hope someday I can practice my favorite hobby, which is rap, without political or security restrictions. I have produced a few songs in collaboration with local institutions but I cannot rap to the public.”

Since 2007, Hamas has imposed restrictions on organizing concerts and festivals for singing or dancing, as was happening during the PA’s reign. Hamas claims that such activities may spread immorality or cause mixing between the sexes in the conservative Palestinian society.

Local Islamic bands usually perform at festivals organized by Islamic institutions or at festivals organized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that urge resistance and steadfastness in the face of the Israeli occupation. Islamic bands perform some special songs at “Islamic celebrations.”

Regarding other kinds of art, Maha al-Daya, 37, said that Gaza is not the appropriate place for creative work because Palestinian society and the authorities do not care about art in general.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Daya said, “Painting is my main hobby. I cannot stop painting because I use it to relieve the daily emotional stress. My participation in local exhibitions in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, London and Paris kept me going in this area, despite the lack of support ... In recent years, I tried doing embroidery professionally to make money. I used to do it as a hobby.”

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank generally gives more freedom to artists to practice their art and participate in local and international festivals without religious or social restrictions. This has prompted some Gazan artists to move to the West Bank.

Hajjaj said, “I feel jealous of the artists in the West Bank when I see them on TV taking part in festivals. I feel anguish that the talent in the Gaza Strip cannot express itself ...There is an injustice to art and artists here. The Gaza Strip is where art goes to die.”

Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as a news producer for BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle (Germany), as well as contributed to The Guardian (UK), Al-Raya (Qatar) and other publications. Balousha covered Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas in 2007. He is also the founder of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development (PICD), and has a master's degree in international relations as well as a BA in journalism. Twitter:@iHaZeMi

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