How do you talk about a situation so heavily overlaid with the politics of pain that to even mention the word ‘Gaza’ creates division?
Reactions that teeter between fear and resistance, ignorance and involvement, suspicion and commitment.
How do we face the reality that it is civilians, especially children, women and the elderly who suffer most in protracted situations of conflict?
What does it really mean to live on a tiny patch of overcrowded, ancient land and be entirely restrained from leaving?
And what happens when passionate altruism encounters unrelenting hardship?
Australian-Palestinian playwright and poet, Samah Sabawi knows better than most how quickly a conversation stalemates when it turns to Gaza, her birthplace. She is also deeply aware of the power of story to open that conversation and gently draw people into the reality of what it is to live in Gaza, to love Gaza, to suffer there and to want the world to understand and respond.
Her play, Tales of a City by the Sea, tells the story of different people living and working in Gaza in recent times. It is written with the compassion of one born there, yet one who is able to step outside to witness what life is like for its inhabitants and those who are motivated to offer assistance.
Like any good script it blends love, humour, poetry, celebration and tragedy, supported by fine music, stagecraft and acting. The music takes the form of a haunting solo female voice singing in Arabic songs of lament and questioning. The set is a clever design using simple white curtains to create each scene. The actors come from many different cultural backgrounds, bringing their own story to add to an awareness of what Gazans struggle with on a daily basis.
There are sounds of bombing and gunfire recorded in Gaza, overlaying a compelling love story. The script is authentic, honest, sparing and deeply moving. The songs, the sea and Samah’s poetry are threads holding it all together:
‘…there is no limit to the sea’s audacity
it breaks the siege every day,
one defiant wave at a time
connecting Gaza to the rest of the world…’
Two young people fall in love, both dreaming of how to renew the world and bring peace to its troubled heart, but he is from Texas and she is from the besieged Gaza strip.
It would be more satisfying if Sabawi had found a happy ending for all the players –and for us. We could have left feeling we had helped solve the situation simply by buying a ticket and sitting there in the darkened theatre. Yet, such it the effect of this play that I did leave feeling empowered and inspired by the day-to-day lives of brave ordinary people, our sisters and brothers:
‘…I hold on to my identity
I write poetry
and pray its rhythm will keep my children’s hearts pumping…’
August 3, 2016 saw the final productions in Sydney after sell-out performances in Melbourne and Adelaide, but there are plans to keep producing it elsewhere, including once again in the West Bank.
Having shared this story, the question remains for every audience member –how do we help to keep the children’s hearts in Gaza pumping?
Gillian Hunt has travelled to Israel and Palestine, visiting the West Bank and Gaza. She is a member of PIEN (Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network) in Australia.