What do you expect to hear from a group of teenagers discussing their dreams, their difficulties, their experience of daily life? Cheerful aspirations, perhaps, such as: “when I grow up, I want to be a journalist or a lawyer or a prime minister”. Worry about exams, being scolded by a parent for not doing the food shopping properly… These things and more appear in The Gaza Monologues, along with a very different normality: a deep-seated fear of shop windows, cars, school buildings, the bread queue, having seen these things shattered by military attack.

In 2010, long before the wave of violence currently engulfing Gaza, Palestinian company Ashtar Theatre worked with their teenage participants—some as young as 13—to create a series of monologues from their own lives. Their stories are heartrending: accounts of near-death experiences, food and fuel shortages and a grinding, inescapable anxiety. But they are also tender with youthful exuberance: as when one 17-year-old declares, “each day I live is the biggest bonus, and all the life I live after the war is extra because I could have died at any second”, or a 15-year-old explains that they would not leave Gaza “even if they give me a choice between it and Paris, because I discovered that places are in their people, not in their buildings or views”.

Increasingly, it feels vital to hear Palestinian voices directly, unmediated by journalists or political allegiance. Which is why Ashtar Theatre has called on theatre-makers around the world to perform The Gaza Monologues on 29 November—the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, initiated in 1977 by the UN.

It was an invitation that London-based theatre director Susannah Tresilian couldn’t resist. Tresilian is a co-founder (with Iman Aoun of Ashtar Theatre) of Project Ariadne, a global collective of women who make social and political theatre to inspire change, and has long admired “the role Ashtar play in supporting the resilience and well-being of often highly traumatised people”. She admits that the monologues, by 31 teens, are “hard to hear, even more so in the light of current times”, but for her this is all the more reason to bear witness.

Which is how she came to be putting together a lunchtime performance in London at two weeks’ notice, at the tail end of maternity leave—“often, I've got my baby gurgling into the phone beside me,” she admits. Working on “a total shoestring”, she’s managed to draw in a number of high-profile readers, including actors Juliet Stevenson and Samuel West and novelist Ahmed Masoud. “It's been incredibly heartening to see just how many amazing people are willing and able to give their time and craft to show the Palestinians, who are feeling terrifyingly alone, that we see them, we hear them, we are here for them,” she says.

For performance-maker and socially engaged artist Leo Kay, there is an additional imperative for hearing these monologues: to support calls for an immediate ceasefire. Kay is co-curating an online performance with producer Leila Jones for the evening of 29 November—joining over 70 readings happening that day around the world—and has his own first-hand accounts of life in Palestine. “My parents were anti-Zionist activists of Jewish descent, and lived and worked for a large part of the last ten years of their lives in Ramallah. I visited them and travelled through the—then much less extreme but still terrifying—roadblocks.” Even in 2006, he says, “the plight of the Palestinians was similar to the apartheid it has so clearly turned into today.”

While many UK theatre organisations remain silent, Kay is clear in his response to the current violence. “The atrocious acts carried out by Hamas on 7 October, where well over a thousand innocent Israelis were killed, do not justify what we are seeing now: an unmasked and outspoken intent by the Israeli state to carry out ethnic cleansing.” Challenging this, he argues, requires that people “not conflate anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, a call for immediate ceasefire and Palestinian freedom with antisemitism”.

Kay wants the online sharing of The Gaza Monologues—with readings from activists, writers and performers from the live art and poetry scenes including Hamed Sinno, Lowri Evans, Mandla and Polarbear (aka Steve Camden)—to offer a “gentle and welcoming space” in which to commune with the thoughts and expressions of Palestine’s children, young people who know themselves to be “forgotten and outside the picture”. Young people who, given half a chance, might be able to change the future for the better. “I wish I could be the president of Palestine for one day, so I can end the hatred and spite and end the internal division,” says one 14-year-old. “But unfortunately I’m not the president—and that’s why there was a war.”

The Gaza Monologues can be experienced in person at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London WC2, 12:30PM and online at 7PM, both on 29 November 2023.