By Jessica Litwak With Hossam Madhoun, Nahil Mohana, and Jonathan Chadwick.
On August 9th, 2018 Hossam Madhoun was chatting with friends a little more than 50 yards from the Al Mishal Cultural Centre. One friend was showing Hossam some of his paintings and they were discussing the difficulty of finding good canvas or paints in Gaza. Another friend who had just returned to Gaza asked where his theatre and performance could be produced in town. He remembered the beautiful and well-equipped Red Crescent Society. Hossam writes:
“But he forgot. The Red Crescent was bombed by the Israeli Army during the military offensive on Gaza in 2008. Oh yes, he said, but listen, there is a theatre at Holst Cultural Center that was built by a Norwegian Fund. When was the last time you visited Gaza? We asked. Hamas took over the control of the Gaza Strip and the Gaza Municipality. They turned the Holst into a water sanitation center and the theatre hall became a storage place for water tanks and sewage pipes and pumps. All we have now is the Al Mishal.”
At that moment the sound of a bomb shook the building they were in and they jumped out of their chairs, it was still daylight, but the sky was black with smoke that covered the horizon. Hossam describes what followed:
“My mobile rang. It was my daughter, Salma, she was screaming with fear. I was trying to calm her down while running toward my home. Those five minutes running were like an age for me. Finally, I am home and my daughter Salma and my wife, Abeer were looking at me with sad eyes. Abeer said ‘they bombed Al-Mishal Cultural Centre.’”
Hossam Madhoun and Jamal Al Rozzi are the co-directors of Theatre for Everybody in Gaza. They have been in collaboration with Az Theatre in London since 2009. Jonathan Chadwick the Artistic Director of Az Theatre writes:
“I had just arrived in Sidmouth, a little seaside town, and we saw a big Palestinian flag outside a Unitarian Church. I’m not a great fan of flags. They always seem desperate things to wave around. But my heart was lifted by this one. Just as I was contemplating the flag, my phone rang, and it was Hossam: ‘They’ve bombed our theatre! They’ve destroyed the Al Mishal. It’s the only one we’ve got, and it’s gone!’ We had just co-produced the world premiere Arabic stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was presented to amazed and enthusiastic audiences, hundreds of young people, on the very stage that had just been destroyed by an Israeli air-strike! All the sets and costumes stored there were buried under the rubble.”
Our colleague Nahil Mohana, a Gaza writer and cultural organizer writes:
“The destruction was devastating. It’s the place where we filmed during our dramatic workshop and embraced the memories of whole generations. It’s the place of many theatre festivals, auditions, exhibitions of art and many entertainment activities for children. All this was suddenly bombed to the ground in the blink of an eye, everything is gone. I’m still in shock.”
The creative and social uses of the Al-Mishal cultural center were far reaching within Gaza and it was known throughout Palestine as a place where beautiful
performance and profound community engagement took place. What happened to the center during and after the bombing has brought an international focus to an ever- growing problem: the sanctioned, consistent, and unwavering destruction of Palestinian culture by the Israeli government. The current plight of artists in Gaza is even more desperate since the August 9th bombing. Artists in Gaza lacked space and safety to make work before now, but circumstances have grown even more bleak with the loss of this vibrant center for arts and culture.
My own artistic connection to Palestine is strong due to many visits to The West Bank to teach and direct, and my ongoing communication with Palestinian theatre makers. I feel I am there when I am not there. The nearly daily news of killings and arrests hits me like gut punch. The concerns for my friends are one thing but the weight of the tragedy of deep injustice sits on my head and breaks my heart in two. The first time I went to The West Bank was to teach theatre and drama therapy in the Jenin refugee camp for the Freedom Theatre and I never realized how deeply the culture would affect me, how often I would want to journey back and how I would feel the blows from thousands of miles. Both my work and my life were changed as a result of my interaction with The Palestinian people and my growing knowledge of the oppression, injustice and tragedy occurring with brutal consistency. Gaza to New York is a world away, and yet it’s here with me right now. When I heard of the bombing of the Al Mishal Cultural Center I literally doubled over in pain. I didn’t know what to do but I knew I had to do something.
I am so grateful that the opportunity came to collaborate on this campaign. It is my honor to be involved with theatres like Ashtar, Yes and The Freedom Theatre and people like Hossam, Nahil and Jonathan in hopes increasing interest and building awareness about the Al Mishal Cultural center: its history, its present, and its possible future. There is a growing community of International theatre practitioners who have come together to condemn the bombing. We are calling for justice. With Palestinian artists and networks, we are researching the best ways to rebuild this cultural center in Gaza. We welcome your action and involvement.
