Gaza's only mobile theatre: Drawing a smile on children's lips
GAZA STRIP - Inside the Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the Nuseirat area of Gaza, 11-year-old Mohammed Abu Arab, who suffers from leukemia, is sitting in his chair anxiously awaiting for the arrival of a theatre group.
Such events are rare in poverty-stricken Gaza, which is isolated by a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege.
"I've never seen such shows before because we don't have many theatres in Gaza, where clowns are using colours to draw beautiful shapes on our faces when they come to the hospital; besides this, we're participating in the performance of the Games of Light, Dabka and songs,” said Abu Arab.
"They help us to develop and discover our talents and things around us," Abu Arab added.
Ahmad Yunus, a 16-year-old student from the Bureij refugee camp in east Gaza city, said: "[The mobile theatre] helps us to have fun and allows us to relax at the same time.
"Through this great artwork, we can explore ourselves and the environment surrounding us and develop our abilities," he added.
Dr Ahmed Radi, a psychologist, says the theatre is a way to relieve psychological stress and promote self-esteem, especially for children.
“Studies indicate that the exposure of people, especially children, to watch the plays and imitate the heroic characters, has reduced the aggressive behaviour some children might have,” he said.
In a serious attempt to alleviate the effects of three wars that have ravaged the children of the Gaza Strip, a group of young Gazans founded the mobile theatre in June 2016 to relieve the children's pain and suffering. The Palestine Theatre Entertainment Team consists of 12 performers who volunteer their time and finance the theatre from their own pockets.
By providing positive messages to children and their families through the art of performance, delicate social issues and security concerns are highlighted and brought to the surface. The children are urged not to touch remnants of Israel's missiles and are told to steer clear of the border with Israel, as well as reminded of the importance of maintaining personal hygiene.
"The theatre offers its services to children voluntarily, without any profits, with a goal to alleviate the harsh conditions in which our children live," said Amjad al-Majdalawi, one of the founders.
The theatre offers several artistic programmes, including a puppet theatre, improv, face-painting, and for the first time, a marionette puppet theatre.
A storyteller wearing a red hat and the keffiyeh, a powerful Palestinian symbol, sits in the centre of a circle of children, reciting heroic tales full of adventure. This is one of the children's favourite acts. Palestinian heritage is kept alive by performing Dabka, a traditional Palestinian dance and singing national folklore songs or playing games.
The mobile theatre tours children's hospitals, orphanages and kindergardens. The shows are free of charge and sometimes the kindergardens will cover the transportation expenses.
"These activities are freeing children from their repressed feelings and introducing happiness and joy to them, as well as allowing them to talk freely about what is on their minds, to be able to get out of their difficult reality,” said Magdalawi.
In regards to the challenges facing the mobile theatre, Majdalawi says it needs financial support from local and international organisations so that it can expand its work across Palestinian society.
"We need local and international organisations that support this idea seriously, and offer financial assistance for our work to be better developed, so that we can reach all segments of society throughout Palestine,” Majdalawi said.
She hopes to perform in the West Bank and introduce joy and pleasure to the children there and all around Palestinian, but the Israeli siege on Gaza since 2007 has made that difficult to achieve.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), there are currently 14 theatres in all of Palestine, 11 in the West Bank and three in Gaza, but none of them offer the mobile theatre experience. They are affiliated with civil society institutions and mostly produce theatrical performances centred around Palestinian heritage and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Writer and Palestinian theatre director Yousef Hijazi said that, "one of the most important obstacles facing the theatre is also the lack of educated girls to represent diverse theatrical roles due to societal customs and traditions that refuse to make a girl do such work, which pushes some young men to perform girls’ roles and wear women's costumes on stage," said Hijazi.
But Dina Nassar, one of the female performers in the theatre, said that she found a great deal of encouragement from her parents to help bring joy to the children. "The theatre is to draw a smile on children's lips, especially from patients, as well as to bring joy and pleasure to the hearts of all segments of the community of adults and young people."