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A new theatre performance brings Gaza to London

Actors on stages in Gaza and London share life stories in a simultaneous performance
The semi-autobiographical performance features nine performers - five in Palestine and four in London - who candidly open up to one another about their personal lives (MEE/Rob Harris)

LONDON - Ten minutes into the opening night of At Home in Gaza and Londona theatrical performance held concurrently in both cities, half of the show’s actors vanished from the stage at London's Battersea Arts Centre.

As a London-based actor congratulated a Gaza-based performer on her recent marriage, the power abruptly went out at the El-Wedad Society for Community Rehabilitation's theatre, located in the Palestinian enclave.

Walid Tafesh in conversation with London-based actors from Gaza (Photo courtesy of Moataz Al Araj)
The power cut interrupted a live stream running as a backdrop in both Gaza and London, giving audiences the illusion that the artists were in the same room, not some 2,200 miles apart.

Over in London, people need to work really hard to get by 

- Mariam Nasser, non-profit worker

A pre-recorded voice informed the puzzled London audience that the inevitable had happened, as Gazans have as little as three hours of electricity a day and generators frequently fail.

Co-directors Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso and Julian Maynard Smith improvised. Maynard Smith, who’d been performing alongside the London crew, started explaining to the audience the extent to which putting the project together had already been fraught with technical and logistical difficulties. Within minutes, the cyberformance - a performance in which actors in different locations can work together in real time using the internet - was up and running again.

It was a fitting way for At Home in Gaza and London to start its life in the British capital. The cross-continental project was designed, in part, to illustrate to an international audience the issues people in Gaza face on a day-to-day basis. 

During the semi-autobiographical performance, the artists - five in Palestine and four in London - candidly open up to one another about their personal lives, revealing their frustrations and ambitions. 

Even taking a shower is an act of calculations, so you can only imagine how difficult our life can be on a daily basis

- Abeer Ahmed, performer

Pre-recorded footage interspersed with live-streamed video and on-stage performances show the various members of the group engaging in banter, dancing, watching a film, and making a meal together. At times, the experience is so disorienting that it’s hard to tell who’s in Gaza and who’s in London.

For 24-year-old Abeer Ahmed, the newlywed Gaza performer who’d been cut off during the opening night, the most frustrating aspect about life at home is the lack of round-the-clock electricity, water and a halfway decent internet connection.

Tara Fatehi Irani and Owl Young in London prepare a meal with actors in Gaza (MEE/Rob Harris)
The recent media studies graduate and filmmaker said in a phone interview prior to the show that those frustrations are occasionally so overwhelming they can feel more palpable than the broader injustices that are at the heart of the plight of Palestinians: the ongoing occupation and the Israeli blockade that has been in place since Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007. In fact, the word “Israel” is only mentioned in passing once throughout the entire 90-minute play.

“Even taking a shower is an act of calculations, so you can only imagine how difficult our life can be on a daily basis,” Ahmed, who lost a cousin as a result of a gun shot wound to the abdomen during the 2008 Israeli war on Gaza, said in Arabic.

“We’re in a situation in which we desire what should already be available to us. We’re only asking for the small things.”

Life can be isolating’

Many of the performers had no acting experience prior to At Home in Gaza and London. Mariam Nasser, a 26-year-old non-profit worker who specialises in conflict and its aftermath, said in a phone interview that she responded to the callout for actors four years ago, even though she wasn’t one herself. She felt the performance would bring people closer together by showing the world how Palestinians truly live in Gaza - with patience and resilience. 

We’re in a situation in which we desire what should already be available to us. We’re only asking for the small things

- Abeer Ahmed, performer

“The media tends to portray Gaza in one way, and that picture isn’t the true picture of Palestine,” she said just before the performance began. “What makes At Home in Gaza and London so special is that we can bring two very different worlds together into the same space.”

Born to a Palestinian father and a Filipino mother, Nasser has spent most of her life in Gaza and hopes to earn an MBA in London so that she can advance her career. When she mentions that plan excitedly during the show, Tara Fatehi Irani, an actress who left Tehran to study in London, responds by lamenting that the sprawling city is punishingly expensive.

Nasser finds details such as these revealing. “Over in London, people need to work really hard to get by, and life can be isolating,” she said during the interview. “Over here in Gaza, you can get through life with very little, and familial bonds tend to be stronger.”

Yoko Ishiguro simulates carpentry on stage in London as Walid Tafesh mimics her in Gaza (MEE/Rob Harris)
During the show, Hamza Saftawi, 27, another Gaza performer who works as a journalist, shares his feelings about the imminent release of his father from an Israeli jail. His father was imprisoned in 2000 and Hamza, just a boy at the time, recounts his troubling memories of the moment he found out.

The media tends to portray Gaza in one way, and that picture isn’t the true picture of Palestine 

- Mariam Nasser, non-profit worker

Ali Hassany, another Gaza performer, says he doesn’t want a family of his own, asking an actor in London who’d recently given birth why he should "bring children into this terrible world.”

