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Gaza’s oldest theatre lies in ruins. For the people who made art there, its story lives on

Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre, conceived by artist Laila Shawa and architect Saad Mohaffel, was destroyed in an Israeli bombardment

In 1972 the Gaza-born visual artist Laila Shawa worked on a sequence of oil paintings known as the Cities series. Some of them, while stylishly attentive to local architecture, intrigue most for their compositional decisions: the presentation of busy early Islamic-era streets as a horror vacui, or the sad unmooring of a Palestinian refugee camp outside the walls of an Israeli-occupied metropolis. Shawa was not simply an observer of cities. As daughter of the Gaza mayor Rashad al-Shawa, she was thinking about how to transform one.

Laila Shawa had a radical vision for Gaza: she wanted to establish its first big culture venue since the violent Nakba displacement of Palestinian people, 24 years earlier. It was an idea about which she confided in Saad Mohaffel, a Syrian architect who she had met recently. A student of tropical modernism, Mohaffel knew how to lend bold, new expression to such a monumental project. He and Shawa had a lot of common ground – so much so that, eventually, they married.

The mayor tasked Mohaffel with designing the new venue. The architect’s drawings revealed a daringly geometric building, its two triangular wings together forming a square. Its three floors housed a printing press, library, gallery and auditorium. The exposed-concrete building, with its abstract forms, disrupted the Ottoman-era cityscape, its high walls looking bunkerlike but its entrance large and illuminated by stained glass, like a temple. Mohaffel once said: “From one angle it is a fortress, and from another it is interestingly open and accessible.”

Designed and constructed over a lengthy period, the venue was named the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre, in tribute to the mayor, who died in 1988. It opened during the unrest of the First Intifada, when Palestinian citizens protested against Israeli occupation, which eventually led, in 1994, to the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority. A new era required new artistic inquisition.

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For the next three decades the centre programmed plays by artists from Gaza and further afield. Last November, during a brief ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the Palestinian ministry for culture reported that the centre had been destroyed. It was reduced to rubble by an Israeli bombardment. A ministry report on the cultural sector damage confirmed that its theatre auditorium had been the oldest in Gaza.

“It is shocking to know that there hasn’t been much research done on Palestinian theatre, and there is a huge gap in literature,” says Mahmoud Abusultan, who was raised in Jabilia refugee camp, in northern Gaza. Now a doctoral student in theatre studies at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, he is dedicated to deepening engagement with theatre from his home country.

Abusultan has identified several significant plays that were seen at the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre, mostly after the Gaza War of 2008-09, which followed a breached ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. The collapse of Palestine’s Hamas-Fatah government had also left the state geopolitically divided, making for a complex, hazardous inheritance.

During the frightening weeks of the Gaza War, the playwright and director Sa’eed Al-Baytar wrote a series of interrelated texts that might form a play. Later in 2009 the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre hosted Al-Baytar’s play Women of Gaza and the Patience of Ayyub, a large-scale work of broad imagination that weaves recent history with scenes from scripture.

In dreamlike movement, women are seen emerging from the rubble of a bombed street to piece back together their lives. It is a stirring portrayal of the Palestinian tradition of “sumud”, or steadfastness in remaining rooted to homeland, and to living daily life ordinarily, as a kind of nonviolent counter-strategy against Israeli oppression.

Al-Baytar makes clear that it is often women who maintain these sustaining rituals. He includes an episode from Helena of Constantinople’s visit to Palestine in the fourth century, with visionary plans to build a tunnel reuniting isolated Gazans, before her power-hungry brother plots to assassinate her.

The scenes from more recent history centre on brave women: a Palestinian mother separated from her child while incarcerated in an Israeli prison; a Christian nun who puts herself in harm’s way to protect civilians of different faith. “The production attempts to highlight how strong Palestinian women are, and how they are always undermined by the existence of those thirsty for power – and, more often than not, these are greedy men,” Abusultan says.

Parallel to that perseverance is the story of the Islamic prophet Ayyub – Job in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament – who remained loyal to God despite immense personal suffering. Al-Baytar archly depicts him as a kind of wise fool who eventually becomes lucid enough to ask searing questions about solidarity and whether Palestinians will be expected to resist on their own.

“The wise fool seems to be a common theme around that time,” says Abusultan. In The Umbilical Cord, a dark comedy from 2010 by Iyad Abu Sharia, which was staged by the theatre company Ibhar, a man is similarly adrift – this time because of grief after the death of this father – but is articulate enough to land some home truths. In this portrait of working-class Gaza, where inhabitants receive food parcels from foreign aid, business owners struggle to make ends meet, and young educated people see their future vanish before them, the lack of united leadership after the Hamas-Fatah split has allowed the city to seriously decline.

In an ingenious twist, the political leaders agree to meet the residents – who, in a comic parallel to contemporary politics, make their own ramshackle attempt at a united front, divided by intergenerational grudges and opinions on foreign aid, while troubled by the dark spectre of political violence. When a politician preaches about their practice of sumud, he triggers an outcry from the city’s vulnerable inhabitants. “They make clear to him that steadfastness comes from the people and their sacrifices,” says Abusultan.

Another play, Life Partner, from 2018, is a comedy of disguised identities and deception. Set in the world of Palestinian financial institutions that grant loans to young people trying to afford their marriage ceremonies, it sees some young men start a fraudulent business, dressing up one of the group as an alluring bride to draw in bachelors.

Their warp into con artists is unsettling and sympathetic, Abusultan says. “Given how high the unemployment rate is in Gaza, a lot of the Palestinian youth are unable to successfully get married. Their acts come from a place of desperation.”

One of the final plays seen at the Rashad al-Shawa Centre was the family drama We Must Not Speak, from 2020, by the playwright and director Zuhair El-Bulposei. A fresh, contemporary play about fatherhood, it follows a man trying to guide his children while confronting the taboos of previous generations. No comprehensive recording of the play’s production has been found, but Abusultan is still looking.

Given the interference of Israeli-appointed architects in the development of Gaza in the 1970s and 1980s, the Rashad al-Shawa Centre was always miraculous – though it came at a personal cost to Mohaffel. When the architect was unable to circumvent Israeli opposition to other urban-planning projects, including the establishment of a city port that would boost the local economy, Rashad al-Shawa’s fury led to tension within the family and, eventually, to his daughter’s divorce from Mohaffel. “Gaza brought us together, and Gaza tore us apart,” Laila Shawa said.

Abusultan has written about the extraordinary events that followed the destruction of another venue in Gaza, the Said Al-Mishal Centre, in 2018. Housing an auditorium and offices for theatre and dance artists, it was destroyed by Israeli aircraft. Out of its wreckage, artists created a new space for art. They performed music and dance there, and installed their work on the debris. It is remarkable to think that they saw even smashed concrete as a canvas or a stage, as if they wanted to send the message that they would not be silenced.