Palestinian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi receives government grant to produce Gaza love story on Melbourne stage

Palestinian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi was congratulated today in an electoral Press Release issued by the Hon. Gordon Rich-Phillips MLC, for receiving a government grant to go toward the production of her playTales of a City by the Sea in Melbourne’s La Mama Courthouse Theatre.  Below is the full press release:

ELECTORAL RESS RELEASE 

Hon. Gordon Rich-Phillips MLC

Thursday, 12 December 2013

LATEST GRANTS SUPPORT LOCAL CREATIVITY

Gordon Rich-Phillips, Member for South Eastern Metropolitan Region, today congratulated Narre Warren artist Samah Sabawi, who is among 85 artists and organisations across the state to share in the latest round of $1.3 million of Victorian Government arts grants.

Mr Rich-Phillips said Arts Victoria’s new grants program, VicArts Grants, sought to support projects across all art forms by some of the state’s most exciting independent artists and arts organisations.

Samah Sabawi will receive a $10,000 grant to present a theatrical journey into the lives of the playwright, a Palestinian Australian, her family in Gaza and the events experienced over several years.

Taqi Khan, under the auspices of Multicultural Arts Victoria Inc, Hampton Park, has also received a grant of $15,000 to be used for a significant project for Melbourne’s local Afghan Hazara community, encompassing contemporary and traditional Hazara music, singing and poetry.

“I am pleased that our local arts sector has been recognised in this statewide program and I look forward to seeing the projects as they come to fruition,” Mr Rich-Phillips said.

Overall, the latest round will create career development opportunities for more than 2200 Victorian artists.

The VicArts grants program, announced as part of the 2013-14 State Budget, is aimed at streamlining the process of applying for a grant while opening up funding opportunities to innovative ideas.

“Grants recipients include artists at all career stages and overall, more than a third of the recipients are receiving government funding for the first time,” Mr Rich-Phillips said.

“The arts sector contributes $11.4 billion to the state economy each year and up to 110,000 jobs. It supports the Victorian Coalition Government’s broader goal of supporting growth and innovation in all sectors across the state.”

The next round of applications to the VicArts Grants program will close in March 2014, for projects commencing in July.

To find out more about the VicArts Grants program and to see the full list of recipients, visitwww.arts.vic.gov.au

Poetry, Palestine and the Language of Resistance – An interview with Samah Sabawi

SEPTEMBER 20-22, 2013
by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

Samah Sabawi is the honored guest in this, the fourth installment in my Political Poetry series at Counterpunch.

Previously, I interviewed Sowetan Lesego Rampolokeng, whose hard-hitting poetry, including “bantu ghost”, expresses the outrage black South Africans still feel over the horrors of apartheid forced upon them by white supremacists.

Samah Sabawi, a poet and political activist, has likened Gaza to an “Israeli-controlled Bantustan.”   She has known the alienation and despair of a refugee since the Israelis forced her parents (and thousands of other Palestinians) to flee their homes in Gaza in 1967.

Now a Palestinian-Australian with Canadian citizenship, Sabawi is the author of three plays — Cries from the Land, Three Wishes, and Tales of a City by the Sea.  She has also co-written the book The Journey to Peace in Palestine: From the Song of Deborah to the Simpsons.

Sabawi’s poems deal with Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, often from the empathetic perspective of someone not directly on the scene with her comrades.  She expresses the plight of nearly two million people in the concentration camp called Gaza, as well as the millions of lost souls in the Palestinian diaspora.  In her poem, “Defying the Universe”, dedicated to her husband Monir, she asks:

Are your loved ones trapped behind the wall

Do they need the army’s permission

For their prayers to reach the sky

For their love to cross the ocean

And touch your thirsty heart

Are your loved ones trapped

Do you yearn to be in your family home

And when you call, do they always say

“we are fine, alhamdollelah”

Does it surprise you that they are whole

While you… are broken

Must they always worry about you

Urge you to have faith in your exile

Must they always pity you

For not breathing the air

Of your ancestors’ land

Must they always comfort you

Even when the bombs are falling

Do you ever wonder who is walled in

Is it you…or is it them

And when it finally dawns upon you

That their dignity sets them free

Do you feel ashamed of your liberty

Israeli oppression of the Palestinians takes many forms.   As Sabawi recently explained in an interview with Joe Catron, “The currency used here (in Gaza) is the new Israeli shekel, the IDs all the residents carry are issued by the Israeli interior ministry, all births go through the Israeli national registry, the essential products are all Israeli in this captive market” (“Israel’s Gaza Bantustan,” 5 January 2013).”

Sabawi is part of a new generation of Palestinian thinkers who insist on reclaiming the discourse and reframing the language used to assert Palestinian rights.  For her and many others of her generation, language is an essential tool in the struggle for liberation.  She writes in her poem “Liberation Anthem” “I’ll craft new words of expression/ outside of this suffocating language/ that has occupied me/ Your words/ are like your walls/ They encroach on my humanity.”

Sabawi rebels in her poetry against adopting a language she sees as complicit and dictated by the occupier.  She insists on using words such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the reality of life in Palestine.  When a newspaper editor recently deleted these words from an op-ed she submitted saying they were “too strong,” she responded with this:

Words!

I stand dispossessed

No congress behind me

No statesmen surround me

No lobby to breathe hellfire

No media eager to appease

No three-ring circus

Of intellectual jesters

Academic clowns

And policy experts

Who truly do not see

the big elephant in the room

No legal acrobats

Dance for me

On a thin rope of decency

No politicians

Juggle oppression

And human rights

On my behalf

No trips to boost careers

For MPs and their wives

No propaganda movies

No radio broadcasts

No myths

No lies

No hasbaranites

No army,

No country

Not even one leader

To believe in

All I have are my words

To tell my story

My voice

To demand justice

But you tell me

My language is too strong

While speaking and writing forthrightly about the horrors of Israeli oppression, Sabawi maintains strong connections with anti-apartheid Israelis, and she advocates reconciliation and understanding.  But she believes that reconciliation can only begin once the oppression ends.  Consider the following lines from her poem “Liberation Anthem”:

To the people of Israel who fear our freedom:  Don’t be afraid, we will liberate you too.

This is my rendition

Of an anthem to be sung

That day you and I

Will stand side by side

Shoulder to shoulder

Watching a new dawn

Wipe away

Decades of hate and savagery

The day I rise

From the ruins of your oppression

I promise you I will not rise alone

You too will rise with me

You will be liberated

From your tyranny

And my freedom

Will bring your salvation

Given the total support of the US Government for Israel, there seems to be no other rational alternative.   And yet, Palestinians politics is marked by deep divisions, not least between Hamas and Fatah.  Sabawi’s goal is to overcome the divisions between Israel and Palestine, and among Palestinians, not by proselytizing or demonizing people, not by humiliating or obliterating, but by discovering a common human bond. As Sabawi says:

I am more than demography

I’m neither your collaborator

Nor your enemy

I am not your moderate

Not your terrorist

Not your fundamentalist

Islamist

Extremist

Militant

Radical

I am more than adjectives

Letters and syllables

I will construct my own language

And will defeat your words of power

With the power of my words

In her poem “Against the Tide” she pledges “I will not delight/ In the suffering/ Even of those/ Who oppress me.”

I recently asked Sabawi about her poetry, the poetry of Palestinians, and the political situation in Gaza.  I noted that perhaps the most frustrating form of psychological oppression Palestinians suffer is the total antipathy of the United States Government.   The US blocks every vote to condemn Israel at the UN, it provides Israel with the weapons and means of its oppression, while the mainstream American media suppresses and distorts the facts, even rationalizing the mass murder of 1400 Palestinians in Gaza in 2009 as necessary for Israel’s security.

DV      Gaza is a Bantustan, but the many nations seem to have turned their backs on the Palestinians, although, in contrast, much of the world joined in the boycott of South Africa.  This is largely due to the fact that Palestinians have been thoroughly dehumanized by the Israeli-AIPAC propaganda machine.  Can poetry help to overcome the prejudice that many Americans have?    Is translating from Arabic to English part of the problem?

SS         Humanity doesn’t always respond instantly.  The world community is often slow to react in the face of oppression and injustice especially when it is being perpetrated by powerful state actors and driven by corporate greed.  But history has taught us that no tyranny can last forever and that the people will always overcome oppression.  To use your example of South Africa, it actually took a long time for the world to take a stand against the apartheid regime.  Think about it: white supremacy over South Africa began with the arrival of the early Dutch settlers as far back as the mid 1600s and institutional discrimination against the indigenous population began in the early 1900s.  The Boycott movement against South African Apartheid didn’t start till the late 1950s and it took world governments years and for some even decades before they made a stand.  So, when you’re looking at the timeline of the Palestine/Israel conflict in comparison and especially in the last two decades you will see that Palestinians are in fact gaining the support of the world community at a much faster pace perhaps this is so because we have more direct and instant modes of communication at our fingertips.

