Discovering Gazans' resilient side

By Simon Cox
BBC News

Image source, AFP

After a year of relative calm, tension between Israel and the Palestinians is now increasing again. But as journalists arrive in Gaza City - expecting tensions and unrest - stories of surprise have been coming back.

Room 17 at the Al Deira hotel was a Moroccan style suite with a stylish bathroom, colourful rugs and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean lapping gently at a curve of golden sand. It was not what I was expecting in Gaza.

I had come prepared for trouble, with a flak jacket and helmet, driven from the border with Israel in an armour-plated car past a plethora of grey breeze block structures, unfinished due to a lack of cement.

I was not here to report, but to train a group of journalists from Alwan radio for a weekly programme they had been making with other stations in the West Bank as part of a wider BBC and British Council project.

My hotel was not the only surprise - so too were the 10 eager, smiling faces waiting to greet me at Alwan's offices on the 11th floor of an office block in downtown Gaza. The majority were young women, dressed in jeans and trainers and bold bright headscarves in a rich medley of mint greens, purples and blues.

Image source, Simon Cox

There was Taghreed, a young mum who presented a daily sports programme; Safa, who got her masters degree while working as a journalist for three different broadcasters; Ahmed, a laid back business student who made stand-up comedy videos for YouTube; and Ramy, a softly-spoken presenter who moments after meeting me, informed me I was compassionate, thoughtful, but often impatient.

It was no surprise Ramy presented a show on astrology.

They were all keen to learn but also to show me Gaza's reputation as a violent, dangerous place was undeserved.

We would meet every morning by the lift, waiting for the power to come on.

Rawan, my young translator, explained how the electricity was only on for eight hours a day so work, shopping, everything had to be crammed into this brief window.

Many businesses have their own generators, like the enterprising barbers that I passed, filled with customers and powered by a wire running outside to what looked like an outboard motor.

I expected the stories from my young team would be primarily about the hardship of daily life but instead they recorded stories on their mobile phones about the strawberry season; a second-hand shop where both the rich and poor came to pick up designer bargains; and an unemployed engineer who had become a canary breeder to make money.

You need this kind of ingenuity when half the population is unemployed.

Ahmed, who lives in a refugee camp in the north of Gaza, told me how his main wish was for a well-paid permanent job without which it would be impossible to find a long-term partner.

He was volunteering at the station as he had stopped making the comedy videos he filmed on the street because he was tired of being constantly stopped by the police.

Out on the station's roof terrace he told me how he had had decent jobs in the past with NGOs but once the projects came to an end he was back on the dole. In Gaza, he told me, you can be an executive one week and the next you are nothing.

It was a learning experience for me too, finding out Gaza was not such a scary place at all.

I began to venture out with my translator Rawan and Sajid, a young manager at the radio station to an ice-cream parlour in downtown Gaza for a scoop of creamy pistachio, or to a buzzing pizza restaurant or the supermarket where Sajid bought me dukka, a spice mix best served on toasted flat bread, drizzled with olive oil.

As we strolled back to my hotel along pitch black roads, Sajid told me how hard it had been coping with the power cuts at first but he shrugged: "We are used to it now, we just get on with it."

And that is exactly what his young team of journalists did too preparing for two separate live shows at the end of the week's training.

Image source, AFP

There would be no political discussions or speculation about Middle East peace talks - their audience was weary of this and wanted to be entertained.

Safa's team certainly did this in their show Alwan Extra, with lively items about photography, the lack of cinemas in Gaza and the health benefits of strawberries.

Taghreed's rival team interviewed beggars, a 17-year-old football commentator and even had a violinist in the studio to end the show.

I was pleasantly surprised and proud of what they had achieved.

As I left with gifts for me, my wife and daughters, a perpetually smiling presenter, Nesma, even asked me optimistically if next time maybe I would like to return with my family.

Image source, Simon Cox

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