Fireworks, a new play by Ramallah’s Dalia Taha, is a war story – set in Gaza during the 2014 Israeli attack that saw schools, hospitals and as the play mordantly recalls, even cemeteries bombarded for six weeks.
Almost everyone is living in shelters in UN schools. Just two families remain in a rudimentary Gaza City tower block. The children, Khalil and Lubna, play indoors or dare each other to venture out. Khalil’s parents worry that the unpredictably violent boy has been damaged by constant war. The shadow of a moustache has grown on his lip, but he is interested only in Ninja Turtles, and playing tunnels and checkpoints.
Meanwhile, Lubna’s parents are so deep in mourning for a son, shot at random by an Israeli sniper, they cannot see their girl is growing up. When Lubna has her first period and applies TCP to the bloody patch her mother can only demand, don’t you talk about this with your friends? Don’t they tell you this at school? Of course, Lubna is no longer going to school, nor has any friends but the unstable Khalil.
I caught Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) at the Royal Court in its last week. I would have gone earlier, but the title is a little too resonant: I have spent a lot of time in Palestine over the past twenty years and was caught in the invasion of Bethlehem in 2002 (Leila Sansour, my wife, made a film about it with comedian Jeremy Hardy). We spent six weeks under curfew, as the Israelis shelled the local refugee camp, and shot at anyone who appeared in the street – which I did foolishly did several times.
When I think about fireworks, I remember that for four years after the invasion, I couldn’t stand bonfire night. I would sit inside with the family pets when the explosions started.
Taha, a talented poet as well as playwright, is perhaps remembering the 2002 invasion as she writes about Gaza. The seeds of Gaza were sown in 2002, when the Palestinian Authority was all but destroyed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived a plan to finally draw Israel’s international borders without consulting the Palestinians (or, indeed, the Israelis) by getting out of Gaza and building a wall around the land he planned to annexe inside the West Bank.
However, Sharon fell into a coma almost immediately he put the plan into action. With no guiding hand, a plan that was never anything but the fantasy of a dangerous autocrat no longer even had its guiding demon.
Sharon seemed to have intended Gaza to remain under permanent siege: he redeployed his troops to the outskirts of the strip, never removed them. Today, Israelis tell the story of this time as though Sharon had presented a gift to the Gazans – and complain it was thrown back into their faces.
With Gaza under permanent siege and no effective Palestinian government, police or welfare services, the strip was swiftly taken over by armed Hamas militias. Sharon’s refusal to give time or space to negotiate Gaza’s future – he left precipitously to confuse his friends and enemies alike – meant there was no possible way to influence, interact or negotiate with Gaza ever again. Now, to satisfy the Israeli public’s demand that something must be done about the strip, all subsequent Israeli governments have mounted aerial bombing campaigns … and for no reason except to buy a percentage point in Israeli opinion polls.
It is an endless war crime, and even in a world filled with evil, one of the most impossible and infinitely dark situations imaginable.
The hopeless certainty that the one million inhabitants of the densely packed Gaza City will be bombed again, and again, ever more savagely, until the end of time, makes Fireworks a play with little possibility of hope or happiness: never the most attractive offer to a ticket-buying audience. Yet this is play filled with love and passion and warmth, and the dryly whimsical Palestinian humour. The excellent cast includes Saleh Bakri, one of the most well-loved and, frankly, most widely-fancied Palestinian actors. This is Bakri’s UK stage debut and though his English is less than fluent, each of his scenes grows in power. At the end, he is unbearably moving in a scene with Khalil’s father (Nabil Elouahabi), contemplating the city from the roof of their tower block.
It is a thrilling and intense evening. I should have gone earlier, so I could go again.
Rating: Four Stars