So yes, the world may have initially turned its back on Palestinians and even adopted the Zionist discourse of blaming and dehumanizing the victims but times have changed and we have come a long way.  Palestinian solidarity is growing and the overwhelming show of support at the UN for an observer seat for the state of Palestine last year if anything has illustrated the isolation of Israel and its allies in the face of a world community that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Now you ask if poetry might contribute to this in any way.  I guess I would say that art in all its forms can have an important role to play in humanizing people and conveying their story.  Art can serve to inspire and instigate change.

Who can deny that the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish for example offered many in the west a window into the lives of Palestinians; their pain, their aspirations and their yearnings?  Although Darwish’s poems were written in Arabic, they were translated into many languages and served as a bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world.

Of course language can be an obstacle but I think that the Palestinian experience is a universal one and so is easily translated.  We are a people disposed standing up against tyranny and oppression, fighting for a just cause.  This resonates with people in any language.  Here are a few lines from one of my favorite Darwish poems:  “Who Am I, Without Exile?” (translated by Fady Joudah)[i]:

A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water

binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway

to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing

makes me enter the gospels. Not a thing … nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb

and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing

makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing

carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing

and not promise. What will I do? What

will I do without exile, and a long night

that stares at the water?

 

DV        Palestinians have no power over their oppressors.  They are powerless to stop the settlements.   At the slightest hint of uprising, the Israelis come down like a storm troopers.  But Palestinians do write poetry – or have the Israelis tried to stop them from writing poetry too?

SS         For the Israeli Zionist project to succeed in asserting legitimacy and presence on the ruins of Palestinian homes and lives, it needed to do two things: make the Palestinians invisible to the world by denying their existence (‘a land without a people for a people without a land’), and/or in the event that they become visible, demonize them by manipulating the discourse – for example, by emphasizing Palestinian violence and terror while undermining and ignoring Palestinian non-violent resistance and the reality of occupied vs. occupier. This is why Israel views Palestinian culture with great contempt. After all, Palestinian artists and cultural figures tell the stories of their people and by that they reflect a reality through their art that Israel would rather conceal.

So yes, certainly Palestinian culture, like all other facets of Palestinian life, faces tremendous challenges under Israeli occupation. Palestinian cultural figures were first targeted by British and later by the Israeli authorities. Some were assassinated, others were imprisoned or banished into exile. Amongst the artists and intellectuals assassinated by Israel are writer Ghassan Kanafani (Abukhalil 2012) and poet and intellectual Wael Zuaiter (Jacir 2007).

The attempt at erasing Palestinian culture was clear during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Israeli forces looted and confiscated the accumulated national archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which included valuable and rare collections of films and other Palestinian cultural artifacts (IMEU 2012).

Today, Palestinian cultural figures under Israel’s occupation are caught in an intricate and multi layered system of oppression.  For example, Human Rights Watch issued a report (27 July 2012) accusing Israel and its security arm the Palestinian Authority of  “trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” adding “[a] theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.”
The HRW statement referred to Israel’s ongoing system of arbitrary arrests and detention.

Of course it is important to recognize that repression does not always ride on a military tank. The worst kind of repression is one that manifests itself inside colonized minds desperate to present their craft to the world and aware that their success hinges on their ability to be on the good side of their political masters. I mean artists find it challenging enough in rich societies to make a living out of their art, so imagine when you are stuck in a Bantustan where most people struggle to feed their families. That’s where the role of the PA and international donors raises some questions about which artistic projects receive funding and which ones don’t; which artists are given a platform and which ones aren’t. For the most part, Palestinian resistance has through the years overcome such challenges and Palestinian artists both inside Palestine and in Diaspora continue their effort to liberate Palestine one poem, one painting, one novel and one song at a time.

DD       In your poem “Verses and Spices” you talk about how “Growing up/ My father’s poems/ Ran through my veins/ Like blood/ A necessary life ingredient/ A rhythm that kept my heart pumping.”   Your poems stress the crucial importance of language in resolving problems.  In this poem you speak specifically about your father’s poems.  Please tell me a little about traditional Palestinians poetry and which Palestinians poets American should, or can read today to get a better understanding of the situation in Gaza.

SS        Your question asks specifically about “traditional Palestinian poetry” but I actually grew up with a wide range of Arab poetry. We weren’t raised to see “Palestinianism” as distinct from Arab nationalism.  We the Palestinians were part of the Arab world and took pride in that. Our definition of Palestine back then was also based on nationalism: one secular state for all three religions. That was the mantra of the PLO in the early 1970s.  Much has changed since and we have become factionalized and sectarianized beyond recognition.

It is true I grew up in a house of verses and spices. Poetry was always present at every meal and every gathering. My father, Abdul Karim Sabawi, a distinguished Palestinian novelist and poet, tried to introduce me to classical Arabic poetry such as Al Mutanaby and Omar Alkhayam but apart from sounding lyrical to my ears, that type of poetry didn’t really capture my heart. The language was too formal, too clever and too distant in time to feel real.  It also reflected a ‘male’ view of the world, which as a young girl and later a woman not only alienated me but at times even offended me.  It was when my father recited modern Arab poetry like that of Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian), Nizar Qabbani (Syrian), Amal Donkol  (Egyptian) and especially Salah Jahin (Egyptian) that I would tune in and pay attention.  My father encouraged me to navigate my way through his large collection of poetry books. Modern Arab poetry varies in style but I found myself gravitating toward poetry that conveyed ideas and not just showcased linguistic prowess. For example Egyptian giant Salah Jahin ‘s quatrains made use of colloquial everyday simple Egyptian dialect to communicate complex philosophical ideas:

The rich man was buried in a marble tomb

The beggar was buried in a hole with no coffin

I passed them by and marveled to myself

 Both graves emanate the same stench

My father’s own poetry also ranged in style. Some of his poems were in colloquial Gazan dialect while others in sophisticated classic Arabic.  His poetry reflects the quintessential Palestinian experience, which at its core is a universal human experience of loss, dispossession and exile. To give you an idea of the spirit of my father’s poetry, here is one he wrote that first morning he woke up in 1967 to find himself a refugee in Jordan.

Erasure

When you were parched

We quenched your thirst

With our blood

Now

We carry your burden

Disgraced

We cry in shame when asked

Where do you come from?

Dishonored we die

 

If only the stray bullets

From the occupier’s guns

Were merciful

That they pierced through our legs

It only they tore through our knees

If only we sunk in your sand

Deep to our necks

If only we got stuck

And became the salt of your earth

The nutrients in your fertile soil

If only we didn’t leave

 

The gates of our hearts

Are wide open to misery

Don’t ask us where this wind is blowing

Don’t ask us about a house

Or windows

Or trees

The Bulldozers were here

The Bulldozers were here

And the houses in our village

Fell…Like a row of decayed teeth

 

They haven’t colonized Mars yet

And the moon is barren

Uninhabitable

So carry your children

Your memories

And follow me

We can live in the books of history

They’ll write about us…

“The wicked Bedouins

Landed in Baghdad

They landed in Yafa

They landed in Grenada

Then they moved on

They packed their belongings

And rode on their camels

They didn’t leave their print on the red clay

And all their artifacts

Were faded

With the passing of the years”

 

Does anyone in the world really care?

Does anyone care?

What difference does it make

To be an Arab…

A Native American…

Or a dinosaur

SS       So as you can see, poetry was always a part of my life. But I never thought of integrating it into my activism until one day when I saw a YouTube video of Suheir Hammad reciting her poem ‘First Writing Since’ in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. This was a milestone in my life. First of all, I was so happy to hear a captivating articulate Palestinian woman poet at last! But more than that, her poetry was not written in Arabic and translated into English. Hammad’s poetry comes out in English and is effective and authentic and real.  This brings me to my next point: Palestinian writers today are a diverse group of people with countless citizenships who speak many languages and who are able to use a variety of mediums to reconstruct their national identity and to communicate their stories of exile.  So when we talk about Palestinian literature in the modern sense we must acknowledge that it now transcends linguistic and geographic borders.  It was Suheir Hammad who helped me come to terms with my own identity crisis. Yes, I can be Palestinian and I can write my poetry in English.

DV        Please tell me a little more about where you live and what you’re doing now.

