“My name is Rana and I live in the city of quarrels: Gaza. Because of us arguing, the whole world started to argue. I have just witnessed a war of 51 or 52 days long, yes, even about the number of days they are quarrelling.” These are the words of Rana, a 17-year-old girl from Palestine. Together with 11 others she travelled from Gaza to Belgium in the beginning of October. Their journey wasn’t without difficulty, but in any case they were very determined to reach Belgium and share their story. Up next is an inspiring testimony of a group of young Palestinians who have found a hopeful way to deal with life in ‘the city of quarrels’.
Theatre has a liberating effect
The twelve Palestinians are part of the organisation Theatre Day Productions (TDP), or ‘Ayyam Al Masrah’ in Arabic. TDP was established in 1995 and is all about theatre. The multicultural staff and volunteers carry out their work in the Gaza Strip, where they offer a professional 3-year theatre training program. They also organise various workshops, such as how to write and stage a theatre play, or how to design animation videos. Thanks to the cooperation with a number of schools, the youngest ones in Gaza also get the chance to connect with theatre through the special program Kids 4 Kids.
TDP pays special attention to all aspects of acting and improvising, but they focus on the maximum personal development of young people as well. Theatre has a liberating effect, the aspiring actors learn to master new ways to express their emotions and deal with their traumatic experiences. TDP offers them an outlet and makes the daily reality in Gaza a little bit easier to bear. The theatre is like a different world where the actors can just relax and unwind, while the audience (made up of Palestinian children, adolescents, parents and teachers) assures them of being listened to.
Zuiddag and ‘Work For Change’
Now how did Theatre Day Productions end up in Belgium? Every year about 12,000 Flemish young boys and girls commit themselves to the campaign ‘Work For Change’, an initiative of Zuiddag. These students are in their last years of high school and will swap class with going to work for one day (this year on Thursday 16 October). The students can practise an independent job or apply to the government, companies and organisations. The wages they earn will be donated to an international project, and this year it was decided to financially support Theatre Day Productions, a partner organisation of Broederlijk Delen.
For their promotion campaign, Zuiddag granted an important role to the Palestinian youngsters of TDP. Last week they visited about 80 schools that participate in Zuiddag, to share their hopeful story from Gaza. Who are we? What does it feel like to grow up in Gaza? What does our organisation TDP stand for? What will we use the output of Zuiddag for? A great feeling of being connected arises due to the personal and often intense contact between the Palestinian and Belgian adolescents. Now, the students can put a face to the name Theatre Day Productions and more than ever they are convinced that their actions will contribute to the right of being young in Gaza, this year’s Zuiddag theme. This week the Palestinians will also stage a big theatre play for the Belgian students, in the cities of Diest, Brussels and Leuven. The play is called Summer Vacation in Gaza and like every other play written by TDP, the outline is based on the actors’ personal experiences.
Rana and Reem
I had the honour to volunteer as an Arabic interpreter and spend last week with Rana and Reem, two girls from TDP who came along to Belgium. The narratives of their personal lives already triggered strong emotions in me while translating the Arabic. When I was 17 years old, I did not think about the danger of bombs or rockets flying around. Nor am I now, as a 24 year old, confronted with events like that. But here I stand next to two Palestinian girls ages 17 and 24, who briefly outline how by now they survived several conflicts and war situations back home in Gaza.
Comforting melancholic sounds
But Rana and Reem both found their own way out of the daily drama. Reem and her oud, a Middle Eastern string instrument, are inseparable. “He is my best friend, sometimes a bit difficult, but I love him and he loves me. For 12 years now he’s been standing faithfully by my side.” For her, music is the only straw in the wind she can take hold of in times of war. Her magical strumming reveals her great passion. The different sounds she encounters in Gaza every day inspire her the most: someone crying, whistling missiles, but also spontaneous laughter or excited voices of Palestinian children playing in the streets.
During the war last summer, Reem offered oud workshops in Gaza to youngsters, kids and especially women too. She aims to create melancholical sounds that evoke a lot of intense emotions with the audience. This makes her music very comforting at the same time. It is as if her oud is telling a universal story from Gaza, and by doing so many inhabitants find hope again.
Life is precisely the hardest way of all
In the outbreak of violence and war, Rana seeks her salvation in words. She is a talented young writer. Her essay ‘Is 53 seconds long enough to gather my soul?’ on the war in Gaza last summer has been translated into Dutch and English. She shared her story in various schools in Belgium by reading excerpts, accompanied by Reem on oud. Rana’s touching testimony affected everyone to the depths of their souls. “I’m still alive, my friend, and keeping my promise. Do you know why? I will only answer you because I know you can keep a secret: I’m still alive because death is the easiest way out of war, and life is the hardest way of all. Life is precisely the hardest way of all.”
Like every 17-year-old girl, Rana is also busy with her studies. “Next year, after high school, I will take law classes. So that I can quarrel with everyone in the world. But I’m also interested in philosophy, to learn about why they used to argue in the past.” It makes me smile to know that Rana, despite her difficult youth, did not lose her sense of humour.
After the presentations, the Palestinian girls take their time to answer all kinds of questions. But there is one question that keeps popping up: “Aren’t you girls scared in Gaza? Don’t you want to move, escape from the insecurity and violence?” But Rana and Reem answer with a decisive no. They are proud to be living in Gaza, and they just do not want to leave their family and friends behind. “Maybe I’m lucky to be still alive… We don’t know why or how, but we Palestinians do not give up. As long as we feel connected, we are hopeful,” says Rana. “I remain strong myself, I have to be brave.” Reem adds. “Because working with children and adolescents traumatised by war, it asks for a lot of courage.”
On Friday 10 October, at 11 pm, the last presentations and translation tasks were finished. I am sitting in the car, together with Reem and Rana, on our way back from the town of Oostende. Even though we are all tired, we still find the energy to talk. About the past week, about next week, about the upcoming big theatre play, about returning to Gaza. We fantasize about the future. A future where Rana and Reem and the whole TDP group will stage superb theatre plays. Where Reem is a famous oud player and Rana an important journalist. A hopeful future, where I meet my Palestinian friends again and together we enjoy theatre, music, word art, and rest.
This post is also available in: Dutch