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Art, Freedom And A Subway Dream Crash Into The Cruel Truths Of Gaza

Art might be the only thing harder than politics to pull off in Gaza, with limits imposed by both Islamists and Israelis. Still, there are small and big achievements, like Palestinian artist Mohamad Abusal's dream of a full-fledged metro system c

A sign of the future? (Mohamed Abusal)
A sign of the future? (Mohamed Abusal)
Laurent Zecchini

It is the idea of an artist, the vision of a poet, halfway between a surreal dream and self-derision: what if we built a metro in Gaza? There would be seven underground lines between Erez in the north and Rafah in the south, the two checkpoints that mark the borders with Israel and Egypt. There would be 200 stations, along the seafront and in the refugee camps, and line 7 would allow them to connect with Gaza International airport if and when it is ever rebuilt.

It would be an environmentally-friendly metro run on renewable energy, with no male-female segregation and no political interference from the Hamas government. From their side, the Israelis would have to agree not to bomb the network and to prevent the power cuts that punctuate Gazan daily life.

The actual construction of the metro will not be a problem: in Gaza, where the number one industry consists of contraband tunnels under the Egyptian border, locals have a certain reputation when it comes to moving earth.

And so, some 1000 Gazan metro maps have been distributed, along with ticket samples, to give the country a nudge in the right direction.

That's the same type of nudge that turned Mohamed Abusal, the 35 year old Gazan artist, into the self-appointed father of the virtual metro in Gaza. He built a pole with a big ‘M" on top and carried it around Gaza wherever his inspiration took him, taking photos of pretend metro stations – at the beach or the port; in front of a mosque or a market; with palm trees, a donkey cart or a bombed building.

Initially taken aback, many Gazans have come to share his dream and have gotten to know the multi-talented artist. All this led to a photo exhibition at the French Cultural Center (CCF) in Gaza, which was then displayed in the West Bank. Mohamed Abusal had to be persistent to obtain the authorization he needed from the government. "I told them that it was just art, but it was hard for them to understand. They asked me lots of questions about why I had done it."

Maybe when it comes down to it, this has made Hamas face up to its own limitations: the Islamic Resistance Movement has had a Gazan metro in its pipeline since 2006, an ambitious project with a price-tag of a cool $1 billion! Sadly, work has never started due to a lack of funding. That leaves Abusal's imaginary metro far more real to those who let it feed their dreams.

What "European culture" means in Gaza

Of course, dreaming is often the hardest part in Gaza. Its artists are short of money and receive no subsidies from Hamas, which has "other priorities'. This is confirmed by Mustafa Al-Sawaf, Deputy Minister for Culture. The country's budget should hit $700 million in 2012, and perhaps "half a million dollars for culture" will be set aside, Sawaf says without conviction.

It is tempting to sympathize with this cultural decay, but the minister shows a hint of something slightly more worrying: "European culture means showing naked women in the street. In Gaza, some feminist NGOs receive funding to undermine our Muslim culture. Projects supporting the emancipation of women don't make any sense, because, in Islam, women are already free."

Al-Sawaf says that instead what is needed "is to educate people to give them clear guidelines on how to protect themselves from foreign influences." But how can this be achieved? Hamas "has ways of promoting Palestinian culture: painting, cultural nights, summer camps for young people, religious meetings." Of course.

There are two art galleries in Gaza, Eltiqa and Windows, and neither owes its survival to help from the authorities. Between power cuts, at Eltiqa you can discover the work of the courageous painters - Ibrahim Al-Awadi, Mohammed Al-Hawajri, Bashir Al-Sinwar, Raed Issa, Ruqaia Al-Lulu and others. The paint and the canvases were provided by the French cultural center, and indeed France is the only country which has maintained a cultural center and a consulate in the Gaza strip.

Just like the Gazan painters, who must keep their work free of political and religious topics, as well as nudity, the French cultural officials know where the boundaries lie. "I base my strategy on respect and dialogue with the local population: I am aware of the sociocultural environment in which we find ourselves," says Jean Mathiot, the director of the center.

However, Hamas is perhaps not the most repressive of the culture police: 95% of the French center's requests to invite foreign artists to the country are refused, not by Hamas, but by the Israeli authorities. So although Gaza is slowly opening its doors to foreign products, art and culture must keep clanking on the bars of a double prison: Israeli and Islamist.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Mohamed Abusal

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