Watching ‘Friends’ in Gaza: A Culture Clash

POP STARS AND PARTY LEADERS At a record shop, CDs of singers and Yasir Arafat sit next to one another. Though a store was bombed by extremists for selling pop music, Gazan youth embrace some Western bands. (Ali Ali for The New York Times)

Published: September 6, 2008

GAZA — In a dingy storefront on a noisy block in the middle of Gaza City, metal shelves bulge with dusty audiotapes extolling Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Alongside them, a pouty Jennifer Lopez beckons from the cover of a CD. DVDs are also on offer, of not-yet-officially-released movies like “Wanted,” “Hancock” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” the Adam Sandler comedy about a Mossad agent turned hairdresser in a New York City salon run by a Palestinian woman.

Amer Kihail, 32, a slender man with an elastic, hangdog face, runs the store, called New Sound. Do Gazans living under Hamas buy much Western music or many Western movies? Mr. Kihail looked baffled, and maybe even a little annoyed, by the question.

“Of course,” he said.

Ruled by Hamas, penned in by Israel, grappling with daily shortages of food and supplies, Gazans need an escape. Culture turns out to be not just an afterthought but, many say, essential to surviving here. Especially for young Gazans, what’s on satellite television and the Internet, on tapes and compact discs, is a window to the world beyond the armored checkpoints, and a link to Arab society elsewhere and, crucially, to the West.

And in what is clearly an emerging struggle within Hamas between political pragmatists, trying to consolidate their new authority, and extremists who have begun pressing a more fundamentalist agenda, culture is a central battleground for control of Gaza. A release from confinement and hardship, even mundane television becomes freighted in this context.

As much as the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, this is a front line in the so-called global war on terror, in which anti-Western strains of Islam rub up against the social and cultural proclivities of many, perhaps most, Muslims. How the West fares, improbable as it might seem, may depend as much on whether people in this forsaken strip of land and elsewhere in this part of the world are watching “Zohan” and Dr. Phil, as on skirmishes in the mountains south of Kabul. What’s happening in a humble Gazan music store, it turns out, has repercussions across the region and beyond.

Gaza isn’t what you might imagine, culturally speaking. Like the West Bank, it occupies a special place in the Middle East: Gazans may loathe Israel but have worked there or spent years in Israeli prisons, and while they haven’t taken up Jewish culture, they’ve experienced Western life as many other Arabs haven’t. This has encouraged a sensibility that, until lately anyway, had a moderating effect on both religion and society.

Not far from New Sound, booksellers in this city’s ancient market hawk sex-instruction manuals alongside yellowing paperbacks from Egypt interpreting the Koran. Arabic translations of old Harlequin romances are laid out on folding tables cheek by jowl with joke books in which Muslim characters do borscht belt shtick. (Wife at a psychiatrist’s office: “My husband talks when he’s sleeping. What should I do?” Psychiatrist: “Can you give him a chance to talk when he’s awake?”)

A skinny boy with bad teeth, manning the book tables the other morning, grinned when a woman came by and thumbed through “What to Do if You Have Weaknesses in Sex.”

Pointing to the religious books, she asked, “Do many people buy those?”

“Sure,” the boy said.

“These, too?” she asked, gesturing toward a stack of flimsy softcovers with a picture of the young Cheryl Tiegs on the front.

“Oh yes!” he said.

That evening, in the garden of a family restaurant called Roots (“No Weapon Please,” a sign said on the front door), patrons munched salads and gazed at “Friends” on a big screen. Everybody was waiting for “Noor.”

As they do throughout much of the Arab world these days, the streets here clear each night when “Noor” comes on. A Turkish “Dallas,” centered around the title character and her rich Muslim family enduring the usual soap opera imbroglios, the show has become so wildly popular that imams in Saudi Arabia and Gaza have lately issued fatwas against anyone who watches it. Naturally, nobody pays attention.

