Thursday, October 29, 2020

In Haifa, a Palestinian subculture yearns for identity

By Bao Yen - March 25, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Haifa]

In the neighborhood of Wadi Salib, audiences cluster in a small theatre in an old building shrouded by industrialized structures in the downtown port area of Haifa. The theatre, known as Khashabi, is sometimes used as a cinema, and within the scope of the Haifa independent film festival (HIFF), it serves as a main venue.

One of the films shown at HIFF is "Dégradé" directed by the Palestinian twins Arab and Tarzan Nasser, born and raised in Gaza. The duo came to the premiere of their film in Haifa, but not this time. This however, does not hinder the audiences, internationals and Palestinians alike, who attend the movie session.

The film is mainly set in a beauty salon, rotating around the stories of thirteen women. There are dramas, there is small talk, there are bits and bobs of the politics, all clouding the presence of war. Against the backdrop of the 2014 Gaza war, the film places focus on the individuals, rather than the brutality of the war.

"Dégradé" is among the featured films selected to be shown during the six days of Palestinian films organized by HIFF. The films look into the reality of lives under the occupation through different angles, ranging from satire to the documentary of Palestinian refugees. But most of these films have something in common: they were made by Palestinians narrating Palestinian lives.

This is no ordinary film festival either. In fact, the Haifa Independent film festival is the first Palestinian film festival held in Israel.

"We [Palestinians living in Israel] had always been consumers of Israeli entertainment, and we did not have the means to express ourselves," Ayed Fadel, one of the organizers of the film festival tells the Palestine Monitor.

"We are boycotting the Haifa international film festival, and we are making our own film festival here," Ayed adds.

The organizers of the festival, all young Palestinians living and working in Haifa, have an ambitious goal. Its mission, as the statement reads, is to "contribute towards the development of cinema and enhancement of the film industry in Palestine."

So far, the festival has been well-received by the local Palestinian community. Many of the films were even given for free by the directors themselves.


All of the films chosen are specifically independent of Israeli governmental and institutional funding. The idea is to avoid political pressure, as happened with the cases of various Palestinian arts and cultural projects funded by Israeli government.

In 2015, for example, the Haifa Municipality decided to freeze financing for the Al-Midan theatre, the largest Arabic-speaking theatre in Israel, following the controversy over one of its plays.

The play, "A parallel time", tells the story of a Palestinian prisoner convicted of killing an Israeli soldier. Though fictional, the synopsis closely follows an actual event: the case of Walid Daka, a Palestinian man who was sentenced to life for the kidnap and murder of an Israeli soldier in 1984.

The play had been staged to the Arabic-speaking audience many times without rumpus, but a decision to subtitle it in Hebrew was enough to cause a public uproar. The family of the murdered Israeli soldier then protested outside the theatre, while Israeli media labeled the play as an act of "glorifying terrorism," spurring the Haifa municipality to open inquiry into Al-Midan's activities.

"The problem is the Israeli government, they cannot hear another narrative. They cannot understand that it could be that we are talking about Palestinian prisoners as humans, and it was really important to try to talk not about the politics, but to find the humanity in the prisoners," Bashar Murkus, director and playwright of A parallel time, tells the Palestine Monitor.

Up until now, Al-Midan theatre is still shut down, awaiting funding. The theatre's budget cut came in the context of a discussion of a "loyalty bill" that would authorize the Israeli Ministry of Culture to halt funding and impose fine levied on institutions that oppose to Israel and its national symbols.

Lack of space and more importantly, freedom of expression in state-funded projects, prompts young Palestinian artists like Bashar Murkus to seek alternatives.

Together with a group of artist friends, all theatre professionals, Murkus founded the Khashabi Ensemble Theatre in the historic Wadi Salib in 2011.

"After having both good and bad experiences with other theatres, we understood that what we actually need is a place to work, a place where we can do our own research, and a place where we can be really independent", says Bashar.

The theatre refrains from accepting any governmental or institutional funds. It is the hardest way to work, but it is "a healthy way to make art", Bashar adds. Khashabi, however, receives much support from both locals and internationals. After five years into operation, the theatre has become the playground for Palestinian local artists to perform.

Many other cultural activities among the Palestinian communities in Israel also took place here, one such as the Haifa Independent Film Festival.

Bashar says the Ensemble already has plans for the following season. The next topic aims to explore the concept of "Identity", and the idea is to bring Palestinian artists from all over, from Gaza, from the West Bank, from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, from abroad, to come to Haifa and engage in a dialogue about what constitutes a Palestinian identity.


Ayed Fadel, one of the organisers of the film festival, makes some closing remarks of HIFF at Kabareet.


A few hundred meters away, Ayed Fadel makes some closing remarks of HIFF at Kabareet, a hip, edgy-looking bar that hosts some of the short movie sessions. Here and there, portraits of Arab pop icons from the 20s to 70s like Fairouz, Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez, dot the walls.

"Those were the golden years of Arab culture, and we [at Kabareet] would like to revive this period", Ayed, also one of the owners of the bar, tells the Palestine Monitor.

In Kabareet, young Palestinians dance, sing and chat in Arabic. It is a contrary reality outside, where Hebrew is more of an administrative language. It is taught and used in schools, universities, and public spaces.

The whole underground movement that started here few years back is a reminiscence of the Palestinian cultural scene in the city. "Haifa used to be the center of culture in Palestine, there were theatres, music, cafes. Even Umm Kulthum came to Haifa to perform", Ayed explains.

For the young Palestinians living in Haifa, the city embraces a sense of intimacy that exists in nowhere else. Among the small Palestinian community here, around ten percent of the total population, everyone knows everyone.

According to Ayed, in the recent years, young Palestinians in Haifa have become more assertive in expressing their identity and practicing their culture. And art has since become a means of resistance.

"How would you imagine a freedom without art?", asks Ayed.

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