"The war isn't only being waged with rifles and rocks. The notebook, the paintbrush and the music are weapons, too." This quote, which sounds like a worthy Scouts motto, was made during an interview given by Palestinian singer Amar Hassan to a Palestinian reporter in Houston, Texas, shortly before he came to appear in Ramallah at the International Palestinian Festival earlier this month.
Last year, Hassan was the Palestinian hero of the day. He and the Libyan singer Aiman Al A'tar were neck and neck for the lead in the "Superstar" singing competition, which is based on "American Idol," but in the end the Libyan won. However, he continues to be a sought-after star in Arab countries and Arab communities in the West.
There is also a political story behind Amar's failure to take first place in "Superstar." As in Israel, points are awarded to singers according to the measure of public support, as reflected in the SMS messages sent to the judging center. This is where a second competition begins, between the different audiences in the Arab states. In all of them, a steep increase in the volume of cellular phone traffic is found during the competitions, as selection of the ultimate Superstar becomes a matter of national pride: It is not only the singer that wins; national honor is also on the line. After all, many people will remember that "the Palestinian" or "the Libyan" won, without remembering his or her full name.
The Palestinian cellular phone company, therefore, enlisted in the effort, and offered to establish a communications center - for free - to provide support for backers of Amar Hassan. Yet here the initiative came up against an irritating shock. The phone company's executives received threats from religious groups, evidently members of Hamas, who demanded the company cancel its offer. And when Hassan was supposed to perform at An-Najah University in Nablus, in front of a crowd of thousands, these religious groups deployed armed men to disperse the audience by firing shots in the air. Beforehand, unnamed persons had come to Hassan's room in a Ramallah hotel demanding he not sing love songs and to make do with national songs. Hassan refused, and his concert was disrupted.
`We are in need of beauty'
These are not the only events religious adherents plotted against. The Qalqilyah municipality, which is headed by a member of Hamas, ordered that music no longer be played in the city's zoo, and also forbade operation of public water fountains, as they create sculptures of sorts, which are forbidden by religious law.
Mufti Akrameh Sabri even issued a religious edict affirming the municipality decision. What's more, religious decrees have been promulgated, to the effect that Mother's Day and religious Women's Day celebrations are undesirable new developments and an imitation of the infidels' customs.
The threats made by the radical religious advocates received barely any response from both the Palestinian Authority and the NGOs that promote culture. The only voice raised against these clergymen was that of the national poet Mahmoud Darwish, who received Amar Hassan in his office with much fanfare, and in interviews to the Palestinian press warned against Palestine becoming a facsimile of Afghanistan under the Taliban.
"We are in need of a beauty that will let the national and cultural spirit break forth, and we reject any attempt to impose sanction on this beauty. We see signs of Talibanism and dangerous indications against which everyone should be protesting, particularly the educated classes and the artists," declared Darwish.
In response, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia asked Local Government Minister Khaled al-Qawasmeh to instruct the mayor of Qalqilyah to change his decision, but, for now, this does not seem to have had any effect. Nor was any protest voiced in the local press, except for the newspaper Al-Ayyam, which carried Darwish's statement.
Amar Hassan was born in Kuwait and came to Palestine with his parents, along with all the Palestinian deportees thrown out during the first Gulf War as retribution for Arafat's policy in support of Saddam Hussein. He was surprised by the reception he received from his religious compatriots. On the one hand, thousands of Palestinian fans wanted to hear him sing, and on the other - death threats. In an interview with a Palestinian Web site, when asked if Palestinians can fight the Zionist enemy with art and songs, he said: "Of course songs cannot fight tanks, but shunting the human situation to the sidelines is one of the dangerous ways of the occupation. The occupier is afraid of the educated person and the artist. The enemy can impose sanctions on the land, but how will he impose sanctions on art and creativity? Public awareness is essential to fight occupation through information and culture; look at India, for example, which was also occupied by the British, but did not lose its culture and won, thanks to that culture."
These explanations are not so warmly embraced by the radical Muslim clergy, who would be happy to hear the successful singer believes that only through the help of God and faith can the occupier be beaten. This is the expanse in which the lines of cultural conflict are beginning to be redrawn between Hamas members and religious radicals, and a majority of the population that is predominately secular (even though the vast majority are believers). Redrawn, because the attempt by Hamas to dictate a cultural code of conduct in the 1980s and early 1990s led to a violent scuffle between different sectors of the public. Hamas members then tried to prevent swimming at beaches in Gaza, burned down stores that stocked certain videos (claiming they were distributing porno films) and destroyed books described as "heretical."
Now Palestinian intellectuals fear this war has not only been renewed, but is liable to turn Palestine into an Islamic-law state. The Palestinian newspaper columnist Mohammed Abd Al-Hamid, a resident of Ramallah, wrote last week that this religious coercion could cause the migration of artists, and a breakdown of national unity. "And anyone who doesn't think we are facing this danger should take another look at the Algerian experience. The religious fanatics in Algeria destroyed every cultural symbol, shattered statues and rare works of art and liquidated intellectuals and artists, reporters and authors, ballet dancers and singers - are we going to imitate the Algerian and Afghani examples?"