SS         I live in Melbourne Australia and I’m currently working toward the production of my recent play Tales of a City by the Sea. The play was inspired by a collection of poems I wrote during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008/2009.  It is set to be staged at La Mama’s Courthouse theatre in Melbourne September 2014 and I am so blessed that La Mama has agreed to be our presenting partner for this production.  We hope the Arabic version of the play will premiere at the same time in Gaza and in the West Bank.  I am also working on a poetry book with Palestinian writers Ramzy Baroud  andJehan Bseiso  along with some incredible artists. So next year is looking like a very busy artistic year for me.

I’d like to end with a poem that inspired my recent play. It is dedicated to the Free Gaza Movement and the victims of the Mavi Marmara:

Tales of a city by the sea

The landscape constantly changes

Only the sea remains the same

Salty…

Fluid…

Mysterious…

Moody

A consistent presence amid the chaos

Its whooshing waves whisper tales

Of occupiers that have come and gone

Crusaders, tyrants and warlords

Riding on their horses

Riding on their Tanks

Riding on their F16 fighter jets

Always riding through

Leaving their footprints

And part of their history

Leaving their artifacts and ruins

Leaving fire and debris

Always leaving…

Only the sea remains

A cure for the trail of broken lives left behind

A landmark untouched by human greed and destruction

Oblivious to war occupation and aggression

Defiant to the rules of man

It embraces the shores of a battered city

It makes a mockery

Of those who try to break its spirit

Those who think they can contain

Its one and a half million beating hearts

It laughs in the face

Of that big iron wall

There is no limit to the sea’s audacity

It breaks the siege every day,

One defiant wave at a time

Connecting Gaza to the rest of the world

And connecting the world with the Shati refugee camp

If you stood with your back to Gaza facing the sea

You can imagine you are some place else

Beirut, Barcelona, Alexandria or Santorini

You can dream of the promise of what lays

Beyond the horizon

Countries, continents the whole world is out there

If only you could ride the sea

If only your body was bullet proof

If only your boat was made of steel

If only your dream was real

The landscape will change once more

Only the sea will remain the same 

Its whooshing waves will whisper new tales

Of occupiers that have come and gone

June 2010 Melbourne Australia

DV  Thank you very much, Samah Sabawi, for this incredibly informative and moving interview. 

Please visit Samah’s website talesofacitybythesea.com to read more about Palestine the culture, the politics and the people, and to get more updates on her play Tales of a City by the Sea.

Samah can also be reached on twitter @gazaheart

For information about Doug Valentine and his Political Poetry series, visit his website www.douglasvalentine.com or email him at dougvalentine77@gmail.com

One of Samah Sabawi’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014).  Please email John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu for information about pre-ordering the anthology.

Notes.


[i] Reprinted from The Butterfly’s Burden (2007) by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Source: The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

Statuses and Headlines: Dedicated to the tireless social media activist

Words scatter

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

I frame my perils of wisdom

on cyber walls

I denounce

I declare

I divulge my soul

I offer solidarity

and pass verdicts like delusional royalty

My virtual life a parody

my profile page an imaginary throne.

 

Newsfeed filled with corpses

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

We protest discrimination

famines and wars

140 characters to tear down the walls

140 characters to stop genocide

140 characters to expose a politician who lied

140 to give voice to the voiceless

to affirm a life

branded worthless

Nameless

children die everyday

Nameless

mothers grief everyday

Nameless

fathers bury their sons everyday

Nameless

mass graves are dug everyday

Nameless

insignificant refugees

threaten our peace of mind

Nameless

faceless detainees

out of sight out of mind

Nameless

women sell their bodies

sell their babies

sell their organs to survive

No dignity in poverty

Populations stripped of humanity

Only atrocities bare names

Military operations romanticized

‘enduring freedom’

‘desert shield’

‘pillar of clouds’

‘cast lead’

air strikes idealized

Minds stalled paralyzed

War on terror

War of terror

War for terror…

terror…

terror…

terror…

terror…

we grow numb desensitized

News feed jammed with hasbaranitzes

Government agents paid for lies

They ‘like’ and ‘share’ what we despise.

 

Morals in peril

Attention span expands

between statuses and headlines

140 characters to liberate Palestine

140 characters for gender equality

140 characters to raise money for charity

140 characters

I am wearing thin

140 characters

where do I begin?

 

Thoughts scatter

Attention span expands

BEYOND statuses and headlines.

 

Video: Against The Tide ضد التيار

Against the tide

I will not be polarized

I will not be factionized

Tribalized

Sectarianized

Colonized…and fragmented

Like a heartbroken nation

I will not be moved by hatred

Or blindly pick a side

And hide

Behind a well crafted slogan

I will not place my trust

In demagogy

I will embrace ideas

Not ideology

An enemy of my enemy

When a tyrant

Is MY enemy

Choosing the best of two evils

Is choosing evil

I will not fall for this game

Of demonizing an entire people

I will not delight when pain is inflicted

On another

I will not close my eyes

To inhumanity

I will defend my enemy’s rights

Because freedom

Is not a commodity

To be had by some

And denied to others

I will not delight

In the suffering

Even of those

Who oppressed me

More importantly

I will trust

My maternal instinct

What passed through my womb

Though precious…is not distinct

A beautiful human baby

Of flesh and blood

No different from that

Born by the ‘other’

There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’

Every death will be mourned

By a grieving mother

Her tears

More powerful

Than any flag

I will not be polarized

Did Facebook kill Arab nationalism? The impact of social media on the drive for democracy in the Arab region

By Samah Sabawi

Social media played an essential role in the early days of the Arab revolutions in promoting and strengthening civil society actors in their quest for democracy.  However, more recently, social media has become a tool used by various movements in the region to disempower civil society and prolong democratic reform by highlighting divisions, polarizing views while making citizens more vulnerable to government propaganda and surveillance. After all, social media is open to anyone who logs in regardless of his or her true or made up identity, intellect, education, nationality or status in society. While this inclusive nature can be viewed as a positive democratic feature, it can have a detrimental impact on the quality, integrity and credibility of the content shared and the information needed in order to create a healthy and informed ‘public sphere’.

The arrival of the Internet opened up new and exciting venues for public deliberation. Transforming the power of broadcasting away from the centralized structure of traditional media to the decentralized nature of the Internet. This has been hailed as ‘the second media age’ (Poster1995). Many sources can now broadcast to many receivers, and citizens have seemingly equal access into this public forum that has global reach. This has transformed the existing political power structures, empowering and amplifying the voices of civil society while challenging the power and control of the ruling class.

Social media played an essential role in this transformation, with Facebook being one of its most popular social networking services, boasting 1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013 (Facebook 2013). These numbers continue to increase as users from around the world join the social networking site and form virtual communities unhindered by physical distance, class, ethnicity or gender. Within these virtual communities, strangers who may never meet in real life can become ‘friends’, exchange photo albums, comment on each other’s triumphs and tribulations and share their political and social views of the world. Semitsu (2011) described Facebook as a ‘controlled ecosystem’ where users voluntarily reveal private information about their lives and sometimes even their most intimate thoughts. This has made it a very attractive tool for advocates, corporations and world governments alike, as they all compete for access into the hearts and minds of this large online population in order to dominate the social networking space and to promote their agendas.  The current revolutions in the Arab world offer us great insight into how these cyber battles for space and influence are fought between citizens and state actors.

In the Arab world, the internet offers civil society and opposition groups space where they can express dissent, organize and network, away from the intrusive gaze and control of the authoritarian governments under which they function.  ‘To peruse the Arab social media sites, blogs, online videos, and other digital platforms is to witness what is arguably the most dramatic and unprecedented improvement in freedom of expression, association, and access to information in contemporary Arab history’ (Ghannam 2011). According to a report published by the online resource Arab Crunch, in the year 2010, before the first Arab revolution began, 17 million people were using Facebook in the Arab region with 5 million users in Egypt alone.

The year 2011 saw sweeping protests throughout the Arab world starting in Tunisia and moving to Egypt, then Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yaman and in smaller numbers other Arab countries. Howard and Hussain (2013) examined the role of digital media in provoking inspiring and sustaining these popular movements for democracy.  Adopting a comparative method in their approach and taking into account both the diversity and the common shared experiences of the citizens within the region, they argued that even though only a minority of the population in countries that were affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ had internet access, this minority was in fact significant politically as they represented the ‘educated elites’ who have the energy and the financial means to organize. This view was shared by many analysts and pundits who applauded the leading role Facebook and Twitter played in offering the protestors the space needed to organize, strategize, raise awareness and share tips on how to resist and challenge the authority.

Egyptian youth were amongst the first users of Internet in the Arab world to utilize social networking sites as a political tool (Harb 2011). They were the force behind various movements sprouting online focusing on Egyptian police repression and the corruption of the Mubarak regime. These movements included the 6th of April protest movement, which ultimately took its online expression of discontent into the streets, staging protests as early as 2007, years before the Egyptian revolution of 2011 began.