FORBIDDEN SOAP Patrons of the Gaza City restaurant Roots watch “Friends” before the soap opera “Noor,” about a well-to-do Turkish family. Imams have issued fatwas against “Noor” fans, but few Gazans care (Ali Ali for The New York Times)

Even Hamas tunes in. Imad Alifranji is helping to start up Alquds, a new Islamic television station, Gaza’s second after Al Aqsa, Hamas’s station, which recently devoted three full days of programming to stories about promising Gazan high school students. Mr. Alifranji is wrestling with what might attract just a few more viewers.

“There’s so much pressure here to find jobs, because of the Israeli siege, because of internal fighting, and with no places for young people to go out, that Gazans take comfort in a Turkish soap opera,” Mr. Alifranji said with a shrug. “It is true, Hamas is upset with some scenes in ‘Noor,’ which it fears provide a bad example for Palestinian families, scenes of sex before marriage. My 15-year-old daughter is obsessed with ‘Noor.’ My son, Mosab, who’s 18, tries to stop her from watching. He disapproves.”

RAPPER RISING Mothafar Alassar, 20, an aspiring hip-hop star, taping a track at the recording studio Mashareq (Ali Ali for The New York Times)

As if on cue, Mosab, who looked 12, walked into Mr. Alifranji’s office. The only time he visited a Gazan cafe, Mosab said, he left because “Noor” was on television. He used to listen to Arab pop stars like Elissa and Tamer Hosni, but now finds “they have no respect for religion.” He prefers Jackie Chan movies and rap. “ ‘Noor,’ ” he said, “doesn’t know the difference between what should be taboo and what is acceptable.”

Suddenly, Mosab’s cellphone rang. He blushed.

The ringtone was the theme from “Noor.”

Hip-Hop and Soap Operas

Gaza has not had any movie house since the last one burned two decades ago during the first intifada. The Palestinian territories are bitterly split, with the more moderate Fatah ruling the West Bank, and Gaza under the control of Hamas, which won the Palestinian popular election two years ago and fought back an attempted coup by Fatah last year. Now Gaza has become isolated. The French Cultural Center is virtually the only institution that organizes a modest art exhibition or music recital once in a while.

But that doesn’t mean Gazans don’t consume and make culture themselves. One broiling afternoon, a dozen young married friends sat around a picnic table at a swim club, near the beach in Gaza City, talking about “Oprah,” “24” and “Prison Break.” The club, a private retreat amid garbage and ruins, was a whitewashed oasis of bougainvillea and tattered canvas awnings on rusty blue poles, a kind of faded Polaroid of Coney Island around 1965, but with female swimmers in soggy pants and T-shirts, not bikinis, and shirtless teenage boys kicking around a soccer ball. “We do as we like in private,” explained Rajah Abujasser, 20, wearing a green head scarf and long sleeves despite the heat.

Across town, Mothafar Alassar was taping a new track at Mashareq, a recording studio. He’s 20, a baby-faced rapper with a shaved head. A few years ago he formed the band S.B.R. with a friend. “Through TV and the Internet I fell in love with rap, with Tupac and 50 Cent, Keny Arkana from Marseille,” he said. “People laughed at first. Rap was new in Gaza. The French Cultural Center, they gave me money to make an album. Now, when we had a concert recently, 700 people came.”

Hamas then arrested Mr. Alassar, saying he had no license to perform, but released him after he gave a live sample of his hip-hop to a bemused, bearded official. “Hamas is not against art,” Mr. Alassar said. “They just don’t understand it.”

Rima Morgan, a 28-year-old business student turned singer in a white head scarf and black leotard, was also at Mashareq, recording a jingle for a West Bank radio station. “My family, which is traditional, didn’t want me to sing, because it meant late nights, at parties, with men and women together,” she said. “But for me singing is the only way to keep going.” She said she listens to Indian music, to Céline Dion and Julio Iglesias, and to Arab pop stars like Elissa. On television, she watches “Friends.”

And “Noor,” of course.

