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Theater thrives in Gaza, despite restrictions

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A war zone is hardly a fertile place for nourishing theater companies and filmmaking ventures. Throughout occupied Gaza and the West Bank, a severe lack of funds, combined with heavy travel restrictions, has had a dampening effect on the output of Palestinian arts groups. Extreme poverty prevents potential audiences from paying to attend theater performances, which in turn has forced the closure of many small troupes. Existing film and theater groups struggle daily to survive.

Despite the many frustrations, however, the Palestinian theater and film scene is remarkably vibrant; this summer even saw successful film and theater festivals held in both Ramallah and the Gaza strip.

"There are no properly equipped theaters in Gaza, and very little Palestinian Authority funding," laments Sami Abu Salem, founder of the first Gaza Theater Festival, which played to full houses in makeshift venues last month. "People say, 'Why should we care about culture when we're fighting for survival?' " Most financing for theater in Gaza comes from foreign donors and aid agencies. But, he says, well-meaning charities often have their own agendas and fund performances only if a play's message fits their own.

Still, theater groups perform as regularly as they can, often giving away tickets to shows. Private Palestinian charitable organizations are focusing their efforts on children, who they believe are key to the re-creation of a thriving cultural environment. But making their dreams a reality is not an easy task. Freedom of movement for civilian Palestinians remains at almost zero, making it impossible for a free flow of ideas to emerge. Curfews imposed by the Israeli military have frequently forced evening performances to be cancelled, thus discouraging even local audiences from attending.

"Cultural growth requires accessibility," says Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, cultural program director at the Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian arts charity. "Before the intifadas, people would travel from Jenin or Nablus to Ramallah to watch a play, then leave for home at midnight. That's unimaginable today."

This year's Gaza Theater Festival faced similar problems. Originally, it was conceived as an international event. "But," Mr. Abu Salem explains sadly, "in the end, all the foreign theater companies decided not to come. They were scared of being caught in a war zone. Even West Bank and Israeli Arab companies didn't come, as they couldn't get through the Israeli Army checkpoints."

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