A night out in Gaza is pure music Fun: There's no alcohol and few women, but the weekly Gaza Nights Festival offers a rhythmic escape for the intifada generation. Admission is $3

Sun Journal

the water pipe is $1 extra.

September 17, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA -- It's Thursday, and the guys have gathered for a night out on the town. Pressed and primped, they arrive at the beachfront with dancing shoes on. But the Egyptian band they came to hear won't be playing this night. Israeli authorities stopped the musicians at the Egyptian border and turned them back.

Disappointed but undeterred, Mohammed Abu Halil and his friends still pay the $3 entrance fee. It will take more than checkpoint politics to ruin their fun. Says Mazen Mosa, 24: "You just throw your suffering into the sea."

Oh, those Gaza nights!

Gaza is usually associated more with misery than relaxation. Its economy is dismal; the unemployment rate tops 50 percent.

Sanitation is primitive, with pipes dumping raw sewage into the blue Mediterranean. But despite or perhaps because of the grim conditions, hundreds of young Palestinians come to the Zaharat el Medina tourist village for its weekly music festival.

The outdoor concerts are something new in this territory, a place struggling to define itself now that it is governed by the Palestinian authority instead of Israel.

The night life at the Gaza Nights Festival offers no alcohol and few opportunities for romance, because tradition-minded Muslim women rarely venture out unescorted.

But the concerts provide an opportunity to socialize and an evening of escape for a people hemmed in by an Israeli military closure now in its eighth month.

The closure, imposed after a series of bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, prevents Gazans from leaving this rectangular strip of land and from commuting to jobs in Israel.

The festival began in midsummer, and the concerts are held at a resort village on the Mediterranean, where holiday cabins line the beach and water sports and satellite dishes are free of charge. Popular Israeli-Arab singer Raed Kabaha drew a crowd of 6,000.

'Gazans are ready'

"After 30 years of occupation, of conflict and struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, people are thirsty for activities like our festival," says Ryad al Hasan, the general manager. "Gazans are ready to participate in modern life. But they need a way to express themselves."

The Gaza is home to 800,000 Palestinians, the majority living in crowded refugee camps. This is where the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, began in 1987. In the last year, per capita income has dropped to $700, from $1,200.

"People have been saying there is going to be an explosion here," says Ron Wilkinson, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff member in Gaza. "They said the same thing during the gulf war when there was a six-week curfew, and there was no explosion. They've been through so much, and they keep on putting their chins up."

The people in Halil's circle of friends are university-educated, anxious to begin careers or pursue advanced degrees -- and struggling to find work.

But for a few short hours on a Thursday night, they can go to the festival to forget their worries.

With the featured performers stuck at the Egyptian border, a local band has been hastily hired to play traditional Palestinian music. The stage is in the colors of the Palestinian flag -- green, red, black and white.

The performers wear traditional costumes. They sing a song about "the Hawk," a much revered fighter killed during the intifada. They do the dabke, a Palestinian folk dance.

Halil and his friends clap in time to the music. "I love being in a good mood," says Halil, the comedian in the group. "Gaza Nights has good atmosphere."

The friends attended the festival for the first time last month to hear a popular Palestinian singer from the north of Israel.

"The Palestinians inside Israel and here are one people. You must know this," says Yusef Wadi, a 24-year-old social worker.

In the past, the men would have socialized at someone's house -- an evening of cards or chess. Now, they come to the music festival.

The audience is mostly young men. They sit at tables, sipping soft drinks or eating schwarma, the local specialty -- a sandwich of lamb, vegetables and salad. For $1, they can rent a water pipe.

In another town or another country, the men might be dancing with a woman.

In this traditionally Muslim culture, the only women at the concert are foreigners or Palestinians accompanied by a husband or male relative.

A Spanish lady

Nasrin Krayem Dominguez, 19, is among them. She stands near the schwarma stand. Elegantly dressed in a cream-colored sheath, she wears a head scarf and pumps of the same color. She is a native of Spain, and she has dressed modestly for the occasion. Her male cousin accompanies her.

"Gaza is still, well " she says, implying that the atmosphere is more conservative than her European tastes.

For Halil, Wadi and others, Gaza is home. The teen-agers of the intifada are now young men waiting for the dividends of peace.

"We live in freedom," says Wadi. "But economically it's very hard. We think all the time about traveling outside the country because the conditions are hard."

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