Gaza's very own Jurassic Park
At Sharm Park in Gaza, 10-year-old Mena Al-Najjar steps through a giant doorway shaped like a dinosaur’s mouth. This day out is a new experience for her, one that will be as educational as it is entertaining.
“I’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs at school, but this is the first time I've even gotten to see them up close,” says Mena excitedly as she reacts to the simulated roars, grunts and groans of the mechanical dinosaurs and watches the slow, heavy movements of the giant models designed by a group of dedicated engineers in Gaza.
“This was just a dream at first,” says Abdullah Jodah, the director of Gaza’s Dinosaurs City in Sharm Park. He says the first time he saw such an exhibit was in Jordan and then Egypt and he began to ask himself, “Why not in Gaza?” Jodah, an ambitious young entrepreneur, says this dream was initially a challenge to bring to life, as the German engineers and the Chinese engineering company had to exert considerable pressure on Israel to allow the necessary materials into Gaza. It's hard enough to get vital humanitarian aid into the besieged strip so one can only imagine the delay and obstacles at bringing in items for a children's park.
From the time he applied for permission to bring the motorised and computerised dinosaurs into Gaza, he waited several months to finally see the materials arrive.
Dinosaurs have been a perennial favourite among generations of children, and with Jurassic World pulling in the crowds at cinemas worldwide, it's also a source of box office gold. Now Gaza wants to join the party, against the odds and in its own unique way.
According to the BBC, in the USA Jurassic World took $204.6m (£132m) in its opening weekend, making it the second-biggest opening ever, just behind 2012's Marvel's: The Avengers.
Jodah is aware of this sort of commercial and entertainment appeal of dinosaurs but he has also placed a lot of emphasis on the educational aspect of his park. He has tried to stick as close to reality as possible, keeping in mind that dinosaurs are a varied group of animals from taxonomic, morphological and ecological standpoints. Going around his park children will learn that dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years.
Among the reanimated beasts featured at Sharm Park is a Tyrannosaurus Rex (T Rex), known as the killing machines of the Cretaceous period: a huge carnivore with powerful back legs, trunk and massive jaw filled with sharp teeth, which preyed relentlessly on smaller, herbivorous dinosaurs.
“We wanted to bring something new to Gaza,” says Jodah, his smile expressing his pride on seeing hundreds of people flooding in to see the robotic dinosaurs.
Mena, 10, and her cousin Hala, 11, also expressed their joy at seeing what the dinosaurs looked like.
“This is something I only saw before in textbooks, and I am happy that I am able to see, feel, and hear its noises,” says Mena, who says she will come back again, with her siblings.
“What we saw before on TV is now becoming reality in Gaza,” says Jodah, as he watches squealing children enjoying the roars of the dinosaurs.
Sharm park is an attraction which emerged from the ache of war and destruction in 2012 to now become - together with Gaza beach - among the few places for children to escape the pressures of daily life and the ominous political reality. Yet, sadly, those with big families can’t afford tickets despite them being as cheap as $1 per person.
The dinosaur garden is the first of its type in Palestine. Jodah says that he wants to develop a fresh drive in the Strip for tourism, something long-forgotten and neglected since Israel’s siege and economic blockade was imposed nine years ago.
Jodah explains how the construction of the dinosaurs came about, telling MEE that each of the dinosaurs is basically a steel frame with internal motors and an external leather skin covering everything. These ideas came from local Gaza engineers, who had to do the best they could with a lack of raw materials and sporadic power supplies. Jodah knew that Gaza had highly skilled workers and engineers, but Israel’s blockade on incoming raw materials hit the territory hard, and the fact that his staff could not go and see, or join in with, the construction in China made the project difficult.
The dinosaurs were designed in Gaza, but had to be ordered from China, with German engineers working in China building the models.
The fact that Jodah had to lobby Israel for months to get the materials and models into Gaza was a source of frustration for the park's developers. "Bringing entertainment materials for fun was not seen as a humanitarian need according to the Israelis," said Jodah. Israeli restrictions on model size also meant that he has no option but to make the dinosaurs smaller than to-scale.
But still, the end results are successful and Jodah and his team are satisfied with the level of public interest. Hundreds flooded into the place in the first five days and it gets particularly busy during sunset hours. As a dinosaur tail swishes slowly to the side, its deep roar rumbles through the air and its eyes open and blink at Jodah and the smiling children around the park.
Determination for life
As for the delays caused by Israel, in responding to Jodah’s requests, he can only interpret it as a war against culture and entertainment.
“Israel has to realise that, after all, we are not born for wars, we are a nation that loves life, education and entertainment.”.
Ten year-old Ahmed Abu Aker says that immediately upon completion of his school exams and after receiving his results, his father had promised to take him from Rafah to Gaza City to see the exhibit.
“I saw lots of information on this new city of dinosaurs, on Facebook, where people are sharing photos, and decided to come and see for myself with my family,” he says. He was not disappointed.
Jodah says his project is not yet complete, and is determined to continue challenging Israel’s siege, while he pursues other ideas for attractions in Gaza. If Palestinians in Gaza are trapped and can’t make it to the outside world, he says, this should not stop the ambitions of creative young business people.
“Across the world, there are people who have good ideas and capital, and that includes Gaza too, and we can compensate for Israel’s blockade by trying to bring enjoyment to people’s lives, instead of just bombs.”
Mena and Hala Al-Najjar know it will take maybe two years for the new Jurassic World movie to reach Gaza, on Arabic TV channels, but at least, for now, they have artificial dinosaurs to bring them some magical history, thrills and entertainment, to escape the political reality of life under siege in Gaza. Such diversions are important given that there are an estimated 370,000 children who have been left shell-shocked by Israel’s last war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, and many are still in need of treatment.
Jurassic World is the first film to gross more than $500m (£322m) at the global box office on its opening weekend. Jodah realises his dinosaur theme park will not reap similar profits, but he says he’s made a policy not to refuse people who can’t afford it. The tariff is three shekels per child ($0.80), but what matters most to Jodah is feeling he has relieved Gazans - who want to be part of the global community - of some of the isolation imposed by Israel for the past nine years.
“I know I will drag my friends out to come again, because I like the feeling that we belong to a world of people and children enjoying the same things,” adds Abu-Aker.