Gaza's isolation as a result of Israel’s blockade and restrictions has ravaged its economy and impoverished its people. Many in Gaza live in a state of unemployment, without sufficient water or electricity. The conditions endured by the residents of Gaza have been seen by human rights organization as violations of international humanitarian law.
The Al Mishal
It was the headquarters of the al-Anqaa’ (the Phoenix) dance troupe and provided open spaces for performances and trainings for cultural
organizations in the Gaza Strip. Al-Mishal Center represented an important symbol of Palestinian cultural identity, heritage and freedom of expression .
Cultural Center was a five-floor building that housed a
performance spaces as well as offices, a library, a café and a recreation center for
children. The center offered many cultural events: theatre, dance, and music to the
population of Gaza City.
On August 9th actors and crew were preparing for an evening performance at
Al Mishal cultural center. The air was alive with the electric theatrical energy that
occurs before the opening of a project that people have been working on for months.
Residents in the area received alerts, that came in the form of phone messages and
warning shots fired by the Israeli army. Locals came to know these warning shots as
“knocks” as they were typical occurrences in Gaza before an attack. No one knew
where it would hit so two hours later when the cultural center was razed to the ground
by Israeli bombs, the community was shocked.
“Caryl Churchill, Elyse Dodgson and I were developing ideas about some work about The Great March of Return killings in Gaza and the UK’s media response. On learning about the bombing of the Al Mishal all three of us immediately felt we must do something about this loss. Az Theatre immediately ran a campaign and raised £5000. We started approaching people who could help to launch a campaign to rebuild a cultural centre in Gaza as a response to this destruction.”
Elyse Dodgson, the International Director of the Royal Court Theatre wrote to her friend and colleague Nahil Mohana, a playwright and novelist living in Gaza.
From Elyse to Nahil, August 2018:
“Dear Nahil, I heard from Ashtar Theatre on Friday that the Al Mishal Theatre in Gaza was flattened to the ground by Israeli bombing. Am I right to think that this was where you sat in the film that we made which showed you involved in a drama workshop there? I am horrified by the atrocities I know are happening every day and want to do everything I can to let people know and understand what is happening. In fact, I found it unbelievable that no British paper reported on the bombing of the cultural center, such an essential part of the community. I would love to hear from you and to have your advice on any action we can take to support artists in Gaza at this critical time...”
From Nahil to Elyse in reply:
“Dear Elyse, I’ve missed you. Your message has relieved the grief I felt after the complete destruction of the Said Al Mishal Foundation in Gaza Strip. Being one of the very few cultural spaces left for Palestinians in the besieged enclave. I participated with many other people in the revival of activity there on the rubble of the Cultural Centre. We do not know the real intentions of the enemy in bombing the theatre, the only building in Gaza that was a symbol of culture and art, something that reinforced our Palestinian identity. It was the second one to be completely bombed. I still have hope that one day I will take my daughter to a real circus show that will be held in its right place and not on the rubble of a building that has long embraced our joy, our achievements and our astonishment. I’ve taken pictures of the event that took place two days after the destruction of the building and I apologize to you for the atrocity you see in the pictures, but the reality is even much uglier and cannot be put into words for I still can’t’ believe what happened...”
“At the end of October another tragedy struck. The wonderful, inspiring and much-loved collaborator, Elyse Dodgson died suddenly in her sleep. Through these letters between her and Nahil, we can feel the deep sorrow of loss that connects our loss with the loss of the Al Mishal Cultural Centre. We feel connected to the tremendous creative spirit of our friends in Gaza and it reminds me of the outrage in Hossam’s voice when he called me to tell me about the bombing. We have now created an international partnership to campaign for the rebuilding of a cultural center for Gaza. We are looking for pledges from creative people throughout the world in
building a base of support for our campaign. This will lay the basis for an International Action Committee based in the creative community of Gaza.”
As a theatre artist and educator have spent much time in Occupied Palestine. I feel I am there when I am not there. The news of bombings and killings and arrests hit me like gut punch. The concerns for my friends are one thing but the weight of the tragedy of deep injustice sits on my head and breaks my heart in two. The first time I went to The West Bank was to teach theatre and drama therapy in the Jenin refugee camp for the Freedom Theatre and I never realized how deeply the culture would affect me, how often I would want to journey back and how I would feel the blows from thousands of miles. Gaza to New York is a world away, and yet it’s here with me right now.
