AlMonitor: Palestinian Cultural Scene Thrives Amid Hardships

Palestinian actors perform in the play “Steal Less, Please” in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Feb. 6, 2013. (photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

By: Lena Odgaard for Al-Monitor Posted on June 7.

In Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah, a group of actors were getting ready to go on stage. In the yellow light of lightbulbs framing the mirrors, actresses Amira Habash, Maisa Abd Elhadi and Shaden Kanboura applied makeup, painting their lips bright red and straightening their hair as they prepared to play American high-society girls in the romantic comedy “Holiday.” They laugh as they hear their male counterparts singing and joking in the hall.

“I like this theme because most plays and movies are about the Palestinian cause; there is no variety in the characters we play,” said young Abd Elhadi, who plays Julia Habib, daughter of a rich Palestinian-American businessman who falls in love with an ordinary guy, Jamil Selim, who cares not about money but about enjoying life to its fullest. The spoiled rich girl then has to decide if she is willing to go against her father’s wishes and leave the high-society life to follow love.

The play is originally from the United States and was written in 1928, but the general director of Al-Kasaba Theater, George Ibrahim, altered the characters to be Palestinians to make them easier for the audience to relate to. And though the play isn’t about the Israeli occupation, the play’s themes of love and money are also relevant for Palestinians, as they are for all human beings, said Ibrahim.

“I choose plays that concern society — the next play is about women’s rights. But I thought it was time for a comedy, and maybe next a musical,” said Ibrahim, adding that naturally, politics also dominate the themes of the plays. “You cannot avoid the occupation — it’s controlling us and is present in every part of our daily details. It’s like we are married to it with no way to divorce.”

Ibrahim has run Al-Kasaba Theater first in Jerusalem and later in Ramallah since 1970. And though it’s a struggle to find funding for long-term projects, the theater has survived in a turbulent environment and experiments with many different genres and themes. It is also the only place in the Palestinian territories to offer a three-year degree in drama. But it’s not easy.

According to Ibrahim, people have still not reached a place where they are willing to pay for culture and art. “There’s a lack of this bug I see other places which will drive people to the theater instead of buying cigarettes,” he said, adding that most people just don’t have money because of the current financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority. In many cases, performances like “Holiday” are therefore shown free of charge.

And in spite of the economic and political situations, the Palestinian cultural scene is thriving. Recent numbers from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics show that throughout the past decade the number of theaters has more than doubled, museums have tripled and cultural centers have multiplied seven times from 50 in 2002 to 646 in 2012.

Palestinian Minister of Culture Siham Barghouty attributes the significant rise in cultural venues and activities to the long period of relative calm.

“People want a normal life. Going to the theater or listening to music is part of that — especially among youth,” she told Al-Monitor at her office in Ramallah, adding that during the second intifada in the early 2000s, people couldn’t go out, which killed the cultural scene. But now, 10 years later, the number of people who visit museums or attend lectures, poetry readings or concerts has risen to levels even higher than before the intifada. In Ramallah, colorful posters on every street corner advertise past and upcoming festivals.

According to Bargouty, the Ministry of Culture prioritizes cultural activities in rural areas or cities far from Ramallah where people have fewer opportunities. But she admitted that the ministry doesn’t focus on the Israeli-controlled Area C, which constitutes around 60% of the West Bank, due to Israeli restrictions. She said that even in Jerusalem and in Area B, which is under Israeli security control, they face obstacles if they try to build new venues and risk the military turning an area into a “closed military zone” if they try to arrange a festival.

According to Ibrahim, who has toured the West Bank with a mobile theater showing puppet shows for children, he sees villages in Area C being widely neglected.

“No one goes there. Sometimes I reach a place and there is no electricity and I have had to connect to my car battery,” he said. He sees it as the government’s responsibility to ensure that cultural events also reach these areas.

According to Julien Chiappone-Lucchesi, director of the French Institute in Ramallah, around 80% of major cultural activities happen in Ramallah. He sees the city’s many cafes, coffee shops and political and international institutions fostering an atmosphere of freedom to address even sensitive social and political topics. In his view, this has also lead to an increase in quality with some events, such as the annual Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, now offering a better program than its counterpart in Tel Aviv. Chiappone-Lucchesi added that while they are more careful when choosing events in the institutes’ Gaza branch, he never censors events in Ramallah. But the flipside of the vast number of cultural opportunities is competition for an audience.

“In a day, you can have up to three or four events and since it’s often a small circle of the bourgeois who attend, they can’t be at the same place,” he told Al-Monitor.

The American-funded “Holiday” has had no problems attracting audiences. On its opening night May 30, a wide international audience crossed the checkpoints from Jerusalem to see the play, which featured English subtitles on a screen above the stage. But the play also tours other cities and arranges for busses to bring people from rural areas.

