A Chronicle of Gaza, in Kitsch Form





“I can offer you a discount on the headbands,” said Tareq Abu Dayyeh, souvenir-store owner. “They’re just like the kind used by suicide bombers.”

He was making a sales pitch at his Chairman Arafat Shop, one of Gaza’s oddest commercial outlets. A battery-powered, dancing Osama bin Laden doll occupies a shelf above Barack Obama coffee mugs emblazoned with a misspelling of the U.S. president’s middle name: “Abu Hussain Palestine Loves You.” A plastic Virgin Mary and Jordan River holy water share space with plaques depicting the Dome of the Rock, the foremost Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.

The green flags of the Islamic party Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, stand next to the yellow banners of Fatah, the bitter rival that Hamas expelled. Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary leader, appears on T-shirts.

“We have something for everybody, believe me,” said Mr. Abu Dayyeh, 31, who started working in the store in 1994 when his father founded it.

Since then, the shop has been a one-stop barometer of Palestinian fortunes, selling kitsch that chronicles war, political infighting and Gaza’s isolation since 2006, when Israel began to blockade the coastal strip.

When the store opened, it was called the PLO Flag Shop, and the souvenirs reflected hope. Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had returned from exile to take control of parts of Gaza and the West Bank. Peace seemed to be on the horizon and in tribute the shop displayed little crossed Israeli and Palestinian flag pins and key chains, Israeli flags and menorahs, the candelabra that is a symbol of Judaism.

A big seller was an inflatable vinyl pillow imprinted with Mr. Arafat’s smiling face. One that was purchased in 1995 deflated after a few months.

Israeli-themed mementos fell out of favor in the late 1990s as peace talks foundered, the Israeli settlements expanded and Hamas carried out a suicide-bomb campaign inside Israel. Posters of Saddam Hussein, who supported Palestinian liberation, were the rage.

“When things were good, everyone thought that Gaza was going to become the next Singapore; instead, it became the next hell,” Mr. Abu Dayyeh said, adding that he would take 5 shekels, or $1.33, for a Saddam poster now.


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