Governments in the Arab world watched these online communities closely and with contempt. Their initial reaction was to meet online criticism with brutality in order to strike fear into the hearts of the offenders while deterring others from such acts, after all ‘It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable’ (Eric Hoffer 1954). For example, the former Egyptian regime implemented a heavy-handed response to online activism arresting bloggers and torturing and imprisoning them. This gave the regime a mistaken sense of security (Harb 2011), which soon began to diminish as Egyptians collectively decided to break the fear barrier and to take to the streets on the 25th of January 2011.

As protests spread in the Arab region, the important role of social networking became all the more evident as it gave the protestors access to the world community where they were able to amplify their message and receive tactical support. According to Howard and Hussien (2013) boingboing.net was quick to offer guidelines on how to protect anonymity online, an ‘Activist Action Plan’ was translated and hosted by the Atlantic Monthly while Telecomix posted information on how to rely on landlines in order to bypass the state’s efforts to block access to broadband networks. In the week leading up to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the number of tweets from Egypt and world-wide about the Egyptian revolution increased from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day while videos featuring protests and political commentary went viral (O’Donnell 2011).

During the first year of the Arab revolutions it appeared that ‘Digital media provided both an awareness of shared grievances and transportable strategies for action’ (Howard and Hussien 2013), which enabled the rise of the people and the fall of at least three oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.  But as time passed, it became more difficult for the people to achieve their democratic aspirations in other countries such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where the protests still rage today. One theory as to why this may be the case was offered by Howard and Hussien (2013) who suggested that a revolution’s failure or success hinges on its citizen’s access to technology.  They argued that countries that have more ‘tech-savvy civil society groups’ such as Egypt and Tunisia were able to successfully overthrow their dictatorships faster and with less ‘casualties’ than those countries that were not as strong technologically such as Syria. While this may be the case, it is also important to consider that just as the protestors were learning from one another the blue print of revolution, the dictators were also learning from one another how to manage these revolutions, drive a counter revolution and gain the upper hand both in the real world and online.

Authoritarian regimes often apply the same blue print in controlling the flow of information and crushing dissent. In fact, Arab ministers of Interior meet annually in order to exchange ideas on how to further secure their regimes. Howard and Hussien (2013) point out that during the last several years, the meetings focused on developing ways to tighten media regulations, increasing censorship and government control and expanding this control to the world wide web. For these governments, it is crucial to establish deterrence by creating and fostering a culture of fear by way of arresting and torturing dissidents.

However, the traditional deterrence factor proved to be no longer sufficient in 2011 when dissent spilled out from the virtual realm into the streets. As the protests spread, Arab governments had to develop new strategies. The first strategy was to censor and block online content while using their state media agents to disseminate their version of events. For example, when the revolution began in Egypt, the regime quickly tried to block Twitter, then Facebook, and to disrupt phone-messaging services. This resulted in an ongoing ‘battle of the blogosphere’ (Ghannam 2011) where citizens relied on proxies to bypass government blockings and firewalls. Two days later, the Egyptian government tried to shut down the Internet all together and even targeted phone networks to disrupt the flow of text messaging. The result was not in the government’s favour.  Feeling a sense of isolation, people who lost their Internet connection and phone services were forced to go out into the streets ‘when they could no longer follow the unrest through social media’ (O’Donnell 2011). It didn’t take long for the tech savvy cyber army of activists from across the Arab World to exchange codes, tips and software to enable Egyptians to access the Internet once again.

When the Mubarak regime finally collapsed, many hailed the Egyptian revolution over attributing its apparent success to social media. Howard and Hussien (2011) even went on to suggest that ‘it is difficult to say whether the revolutions would or would not have happened without digital media’. Others proclaimed that the new media era has ushered in ‘the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves’ (Kirkpatrick 2011). But in hindsight, it would appear such views might have exaggerated the role of social media in the drive for democratic reforms in Egypt and beyond.

History teaches us that where there is state oppression, eventually the people will rise with or without the help of technology. Research done on political activism and the Internet also downplays the role of social media as a driver behind political action as it suggests that people who are likely to be politically active online are those who are already ‘political junkies’ (Johnson and Kaye 2000). Therefore, it would be incorrect to contend that without Facebook, the Arab revolutions wouldn’t have happened. As Zahera Harb points out, ‘social media facilitated the revolution when the right moment arrived’ (2011). The incident that sparked the first of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia was not planned on the pages of Facebook, it was a spontaneous act of despair by a Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest the economic hardships the people of Tunisia endured. It was his act that brought about ‘the right political moment’. Harb notes that the success of the Tunisian revolution is what inspired the youth of Egypt to follow suit and to organize their revolt. In other words, the Tunisian revolution is what brought about ‘the right political moment’ for Egypt’s revolution to begin. Finally, the suggestion that the revolutions were a result of a sudden online mobilization lead by the youth grossly overlooks the importance of the older Arabs ‘whose participation was critical’ (Lust &Wichmann 2012).

More telling of the limited power of the Internet and especially social media in driving democratic reforms is the fact that the revolutions in the Arab region are not over and democracy is yet to be delivered even in places where the regimes did fall like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Remnants of the failed regimes and the existing authoritarian regimes are evolving and are becoming more sophisticated, creating and supporting websites that promote their own view of politics and morality while dispatching their foot soldiers online to spread confusion and gather information. Arab officials have also become active on social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (Ghannam 2011) and governments are expanding their state-run media institutions into the online sphere.

Hussien and Howard explored in their work the rise of the counterinsurgency campaigns in the Arab world, pointing to how activists from the Arab region struggled to dominate their country’s hashtags on Twitter as army of advocates for the various Arab regimes used the countries’ hashtags to disseminate countless tweets depicting ‘photographs of national monuments and soccer statistics’ (Hussien and Howard 2013). Another method used by the Arab governments in the cyber battlefield was dispatching an army of anonymous trolls to defend the Arab regimes in order to silence the debate. This was evident when twitter feeds about the protests in Bahrain were suddenly dominated by the appearance of thousands of online anonymous defenders who ruthlessly executed a strategy of abusive attacks on anyone tweeting about Bahrain. Lynch (2013) argues it was the actions of these ‘trolls’ that ultimately crushed the online debate.

The use of anonymous trolls by governments adds to an already confused online ‘public sphere’ in which many activists and civil society actors also choose to remain anonymous for fear over their safety. With anonymity comes the question of credibility and trust. This issue is strongly evident if we observe the ongoing debate surrounding Syria on social networking sites. Videos and graphic photos are constantly being disseminated but many come with no disclosure and no way of verifying their origin or the authenticity of their message. The result of this is a public sphere where people become sceptical of any information they receive unless this information corresponds with their own pre-existing views. Unfortunately, this leads to increasing polarization.

Lynch (2013) argues that the polarization in the Arab world is reinforced within social media discourse, blaming this on the prevalence of the ‘informational bubbles’ that exist within social media. These bubbles do more to fragment and divide than they do to inform and encourage democratic compromise. Most often they foster  ‘a narrow geographic focus’ of the world (Lynch 2013). Lynch’s argument is supported by the fact that Facebook groups are mostly nationally based or driven by a common political or religious agenda.

In the Arab region, the lines have been drawn in social networking space between the various parties to the raging conflicts.  While such trends can strength the various groups internally by reinforcing their beliefs, they do little to encourage positive interaction with other groups who share different points of view.  Lynch (2013) points to the current online interaction between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ruling party and opposition groups and observes that each side is eager to share and disseminate ‘uncritically’ any article that makes the other side look bad, in the final analysis he concludes that ‘the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each others’ prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man’s land that the centre has become’ (Lynch 2013).

This is not to say that social media is to blame for the current sectarian divisions in the Arab world. What social media does, is play a role in reflecting the current changes in the ‘texture of Arab politics’ (Lynch 2013) moving away from the traditional hold the Arab regimes had on the flow of information and creating new means by which the battle for control of information is waged.

Therefore, while it may be true that social media offers a new space not previously available for citizens to organize, communicate, and develop new and enhanced tactics of democratization, it cannot be viewed as an ideal space that will bring democracy to the Arab region, as many had hoped it would during the initial phase of the Arab revolutions. Democracy cannot be born nor flourish out of a sphere where the facts can be mixed with fiction, where sources cannot be verified and where accountability is lacking. If anything, social media is now being used to amplify sectarianism and to spread fear and mistrust of the other. And just as messages of Arab nationalism and unity dominated the social media networks at the start of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, messages of sectarian hatred fuelled by the tragic ongoing fighting in Syria is what is now dominating social media networks in the Arab world.  The initial optimism for democratic reform has given way to scepticism while social media has become a virtual battlefield that is being manipulated equally by propaganda from all the different sides, as they all compete for dominance and power both in the turbulent regions of the Arab world and online.

