Several hours of an unusual tour in East Jerusalem filled me with almost dizzying optimism about Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine and the world in general. I realized that even if I as an Israeli think I’m somewhat familiar with Jerusalem, that’s a mistake. I’ve never visited any of the galleries and cafés to which Riman Barakat of the Jerusalem Season of Culture took me – my own special tour of art and culture in the city's east side.
“The neighborhoods outside the wall are less familiar and more interesting,” she said, and I immediately understood that as an Israeli I still have a lot to learn.
But four days after the tour, when one of the artists we met asked that his name and photo be removed from my story, I realized that my optimism, as usual, was a bit exaggerated. And that Barakat still has a lot of work to do.
Barakat, who’s also an independent tour guide for visitor groups interested in Palestinian culture, is very busy producing the Mekudeshet festival that opened Wednesday; the event starts with “5 Ways to Dissolve Boundaries.” These are described as doco-theatrical journeys “on the seam line between art and reality in Jerusalem,” giving participants a chance to visit East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Barakat then drove us to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. On the way she told me how her worldview changed completely three years ago. Until then she couldn’t listen to the Israeli side and viewed the world through a nationalist lens. She was born in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, and studied literature and philosophy at the American University in Cairo.
She says that when she returned to Jerusalem she suddenly realized how great the rift was, and that to advance any solution we have to work differently – we have to find people like her on both sides and talk to them, to make contact.
A small and strong artists’ community
First we traveled to Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem’s elite neighborhood. Barakat parked in front of the Ambassador Hotel and the JEST center (3 Derech Shechem – 3 Nablus Road), and a moment later we began an unplanned visit to the east of the city. Ra’ana Kutina, the coordinator of activities there, explained to us how the center was designed to help East Jerusalemites start their own businesses.
There are 200 people registered for activities there, most of them women battling with East Jerusalem’s high unemployment. The participants in the workshop during our visit asked not to be photographed.
A moment later we reached 15 Nablus Road, visiting the Sunbula House of Palestinian Crafts, which sells handicrafts by Palestinian artists and promises to adhere to the principles of fair trade.
We continued on to the Gallery Café on the fourth floor of the Dar Issaf Nashashibi Center for Culture and Literature. The center, which was reopened in 2012, offers exhibitions, cultural performances, theater, concerts, poetry and literature evenings. It has a large public library and a collection of ancient manuscripts. The people around us were speaking English and Arabic. The audience was young.
Five of us sat around a table in the Gallery Café, including a Palestinian artist from Jerusalem and Naomi Fortis, the director of the Season of Culture. The discussion was held in English.
“I’m well aware that the conflict is interesting, but I have no interest in being a part of that,” he said. “Abroad it’s easy – the more you’re a victim the more you’ll succeed. Israelis and Palestinians are aware of that and even take advantage of it, but in the meantime we’re losing hope.”
Fortis added that there’s a small and strong artists’ community in East Jerusalem. “It’s an interesting community with creative and talented people. The Palestinian Authority has abandoned them, Israel has abandoned them. All of them, on both sides, are afraid of each other. The Israelis don’t understand them and the Palestinians don’t understand the Israelis,” she said.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the job of the Season of Culture and the Mekudeshet festival – to bring an audience to East Jerusalem. To explain that there’s a significant difference between East Jerusalem and the Old City. Cooperative activities with the artists are important, but not everyone wants to participate or is able to do so. We’ve encountered all the possible reactions – from a total boycott to a desire to participate or fear.”
Fortis described the effort to bring together Palestinian artists and the Israeli community as follows: “Our starting point is zero. There’s a black hole in the Israelis’ awareness and knowledge. There’s a lot of fear and there’s no connection. The fear is mutual and it prevents and delays.”
Give me coffee and books
Later Barakat drove fast through East Jerusalem until we reached the American Colony Hotel further east on Nablus Road and closer to the Old City wall. Next to the famous hotel the Palestinian Heritage Museum has been operating for three years. The large 19th-century building with three floors has been renovated to serve as a museum. It has several large exhibition spaces displaying traditional clothing, work tools, the equipment of a 200-year-old printing house, eating utensils and cauldrons.
One room tells the story of Hind Husseini, famous for starting an orphanage for refugees of the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. Another hall is devoted to the Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. There's a large map of Israel and colored bulbs marking the villages that no longer exist. The museum representative in the entrance hall said they’re happy to see Israeli visitors, but so far most of the visitors have been foreign tourists.
On Saladin Street we quickly passed the Sarwa Café, which Barakat described as “a café for hipsters where it’s fun to sit,” and the Educational Bookshop. The Lonely Planet calls it “the ideal starting point for exploring East Jerusalem.”
In the dense traffic Barakat pointed to the Al Hakawati Theater (4 Abu Obeidah Ibn al-Jarah St.) and the Yabous Cultural Center (10 E-Zahra St.) – two famous Palestinian cultural institutions in East Jerusalem. We continued to the New Gate and walked about 200 meters into the Old city until we reached the Al-Ma’mal Gallery for modern art.
That was the big surprise of the tour. Aline Khoury, the gallery’s artistic director, noted that in the past the building was a factory for artisan tiles. The gallery was started in 1998, and as Khoury put it, “we’re staying here and are active here.”
In 2013 they moved to the current impressive building. The gallery aims to nurture Palestinian artists, Khoury said. Every year they hold six exhibitions, and every two years they organize the Jerusalem Show – a series of exhibitions in various parts of the city.
Several times a year they host artists from abroad. Next month there will be an exhibition by artist Mohammad Saleh Khali of Ramallah. The paintings are large, and most are abstract. Is it political art, I asked, and Khoury made an expansive gesture with her hands and said: “You can interpret in any way. In my opinion it’s good art.”
We sat on the second floor. From here, a few stairs away, there’s an exit to a lovely roof balcony. I tried to understand what remains of the building’s original parts and what was added when it was turned into a modern gallery. The conversation with Khoury was pleasant. In the heart of the Old City we chatted about the art works surrounding us and the possibility of showing art that isn’t necessarily political in Jerusalem. It’s so simple and almost inconceivable.
Khoury explained the financial aspect. “The community in East Jerusalem is our connection. Part of our community lives in the West Bank, in the diaspora or in Gaza,” she said. “Our funding comes from international organizations and from selling the works. At events that take place here we also sell food and drink in order to boost our income a bit. At the moment about one-fifth of our budget comes from what we earn here and the rest from donations.”
Khoury said most of the visitors to the gallery are Palestinians and tourists. Few Israelis come, and most of those that do come in groups. The Mekudeshet festival visited the gallery last year. “Everyone who comes here is welcome,” she said, smiling.
For a moment, in the afternoon of a hot August day, it seemed that not all is lost and that if a gallery like Al-Ma’mal manages to survive and Khoury says Israelis are invited to view art there, anything is possible.