Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa
Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa Photo by Riva Gold
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Artists from across the world descended on the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa last week to take part in the 10th annual Sha’ar International Poetry Festival. The festival, which took place October 21st to 23rd, featured film screenings, live music, dance, and of course, poetry.

The theme of this year’s showcase, titled “Sex, Lies and God,” was The Ten Commandments. “What we find in the Decalogue- sex, lies, and God- that’s what occupies our minds; what every mortal deals with,” explains artistic director Amir Or. Poets from across the world were invited to expose modern-day golden calves, self-imposed commandments and ethical traps. At intermission, audience members were asked to contribute an 11th commandment in poetry or prose.

While the festival started as a bilingual platform for young Israeli artists, it has evolved into a popular international event, drawing in poets from five continents to share their works. The interdisciplinary festival also included a musical performance by singer Ronit Rolland, a dance by Tomer Tzirkilevich, and a screening of the film “The Decalogue" at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

“We have dialogues between languages, between religions, between mediums of expression,” says Or. Young and established poets alike travelled to the festival from Japan, Portugal, Estonia, Romania, the U.K., Greece, Serbia and Israel, to read their poetry in their own languages. Despite a lack of Hebrew, “we found a common language because we’re all human.” Headsets were also available to translate for audience members.

The festival’s title, “Sha’ar,” means “poem” in Arabic and “gate” in Hebrew. Or hopes the festival allows poetry to serve as a gate for thought and dialogue between cultures, artists, languages, and fields of art. He adds that artists and poets have a profound influence on society, serving as a counter-balance to the politics of fear. “Poetry takes from the raw materials of thought and feeling the very essence from which we create our tomorrow,” he says. For Or and his contemporaries, it is the works of poets and artists that brings meaning to contemporary realities, and calls people to create new ones.

“We believe in dialogue, for the simple reason that we have no other sane way to deal with disagreements,” he says. “We say no to hatred, fear and indifference, for we still believe in the power of human spirit and in our striving towards a better future of tolerance, pluralism, understanding and peace.”

Controversial works displayed in the festival have drawn heavy criticism from media and government officials over the last ten years. “We get strong reactions to the work we’ve put up,” Or explains. “But that’s what we’re here for- to be controversial, to make people think and debate. I hope that happens this year, and I hope that it happens every year.”

Three days prior to the festival, three young Hebrew and Arabic poets from Israel were paired for a poetic dialogue to be presented later in the week. “Once, I had a young Jewish poet writing about his experience in the army, and another poet writing about his life in a refugee camp,” Or recalls. “They would sit there and read each other their work. This kind of collaboration breeds a little bit of tolerance and understanding.”

Poems from the festival can be found in the Helicon Poetry Journal.

Riva Gold is an intern at Haaretz.com