GAZA — Of the clamors of the world around her, she sees nothing. Neither the walls and watchtowers that enclose the Gaza Strip, nor the destruction brought by the bombs. She doesn't even see the months-old rubble of the neighboring building. Her only window, barely wider than an arrow slit, looks onto an empty back alley and is made even darker by opaque glass. She opens it a little, in the morning or in the evening, when the sunbeams hit the wall she covered with egg cartons to absorb the sounds from outside.
Since November 2013, Nidaa Badwan has refused to leave the first floor of her family home in Deir al-Balah. She's been living cloistered inside nine square meters that serve as both a bedroom and workshop. And yet it's here, in this dark space, that her reflections come to life.
Badwan's self-portraits represent weeks of preparation. She poses in front of her typewriter, or on her multicolored bed, facing her computer, sometimes in a lotus position, her head turned to the ceiling, maybe with her eyes closed, as if in ecstasy. She calls the project "100 Days of Solitude," in reference to Gabriel García Márquez"s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which she reread during the first weeks of her confinement.
Except for two rattan armchairs and a coffee table, her universe is made of reused garbage, of ludicrous ready-made stuff. An old, threadbare tire, a guitar with a hole in it, a ladder she uses as a swing, a rusty camping stove. In her snapshots, each object stands out. Everything is palpable, as in a still life. Her photographs, made of warm lights and silence, are reminiscent of 18th century Flemish paintings.
The 28-year-old Palestinian artist has isolated herself voluntarily. She's walled up in a territory that has itself been transformed into a prison. "This is the only place where I really feel free," she says. She's fidgety. For the third time since the interview began, she's moving her knickknacks, rearranging her furniture.
Here at least, she can decorate her cell as she pleases, wear the clothes she likes, be whoever she wants to be. Inside her four walls, she reinvents herself, chooses new roles, from dancer, dressmaker or painter to geek or writer.
Harassment and repression
Badwan hesitates before explaining the reasons behind her imprisonment. "The Israeli blockade is smothering us," she says. Then the artist talks about the harassment she's endured. “People bother me because they forgot what a female artist was," she says. "To be a woman in Gaza means being oppressed. But to be a woman and an artist is even worse. Little by little, my mind has been paralyzed by the fact of living here."
Badwan grew up in the United Arab Emirates. Her father taught sociology at Abu Dhabi University and her mom taught Arabic. Wagering on peace, the family returned to the Gaza Strip in 1999. A year later, the Second Intifada began.
In the besieged enclave, perpetually at war and dominated since 2007 by Islamists, Badwan enjoyed a freedom that few others had. "In my family, everybody could do as they pleased, as long as they didn't hurt anybody else," she says. "That helped me to construct my own character. I was born Palestinian, from Muslim parents, but I was able to decide what I would become."
After studying science, she went on to study art at Al-Aqsa University, only to see Hamas shut down the department soon after. She started hanging out with the small local artist scene. In 2012, she exhibited her works in Amman, Jordan, as part of a retrospective entitled, "This is also Gaza."
"She’s part of a new generation of Gazans who are particularly creative and dynamic, despite the almost total lack of cultural institutions," says Marion Slitine, a Palestinian art expert and anthropologist at Musée du quai Branly in Paris. "They criticize, denounce and sometimes even transgress local realities."
On Nov. 18, 2013, Badwan was arrested by the Hamas vice squad as she was taking part in an artistic event. The officers reproached her for wearing baggy overalls, for covering her hair with just a woolen hat, for her manners and for the presence of men near her. She tried explaining her approach to them, repeating that she was an artist. The word, for them, was meaningless. They beat her up and made her sign a document in which she vowed not to leave her home without a veil.
The next day, she decided to cut herself off from the world. "I don't want to step outside as long as the situation doesn't change."
A cave of wonders
During the first weeks, she refused all contact with her family and only opened her door for a bowl of soup. She slept on the floor and sank into depression, crying for hours and hours. She tried to commit suicide by hanging. But the door that held the cord around her neck yielded under her weight. "That was fortunate," she says, smiling.
Since then, the door has had no handle. She has become accustomed to her open cage. She turned it into a place of joyful chaos, in stark juxtaposition to an outside world she associates with death and destruction.
To help her keep busy, her mother gives her simple tasks to do, such as peeling onions or knitting. She turns these ordinary life scenes into photographs. "I had the idea of representing myself through the different characters, the different aspects of my new existence," she explains. "I chose this medium because I couldn't afford to buy painting material."
Her prison became her imaginary museum, her cave of wonders, the horizon she can never pass. She stayed there even during Operation Protective Edge, launched last year by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as her neighborhood was being badly damaged.
Her family left the house to seek shelter in the center of Gaza where fewer bombs were dropped. She stayed behind. During the rare moments of respite, friends and family brought her food. When fighting reached its peak, she published on Facebook a picture of herself pouring a blood-red liquid over her face and chest. "I'm ready to die in this room if I must," she says.
Her computer is her only release from this reality. "She reads a lot as she travels from website to website," Slitine says. "She spends hours in front of her screen. She gained her popularity thanks to social networks."
"Spectator of her own success"
Badwan receives encouraging messages from all over the world. Anthony Bruno, director of the French Institute in Gaza, one of the city's only cultural centers (closed since the Charlie Hebdo attacks), noticed her. "The aesthetics and the depth of her approach struck me," he explains. "I offered to select 14 of her pictures to make an exhibition."
With the help of France, "100 Days of Solitude" was shown at the al-Hoash gallery in East Jerusalem. The young woman said she would halt her self-imprisonment for the occasion, but Israeli authorities refused to grant her a visa. On the evening of Jan. 22, she stepped outside just for a moment, just long enough to visit a Gaza hotel so she could plug into Skype to follow the art show's pre-opening. "The electricity is cut during the night where I live," she explains.
Over the course of 18 months, she has left her isolation just two other times — to go to the doctor. She wore a niqab, both to obey police orders and to avoid seeing the world around her.
Her pictures have appeared on the front page of The New York Times, and have circulated around the cities of the West Bank. The exhibition could soon be shown in Paris and New York. But not in Gaza. For fear of the Islamist rulers.
"The project has opened up many doors for Nidaa," says Anthony Bruno. "But she's a spectator of her own success. It's difficult for her to see that what's happening to her is real because she witnesses it all from her screen."
Her creation and freedom of movement has become purely digital. As if the artist had become dematerialized.