“We can’t travel, so it’s our exposure to another Islamic society,” she said.

Ramy Okasha, a fellow singer, who was also there, shook his head. “The man is not a man,” he complained about Noor’s husband, Mohannad, the soap opera’s blue-eyed answer to Fabio; his face, like that of Noor’s, hangs on the bedroom walls of countless Gazan teenage girls. “She’s too stubborn,” Mr. Okasha grumbled.

What does he watch instead?

“ ‘The Bold and the Beautiful,’ ” he answered.

Cartoons Cutting Too Closely

Hamas produces its own version of culture. The cartoonist Omayya Joha’s caricatures appear in many Arab magazines and newspapers. She’s the widow of a Hamas fighter killed by Israelis. She married another fighter after he died. “I have a quill in one hand and a gun in the other,” she likes to say. At a Hamas office not long ago, sitting reservedly in hijab and black gloves before a conference table and tray of candy and fruit juice, she said coolly: “Israel thinks of me as a radical anti-Semite, but I’m not. I simply do not think that we can ever have peace. No way. Never.”

She studies Western cartoons. “The exposure is very important,” she explained, brightening at the prospect of talking shop, not politics. Lately, the Fatah-linked newspaper in the West Bank rejected some of her work and that saddened her. “You start to think about self-censorship,” she frowned, “anticipating what Fatah will not like.”

This is exactly what many Gazans say Hamas has lately caused them to do.

She stiffened at that remark. “There is a price to pay for your affiliations,” she said.

Eyad Sarraj shook his head when this was repeated to him. “Hamas has not yet officially imposed its cultural program, but it’s in place,” he said. He is a Gazan psychiatrist. “After the election last year, we were assured Hamas would not infringe on our personal freedom, but now they are trying hard to prove us wrong. They are coming into our homes.” He was alluding to an incident last month when hooded Hamas policemen broke into the rooftop apartment of a businessman and his wife, who were quietly drinking with guests. The police officers beat up the men and confiscated the liquor.

Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader, claimed that was a mistake. “Those were wrongdoings by some individuals in Hamas who don’t reflect the movement’s position,” he said. Stone-faced, built like a weight lifter, he was sitting on a patio overlooking the sea, staring undazed into the sun. Below, teenage boys played paddle ball in the surf and women in head scarves, and also some without, sat under makeshift tents. Rifles across their laps, black-clad policemen, who are everywhere in Gaza, perched on a ruined embankment beside the patio, watching.

“Hamas has not implemented any restrictions regarding cultural life,” Mr. Taha said.

Aside from slowing Internet access, ostensibly to deter Gazans from looking at pornography, that’s technically true, but there is also no law here against alcohol and you won’t find a bar in Gaza. Mr. Taha chalked up the attack on the businessman, along with a rising number of similar events, to rogue elements in Hamas, former soldiers now unseasoned policemen who, he stressed, do not disrupt basic party unity.

“If some people are restricting their own freedoms as a reaction, out of fear, that is their decision,” he went on in a deadpan voice. “Do you hear that music?” A restaurant was piping Steely Dan across the patio. “Do I use my power to stop this? No. People are entitled to their behavior — so long as they do not harm this culture.”

And there’s the rub. Gallery Mina, a Ministry of Culture art space that for years hosted poetry readings, films and Western-style art exhibitions, was among hundreds of organizations recently raided by Hamas, with the excuse of flushing out Fatah links; now Mina has been turned into a home for Hamas-approved events.

The Culture and Free Thought Association, a nonprofit organization in Khan Yunis, a town in southern Gaza, with a theater, a summer camp and a variety of arts programs, was looted not long ago by Hamas security forces who held the woman in charge at gunpoint and later went to her home. Leaders of Hamas in Khan Yunis apologized afterward, claiming, like Mr. Taha, that the raiders were renegades.