“For some, it’s the first time they see a play, and you hear them complain that there is alcohol and girls in the play, or it not being about the occupation,” Firas Abu Sabah, one of the actors, told Al-Monitor with a smile.

Lena Odgaard is a Danish journalist reporting from around the Middle East, primarily on Israel and Palestine. On Twitter:  @l_odgaard

This article first appeared here:


MIFTAH: The vibrant canvas that is Palestine

Date posted: April 29, 2013
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

Oppression can do strange things to people. When it is oppression in the form of a decades-long military occupation, it means the occupied people run the risk of becoming one-dimensional in the sense that the occupation is what defines them and shapes their past, present and future.

For the Palestinians, this is true to a large extent. Because the Israeli occupation consumes us, preoccupies our everyday lives and effects the smallest aspects of it, we find ourselves thinking mostly about this occupation and ways to resist it, do away with it, or at least work around it.

The thing is, the Palestinians are hardly one-dimensional. The fact that the occupation has taken over so much of our lives does not mean we do not have the potential to embrace other less discouraging aspects of life itself. In the past week, Ramallah – the hub of Palestinian cultural life – has seen Palestinian Fashion Week, the Contemporary Dance Festival and a Spring Festival for children. All of the above activities have been distinctly Palestinian but they were not solely catered to the traditional theme of occupation and oppression, which the Palestinians have grown so accustomed to and believe is the only way the world views them.

Read more…

Press Release: Palestinian Museum’s Groundbreaking Ceremony Set for 11 April 2013

[issued by the Palestinian Museum on 3 April 2013.]

The Welfare Association, celebrates on Thursday, 11 April, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Palestinian Museum in the town of Birzeit. The museum, which will open its doors in Fall 2014, will be dedicated to the exploration and understanding of the culture, history, and society of Palestine and its people and will be a space that brings together an innovative mix of exhibitions, research, and education programs, acting as an agent of empowerment and integration and a place for inspiration, dialogue, and reflection.

The concept behind the museum is a transnational institution bringing together Palestinians from all over the world. It will not be confined by borders, barriers, and geopolitics. It will be a physical and virtual space for those living in Palestine and those living abroad, enabling them to explore their shared past, present , and future. The museum will be an innovative, world-class research and cultural institution that mobilizes Palestinians and encourages them and others to ask questions about important issues while simultaneously engaging a global audience of scholars, researchers, and anyone interested in learning more about Palestinian culture and heritage.

Omar Al-Qattan, Chairman of the Museum Task Force stated: “The Palestinian Museum is created to encourage new thinking about Palestine and its people. It is a place for a continual conversation about the most important issues facing us today, which will be conducted through a variety of forms of expression. The project is about Palestinians, but it is not simply for them: we want to create a space that is inclusive, welcoming, and informative, but is also international in its reach and audience. The Birzeit Building will be a hub in a network of partnerships with local and international organizations that focuses on the present, history, and future of Palestine.”

The building will house a collection of objects and historical documents that date from the modern period to the present that will be held by the Palestinian Museum in public trust for the benefit of current and future generations. A digital archive will hold information about the museum’s collection in addition to the existing collections of other Palestinian cultural institutions. The museum is also building a cutting edge digital platform that will form a major part of its ongoing program.

The idea for a museum was first discussed in 1997, when members of the Welfare Association’s Board of Trustees recognized the need to establish a modern historical museum in Palestine dedicated to preserving and commemorating the recent Palestinian past; in particular the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 —the watershed event of 20th century Palestinian history which led to the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians.

“A series of conceptual changes over the years have reconfigured the museum’s purpose. “When the Museum opens its doors in 2014, it will do so as an institution dedicated to celebrating, preserving, interpreting, exhibiting, and making accessible Palestinian culture, history, and art to the museum’s visitors and audiences. Our vision for the Palestinian Museum is founded upon the belief that a museum presents information, asks questions, and provides opportunities for visitors to explore and engage with different aspects of culture and history in order to reach their own informed conclusions,” said Jack Persekian, Director and Head Curator.

Designed by the Dublin-based architectural firm, Heneghan Peng, the building is a modern structure that will cover forty dunums (40,000 m2) of land adjacent to Birzeit University. Construction of the building will be done in two phases. Phase 1 will consist of a built area of 3000 m2, and will include a climate-controlled gallery space, an amphitheater, cafeteria with outdoor seating, classrooms, storage, gift shop and staff offices. During Phase 2, which will be completed within ten years, the museum will expand to 9000m2 and will include more gallery space for temporary and permanent exhibitions, an auditorium, additional classrooms, and a library.


About The Palestinian Museum
The Palestinian Museum is a flagship project of the Welfare Association, an independent not-for-profit organization providing development and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians since 1983.

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Media contacts

The Palestinian Museum
Rana Anani
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Tel: 02.2974797/8
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