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Artist in Gaza continues to make art, despite a worsening humanitarian crisis

The work of Basel El Maqosui, a trained artist in Gaza who continues to paint and draw despite being displaced.
Anas Baba
The work of Basel El Maqosui, a trained artist in Gaza who continues to paint and draw despite being displaced.

Updated January 29, 2024 at 11:18 AM ET

Basel El Maqosui's house was destroyed on the second day of Israel's war against Hamas. Now, he's one of more than a million Palestinians displaced in Gaza. And like the many others living in the now packed southern city of Rafah, his life revolves around a daily struggle to survive.

But the trained artist still finds himself drawn to paints and pens.

He spoke to NPR producer Anas Baba inside the tent where he now lives – with areas to sleep, go to the bathroom and draw each partitioned with blankets.

"My primary concern is my children and how to provide them with a decent life, or at least a part of the life I wished for them. But I found that my soul is still attached to art," El Maqosui said.

He sat on a mat on the ground and painted two long, human faces in black watercolor. Some of the work he's done since the war started shows the fear on the faces of strangers. Other, more abstract, drawings show the chaos and destruction of airstrikes.

Every day, El Maqosui wakes up before dawn to stand in line with hundreds of others to get jugs of water. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are crammed into the small border city of Rafah, where extreme overcrowding is leading to disease and starvation. Israel's military has also continued to carry out airstrikes in Rafah, despite telling people to seek refuge there.

Back home in northern Gaza, El Maqosui has a studio full of his paintings, where he and his family sheltered at the beginning of the war. But the studio is directly next to al Shifa hospital in Gaza City – the site of a massive Israeli military raid and firefights in November. Israel says Hamas was using the hospital and tunnels beneath it.

El Maqosui suspects his life's work was destroyed in that raid.

"The biggest problem in our lives as artists, it's not just our homes or our lives that are lost through the destruction of our homes, but also our work," El Maqosui said.

After arriving in Rafah, he managed to find some sketchbooks, and he had brought a few of his own paints. But he's stopped using most of the colors he took with him. Now, he mostly uses black and gray, because they're a better reflection of the destruction surrounding him, he says.

El Maqosui says if he survives the war, he will paint the art he's created in this tent on larger canvases.

But for now, painting and drawing in this sketchbook is how he releases his anger.

"I walk on the streets, and every face I see is angry – men, women, young, old, everyone's faces show anger," El Maqosui said. "There's no beauty left to see in Gaza."

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

Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]