Beyond Arab Idol: Palestinian Creativity Is Flourishing All Over

Mohammed Assaf showed the world what was already obvious: Palestinians have an identity distinct from living in exile, being refugees and inhabiting the enclaves imposed by Israel since 1948 and the military occupation.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

It would appear the big day had already arrived. Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, winner of Arab Idol, is expected to make it to the West Bank and give a number of performances.

July 8 in Ramallah, said a fan in Gaza who keeps track of all of Assaf's comings and goings. No, rather between July 4 and July 6, reported Ma'an, the Palestinian news agency, saying he would appear in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem after recording in the emirate of Dubai for a television show that will be broadcasted over Ramadan. The organizers of the annual Palestine International Festival in Ramallah, however, originally understood that Assaf's first performance in the city, sponsored by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, would take place already as soon as this Monday, July 1. It is no small headache because the festival's opening event is set to take place on the same day and it's one of the oldest (since 1993) and biggest cultural events in the West Bank and Gaza.

The festival's organizers, directors of the Popular Art Centre in al-Bireh, even considered delaying the festival opening by a day, but were then told Assaf's performance would take place another day. Then no date was mentioned, so the Popular Art Centre proceeded with their plan as scheduled.

It seems that a big disappointment is expected for West Bank residents: the contract he was made to sign entails ticket prices far beyond what an average Palestinian can afford, and so far it is known about two of his performances that were cancelled.

Monday will be the festive opening at the cultural center in Ramallah that will feature a performance by the Popular Art Centre's own dance group El-Funoun and a performance by a Spanish flamenco band. Over the course of a week there will be 20 performances by 18 Palestinian and international bands in five West Bank districts (including Jerusalem). The closing event will be in the village of Asira Shamaliya, north of Nablus.

The Popular Art Centre is a non-governmental organization established 26 years ago, in 1987. The date of its establishment isn't coincidental. Like the intifada that broke out that same year, the center expressed the Palestinian collective in time and space (in exile and in the land, in the past and in the present) by way of preserving and cultivating popular artistic heritage, specifically in the areas of music and dance. The center strives all the time to broaden its audience of consumers and creators. It also brings the Palestinian public into contact with other world cultures through festivals, activity groups for children and adults and performances during every month of the year. In a society where conservative theories about gender-separation prevail and where women and girls are pushed away from the public sphere, the center stands out for how naturally it fosters mixed-sex environments.

This year, El-Funoun will focus on the topic of recycling. This topic will also be raised in another performance at the festival: An intriguing orchestra of very young musicians (from the ages of 14 to 22) from Paraguay will play instruments built from recycled materials. Before it became a green trend, recycling material has been a way of life for the poor dictated by reality and on a global level – for the Third World or the South. It's possible to stretch things a bit further and guess that this is an ideological statement (poverty is the result of exploitation) from an institution that was established and is managed by people identified with the Palestinian left. This non-verbal statement, by the way, is made possible thanks to the financial support of prospering businesses, and not just the Ramallah Municipality and Swedish and European Union funds.

In the past 20 years, the number of Palestinian cultural institutions has grown with a common goal to encourage artistic creation and acquaint as many people as possible with the works, with the creators, and with the process. Every year, they operate close to 30 different festivals featuring musical performances, dance and plays to the West Bank public, including East Jerusalem and sometimes also cities like Haifa and Nazareth. They even reach, as well as they can, audiences in the Gaza Strip. It's no wonder that sometimes there is conflict between events and competition for the same audience and the same funder.

Now all the institutions are hurrying to hold festivals before the holiday of Ramadan that begins mid-July. This means that, for culture lovers, there is a dizzying offering of cultural events crammed together in two and a half months: A literature festival that took place in May; concerts held in cities, villages and refugee camps as part of musical celebrations held under the auspices of Al Kamandjati Music School that are taking place now; concerts and playing workshops conducted by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music; song and dance at Birzeit Heritage Week Festival; the Heritage Festival in al-Bireh that is targeted primarily at the thousands of Palestinian-Americans that come to visit in the summer; and the al-Quds festival of the Yabous Cultural Centre that was founded in Jerusalem in 1995.

For those who concluded that this is some form of cultural peace, last week an order came from Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch to close the al-Hakawati theater in East Jerusalem to stop a children's theater festival from taking place. The closure was ordered based on the unsubstantiated claim, rejected by the theaters' managers, that the Palestinian Authority supports and funds the theater's activities.

The al-Quds festival is a reflection of reality in another way: it features the film Infiltrators in which the artist Khaled Jarrar from Jenin accompanies laborers without entry permits seeking to work in Israel. Adding to the tension, until Saturday, the festival organizers in Ramallah didn't know whether Israel would approve the entry of Arab singers Mourad Bouriki and Farid Ghanam from Morocco and Emel Mathlouthi from Tunisia. The latter sang at demonstrations that brought down the regime in Tunis about two years ago.

Most cultural institutions are making a conscious effort to leave the Ramallah bubble and demonstrate that artistic creation and dialogue aren't neither superfluous nor just the purview of the elites. But the book reading evening, Seeking Palestine, that was organized by the Khalil al Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah and the Educational Bookshop from Salah ad-Din street in Jerusalem, is by its own definition a small gathering that is not intended for the masses. The book is a collection of essays in English, some of which were published in various formats in the past and others that were written specifically at the request of editors Penny Johnson from Birzeit University and Raja Shehadeh. The contributors examine what exile is, and what home and homeland are for them. Most of the entries are English originals, and not translations. Whereas some of the writers were born in the Palestinian diaspora in English-speaking countries, others had various opportunities to adopt English as their writing language. After the two Bir Zeit professors (anthropologist Rema Hammami and historian Rana Barakat) and the lawyer and writer Shehadeh read several excerpts of their writing, the audience contributed several questions for discussion.

Do you think we will ever be able to produce a Palestinian narrative that isn't so influenced by politics and the occupation? a young woman asked.

Hammami replied, We all face this challenge. But people who have already read the book commented that while the occupation as a material fact is present in various chapters, the book doesn't deal with Israelis, with Jews. Johnson, for her part, said that the single "negative" criticism there had been in the U.S. toward the book was summed up by the question, but where are the Israelis? The audience sitting in the garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center laughed .

In that instant, the imagined distance from Mohammed Assaf had diminished. Thanks to his win and public exposure, he brought to the attention of the world, and primarily to the West, culture of singing and love of music in Palestinian society. For that society itself, of course, this is no revelation. Assaf made public what was already obvious: Palestinians have an identity distinct from living in exile, being refugees and inhabiting the enclaves imposed by Israel since 1948 and the military occupation. It is impossible to ignore these conditions, but there is an essential, independent, particular identity. Not everything is a function of the foreign power and the tragedies it engenders.

The abundance of artistic activities is a mass drill in guided imagining: Let us describe ourselves to ourselves without the foreign power that invaded and invades our lives. Even if these are just moments, the cultural events are real autonomous enclaves of joy, laughter and playfulness. It's a people that deserves to live, as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his poem, On This Land, but even more so a people that knows how and loves to live.

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