Culture is also dying in Gaza

Farah Chamma takes the stage and fixes her gaze on the audience.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
12 May 2024 Sunday 16:38
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Culture is also dying in Gaza

Farah Chamma takes the stage and fixes her gaze on the audience. “I have a lot to say,” she whispers minutes before to LIEV, the Brazilian music producer who accompanies her and with whom she forms the group Chamæleon. But, now that she has the opportunity, the words cannot seem to come out of the mouth of this poet of Palestinian origin. It is Monday, May 6, and Israel has just rejected a ceasefire for an hour and has begun attacking the border city of Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, with the resulting deaths. Since October, nearly 34,800 Palestinians have lost their lives, according to the UN. Among them there are poets, writers, playwrights, journalists and academics who leave several generations orphaned and a half-baked cultural legacy.

In the auditorium of the Center de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), attendees understand her pause and applaud her as a sign of support, while in the surrounding area, at the University of Barcelona, ​​dozens of young people camp in support of Palestine. “Let's go with them. Let us unite at the end,” Chamma finally pronounces. Many promise that she will do so after listening to the poems she claims she plans to recite and that they are accompanied by interpretation and music. A show called Moved, “for the fact of being moved emotionally and physically from your land,” as she explains to La Vanguardia. Some poems are by the artist herself. Others, from poets who are currently suffering from war or who have already died. “The best way to honor them is to read them. Let's not stop doing it."

On social networks they heed this and other similar requests and there are dozens of profiles that are opened, such as Gaza passages, to expose the testimonies of artists of all kinds who have died in recent months. One of them is the poet Heba Abu Nada, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza on October 20. In her last post on Facebook, the author of Oxygen is Not for the Dead (2017) wrote: “The Gaza night is dark without the glow of rockets, quiet without the sound of bombs, terrifying without the comfort of prayer, black without the light of the martyrs.” Today, her verses have gone viral.

Two months later, Refaat Alareer, poet and co-founder of the We are not numbers project, which links young writers from Gaza with foreign authors to learn to write in English, was also a victim of the bombs. If I must die was his last poem and has been translated into more than forty languages ​​and transcribed on banners and kites (a symbol of freedom) around the world, now converted into an anthem: “If I must die, you must live to tell my story.” A similar message was the one sent by the young poet and writer Nour Al-Din Hajjaj on Facebook days before he died: “It may be my last message that reaches the free world, flying with the doves of peace to tell them that we love life.” or, at least, the life we ​​have managed to live.”

Another name that resonated in the media was that of the playwright and actress Inas al-Saqa, who died along with three of her children. When her loss became known, the Palestinian poet Khaled Juma wrote on social media: “Today, my friend, the curtain has fallen… and the theater stage has darkened.”

The death of the writer, journalist and guitarist Yousef Dawas also made headlines, which they took advantage of to rescue the essay Who will pay for the twenty years we lost? , in which he talks about the destruction of the family garden, which he relates to “the loss of an important part of our past and our heritage.”

These are just some of the names of the more than 45 authors and artists who have died since October, officially confirmed, that the cultural sector has lost, along with the visual artist Heba Zaqout, the painter Halima Al-Kahlout or the young violinist Lubna Allian, fifteen years old.

“More than half of Gaza's population has been forced to flee from the north to the south, leaving behind their homes, libraries, literary legacies, rituals, musical instruments and tools, which form the basis of their work and livelihood. These include musicians who have lost the ability to hear and artists who have lost their hands and limbs. However, some continue to create melodies for songs that describe the suffering of the displaced in Gaza," laments Atef Abu Saif, former Minister of Culture of the Palestinian National Authority in a ministry report on the damage to the cultural sector, in which they denounce considerable losses.

At the beginning of April, UNESCO verified serious deterioration in at least “43 sites since October 7, 2023: 10 religious sites, 24 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 2 deposits of movable cultural property, 3 monuments, 1 museum and 3 sites archaeological sites”, in addition to multiple libraries, such as the municipal one in Gaza.

“When I was Minister of Culture, I wrote many letters to the Secretary General of UNESCO and many other international organizations to ask for intervention to protect. Israel is not simply destroying the country's history and culture. It is destroying the memory of the world. And the worst thing is that a large part of the world covers its eyes and remains silent,” the politician told this newspaper via mobile messaging.

The October 7 bombings caught Abu Saif on a Gaza beach, where he was bathing with friends. He began to write in his diary the daily nightmare he faced: the missiles against schools and hospitals, the visits to his young mutilated niece in the hospital, the murder of those close to him, or the long lines to get flour. The result is the book I Want to Be Awake When He Dies. Diary of a Genocide, published in Spain by Blackie Books, in Spanish and Catalan. The entire amount of sales will go to Medical Aid for Palestinians, the Middle East Children's Alliance and Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The publisher reports that 3,535 copies have been sold and 70,700 euros have been raised to date.

There are several cultural entities that try to contribute their grain of sand to the cause. The United Kingdom is one of the countries in the world in which the publishing sector has mobilized the most, as demonstrated in the rallies held during the London Book Fair, thanks to platforms such as Book workers for a free Palestine or Fossil Free Books, which have extended the watermelon symbol, emerged in 1967, when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank and the carrying of national symbols, such as the flag, was prohibited. Then, the Palestinians began to use slices of this fruit instead as a form of protest, since it has the same colors: red, green, black and white.

Actions such as the cancellation of the PEN America literary awards after half of the nominees refused to participate in the ceremony due to “silence and complicity” have also been notable. The organization announced on its website that it would provide direct financial assistance to Palestinian writers.