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Faces of violence

Violence may not be just physical; there are various aspects to it — one being the oppression of women in a patriarchal set up. VIKRAM SURA looks at a play on the culture of violence in Palestinian society.

Rehearsing the play "Mr. Perfect"

IN a medium-sized hall inside the Ministry of Culture building of the Palestinian National Authority in Gaza City, Mohammad Abu Kuaik bursts with conceit. He hollers at the three Palestinian Arab women who shrink at his feet, "I am the idea in your mind, I am the shadow of your body, I will come back as the breeze of the sea, I am your history".

He steps away from the panic stricken women but returns in a fleeting moment and with a fixed expression, again shouts, "I am the shadow of your body. I am everything!" The women keep mum, until Abu Kuaik finally withdraws.

Mohammad Abu Kuaik's moods swing at a moment's notice. He is an actor with the Fikra Arts Institute in Gaza City. He and the three women are running through a script in the ministry building. Their stage-play is about the culture of violence in Palestinian society. Abu Kuaik's character dramatises the "spirit" of violence, which oppresses the timid women who eventually decide to fight back, explains Ibraheem Mozain, 41, the play's director. "If you ask many people in Gaza to explain violence, they think of physical violence," says Mozain. "Maybe this closes their mind to other forms of violence. They will, I think, think again and see violence in words, in sentences."

The one-act play with 10 scenes begins with three women who happen to meet and chat about their childhood. They don't know that one of them is now divorced. When the divorced woman tells them of her wrecked dreams, the other two fear for their futures. But, as the play runs, they begin to think of resistance, says Atef Abu Saif, the 29-year-old playwright and novelist. "It's about how marriage takes a turn for the woman. How in the beginning it was very exciting; the honeymoon, the second month, third month, then the problems start. The play goes to those problems. It's about the interference-from men. It's a reflection of society's anti-woman approach, where the culture of man is the God."

Rehearsing the play "Mr. Perfect"

Of the nearly 2.8 million Palestinians living in cities, towns and 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 49 per cent are women, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. "When you talk of divorced women it touches on our work so closely," says the chief of the women's unit of the United Nations-accredited Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, Mona Al-Shawa. "Egyptian Sharia law as practised in the Gaza Strip allows girls to get married at 14 and a half years. Society looks down on the divorced woman. The family places her in a prison-like atmosphere."

Al-Shawa points out that in 2001 of the 9,683 registered marriages in the Gaza Strip, 1,427 ended in divorce. "The woman here represents the Arab woman all over," Al-Shawa says. "Most of these women ask us to represent them in the Sharia court as they cannot bear the expenses, especially on issues of rights after divorce, alimony and custody of children. It's very bad for them. Sharia law allows a boy to decide where to stay but not the girl. It's my opinion that we must balance our fight against the occupation with the fight for rights of women."

Abu Saif focusses on this dilemma. He says he is taking a crack at generic violence in Palestinian society by pointing to the social and personal violence against the divorced woman. In the play, the "spirit" of violence reveals itself first as harsh economic circumstances, then as the voice of a nationalist Palestinian explaining human rights away in the face of Israeli occupation and finally as a political-economic sanction against discussion of rights. Somewhere in the train of scenes, the mother-in-law, too, is a little face of violence, says Abu Saif.

It is when the "spirit" comes out as a sanction against rights and when the women finally resist it, that Abu Saif hopes his audience gets the message — that human rights cannot be put aside in favour of arguments of future perfection. Abu Saif has a name for the play, "Mr. Perfect".

"The spirit always boasts that the `game is perfect'," he says. The three women are the vehicles of resistance. In the first few scenes, they are voiceless and alienated in the presence of the spirit and move awkwardly on their fours, meaning their consciousness is low, says, Mozain.

Abu Saif watches as he improvises on the script.

Says Abu Saif; "In the play the spirit speaks in classical Quranic language about past glory. It always talks of tomorrow or yesterday, not today. It talks of how we should fight the occupation, says first national freedom and then details of other rights of individuals. The details of the girls don't affect the spirit."

"Like what happened in Israel," explains Mozain. "They use the outside enemy (Palestinians) as a pretext to explain their bad economic situation. This is what we call the spirit of violence. You go from one issue to another, completely different, issue. In our case, for example, many say, `Let's first talk of occupation, then human rights.' They attribute our mistakes to the occupation. For example, one of the characters speaks about her childhood. She is a good singer but her father stops her from singing because it's not proper. It's taboo. Another girl is stopped from playing with boys by her elder brothers and instead given domestic work. This is constant. It's like her mind and her body are always connected to someone else. First the parents, then the husband."

"This sort of violence is legitimised through several kinds of interpretation," continues Mozain. "To lead a good family life the girls are told to behave in a specific way. To take a political step against the occupation we are told we must now suffer this and this."

The Fikra group plans 70 performances in the Gaza Strip; and later a 20-minute workshop with spectators. Wesam Yasen, 26, enacts the role of the divorced woman. She says, "The story of her marriage starts beautiful and lovely. But as days go on it gets worse due to different economic and political pressures. In the beginning, she is scared, worried. Then after a while her friends decide that we have to fight this violence and stand together against it."

That's what Mozain is attempting to portray. Now trying to roll his spine like a Chinese accordion-dragon, now flexing his limbs on the floor imitating a timid canine, now gracefully half-rising like a wild beast pouncing on its prey, finally he stands with an air of determination. Each movement illustrates a different stage of awakening of the women, he explains. During those actions the women, according to the script, whisper, then murmur, and then begin to talk aloud about resistance and finally resist the spirit of violence. Yet, as the spirit withdraws in the last scene, it repeatedly warns, "I will return like the breeze of the sea, I am everything!" In the ministry building, however, Abu Saif improvises his script. On the margins of the text, he jots down in Arabic "I am everything but nothing."

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Israel.

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