References:

Arab Crunch 2010, ‘Facebook Population: Arabic The Fastest Growing, English Falls from The Majority Leader-ship’, August 30, accessed 11 May 2013, http://arabcrunch.com/2010/08/facebook-population-ar- abic-the-fastest-growing-english-falls-from-the-majority-leadership.html

Facebook 2013, News Room, Key Facts, accessed 14 May 2013, https://newsroom.fb.com/Key-Facts

Ghannam, J. 2011, ‘Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the uprisings of 2011’, Centre for International Media Assistance, February 3, accessed 10 May 2011, http://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:YEbWlPGY8xsJ:scholar.google.com/+social+media+revolutions+in+Arab+world&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&as_vis=1

Harb, Z. 2011, ‘Arab Revolutions and the Social Media Effect’, M/C Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2  – ‘diaspora’, accessed 10 May 2013, http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/364

Hoffer, E. 1954, The Passionate State of Mind, Harper & Brothers, New York.

Howard, P.N. & Hussain, M.M. 2013, Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring, Oxford University Press.

Johnson, T. J. & Kaye, B. K. 2000, ‘Using is believing: The influence of reliance on the credibility of online political information among politically interested Internet users’. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 77, 865-879.

Kirkpatrick, D. 2011, ‘Social Power and the Coming corporate revolution’, Forbes, July 9, accessed15 May 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/techonomy/2011/09/07/social-power-and-the-coming-corporate-revolution/

Lynch, M. 2013, ‘Twitter Devolutions: How social media is hurting the Arab Spring’, Foreign Policy, February 7, accessed 18 May 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/07/twitter_devolutions_arab_spring_social_media?page=0,1

Lust, E. & Wichmann, J. 2012, ‘Three Myths About the Arab Uprising’, Yale Global, 24 July, accessed 1 May 2013, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/three-myths-about-arab-uprisings

O’Donnell, C. 2011, ‘New Study Quantifies Use of Social Media in Arab Spring’, University of Washington, News Release, September 12, accessed 1 May 2013, http://www.washington.edu/news/2011/09/12/new-study-quantifies-use-of-social-media-in-arab-spring/

Poster, M.1995, Cyber Democracy: Internet and the Public Sphere, University of California, Irvine

Semitsu, J.P. 2011, ‘From Facebook to Mug Shot: How the Dearth of Social Networking Privacy Rights Revolutionized Online Government Surveillance’, Peace Law Review, Volume 31 Issue 1 Article 7, Social Networking and the Law, University of San Diego School of Law

The Real News Report from Gaza Palestinians mark Nakba

Part 2 Audio Samah Sabawi Commemorating the Nakba: a 3CR radio special

Exposing the ethnocentric nature of the state of Israel, the ethnic cleansing and denial of rights to the Palestinians and how we can put a stop to it all.

Audio Samah Sabawi Commemorating the Nakba – Exploring themes of exile in Palestinian poetry: a 3CR radio special Part 1

Why song performed by Palestinian Arab Idol struck a chord with millions of viewers – English translation of lyrics included

In the song that qualified him for the Arab Idol competition, Palestinian singer Muhammad Assaf  from Gaza city sang ‘ya tair altayer’ flying bird.  This national song struck a chord with Palestinians and Arabs everywhere and the original video clip from the Arab Idol competition has gone viral with over a million viewers.  A new clip has just been posted on youtube with images of the Palestinian cities Assaf sang for (see new video below).  Assaf told reporters that he sees no line between his art and being patriotic.  He is right.  His song expresses a Palestinian wish for freedom and for the ability to see loved ones in other villages that are now no longer accessible.  It is a reminder that even though Palestinians are confined within their bantustans and behind Israel’s big walls and towers, they haven’t given up on the dream that one day they too will fly like a bird and see their homes,  villages and loved ones.

Oh flying bird

Going to my home

My eyes follow you

And God’s eyes protect you

Oh you traveller

I am so jealous

Palestine my homeland

She is beautiful praise be to God

Go by Safed

Go by Tabariyyah

Pass by Acre and Haifa

And say hello to the sea

Don’t forget Nazareth

This Arab fortress

And give Bisan the good news

Her people will return

My people on this land

Stood tall

History is proud of us

And history’s back was bent

From all the pain we suffered

But we are patient

Go to Gaza

And Kiss its soil

Her people are dignified

Her men are mighty

And go to Jerusalem

The capital

Al Aqsa its landmark

Inshallah God willing

We will gather there

Oh flying bird

Going to my home

My eyes follow you

And God’s eyes protect you

Oh you traveller

I am so jealous

Palestine my homeland

She is beautiful

Praise be to God

Let Gaza surprise you!

By Samah Sabawi

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Gaza is one of the most reported on and yet least understood places on earth.  Its mere mention conjures up images of war victims, war criminals, piles of rubble, militants with guns, dead children and weeping mothers.  A simple google search will bring up disturbing images of heart break, terror and destruction.  But all of this is an infliction on a place that has neither surrendered its identity nor lost its beauty to decades of violent Israeli occupation.

Gaza is a city of many tales.  While some are about loss, grief and misery, many others are about enduring love, triumphant moments, tenacity, passion, music and hope that lives beyond the confines of the siege and the occupation.  If you dig deeper than the negative headlines and the devastating news reports you will find many pleasant surprises.  You can take a walk along Gaza’s gorgeous fields, enjoy its magical sunsets, get to know its warm people, visit its ancient sites and eat its delicious dishes.  You will find in Gaza everything that would make you love life with a passion!  So join me here to explore some of Gaza’s unknown side.

The Arts:

There is a common belief that Gaza’s art scene is all but dead.  While it may be true that art in general is not a great priority for the people in Gaza who are too concerned with bigger financial and political issues, Gazan artists continue to create and to excel in their fields.  There is also an appreciation of the need to encourage art in children starting from a young age.

One establishment worthy of salutation for supporting the arts is the Qattan Centre for the Child in Gaza.  This cultural centre is an oasis for the hearts and the minds of children.  Equipped with a large library painted in vibrant colors and comfortable eye soothing furniture the QCC in Gaza focuses on developing the children emotionally and intellectually through visual art, music, education, cultural events and much more.

Below are some images of the QCC in Gaza.  Keep in mind all of the paintings you’ll see in some of these photos were in fact painted by children under 15 years of age at the centre.

The Qattan center was built on land donated by the Gaza municipality and has succeeded in meeting its goal of creating an educational and stimulating space for children and their caregivers.  Parents are encouraged to join their children in the library, engage with them over art and craft activities, or just watch them proudly as they perform their song and dance routines.

Membership at the QCC is free of charge to all children in Gaza from all walks of life and some of the classes offered charge a small symbolic fee.  Many of the events are also free of charge such as the concerts captured in the video below that took place as part of the winter camp activities in January 2013.  In this video below you’ll see a variety of instruments, you’ll hear music of both Arab and western origins ranging from Gershwin to Darweesh.

Also worthy of special salutation is the Gaza Music School and its incredible teachers and talented children.  The children featured in the next video are nine years of age.  They are very dedicated to the art they practice in spite of all the challenges they face including Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Music School  in 2009.

 

The landscape

The Gaza Strip is densely populated mostly by refugees who fled Israel’s war of ethnic cleansing in 1948 and have not been allowed to return to their homes since.  As the population continues to grow in the besieged strip the natural landscape changes to make way for more cement structures and buildings to accommodate this growth.

However, population growth is not the only challenge facing Gaza’s green spaces.  Agricultural land  is shrinking as Israel usurps more of Gaza’s water supplies and if that’s not enough, Israel’s siege, blockade, frequent bombardment and occasional land incursions have left their mark on many of Gaza’s farming land.  A recommended report that sheds great light on this is the UNISPAL report Farming without Land, Fishing without Water.

Below are two pics of bombed trees in our farm in Gaza. The first depicts a tree totally uprooted from the power of a one ton bomb blast.   The second photo  depicts a tree that was uprooted from the blast, flew in the air and actually landed straight on top of another tree.

Despite all of the challenges and the uncertainties of Israel’s incursions and bombings, some farmers have insisted on maintaining their land.  When visiting their farms you get a sense of what Gaza’s landscape looked like before Israel’s war of ethnic cleansing began.   You can imagine how before the refugees were chased into the far corners of their homeland to settle into camps under occupation, how most of Gaza’s natural landscape would have looked like.

The Sea

Perhaps the most important feature of Gaza is its sea.  It is the only landscape that remains unchanged, unaffected by the occupation and the aggression.  The sea is an open recreational space that is free of charge.  For Gazan families the sea is a cure for all of life’s problems.

