From Gaza: Does creativity only come from misery?

Palestinian artist Maha Al-Dayya has finished painting artworks of the houses that were destroyed by Israeli planes during the repeated wars on Gaza, July 8, 2023, Gaza Gity. Photo by Mohammad Zaanoun, used with permission.

This story was first published by We Are Not Numbers, on August 21, 2023.  It was written by Dana Besaiso. An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement. All photos have been shared from Instagram with the permission of the photographer Mohammad Zaanoun.

They say misery breeds great art. From John Keats’s powerful poems about his struggle with illness and death, to Vincent van Gogh, who channeled his battle with mental illness into his dramatic and intense paintings, those who suffer can infuse their emotions and experiences into art that holds exceptional power and meaning for the world. The dilemmatic question that comes to mind is: what happens to art when the misery is gone?

Misery as normal


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For as long as I can remember, my story alongside every other Palestinian’s has been filled with sorrowful events. Even the cheerful and happy ones are, in some way or another, coated with misery.

Whether it’s that girl preparing for her wedding in Gaza, that youth who migrated to secure a better future, or that very old lady sitting on her couch with the key to what was once her home — before the Israeli forces dispossessed her out of it — hanging from her necklace. Her hopes of returning to her house diminish as she watches the repeated Israeli military attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque on her TV.

When my eldest sister, Rasha, graduated with her master’s degree from the United Kingdom, my family and I couldn’t be there to witness her achievement because of the travel restrictions on residents of the Gaza Strip. We had to experience it through photos and videos. Yet, I still considered myself and my family lucky that at least one of us made it!

In the meantime, most of her international friends’ families managed to attend because, for them, it was as easy as booking a ticket and getting on the airplane. We had only dreamed of seeing an airplane, much less flying in one.

Growing up under miserable circumstances


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Since I was born, life has been tainted with agony. Growing up in Gaza, we bore witness to destruction, murder, and countless escalations, that we became nicknamed atfal horoob (“children of wars”). We even joke around and say we graduated with a “bachelor’s degree in war,” as we have officially survived four Israeli aggressions, in addition to numerous attacks.

We got so used to moving on after these Israeli escalations that we started believing it was the norm. We carry our losses, sadness, and grief, and keep moving on with our lives. We return to work or school with the heavy baggage of emotions on our backs. Life must go on.

In May 2021, we faced one of the ugliest and most horrifying Israeli aggressions. The 11-day attack resulted in the deaths of 232 Palestinian civilians, including 65 children, over 1,900 injured, and 1,447 housing units in Gaza demolished, leaving countless individuals with no shelter.

I considered myself one of the lucky ones back then. After that escalation, I struggled with survivor’s guilt — a mental response to an event in which someone else experiences loss but you do not.

“Why me?” I would ask myself. “Why did I survive when so many didn’t?” These thoughts haunted me for a while. I had spent each of the 11 nights saying my goodbyes to my family and friends because death was so close.

I considered myself lucky because I didn’t lose someone close to me, didn’t lose my home, or my identity.

And then, life went back to normal — or as normal as it can be.

Misery is part of our daily lives


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Sad stories are etched in our DNA. I grew up listening to the stories of our grandparents and how they were displaced from their homes during the Nakba of 1948 and Naksa of 1967. I heard about the horrific massacres that happened before I was born, such as the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948, the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, and many more.

These anecdotes are not just part of our history, but rather a part of our daily lives. We face the brutality of the occupation, whether it is the aggression on Gaza or the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, such as in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Silwan neighborhoods, and others.

I got so used to these stories that I stopped seeing the bigger picture. The continuous and repeated tragedies that affect almost all Palestinians made me lose perspective that this life is not normal.

It is not normal to have an entire family removed from the civil registry because they all died in an Israeli bombing. It is not normal to be denied your childhood because you were locked up in an Israeli prison since you were 13 for a crime you didn’t commit, like Ahmed Manasra.

It is not normal to be traumatized by the sound of a shutting door because it reminds you of the sound of bombing. And it is not normal to lose your four-year-old son, such as Tamim Dawood, because his heart couldn’t handle the sound of F-16s dropping bombs on his neighbors.

What will happen if the misery lifts?


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I am struggling with the fear that if, inshallah, the Palestinian reality changes for the better, I might lose the inspiration to write. As a person who has lived her life in constant terror, my passion for writing stems from the ongoing struggle to advocate for my fundamental human rights.

So, the question remains: Will I be able to create happy stories that are not rooted in Palestinian misery? Will we ever write cheerful stories? Ones that talk about happiness and success? Ones where people are genuinely happy without mentioning the “in spite of” in the middle of it?

Will I ever write a story about a mother enjoying her son’s wedding without noting that it happened despite the Israeli forces recently demolishing their home before their eyes?

I can only hope that there will come a day when we, Palestinians, no longer have to ask these questions, because we are no longer burdened by misery. We will learn for ourselves whether there is a trade-off in terms of creativity, and whether it is worth it.


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