Opinion |

In Ramallah, Vibrant Arts, Culture and Literature Build Palestinian Sanctuary

Despite awareness of the Israeli barbed wire, cultural activity builds the illusion of sovereignty or independence. From the spirited city, Palestine is almost whole

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The plethora of cultural events in Ramallah last Saturday evening created quite a dilemma. Should you go to Khalil Sakakini’s cultural center to watch short international films, part of the annual Days of Cinema festival, or watch the short films at the municipal theater competing for the festival’s top prize?

Should you go to the opening of the “Metamorphosis” exhibition, displaying the work of Umm al-Fahm artist Karim Abu Shakra at the Zawiyah Gallery in El Bireh, or the launching of the book “Ottoman Ramallah, 1515-1918” by Samih Hamuda (a Birzeit University lecturer born in Bethlehem) and published by the Institute for Palestine Studies?

Discussing the book were the author and the always fascinating researchers Nazmi Al Jubeh and Salim Tamari. This event took place at the entrance level of the municipality building at the same time the art exhibition was opening. Adding to your frustration, at the same time the Barenboim-Said Institute was holding a concert at the Edward Said Auditorium in the building of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

Wherever people live, there is art and creativity and people seeking to enrich themselves in this way. In Ramallah, as anywhere else, creativity is also an expression of the continuity of society’s existence, even when the subject matter is expulsion and disintegration.

This heightened cultural activity should come then as no surprise, bringing together Palestinian art and artists from around the world (including even Gaza). Here the Green Line is really gone. The participation of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens in this cultural and literary activity in the West Bank is self-evident. Palestine is almost whole here.

Several local and international cultural agencies are ardently striving to make this cultural activity accessible to everyone, not just to a small sector. They try to get children not belonging to the upper middle class to attend art classes. Democratization and delivering cultural activities to all is a challenge for any normal society, particularly in the neoliberal age. But here one can hardly talk of normalcy.

When on both sides of the effaced Green Line, which nevertheless still separates and divides, veteran Palestinian political organizations are disappointing, fossilized, disintegrating and losing their activists and unable to change anything, the cultural, literary and artistic sphere assumes much greater importance in the dynamic building (wrongly called preservation) of an identity and sense of belonging.

No one forgets that only one kilometer from the Edward Said Auditorium stands the threatening, arrogant and violent structure housing Israel’s Civil Administration. Even when people arrive at the Cultural Palace after dark they know that two kilometers to the southwest are hundreds of prisoners in Ofer Prison, which is surrounded by concrete slabs to conceal it from Israelis driving on Route 443. This stretch of the road, which is inaccessible to Palestinians, is the southern border of the Ramallah enclave. An artificial and violent boundary, but a very real one.

Despite being aware of the barbed wire, the glory of Israeli creativity, and with all its naturalness, the cultural activity contributes to the illusion of sovereignty or independence that prevails in every Palestinian enclave. Separately. Here in Ramallah it is twinned with a more mass form of activity, the consumerist one. Without wishing it, the cultural, educational and consumerist satisfaction that is achieved inside these Palestinian enclaves normalizes them. People get used to artificial boundaries and barriers that divide them, built by Israel with sophistication and malevolence.

The illusion of a world without boundaries, offered by virtual networks and the disputes they harbor, also has a normalizing effect on the fragmentation of the expanse. The villages constantly threatened by settlers and soldiers, the Jerusalem neighborhoods that Israel has squeezed into poverty, the refugee camps with their corrosive unemployment, as well as other enclaves become very distant and out of mind, lost in an artificial labyrinth of separate and dividing roads, roadblocks and Area C, full of haughty Israelis no one wants to encounter.

Thus the enclave with all its fulfillment becomes a sanctuary, a place to hide from the knowledge that nothing is normal.

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