The food

Finally, no matter where you go to in Palestine, you will always be overwhelmed with warm hospitality and great food.  Gaza is no different.  Here are some pics of some of my favourite dishes, but if you’re looking for a more comprehensive list along with recepies I highly recommend you visit The Gaza Kitchen.  Bon appétit or as they say in Gaza Saha we afya!

Israel’s Gaza Bantustan

First published on AlJazeera

Israel’s one state reality greeted us at the gates of the Gaza-Rafah crossing when we were asked by the Egyptian officer to present our Haweyah (Palestinian IDs) in order to be allowed through. It is not like we weren’t expecting this request, we knew that it would come down to this even though our Australian passports clearly showed Gaza as our place of birth we were still not considered Palestinian nationals in our own home city. Rather, we were treated like foreigners who needed an almost impossible amount of bureaucratic red tape designed to discourage the likes of us of ever thinking of visiting loved ones back home.

Allow me to explain: Since Israel’s establishment it has used the system of ID cards to differentiate between its Jewish and non-Jewish residents and citizens, a distinction needed in order to apply its apartheid discriminatory policies of separate and unequal treatment. When Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, its Interior Ministry began to also issue ID cards to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. By 1982, Israel passed the Identity Card Carrying and Displaying Act requiring all residents of Israel both inside its 1948 borders and inside the green line in the Occupied Territories, who are over 16 years of age, to carry at all times these ID cards and to present them upon request to the authorities.

Israeli citizens’ ID cards come in blue plastic casing with the Israeli Coat of Arms on the outer cover. Palestinians prior to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority had orange casings in the West Bank and red casings in the Gaza Strip both with the IDF insignia embossed on the outer cover highlighting Israel’s military control. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who were forbidden entry into Israel’s 1948 borders had green casings.

 

After the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and as part of the creation of the illusion of progress, the Palestinian National Authority was handed some limited inconsequential powers. These included issuing Palestinian residents with ID cards. A pointless exercise given that the power to issue these cards hinged on Israel’s approval, which was selectively given. Not only that, Israel continues to this day to control the Palestinian population registry and to assign the actual ID numbers provided for the Palestinian ID cards; the all-important cards required to enter Gaza and the West Bank.

Much has been written about how the system of ID cards is used as a weapon to further cement the fragmentation of the Palestinian population as it confines the Palestinians to their geographic Israeli-controlled Bantustans, forbidding Palestinians with Gaza IDs entry into the West Bank and Jerusalem and vice versa. But perhaps the worst and most insidious effect this system has is in the way it is designed to control and monitor the movement of all Palestinians and to curb the Palestinian population by denying their diaspora the right to come home even if for a short visit.

As we stood at the Rafah crossing, we were confronted with this reality. The Egyptian officer insisted that only Palestinians with the Israeli-controlled Palestinian ID cards are allowed to use this crossing. These orders are a result of an unforgivable move, one of many, that were made by the Palestinian National Authority when in 2005, Palestinian negotiators led by Mohammed Dahlan (a Fatah leader with strong links to Israel and the US) signed an agreement with Israel on movement and access from and to Gaza. One of the conditions they agreed to was restricting the use of the Rafah crossing to Palestinian ID card holders. It is hard to fathom why the Palestinian Authority would have agreed to such an inhumane condition which in reality means that Gazan residents would be cut off from loved ones in exile.

After seven hours of waiting at the Rafah border and after exhausting every connection, every phone number, every thread of hope and every possibility, we managed to make it through. Once inside Gaza, it became abundantly clear that despite Hamas’ visible presence inside the city and the endless waves of green flags, we had arrived into an Israeli controlled Bantustan. The currency used here is the new Israeli Shekel, the IDs all the residents carry are issued by the Israeli interior ministry, all births go through the Israeli national registry, the essential products are all Israeli in this captive market. As I type this to the sound of the Israeli F16 hovering in the sky above, and as I look at the sea patrolled by Israeli cruisers, I am convinced that I am now inside Israel’s one state reality in a Bantustan they call Gaza.

Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian writer and Policy Adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.  

Follow her on Twitter: @gazaheart

A comprehensive analysis of the arguments surrounding the call for a cultural boycott of Israel

By Samah Sabawi

This paper was prepared for the 7arakat Conference: Theatre, Cultural Diversity and Inclusion November  2012 and was first published in the 7arakat conference E:Proceedings. 

Introduction

International artists find themselves standing at a crossroad between their desire to support all forms of artistic expression, Israeli or otherwise, and the Palestinian civil society’s call to support a cultural boycott of all Israeli state sponsored forms of art. Some argue art and culture are apolitical and boycotting them is an infringement on freedom of expression.  They insist that art is a language of peace and building bridges. Others argue that culture and art are in fact political and can serve as tools of political propaganda and repression.  They highlight the responsibility of artists to affect change by raising awareness about political and social issues. In this paper, I will set out to explore the relationship between the culture and politics within the Palestinian Israeli conflict, while examining the arguments for and against the Palestinian Civil Society’s call for a cultural boycott of Israel.

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions – BDS

Confronting a failed peace process and a disappearing Palestinian state, and inspired by the South African movement to end apartheid, Palestinian civil society in 2005 set out to build a rights based grassroots movement that adopts a non-violent form of resistance based on international law and the universal declarations of human rights. They called on people of good conscience around the world to apply boycotts divestments and sanctions on Israel until Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian land, including East Jerusalem, and fulfills its obligations under international law toward the Palestinian refugees, granting full equality to the Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. Endorsed by 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements representing Palestinians in the Occupied Territory, inside Israel’s 1948 boundaries, as well as in Diaspora, the 2005 BDS call represents the voice of the majority of Palestinian civil society and its three demands articulate a unified Palestinian vision that cannot be dismissed. The BDS call is now endorsed by hundreds of leading international human rights activists, including prominent figures such as Stephane Hessel (2010), co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Holocaust survivor.

The Palestinian Campaign for Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PCABI)

In 2006 the majority of Palestinian cultural workers, including most filmmakers and artists along with hundreds of international cultural workers and artists issued a unified statement in support of BDS. Today the list of artists who have publically joined the cultural boycott and have cancelled performances in Israel includes celebrities from around the world like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Annie Lennox, Brian Eno, Devendra Banhart, Tommy Sands, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron amongst many others. The list also includes some incredible writers like Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Alice Walker, as well as accomplished filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard.

However, not all artists respond favorably to the boycott call. Some still choose to perform in Israel like pop icons Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga to name a few. These artists insist that performing in Israel is about promoting peaceful co-existence by bringing people together. They maintain that cultural events such as concerts are apolitical and should remain so. They complain that the boycotts single out Israel unfairly and that artists – according to Elton John – should not “cherry-pick” their conscious (“Elton John performs in Israel”). They also argue that boycotts are a blunt instrument that amounts to collective punishment of the Israeli people.

Is culture apolitical?

In order to understand the relationship between culture and politics within the Palestinian Israeli context it is important to review the history of Palestinian culture and the political challenges it has faced throughout the years of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

In an article that appeared in Haaretz (15 May 2012) commemorating Nakba, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi described Palestinian society prior to Israel’s establishment in1948 as highly developed commercially, artistically and culturally. Its economic development was one of the highest in the Arab World and its high school enrolment was second highest with 379 private schools as early as 1914, and dozens of bookstores. In fact, Ashrawi wrote that between the years 1911 and 1948 Palestine had at least 161 newspapers, magazines and other publications and a vibrant cultural scene with cinemas, live theatres and musical concerts both by local artists as well as visiting giants like Egyptian icon Om Kalthoum and the Lebanese singer Farid Alatrash.

All of this was disrupted in 1948 when Israel was established on the ruins of Palestinian villages. Since then Palestinian culture became the target of a systematic and deliberate attempt at erasure by the Israeli authorities. For example, a story which broke out only this year on Al Jazeera titled “The Great Book Robbery” uncovered how during the process of establishing the state of Israel, librarians from Israel’s National Library accompanied the Israeli army into Palestinian homes after their residents were driven out and systematically took all the books that were left in these houses. The books included priceless volumes of Palestinian Arab and Muslim literature, including poetry, works of history, art and fiction. Thousands of these books were destroyed but some were added to the library’s collection and remain till this day in the Israeli National Library, designated, abandoned property – of course totally disregarding the fact that this property does belong to a people who were forced to leave and never permitted to return to their homes or to be reunited with any of their assets, including their books.

