Gazan Humor in Ramallah

The Gazans who fled to Ramallah over the past two years are mostly identified with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, but they still feel alienation from the local inhabitants.

"You get massacred, while we are having a party." "You" are the Gazans. "We" are the Ramallahns, and the speaker is Manal Awad, an actress in a groundbreaking satirical show staged last week in Ramallah, entitled "Gaza-Ramallah."

"Drink two beers and the third is a donation for the Gazans. Has anything reached you?" she asks Imad Farajin, an actor and the playwright.

Many sharpened barbs came flying through the air of the Ramallah performance hall. Along with Kahled Masu, the third actor, they target the West Bank city's nouveau-riches.

When they're done poking needles into the aloof Ramallahn bubble, they turn their sharp tongues on Gaza's consumer culture, which the tunnels economy satisfies.

It takes some personal and social courage to "report" on sexy brassieres being smuggled into the Strip, or "tell" about ones parents who travel through the tunnels all the way to Tehran and Damascus for containers of pistachios or pine nuts, while the media's narative speaks of hunger in Gaza.

Farajin has never been in the Gaza Strip, but his humor sounds very Gazan. It incorporates the self-ridicule one hears so often on the streets of Gaza - voices which are drowned by the abundant reports on a beseiged and beleagured society.

"Maybe it's because I am a Bedouin," he jokingly says at an untrendy cafe in Ramallah. His immediate family was chased out of Israel in 1948, and they moved from their native Be'er Sheva to the Al Aroub refugee camp between Bethlehem and Hebron. His father "immigrated" to Ramallah, where Farajin was born some 35 years ago.

It might be an exaggeration on his part, but Farajin says that most Gazans living in Ramallah came to see the show last week. "They told me it was the first time they felt any kind of warmth and amicability directed at them from what has become the West Bank's capital city," he said.

The Gazans who fled to Ramallah over the past two years are mostly identified with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, but they still feel alienation from the local inhabitants, even hostility - and certainly disinterest.

They didn't seem to mind the jokes made in the show at their expense. Maybe they read the caring tone in between the lines or the genuine concern about the widening gulf separating the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. For Farajin, this is the most crucial issue on the agenda.

The show offers some vulgarities, but it mostly revolves around political criticism aimed primarily at the Palestinian Authority's administration. It touches on corruption, naturally, but most of all it addressed the form of corruption which is linked to the "tatbiyeh" - the normalization with Israel the Occupier - which the Authority's top-brass maintain underneath all their hollow nationalist slogans.

It is a culture where Palestinian businessmen, politicians, dialogue and research institution directors associate with Israeli counterparts and former senior military officers and the Shin Bet security service. A culture that allows a few individuals to accumulate wealth at the expense of the struggle against occupation. It is the "Oslo culture," which has given peace, dialogue and coexistence a bad name.

To address these issues and others, Farajin and Awwad set up their own theater where they put on the show. The Haya Theater ("Theater of Life") cannot afford advertisements and cannot pay its cast's salaries. "Ramallah's cultural institutes book salsa shows from Brazil," Farajin complains, "but they disregard us."

That is why the Haya Theater trio resorted to Facebook messages and word-of-mouth to fill the hall of the al-Kassaba theater in Ramallah. The show nonetheless became the talk of the town, but budgetary constraints have pushed back the next performance to January 15.

"I aim to invoke discussion, to raise questions," says Farajin after returning from a long drive to Hebron, where he participated in a children's show.

"What we Palestinians lack today, what's missing from our culture, is public debate."

The play he wrote does not repeatedly mention the Nakba and the occupation. They are part of the framework anyway, he explains. Indeed, his show does not nurture victimhood and heroism, as many other Palestinian theaters often do.

Quantitively speaking, the show points less criticism toward Hamas. Perhaps it's the distance from the Strip and lack of knowledge about the details. But what is said about Hamas is piercingly critical, indeed.

One scene portrays Gilad Shalit's mother talking with her son over the phone. The scene has no trace of ridicule toward Shalit or his family. "We never make fun of a prisoner," says Farajin, who was imprisoned for about three months when he was 15, during the days of the first intifada - a detention period which made him one of the 700,000 Palestinians Israel has detained since 1967.

She sounds like one of those simple Palestinian mothers who "converse" with their sons by calling radio shows. Since the Israel Prisons Service prohibits Palestinian prisoners from using telephones in its facilities, the radio is their means of communication.

She sounds very Palestinian even when she "informs" her son that his sister had moved from the crowded settlement of Kiryat Arba to a more spacious house in Ariel, another settlement, which offers a much finer view.

And she reports to him about the takeover by Hamas of the Gaza Strip. She tells him that Fatah's top brass has fled to a luxurious hotel in Ramallah and advises him to stay out of it.

"Are you listening? Just agree with whatever the Gaza bunch says over there. Just say 'Amen' after them."