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Gaza puppeteer doesn't let the war stop his passion

Yousef al-Hindi holds a puppet, also named Yousef, that he created using materials found in his camp in Rafah.
Anas Baba
Yousef al-Hindi holds a puppet, also named Yousef, that he created using materials found in his camp in Rafah.

RAFAH, Gaza — Sitting outside a tin shed, surrounded by blankets draped over rope for privacy, Yousef al-Hindi carefully slices a piece of styrofoam into the shape of an arm. The material squeaks as he slowly breaks bits off.

Before the war in Gaza, al-Hindi was a successful puppeteer and social worker from the Shateh refugee camp in Gaza. He used puppets to treat children's anxiety, anger and trauma and he co-founded Camp Theatre, a traveling children's puppet theater. He proudly posted about it on his Facebook account a day before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that started the war. Al-Hindi practiced the rare and storied craft of marionettes and puppetry using his own set of professional tools and colorful paints.

Al-Hindi is now homeless, displaced in Rafah on the Egyptian border, living in the wasteland that is Gaza today. His toolbox left behind, he now uses instruments he has fashioned from tin and wood. He builds a puppet by cannibalizing a broken, empty refrigerator where there is no stable electricity to run it, let alone enough food to store in one. He uses medical supplies like plaster and cotton he saved from a cast he wore on his foot after sustaining an injury a few months ago.

That puppet is grey, devoid of color, bearing his own name, Yousef — a mirror image of his own pain.

Unlike other puppets al-Hindi has created, Yousef carries a burden: the burden and pain of being a displaced Palestinian, a person without a home, and a future that is uncertain.

"I have made many puppets, but Yousef carries a story that has affected me before it has affected others," he said. "Every time I hold the puppet or work on it, I feel how much difficulty we live in, and I empty my emotional energy into it."

The puppet is also based on a real child called Yousef who was killed during the war and who has come to symbolize all the Palestinian children killed. In a viral video, 7-year-old Yousef's parents desperately search for their son in a hospital where the father is a doctor. "He is a sweet boy with curly hair," his mother calls out. Eventually, the father recognizes his son in the morgue.

Gaza puppeteer Yousef al-Hindi shows off tools he fashioned from tin and wood and the head of the puppet he created.
Anas Baba / NPR
Gaza puppeteer Yousef al-Hindi shows off tools he fashioned from tin and wood and the head of the puppet he created.

Al-Hindi said working on the puppet is "an internal struggle."

"I speak to myself... I try to channel the situation we are living in through the puppet," he said. "And I try to tell the story that runs through my mind and through every displaced person's mind."

A source of hope

Al-Hindi's surroundings might be bleak, but he is still driven by the well-being of young people.

"My goal is to distract the children from the crisis we are living in, and put a smile on their faces," he said. "To send a message that children are a source of hope."

His life's routine has been upended by the war — bread lines, waiting for electricity and water, the sounds of explosions — and the only time he is able to create now is in the evening when things are relatively calm.

"I mean the calm of where we are, and not a calmness in the sky," he said, referring to the constant whirring of drones and explosions of Israeli aerial strikes.

Al-Hindi only got to perform once with the travelling theatre he helped found. The war in Gaza broke out and quickly shattered that dream.

But he is determined. Al-Hindi intends for Yousef the puppet to eventually travel via the medium of video, speaking different languages, reaching not only the children of Gaza but the whole world.

"He will spread the message that Palestinian children continue to be killed, that the war in Gaza must stop," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]