I have worked several times in Palestine at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin and at Yes Theatre in Hebron My strong on- the-ground connections to Palestine; the predicament of the people affected by this destruction is visceral and deeply important to me. But I am writing from the outside. I am telling a story that is not my own. I am a middle-class U.S. citizen living in the United States and have never had the direct experience of being deported, disenfranchised, detained for long periods of time, bombed, shot at or systematically oppressed in nearly every area of my life. Both my work and my life were changed as a result of my interaction with The Palestinian people and my growing knowledge of the oppression, injustice and tragedy occurring with brutal consistency. When I heard of the bombing of the Al Mishal Cultural Center I literally doubled over in pain. I didn’t know what to do but I knew I had to do something. And I am so grateful that the opportunity came to collaborate on an International campaign.
Cultural centers are necessary and vital- these spaces can be a life line for isolated citizens of modern life. In the refugee camp in Jenin I worked with a group of local school teachers on puppet building, drama therapy and playwriting. These were techniques they could potentially use with their students. They told me that they tried to make the kids in the camp feel safe at school, but that the only place the women felt free to express themselves was at The Freedom Theatre. They see it as a center for eating lunch together (there is a community lunch every day) for laughing and talking and learning. Even though violence is all around them (all night you hear gunshots very close- individual shots can be different things but machine gun fire is usually the Israeli army) they felt a sense of safety in the cultural center aspect of The Freedom Theatre where heritage and family, art and music gave them a certain amount of comfort (as well as supplying shelter) from the gunfire and the bombs. I am currently working in another cultural center thousands of miles away in Sonoma County California. At The Arlene Francis Center for Politics, Art and Spirit where I am the new Director of Theatre Arts, the need for a center is also strong. The center is widely used by homeless men and women, Transgendered teens, seekers of community and art. People of all ages, ethnicities and economic classes fill the rooms, huddle around the fire, perform at the open mic nights, join into the community conversations. People depend on the center not just for open hearted tolerance, but for inspiration, understanding, a cup of water or tea. What would happen to them if the government bombed the center and the open mic had to be performed in the rubble?
I met Jonathan in London when I was working on a play about Ancient Cordoba during a time of peace and cultural exchange for Arabs and Jews: La Convivencia (The Co-existence). Jonathan and Az Theatre struck me immediately as warriors for Palestine in a way that is so authentic and visceral and practical and kind
hearted that I wanted to find a way to work with him then and there. Our chance came about a year later when I had been asked by Theatre Without Borders (a group of which I am a core member) if my company The H.E.A.T. Collective could be a host and a custodian for the campaign to rebuild a Cultural Center in Gaza. I met Shalva Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace and we began working with our colleagues from the UK who had already formed a team of vibrant and well-known theatre professionals who gotten a letter published in the Guardian. We are still meeting regularly via Skype and email, building this movement of support one conversation at a time. Often things seem hopeless and insurmountable.
I have worked several times at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin and at Yes Theatre in Hebron. My strong on- the-ground connections to Palestine; the predicament of the people affected by this destruction is visceral and deeply important to me. But I am writing from the outside. I am telling a story that is not my own. I am a middle-class U.S. citizen living in the United States and have never had the direct experience of being deported, disenfranchised, detained for long periods of time, bombed, shot at or systematically oppressed in nearly every area of my life. I don’t know much about what it feels like to be a citizen of Gaze. But here is what I know:
There are artists and civilians living in Gaza under siege who require safe space to gather and work.
One of the most important and largest cultural spaces in Gaza was recently destroyed by Israeli bombs.
I work at cultural centers all over the world and understand the depth and breadth of their importance to a wide variety of communities.
“Yes, they bombed it, the last resort in Gaza for art and creativity! No place for joy and life any more. Don’t dream of watching a theatre play or a Dabka dance or a concert. It’s not there anymore. Our last show at Al-Mishal theater was the play "War and Peace" from Tolstoy’s novel. For us, our message was that we don’t want war, that we want to live in peace, that we are human beings. I feel that this message has been buried under the rubble of the Al-Mishal theatre along with the set and costumes of our play.”
If we as an international community keep working together by using theatre as a weapon of peace and justice. If theatre people everywhere can be conduits for the message of liberation through action, there is a chance that justice will be served. I remember something a student told me in The West Bank: When the Israeli government outlaws flag waving, Palestinian youth carry watermelons and smash them on the ground. A broken watermelon is red and black and green-The colors of the Palestinian flag. Maybe with the creative weapon of performance and physical metaphor we can find the courageous generosity necessary to spread the word, to rebuild, to keep imagining freedom until it’s really there.
what it is to feel lonely and isolated artistically and feel the need for a
cultural gathering place where I can feel free to express myself with
I also know
The International theatre community has expressed a huge urgent response
of empathy and concern and willingness to help.
Palestinians are generally warm, social people who are generous, resilient
and courageous. I believe that they will survive this current blow and be
able to build a new and vibrant center. With our help. With yours.