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How to make art in Palestine: a tightrope between Israeli occupation and local traditions


By PM collaborators - October 31, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Occupation]

Making art in Palestine is a challenge. Suddenly, checkpoints can close, or colleagues can get arrested. And yet Palestine has a rich cultural scene. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Gaza and the West Bank boast 596 cultural centres, thirty-one museums and twelve theatres.  
How is this possible? After all, if the Israeli occupation is not bad enough, cultural projects also have to struggle against a Palestinian society which is sometimes suspicious of pursuits like drama or acrobatics. This is especially true when children are involved, or women.
Majd Hajjaj works for the A M Qattan Foundation, a powerful organisation dedicated to spreading culture in Palestine. As Hajjaj notes, “society does not accept much of the culture we try to make in Palestine.”
Hajjaj has a point: several Gazan singers have had their careers stifled for being female. Sportswomen are also discriminated against. And as Hajjaj explains, “it is not just Palestinians women who find making art difficult.” Even male dancers can face problems.
Given these issues, it is unsurprising that for Palestinian art projects to be successful, one main quality is needed: tact. As Hajjaj puts it, “compromise” is the key to success.
Theatre Day Productions, a theatre troupe for Gazan children, is used to working in this sort of environment. Widespread performances of boys and girls acting together are impossible in Gaza, explains Jackie Lubeck, the founder.
So instead “we introduce the idea of girls, boys and men and women, acting together at festival-like occasions, with limited performances,” she explains. Elsewhere in Gaza,  boys and girls perform on the same stage, but not at the same time.
Founded in 2006, the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) also emphasises that to be popular around Palestine, awareness of local customs is crucial. A good example of this attitude came when PCS tried to set up shop in Hebron. Because of the area’s conservative traditions, people were reluctant to accept circuses where boys and girls performed together.
But Shadi Zmorrod, the director at PCS, was patient. “We started just with boys. Then boys and girls came and just said hello to each other. After three months, they were doing human pyramids together. We built trust, and now there is a new performing arts scene in Hebron.”
Like Lubeck and Zmorrod, Hajjaj emphasises that “you need to take cultural sensitivities into account for these events to work.”
When the A M Qattan Foundation organises street events, for example, female performers wear less revealing outfits than they would normally. Dabke, a traditional Palestinian folk dance, also “tends to more acceptable than contemporary dance,” says Hajjaj.
In other words, awareness of Palestinian cultural norms is crucial to the continued success of Palestine’s lively cultural life. Another important feature is the inclusion of the children’s’ parents. As Lubeck notes: “First, we had problems with the parents. They would say to their kids: 'Where are you going? No drama!’ But then we invited them to see their children.”
Admittedly, “only one parent” came along to start with, says Lubeck. “But we told them to invite their friends. For the most part, parents only get to see their kids in school.” This curiosity eventually “won them over.”
Likewise, the PCS put on performances for the kids’ parents. Soon, they too warmed to the circus. “At one performance, we had 160 guests, and only 80 seats,” Zmorrod smiles.
Getting audiences used to public performances in general also helps. Several years ago, Hajjaj remembers people would get up in the middle of shows and start chatting on their phones. Now, “everyone sits in silence.” Even in the conservative Ramallah neighbourhood of al-Bireh, “people now respect the performances.”
This gentle approach, however, does not mean that art projects in Palestine cannot discuss tough issues. They can: but sensitivity is again key.
“You have to be careful about the messages you convey,” says Hajjaj. For example, “people’s relationship to the land is controversial. But more individual stories can also be powerful.” For instance, Hajjaj and her colleagues examined personal identity in Palestine through an intimate photoshoot.
PCS are also eager to use personal experiences to promote difficult discussions.  In 'Circus Behind the Wall,’ a 2007 production, the separation barrier was tackled through the oblique lens of a love story.  
But while projects like this can win over local Palestinians, there is always the looming threat of the Israeli occupation to contend with. And unlike the residents of Gaza and Hebron, it cannot be persuaded through cultural sensitivity.
In June 2016, for instance, the Israeli authorities extended the administrative detention of Mohammed Faisal Abu Sakha, a PCS performer, by another six months. He had already been in jail since December last year.
And heightened tension in the region means that Theatre Day Productions, based in Gaza, has also faced renewed problems with Israel. “When everyone needs a permit based on security clearance, it’s impossible to know what that means,” explains Lubeck. “It’s a dark hole for us where sometimes we can get them out, but most often, and most recently, not.”
These restrictions can sometimes stretch into the absurd. Hajjaj highlights the story of Majdel Nattel, a friend who had been nominated for Young Palestinian Artist of the Year several times. But because she lives in Gaza, she has never been allowed to attend the award ceremony in Ramallah. Once,  Hajjaj says, “not even her art was allowed to cross into Israel.” Nattel “had to Skype with a colleague in Ramallah to paint the works on her behalf. “
Given all these challenges, it is incredible that any art is made in Palestine – let alone so much of it. For Hajjaj, this perseverance can be pinned to the long oppression Palestinians have been subjected to. “We will always make art,” she says. “If our ability to make art overground is eliminated, we will just go underground instead. We will always find a way.”
 

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