It’s noteworthy that the places raided by Hamas aren’t book stalls selling sex manuals or cafes showing sitcoms, but cultural centers promoting art that aspires to be more than an opiate for the people, implying an organized attack. “Hamas wants to create an impression in Gaza that they are not controlling individual life or suppressing cultural freedom, and they want that message to reach outside,” said Jamal Al Rozzi, director of the Palestinian Theater Association in Gaza, whose office was also attacked. “But at the same time, everything is under its control. Hamas doesn’t officially tell us that we can’t do anything, but you can be taken away to prison and beaten for 30 days and no one will even know where the hell you are.”

Security at a Price

Khan Yunis is, even by Gazan standards, a bastion of religious tradition, a sun-baked puzzle of tumbledown buildings and dirt streets, the Wild West compared to the cosmopolitan Gaza City. It’s also a Hamas stronghold, although before Hamas took over, a local shop was bombed by Islamic extremists for selling pop music.

“After the explosion, we lost so much that we could only afford to rent half our former space,” said Mazin Abdeen, 35, the store’s owner. He was leaning against the front door of his new place one recent afternoon, chatting with an ice cream salesman next door over the roar of a generator. As usual, the electricity was out. The air was ripe with the stench of reused cooking oil, which, because Israel provides little gasoline, Gazans have turned to for fuel.

On a glass counter in Mr. Abdeen’s shop, stocked with watches and women’s underwear, were tapes by Elissa and Nancy, the pop singers. “Now that Hamas is the government, there is no problem,” he said. “They protect us.”

That is the paradox. Hamas has provided the formerly lawless Gaza with security, which won the party the election over Fatah. But Hamas now makes many Gazans feel insecure. Majeda Alsaqqa is the woman running the Culture and Free Thought Association, the one held at gunpoint. For the moment, she’s back in business. But Hamas not long ago took over the local library, and it stages plays about the lives of Palestinian soldiers killed by Israel, which are sometimes performed in the street just outside Ms. Alsaqqa’s garden.

“They use real explosives!” she said, laughing. “It used to be different here. I used to ride around on a bicycle wearing a dress. The raid on us was about imposing a different culture — about not liking our kind of theater, where men and woman mix. These were brainwashed kids who came with the Kalashnikovs, who are taught not to like foreigners or summer camps, where we teach children not to take anything for granted. For the first time, I’m scared.”

She’s not alone. Even so, Gazans can be stubborn. These days, playing songs extolling Fatah in public is a direct provocation against Hamas. The other night, a Fatah anthem sounded through the streets. It turned out to be a bachelor party. A rented bandstand with flashing lights had been erected in a square.

The men, heads skyward, danced with a mad intensity, escaping into the deafening music. The inky sea was up the street, silent and shimmering. There was no traffic, no movement on the sidewalks otherwise, but at the end of the block, several young, armed Hamas soldiers lingered in the shadows.

“You never know,” said Mr. Kihail, back at New Sound. “No direct threat has come, but you cannot joke with Hamas.” Next to the cash register — beside tapes bearing an image of the long-faced, white-bearded Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin — he nonetheless still stocks Fatah tapes with pictures of Samih Madhoun, the fighter whom Hamas last year elaborately executed. When asked to play a selection from the tape, Mr. Kihail kept an eye on the door.

“Arafat, you left,” the singer wailed, “but you left behind an earthquake that is Samih Madhoun.”

Just then, a middle-aged woman in a head scarf wandered in, and fondled a CD by Mustafa Amar, an Egyptian singer in a dashing white scarf, standing before the Pyramids. “It’s an escape,” she said, making clear she meant the music, not the album cover. Mr. Kihail asked her if she was also a fan of Abdel Halim, the Egyptian crooner, who died in 1977 and who remains universally beloved here. He cued up a Halim song, one about a man abandoned by his lover, with a baleful melody. She nodded. Briefly, Mr. Kihail teared up.

“I blame him,” the woman said, about Halim, “for being so romantic. Life is not like that.”

“No,” Mr. Kihail said, “it isn’t.”

(Source : The New York Times)

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