Opinion

Time for Palestinian Culture to Go Beyond Nationalism

Palestinian art, which generally avoids emotions, dark desires and controversial identities, must reach a deeper level

Palestinians perform folk dance during the first day of the 20th Palestinian Festival celebrations in Gaza City, July 8, 2019.
Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This year’s Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, which expanded beyond the occupied territories for the first time and included events in Haifa and Nazareth, offers an opportunity to consider whether the time has come for Palestinian art to reach a deeper level and be directed toward the cause of national liberation.

The annual festival, which just concluded, spread beyond Ramallah, the Palestinian cultural capital, to encompass events in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nablus, Gaza and other cities. The goal, explained festival director Iman Hammouri, was to break the siege on Palestinian art and connect the disconnected towns of the West Bank and Gaza via a cultural dialogue.  

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The two-week festival, first held in 1993, is run by the Ramallah-based Popular Art Centre. This year it featured a wide range of musical groups, including the Ibn Arabi Ensemble from Morocco, the Miraz Ensemble from Turkey, Al-Bayt Al-Ashwa’i from Jordan, as well as rap acts Shayfeen from Morocco and Aswad Wa’Abyad (Black and White) from France. Another standout was the Swiss-Arab Tarabband ensemble, founded by Iraqi-Egyptian musician Nadin al-Khalidi, which has been quite successful in Europe. 

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The expansion to Palestinian cities within the Green Line, like Haifa and Nazareth, made the statement that Palestinian culture and Palestinian artists in Israel are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, and share a collective Palestinian identity. This decision was not universally welcomed – people who support a cultural boycott accused the festival organizers of cultural normalization with agents of the occupation.

The normalization discussion tends to be vague and confused and often pointless. On the one hand, the main argument made about Tarbband’s appearance in Nazareth, for example, was that the group as well as the festival organizers were not only collaborating with the Israeli establishment but recognizing Israel’s existence, which was unforgivable. On the other hand, many Palestinians are not willing to acknowledge the political contradiction at the basis of this argument: All of the artists who participated in the festival and came to Ramallah had to pass through a border controlled by Israel. So why is an appearance in Ramallah legitimate but not one in Nazareth, if the political argument is that both the West Bank and the territory inside the Green Line is occupied territory?

No answer to this is forthcoming. All you get are rote, clichéd slogans that avoid any deeper political-cultural questions: What place and role do Palestinians in Israel have in shaping the narrative and cultural scene today? How can they be given a place in this? How can their different story become part of the Palestinian cultural narrative despite the citizenship imposed on them? The normalization discourse excludes and essentially silences the voices of Palestinians who live within the Green Line from the emerging pan-Arab cultural landscape.

Rather than criticize the decision to also hold festival performances inside the Green Line, people should focus on the questions that it raises: questions about the purpose of art, its subjects, its boundaries and its influences, especially when it exists under occupation, silencing and separation. Can art that is subject to a political-cultural siege be part of creating a collective identity? Is that its role? What happens to Palestinian culture in this siege? And what happens to art that from its inception is tasked with the clear imperative of working on behalf of the national cause?

Palestinian art and culture, in Israel and the West Bank, is a culture that from the start has to bear the national burden – i.e., to oppose the occupation, the continuing injustice done to the Palestinian people. This is culture with a role to play: It is indentured to national aims, not out of choice but out of political constraints. Therefore it operates within very clear rules and boundaries. The problem is not the boundaries per se, but the type of cultural discourse they create. A patriotic or nationalist cultural discourse leads to the creation of a collective, uniform and shallow art that has a single voice and a single story to tell – the national historic story of the collective, and not necessarily its complex cultural story.

Palestinian art today, to make a crude generalization, avoids individual interests, avoids expressing emotions and dark desires and stays away from controversial identities. Fettered by national imperatives, it cannot sufficiently challenge the dominant national, political, social and religious discourse and give rise to a complex cultural scene. In art that operates on a national basis, the voice of the artist is silenced and replaced by a collective voice. I call it survival art, or chained art.

Of course, the aim of these arguments is not to diminish the value of the current Palestinian cultural works. And inside the Green Line there are Palestinian artists who have cautiously begun to crack and challenge the dominant discourse. For instance, I have been closely following the work of Karim Abu Shakra (from a prominent family of artists in Umm al Fahm), whose latest works are most impressive and have to do with artistic and personal discovery. Other examples are the superb artist Souhad Dib, who boldly challenges the internal social discourse by breaking physical and sexual taboos, and the band Darbet Shams (Sunstroke) that touches on personal and internal Palestinian issues in a satirical musical fashion.

But these are the exceptions. For the most part, Palestinian art has become stuck in the nationalist mode and the time has come for it to break into new and unfamiliar artistic areas, scary as they may be.

Until that happens, any deviation from the defined lines, be it in the plastic arts, literature or poetry, is interpreted in the internal Palestinian discourse as a national betrayal. It is deemed a selfish act that derives from privilege. Deviation from the collective is not perceived as a creative, innovative attempt but as abandonment of the goal for which Palestinian art is destined – the fight for national liberation. As long as this attitude prevails, Palestinian art will never be able to take a leap into the unknown. Is it capable of doing so? That’s a different question.

One cannot discuss the question of breaking into new artistic territory without discussing the influence of cultural disconnection on Palestinian art. The implications of the disconnection between Palestinian culture within Israel and in the rest of the Arab world are vast. Palestinian culture maintains only a minimal relationship with cultural happenings in the Arab world. It has no available, new and contemporary source of influence, it is not exposed to contemporary trends in music and poetry, to multifaceted writing. And the results are noticeable. This lack of interaction with Arab art in general is what preserves the cultural discourse that is confined to the nationalist boundaries and inhibits Palestinian art from moving into new domains.

I believe that Palestinian culture has fully traveled the national road and is capable of striding toward new adventures. It has created for itself a stable and solid artistic past based on national identity and this will not be undermined by a quest for discovery. Nationalism is not the only path open to Palestinian artists. Safe passage beyond that is also possible.