A New Year’s song of hope for Gaza

The New Year’s Eve party at Gaza City’s Mamoura wedding hall. (Rami Almeghari)

On New Year’s Eve, my family and I planned to escape the immense pressure we and everyone else in Gaza continue to endure. Every day, we face problems because of Israel’s four-year-long blockade. Electricity cuts, the lack of proper medication and the absence of theaters, cinemas or amusement parks for our children make life extremely difficult as a parent in Gaza.

We ask ourselves, where do we go, what do we do, and how can we enjoy ourselves while we suffer so many headaches? Is it possible for us to enjoy a New Year’s Eve in Gaza, which is considered to be a conservative community and is governed by the Islamist Hamas party? It is true that we are Muslim Palestinians living under occupation. It is also true that there might be very little room for us to enjoy our lives. This is what was on my mind on New Year’s Eve.

As a reporter and a writer, I thought I might try to cover New Year’s celebrations in the besieged Gaza Strip. So I started to make few phone calls, hoping that I would find a worthy story on a day that is usually marked by dancing, singing and other celebratory activities in most other parts of the world.

The headlines outside of Gaza read, “Gaza is being Talibanized!” But is it really? That’s what I wanted to answer for myself and readers of The Electronic Intifada in the context of the New Year’s celebrations. International media have been increasingly reporting that the Hamas party in Gaza has been imposing social restrictions, including preventing women from smoking water pipes in public places, or forcing women lawyers to don Islamic dress.

In the middle of the day a neighbor of mine, who is a musician, told me, “Tonight we are going to hold a concert for the new year at a hotel on the beachfront in Gaza City’s Sheikh Ejleen neighborhood.” I quickly asked him in response: “Have you been licensed by the local Hamas security authorities?” He answered outright: “Yes!”

Right away I picked up my phone in an attempt to interview a Hamas spokesperson about the decision to license New Year’s celebrations in Gaza. I waited, but got no answer from him. Perhaps he was too busy celebrating the new year himself?

I had no more time to wait for the spokesperson’s reply to my interview request. I put on my suit and tie, ordered a taxi and my family and I headed for the licensed celebration at the Mamoura wedding hall on Gaza’s beachfront in the heart of Sheikh Ejleen.

As couples and families began to flow into the reception hall, I saw images that contradicted the notion that conservative Gaza is being ruled by freedom-curtailing Islamists.

Musicians began to perform beautiful music and a singer stepped up to the stage, holding his wireless microphone and moving cheerfully among the audience, trying to warm them up. Smiles and clapping hands dutifully began to appear among the men, women and children in the crowd.

As the party went on, the audience was treated to surprises. Two clowns moved among the audience and entertained the children. But my seven-year-old daughter Nadine and my four-year-old son Mohammad appeared scared when the clowns approached them. Maybe they are not used to seeing such clowns.

In any case, the audience appeared very pleased. Some families clapped loudly, while others sang along with the music. Meanwhile some men were smoking water pipe in the back of the hall.

At some point, the emcee declared a break, during which he began asking the audience some entertaining trivia questions. The correct answers would be rewarded, either with a gift or a meal at a local restaurant. I won a meal at a Thai restaurant in Gaza City after I correctly answered a music trivia question.

But even more unexpected was what came next — the announcer asked me to sing a part of the song about which he had quizzed the crowd! It was somehow embarrassing for a university lecturer and journalist like myself, in the conservative community of Gaza, to sing in front of an audience.

And yet I sang, after initially insisting on remaining in my chair. I wanted to fill my heart with joy. I wanted to teach my kids to be open-minded and think beyond the conservative way of life that is said to be imposed on them. I sang to tell the whole world that there is spirit in Gaza and there is room for joy despite the hard living conditions under Israeli occupation.

The end of the New Year’s concert was rather conservative, as scores of families among the audience awaited the singer’s count-down to 2011. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one … Most of the lights in the hall were kept on, though the dimmed stage lights allowed the sparkler the singer held high illuminate that special night.

Yes, lights should be kept on in Gaza. Gaza must celebrate. Gaza must say farewell to one night and welcome another, under light. Despite the plight, Gaza still has a light!

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.