GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The joy of stage performance and creativity made actress Wala Mutir, 27, smile as she greeted the crowd in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. She played the leading role in “Scenes from Christine’s Heart,” a play adapted from the play “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill.
But Mutir’s happiness is not complete. After all, she’s an actress in a conservative place: Gaza. A young man in the audience stood up and objected by saying, “We are in a society that doesn’t accept plays that incite women to reveal their feelings.”
This is not the first time that someone criticized Mutir’s work. “Society doesn’t accept my career and will not accept it. I consider it a hobby more than anything else,” she told Al-Monitor.
She said one of the biggest opponents of her career is her father. “He attended two of my performances. I felt that he was proud and happy, but he turns against me when he hears relatives criticize me,” she said, adding that her husband supports her and always watches her performances.
The theater is having difficulty finding talented female performers, according to actor-director Jamal Abu al-Qumsan. “The situation here is difficult on the actresses because society judges them. Two of the best, Samah al-Sheikh and Enas al-Saqqa, had to leave Gaza and settle in Cairo,” he told Al-Monitor.
A dearth of theaters
A dearth of female performers is not the only problem plaguing theater in Gaza: There are few stage theaters. The theater with the best sound and lighting and with an adequate proscenium is that of the Palestinian Red Crescent. The Israeli occupation bombed that theater in the war of 2008-09.
Director Ali Abu Yassin, who recently closed his play “Sons of Hercules” — a play with decor, fashion and language depicting ancient history — told Al-Monitor, “There are still two theaters in the Strip: the Rashad al-Shawa theater, whose rent is more than $1,000 per day, and the al-Mishal theater, which is our only outlet, but it’s small and not well-equipped technically.”
Abu Yassin believes that the problems faced by many theaters are primarily the lack of female performers, the lack of funding and the blockade of Gaza. “The closure of the crossings is affecting cultural works and their development, preventing us from traveling, and preventing theater groups from coming to Gaza. Artists are living in a state of frustration,” he said.
Theater in Palestine started with al-Ourjouwan plays, before the advent of the British Mandate. Those plays continued alongside dramatic theater, which began in 1834 in Bethlehem’s Catholic monasteries.
In the same context, Abu al-Qumsan said that the lack of higher education schools that teach acting and directing is heavily affecting artists’ experience in the Gaza Strip and is leading to a significant decline in theatrical work. “The theater [industry] has now collapsed, just as the country has collapsed!”
Although the theater movement is developing at the artistic and cultural levels, passion for the theater used to be greater, according to Abu Yassin. He said that there’s a lack of government support for theater and that all theater groups must rely on external funding, whose priorities are topics about children, women and democracy.
Abu al-Qumsan said that support for theater by institutions has not saved theater but distorted it, saying, “This kind of support isn’t interested in theater per se, but [the support] wants to promote certain topics, and that leads to using theater to serve that purpose. And this affects the quality of work.”
“There’s a lack of national and philosophical theatrical works, which don’t interest funders. Old actors are not in demand because the funders prefer to work with young people,” added Abu Yassin, who has directed 30 theatrical works.
Director Nahed Hanouna, the director of the Arts and Culture Institution, agreed. “If we want to provide distinguished theatrical performances without funding then we will need permission to sell tickets, which is difficult because there is no culture of buying tickets to attend a play in light of the high poverty in Gaza,” he told Al-Monitor.
Hanouna said that the theater’s decline began about eight years ago, “when artists started self-censoring their work and thinking of the ruling authorities and their opinion about plays and the conditions for obtaining approval, such as examining the text.”
Although the play “Scenes from Christine’s Heart” is adapted from a foreign play, the actresses still wore the veil. Hanouna said that this was justified because it took into account the general situation that tended toward religiosity, adding, “Isn’t it better if actresses wear a veil than for them to be replaced by male actors?”
Hanouna recalled a play he directed in 2010 and adapted from the novel The Pearl by John Steinbeck. The play was stopped because it wasn’t approved by the Ministry of Culture, so Hanouna sent the play’s text to the ministry and then a ministry delegation came to attend the show. They immediately authorized the play because it was of high quality.
“I don’t hide the fact that I practice self-censorship on my plays and that I’m careful with high-level creative work [to avoid external monitoring],” he added.
At the Ministry of Culture in the Gaza government, Al-Monitor met with the manager of civil work, Sami Abu Watfa, and Atef Asqul, the director-general of the Department of Arts and Creativity. Both said that the ministry often doesn’t require to see the play’s text and that it’s the director who chooses to provide it to the ministry at his own discretion. They said that they monitor theatrical works only if they bear the ministry’s name and that the government sometimes intervene in the texts if they carry offensive words and phrases that are not suitable for artistic work or the public.
Abu al-Qumsan believes that these controls have affected theatrical work, especially after the Fikra Association was closed. The association used to carry out large theatrical productions and it had produced more than 10 plays since 2002. Abu al-Qumsan performed in several of them, such as “Something is Happening” and “Should We Talk or Did He Go to Sleep?”
Al-Monitor saw a copy of the decision to disband Fikra on Aug. 22, 2012. The decision, No. 7039, said that the interior minister decided to dissolve Fikra Association for Educational Arts for violating Decision 48 of the year 2010. Decision 48 was intended to ban conscientious civilians from joining charity or civil associations or working as employees for them.
Concerning the closure of the Fikra Association, Ayman Ayesh, the deputy director-general of nongovernmental organizations at the Ministry of Interior, said that the main reason behind its dissolution was the occurrence of several criminal and financial offenses, as well as its violation of Decision 48.
Decision 48, issued by Gaza government Interior Minister Fathi Hammad, also bans all government employees from the Fatah era who have abstained from working during the Hamas era from joining charitable and civil associations, or working for these associations as employees. The Fikra Association had employed some of these former government workers, and thus were in violation of the decision.
"The shutdown has nothing to do with the nature of work of the association and its cultural production. The proof is that the association's has received preliminary approval to start work again, based on a commitment from several of its members to respect the transparency criteria," Ayesh said.
Fikra’s closure and the censorship didn’t prevent actress Wala Mutir from crowning her sixth year of performing in drama works, one of which will be with directors Hanouna and Abu al-Qumsan. One play is a "Romeo and Juliet” adaptation in which the two are under siege in Gaza.
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