Another example of the politicization of culture in the Palestinian Israeli context is how British and then Israeli authorities often targeted not only Palestinian political leaders, but also artists and intellectuals, imprisoning them, banishing them into exile, and even assassinating them. Amongst the artists and intellectuals assassinated by Israel were writer Ghassan Kanafani (Abukhalil 2012) and poet and intellectual Wael Zuaiter (Jacir 2007). Also of great significance to this discussion is how during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli forces looted and confiscated the accumulated national archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which included valuable and rare collections of films and other Palestinian cultural artifacts (IMEU 2012).

Israel’s attack on Palestinian culture continues today and takes many different shapes and forms. Palestinian artists in the occupied and besieged West Bank and Gaza suffer the same fate as all other Palestinians living under occupation. They are discriminated against, their movement is restricted, and their most basic human rights are denied. Israel does not distinguish between culture and politics. In 2005, when Former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, launched the ‘Brand Israel’ campaign he admitted  “We are seeing culture as a hasbara toolof the first rank,and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture” (Ben-Ami 2005). This was abundantly clear in the aftermath of Israel’s three-week bombardment of Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009. As the world witnessed in shock the incredible devastation and human suffering of an imprisoned 1.5 million people mostly refugees and half under the age of 18, Israel brushed off all criticism, blaming the outrage over its actions on bad public relations. Its solution to improve its image as revealed in a New York Times article (Bronner 2009) was not to address its record of violations, but to grant an extra $2 million from the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s budget to improve its image through “cultural and information diplomacy”. Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs, was quoted in the article saying, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater
companies, exhibits…This way you show Israel’s prettier
face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war” (Bronner 2009).

Mekel’s quote is a perfect illustration of how, if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find that many Israeli state sponsored events that may seem to be simply cultural and for pure entertainment purposes are in fact driving political agendas and whitewashing crimes similar to those committed in Gaza.  In fact, Israel goes so far in its manipulation of cultural events that it has made it a condition for artists who receive state funding to sign a contract stipulating they commit to “ promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel” (Laor 2008).  In other words, Israeli artists who are sponsored by the Israeli state are required to support the policies of the state in public and to remain silent on Israel’s discrimination and atrocities against the Palestinians. This was confirmed when Israeli pop music artist Idan Raichel admitted in an interview published on Australia-il.com (2008) the nature of the relationship between the state and its sponsored artists: “We certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflict”.

Can cultural events bring people together?

Having established that culture in the Israeli Palestinian context is not apolitical and cannot be seen in isolation of the political environment, I’d like to move on to address the second argument made by opponents of the cultural boycotts who favor performing in Israel as a way to ‘bring people together’ and to promote ‘co-existence’ through joint Palestinian Israeli cultural projects.

First of all, let’s look at the benefit of the joint cultural projects. Will these joint projects pursue an agenda for justice and equality or will they bring two unequal sides together – an occupied and an occupier – and promote an illusion of symmetry? Projects that don’t aim to end Israel’s occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people only promote the normalization of the status quo. That is why increasingly more and more Palestinian artists are turning away from these joint ventures, often refusing to accept badly needed funds and the promise of fame and success, because they recognize that the price for participation – normalizing oppression – is too high to accept.

Secondly, the idea that a concert in Israel can bring Palestinians and Israelis together is absurd when one considers that millions of Palestinians who live under Israel’s military control are prevented by Israel’s apartheid policies from attending. To clarify, when concerts are held in Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank do not enjoy the same access to them as Jewish settlers living on land confiscated from Palestinians in the West Bank. In fact, even when cultural events take place inside the Occupied Territories, for example in Ramallah, Palestinians in other enclaves and Bantustans within the occupied territories or those who live in Gaza, or Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenships – are often not allowed to attend due to the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints in the Occupied Territories and tricky permit systems, all designed to fragment and control Palestinian society.

Israel’s system of apartheid and segregation touches every aspect of Palestinian life and excludes Palestinians from many opportunities that are afforded the Jewish people. This issue of exclusion was at the center of the controversy at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as international and local artists expressed dismay at The Globe for inviting Israel’s national theatre Habima to participate in the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival. A protest letter which appeared in The Guardian (29 March 2012) and was signed by an impressive number of celebrities, including first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Mark Rylance, Trevor Griffiths, Sonja Linden, and Emma Thompson, pointed to the fact that “…by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practiced by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company”.

International artists have an ethical responsibility to address this issue of exclusion and discrimination, which is central to the reality of the conflict. The real questions artists need to ask themselves are: Do we want to promote a culture where we feel comfortable performing before an audience that is selected by way of racial privilege? Do we want to engage with Israeli artists who have committed by way of signing a legal contract to whitewash Israel’s system of discrimination and oppression? How can we accept the claim that concerts or cultural events can ‘bring people together’ when these events often work to promote and to support an existing system of discrimination designed to keep the people apart?

Protecting artistic freedom of expression

Israel has argued that the cultural boycott infringes on artistic freedom. While it is true that Israeli artists are free to express and share their art with the world, Palestinian artists face tremendous challenges with stifling travel restrictions, arbitrary detention, political repression and various roadblocks that get in the way of them holding rehearsals, exhibiting their work or even performing the simplest tasks, which becomes quite impossible under occupation.

Today, Palestinian artists and theatre makers are caught in an intricate and multi layered system of oppression. Take for example the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and the tremendous challenges they face. A Human Rights Watch report this year (27 July 2012) accused Israel and its perceived security arm the Palestinian Authority of  “trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” adding that  “[a] theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.”

The HRW statement referred to Israel’s ongoing system of arbitrary arrests and detention and called for an investigation into allegations of mistreatment, raising the concern that since the murder of its director and co-founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, in April 2011, the Israeli occupation forces have “repeatedly raided the theater and beaten and arbitrarily arrested employees”.

Israel’s occupation and system of discrimination infringes daily on the Palestinian artists’ freedom of expression.  So the question here is should Israeli state sponsored artists’ freedom of expression override that of the Palestinians? There is Hypocrisy to the Israeli claim that it does. In 1984Enuga S. Reddy, then director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, responded to similar criticism about the cultural boycott of South Africa; the following is an excerpt of his press briefing published on the PACBI website:

“It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms … to the African majority … should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

Profiting from the occupation

But profiting from apartheid and serving its propaganda purposes is precisely what artists do when they cross what the Palestinian solidarity movement now calls the world’s largest picket line’ (Billet 2012).  Take for example Madonna’s Israel Peace Concert during which Madonna told her fans in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan stadium, “It’s easy to say I want peace in the world, but it’s another thing to do it”. Her recipe for peace was simple; she told her fans that “[i]f we rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and names of our religions, if we can rise above all that, and treat everyone around us, every human being with dignity and respect, we will have peace” (Steinberg and Bronstein, 2012). But the reality is that Madonna’s peace speech was lost on the Palestinians, who were denied access to her ‘peace concert’ and who remain locked up behind Israel’s high walls and barbed wires.

More significant is the fact that Madonna’s so called ‘peace concert’, which gave lip service to peace, in fact was successful in promoting tourism in Israel, bringing in 4,000 tourists with some fans paying up to NIS 5,000 for VIP tickets and accommodation packages (Domke and Halutz 2012).  So in reality, the concert was great for Israel, its economy, its image and its institutions but did not do much for the cause of working toward creating a real environment for a peace with justice.

Singling out Israel

Some argue that boycotts single out Israel unfairly and that artists – as Elton John said  – should not “cherry pick” their conscious (Daily Mail 19 June 2010). Some Israeli artists feel that there is a sense of prejudice, as was expressed by Habima’s artistic Director Ilan Ronen:

We come to the Globe along with 37 countries and languages. And this is the only theatre, and the only language, that should be boycotted? Everything is OK in those other countries – no problem at all? Artists should not boycott other artists… I think, as an artist, that this is wrong. We should have a dialogue with everybody. We should discuss and disagree. (Tonkin 2012)

But Palestinians have every right to single Israel out for occupying and oppressing them, and to call for the help and the solidarity of the international community in a non-violent, peaceful form of resistance that is anchored in human rights and progressive liberal values. Ronen’s assertion that Israeli artists are unfairly singled out is also misleading. Unlike South African academic and cultural boycott, which was actually a “blanket” boycott, BDS does not target individualIsraeli academics, writers or artists. Israeli artists are welcome to cooperate with Palestinian artists as long as the projects they are working on together do not whitewash Israel’s occupation, ignore the inequality and discrimination against Palestinians or work to promote Israel’s softer side, while the state continues its gross violations of the human rights of the Palestinians. Israeli artists who receive Israeli state funding are in fact under contractual duties, as illustrated earlier, to do just that.   

Boycotts raise awareness

As this debate continues, it is important to note that even when artists choose not to abide by the boycott call, the controversy that surrounds their performances or their participation in Israeli sponsored events at times within itself serves to educate and raise awareness around the issues and creates opportunities for discussions and for constructive dialogue about what is going on in Israel/Palestine.

