TANYA Habjouqa tells the story less told about the four million people who live in crowded and dangerous conditions in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Her photography essay, Occupied Pleasures, captures the region’s people having fun.
Instead of photographing youths throwing rocks, or hands raised in the victory sign, or the grief of the bereaved, she’s pictured people goofing off. They include girls practicing javelin throwing for their university team, a bunch of parkour guys tossing themselves with abandon around a graveyard, and a young man lighting up a cigarette at dusk on the last day of Ramadan. What makes the photo striking is that he’s sitting inside a car with a sheep he has just bought.
The germ for the project goes back to 2009. Habjouqa had just finished a project on women in Gaza, and was following up on a story about a woman who’d been smuggled through underground tunnels for her wedding. Habjouqa sat with the woman’s husband, “a total romantic”, who told her about how the pair fell in love on Skype, as he couldn’t leave Gaza because of the siege.
“He said they brought the whole wedding party into the tunnel. He described the scene. He said, ‘She was standing waiting there for me in a white dress. She was trembling. She was terrified. It was like a Bollywood movie. And I ran to her, and I kissed her.’ He was very jovial. Then he became serious and he said, ‘No matter what this occupation does to us, we will always find a way to survive, to laugh, to love, to be ourselves whether it’s under the ground or under the sea, we will always find a way.’ I remember that statement really struck me. I felt it.”
ln 2009, a news story broke about a zookeeper who’d painted a donkey the colours of a zebra. Gaza’s zookeepers have to use their wits to stock their zoos, including stuffing dead animals because they’re not easy to replace. The donkey/zebra was top of Habjouqa’s list for Occupied Pleasures. She searched high and low for its whereabouts.
“People had fantastically illogical stories,” she says. “They said, ‘Oh, yes, the Israelis killed him’. Certainly the Israelis have committed many egregious acts against your people but I highly doubt this! I’d sort of given up on it when the last zoo that I went to the young man who worked there said, ‘Yes, I know what happened to it. I fed it to the lions’.
I said, ‘What?’ Then he brings me inside and I see these two baby lion cubs running around. He said, ‘I didn’t have any food, the donkey was decrepit anyway so I fed it to the lions and the lions had babies’.”
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