The play’s grim discussions are frequently lifted by lighter moments: there are jokes about London property prices and the guarded demeanour of the British, for example.

London actors of At Home in Gaza and London simulate watching a film with Gaza actors (MEE/Rob Harris)
Ahmed, who has never left Gaza herself, brags to a Londoner that she owns her own flat - an entire floor in an apartment building. She also asks how much Londoners need to make “to have a good life in the city” - drawing a chuckle from the crowd; and if the British are as “tolerant” as they appear in films. Actress Yoko Ishiguro, originally from Japan, said in an interview that as a Londoner, she found the flat ownership detail “unbelievable”.

‘Politics is always there’

According to Ahmed, the performance intentionally veers less into the political and more into the personal, though it is practically impossible to separate the two in a place like Gaza.

Owl Young in London (on stage and right of projector) speaks with Ali Hassani in Gaza, left of projector (MEE/Rob Harris)
“We didn’t want to bring politics onto the stage, though we continually suffer from it,” Ahmed explained. She was raised in a political environment - her mother is a member of the Fatah party, which controls the West Bank.

“Politics is always there, in how we speak, between friends and family and even between spouses. But we didn’t want to focus on that during our performance. It’s not what we focus on on a daily basis. We want daily services to improve and for our youth to find jobs. This play has given us the space to show that.”

Over here in Gaza, you can get through life with very little, and familial bonds tend to be stronger 

- Mariam Nasser, non-profit worker

From a logistical perspective, Gaza is among the least accessible cities in the world. Since 2007, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on all travel to and from the Strip.

Over the last decade, Gazans have endured three wars and the consequences of the Israeli forces' blockade, leaving most of its population destitute and reliant on foreign aid. By the UN’s estimates, Gaza could be "unlivable" by 2020.

Gaza-based artist Walid Tafesh on stage during At Home in Gaza and London (Photo courtesy of Moataz Al Araj)
And yet, none of these details come up in At Home in Gaza and London, at least not directly. More recent developments do, however.

Tensions have soared in Gaza since 30 March, when Israel met largely peaceful mass protests near the fence separating Israel from Gaza with lethal force, killing at least 133 Palestinians. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Hassany, who disappeared for a full day when the protests first erupted, says during the show that the deaths weren’t “the first and certainly wouldn’t be the last,” adding that he’s “sick and tired” of the way Gazans are portrayed as victims, and that he’s ready to talk about “anything besides war”.

‘Nothing is impossible’

The experience was revealing to actors at both ends of the project. “The internet doesn't bring us the smell, heat and the people's real feelings in Gaza, so I often forget their situation,” Ishiguro, who is an artist, said by email. “I don't think I have that strength in me. They are in such an extreme situation with danger, hatred, anger and depression, but they always look happy. I think that's really something. They are such beautiful people. And my friends.”

Conversations and preparations for the project started in 2014, shortly after the Gaza War.

Tara Fatehi Irani in London (far left) in conversation with Mariam Nasser in Palestine, far right of projector (MEE/Rob Harris)
After a round of Indiegogo crowdfunding, several investments, and a series of workshops, the group decided it was finally ready for a live performance. The difficulties then mounted.

The cast lost a couple of participants along the way. One of them, Aya Abdelrahman, left Gaza to seek cancer treatment in Cyprus, while another managed to emigrate to Istanbul.

Seemingly still committed to the project, Abdelrahman makes an emotional cameo appearance during the show, expressing how much she misses her life in Gaza.  

I don't think I have that strength in me. They are in such an extreme situation with danger, hatred, anger and depression, but they always look happy. I think that's really something 

- Yoko Ishiguro, artist

To improve the quality of the performance, the producers designed a technical platform to use for the video-streaming that “was cutting edge in itself,” and that would have allowed them to work with each other “in a much more open and information-rich way than is possible with a simple screen-to-screen system that is similar to Skype,” Maynard Smith said.

Actors performing at the Gaza end of the show. They were very committed to the project; conversations and preparations started in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Moataz Al Araj)
Due to tight restrictions on imports into Gaza, ultimately the gear was refused entry and the crew would have to stick to working with basic equipment. None of those stumbling blocks deterred the actors or producers, who were intent on making do with what they had. At times, they laughed the technical challenges off.

As the show came to an end, many audience members joined the actors on stage for the meal they’d prepared, maqloubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish.

“I want people to see that even if we’re in a place like Gaza, nothing is impossible,” Nasser said. “Despite all the challenges, we can still do something special here, and people should see that.”

At Home in Gaza and London, led by the theatre group Station Opera House, ran until 1 July at the Battersea Arts Centre. It will next be performed at Liverpool’s Everyman Playhouse on 9 and 10 July and its organisers are planning performances in Manchester later this year.

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