This was apparent here in Melbourne when the Boycott fever caught on with the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010.  At the time, the makers of the film Son of Babylon, having realized that the Melbourne Film Festival was sponsored by Israel, tried to boycott the event. The film’s director Mohamed Al-Daradji and producers Isabelle Stead and Atia Al-Daradji demanded the film, a Palestinian co-production, not to be shown in protest against Israel’s “illegal crimes against humanity” (Quinn 2010).  The festival director Richard Moore declined the request and the film was shown as scheduled. However, this incident created waves of media coverage as most major news outlets and tens of bloggers around the world weighed in their opinion.  The controversy opened the gates to debate and discussions around Israeli actions and the ethics of the boycott movement. This was a refreshing change given that before the Boycott calls, Israel was only in the spotlight when a major event took place; often a suicide bombing, rocket attacks wars or massive bombardments.

Conclusion

Palestinian Civil Society’s call for a cultural boycott of Israel is a legitimate non-violent form of resistance that aims to put international pressure on the state of Israel in order to end its occupation and discrimination policies against the Palestinian people.  Neither Palestinians nor Israelis believe that culture is apolitical. Israel’s assault on Palestinian culture is well documented and its targeting of Palestinian cultural figures has been denounced by various human rights groups. Israel uses culture as a branding tool to promote its softer side and to whitewash its violations of the Palestinian people’s basic human rights. Palestinians also view their art and their culture through the prism of their struggle for freedom justice and equality. From erasure to resistance, Palestinian culture today is an expression of the Palestinian people’s story with all its dimensions, including the political. For Palestinians art is a form of resistance; theatre is political mutiny, dance is rebellion, and singing is liberation.

Works Cited

Abukhalil, As’ad. “Ghassan Kanafani: In Our Memory.” Alakhbar English. Web. 12 July 2012.

“An interview with Idan Raichel.” Australia.il.com. Web. Hebrew. 2008.

Ashrawi, Hanan. “Recognizing Nakba, reaching peace.” Haaretz. Web. 15 May 2012.

Ben-Ami, Yuval. “About Face.” Haaretz. Web. 20 Sept. 2005.

Billet, Alexander . “Madonna sings for apartheid; yet campaign to boycott Israel grows stronger.” Electronic Intifada ChicagoWeb. 12 June 2012.

Bronner, Ethan. “After Gaza, Israel Grapples with Crisis of Isolation.” New York Times. Web. 18 March 2009.

“Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.”  Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel [PCACBI].  Statements. Web. 6 July 2004.

“Cultural Boycott: Statement by Enuga S. Reddy, Director of U.N. Centre Against Apartheid at a Press Briefing (1984).” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel [PACBI]. Web. 11 January 1984.

Domke, Ronit and Avshalom Halutz. “Madonna draws 4,000 tourists to Israel for MDNA concert premier.”  Haaretz. Web. 29 May 2012.

“Elton John performs in Israel after string of other artists cancel appearances.” Daily Mail Online. Web. 19 June 2010.

“Fact Sheet:  Palestinian Culture: 64 Years Under Israeli Assault.” The Institute for Middle East Understanding [IMEU]. Web. 2 August 2012.

Hessel, Stephane. “Gaza Flotilla: Global Citizens Must Respond Where Governments Failed”. Huffington Post. The Blog. Web. 15 June 2010.

“Israel/Palestinian Authority: Theatre Group Hit From Both Sides”. Human Rights Watch. News. Web. 27 July 2012.

Jacir, Emily. “Material for a Film: Retracing Wael Zuatier.” Electronic Intifada. Web. 16 Jul. 2007.

Laor, Yitzhak . “Putting out a contract on art.” Haaretz. Web. 25 July 2008.

“Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS.”  BDS Movement.  Statements. Web. 9 Jul. 2005.

Quinn, Karl. “Festival threatened over Israel link.” The Age. Web. 4 August 2010.

Steinberg, Jessica and Dani Bronstein.  “Madonna kept Tel Aviv crowd waiting ‘until she got her Gummi Bears’.” The Times of Israel. Web. 4 June 2012.

“The Great Book Robbery.” AlJazeera. Web. 24 May 2012.

Tonkin, Boyd. “Artists should not boycott other artists.” The Independent. Web. 28 May 2012.

 

Biography

Samah Sabawi is a writer, political analyst, commentator, author and playwright. She is co-author of the book Journey to Peace in Palestine and writer and producer of the plays Cries from the Land and Three Wishes. Sabawi is currently in the process of working on her third play Tales of a City by the Sea – a love story set against the backdrop of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009.
Sabawi is a policy advisor to the Palestinian policy network AlShabaka and former public advocate for Australians for Palestine. Her past work experience include holding the position of Executive Director and Media Spokesperson for the National Council on Canada Arab Relations (NCCAR) and working as Subject Matter Expert (SME) on various countries in the Middle East’s cultural and political landscape for the Canadian Foreign Service Institute’s Center for Intercultural Learning.

Samah Sabawi: Gaza and the responsibility of the international community on 3CR Radio

Why Israel will lose the war on Gaza

By Samah Sabawi

Israel’s current assault on Gaza will not bring Israel peace nor will it force the Palestinians to surrender.  Three years ago, Israel launched a brutal attack on the city it occupies and besieges killing more then 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and injuring thousands more while destroying most of Gaza’s infrastructure and turning vast landscapes where houses once stood into rubble. What happened in the years since then is a testimony of the Palestinian people’s real weapon – tenacity, a weapon no one in Israel can understand nor truly match.  A weapon Palestinians possess that will see them through until they gain their freedom.

When foreigners visit the Occupied Territories they are often struck by just how resourceful Palestinians are, how positive they remain and how ineffective Israel’s policy of subjugating them is. Yes, Gaza is an impoverished, besieged, overcrowded and occupied strip of land, but a closer look helps shed some light on exactly what it is that Israel is up against. 

This past year, despite the crippling siege on Gaza, some amazing things happened.   Gazans stood on the cutting-edge of urban agriculture:  they were learning through a UN funded project to produce fish and vegetables on their tiny rooftops.  The skill of learning to farm without soil in confined spaces is necessary in a place like Gaza where 1.6 million residents are cramped into 360 square kilometers of land and where much of the agricultural land is off limits because Israel maintains a 300-metre deep zone along the length of the border fence denying Palestinians access to their prime agricultural land.

Gaza opened its first ever paintball park bringing equipment and protective clothing through the tunnels that link Gaza with Egypt.  The game referee Rami Eid told Reuters this was important so “the youth of Gaza can play games that are played around the world”.  

Gaza also hosted this year for the first time an actual circus along with clowns and acrobats.  The circus that travelled through Egypt’s Rafah border brought happiness to many children who had never had such an experience.  Gaza also hosted its first ‘PalFest’, an international Palestinian literature festival along with poets and musicians coming from all over the world.

If that’s not enough to impress, Gaza opened its first restaurant for the deaf.  The stylish Atfaluna restaurant near Gaza port was hailed as one of a few facilities for the disabled in a besieged impoverished city where waiters and cooks use sign language. The restaurant was realissed with help from the Drosos Foundation of Switzerland in order to generate income for the deaf in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is over 25 percent.

This year, as always, the youth in Gaza were finding ways to express their creativity and their skills.  From amazing daredevil Parkour, learning how to surf, to rap songs and art exhibits, they were finding their confidence and were healing from the aftermath of the trauma of Israel’s last destruction of their city.

This year, Gazans lead the way to inspire people around the world as they literally turned rubble into art.  Gazan women driven by the determination to self-empowerment mixed with environmental awareness turned garbage and rubble into pieces of art that can be sold, this project was made possible with funding from the non-government organization ‘Supporters of Palestinian Environment’.

Despite the restriction on building supplies, Gazans used the tunnels to bring in cement and iron and have rebuilt many of the structures that were destroyed.  A highlight for many was the walkway ‘corniche’ by the sea side which many proudly posted photos of on their facebook profiles.

Within the walls of their big prison and in spite of the siege and the frequent Israeli bombardment, the people of Gaza managed to find the space to create, to dream, to build and to hope.  This is the essential stuff that resistance is made of.  This is why Israel’s recent attack will not defeat the Palestinians and will only hurt Israel in the end, exposing it for the tyrannical state that it is.  

Israel has launched a war to break the Palestinian spirit, to destroy all they’ve rebuilt, to uproot all that they’ve replanted.  This is a war on the Palestinian people’s tenacity to resist despair. Israel will lose this war because it fails to understand what it is up against.  A state that only knows how to destroy will never understand the art of turning rubble into masterpieces.