A Defense of Culture

Art and occupation in Palestine

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, from the Settlement series, 2005

The Israeli Army desecrated both the Palestinian Culture Ministry and the Sakakini Cultural Centre when it invaded Ramallah in April 2002, even though both buildings were empty at the time. Already for many years before that, culture had been the arena for significant claims and counterclaims, a tool for self-assertion or, alternatively, for denying the enemy’s legitimacy. (We have witnessed, for example, Israeli attempts to appropriate falafel and traditional Palestinian embroidery and to claim monuments of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman architecture as Jewish.)

Ever since the 1936 uprising against the British Mandate, the Palestinian national movement has had its own cultural spokespersons: poets, novelists, singers, musicians, artists, and, for the past thirty years or so, filmmakers. Following the establishment of the PLO, some of these individuals were directly affiliated with, and employed by, political groups; others remained independent but still deeply attached to the political fate of their country. Palestinians, like other colonized peoples in history, very quickly understood that a project such as Zionism could conceivably lead to their cultural devastation.

Foreign occupation — as we have learned from Iraq — may bring about civil strife on a mass scale. The fact that it can also set off cultural wars may be less self-evident. In the past year or so, the internal ideological and political battles between Hamas and Fatah, for example, have assumed an openly cultural character, as when the Hamas Ministry of Education in the Occupied Territories attempted to force school libraries to destroy copies of Qoul ya Tayr (Speak oh Bird), an anthology of Palestinian folklore, for containing material “unsuitable” for young minds. (Incidentally, the minister was forced to back down because of public outrage and the brave refusal of some teachers to follow orders.) And this is to say nothing of the virulent war of words that Israeli propagandists have been waging against the new Palestinian school curriculum, particularly the historical narratives it contains, which, they claim, call for Israel’s destruction.

Is culture frivolous in times of hunger and violence? In 2006, a young woman wrote to me complaining that an exhibition we had organized in the cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh was disconnected from the realities of poverty, unpaid wages, and despair that followed the international boycott of the democratically elected Hamas government. Talk of identities and aesthetic form in such times was, she felt, precious and irrelevant.

We know, however, that people never cease to write or sing or draw, even in the worst circumstances; the story of the Leningrad Philharmonic performing under Nazi bombardment is just one famous example. In Palestine, where I have been involved in cultural development for more than nine years, there have been similarly noteworthy projects in music, visual art, film, puppetry, the circus arts, theatre, folkloric dance, and other art forms. What makes these important and even necessary?

It’s useful here to consider culture in its widest possible sense, what the French philosopher Michel Serres calls the sum total of human invention — techniques of irrigation, in this view, are as cultural as musical traditions. In this enlightened, generous sense, we simply have no choice but to engage in cultural activity, by dint of living, learning, working, and producing. Culture is not only necessary, but also inevitable.

The important question then becomes not whether culture should exist or not — it always has existed and always will — but what form of culture we want in our lives, now and in the future. Do we want the variety that is useful only for ideological mobilization or the kind that helps us liberate ourselves and better understand the complex world around us (and perhaps even believe that we may be able to change it)?

In Palestine, cultural production has evolved as the nature of the Occupation has changed and as the Middle East has opened up to trends, technologies, and ideas from the rest of the world. Early on, cultural expression was most often a means of national self-assertion (take, for example, the heroic, masculine poetry of Abu Salma or Ibrahim Touqan). But very quickly this tendency evolved into sophisticated, often innovative, and critical aesthetic forms, which have influenced the region and beyond; Habibi’s ironic fiction, Khleifi’s poetic cinema, and Darwish’s tragic poetry demonstrate this.

For some time, the PLO had its own subsidized artists and writers, but the Oslo Accords brought new challenges: firstly, notwithstanding talented individuals, a fundamental weakness in the skill base and in artistic education as a whole quickly became apparent; secondly, there were no laws to govern copyright, encourage investment, or streamline public aid; and finally, any trace of physical infrastructure to support the arts was nonexistent.

Today, obstacles persist: roadblocks, the Wall, curfews, fragmentation (Gaza and the West Bank are effectively separate entities, as is East Jerusalem and the 1948 Palestinian areas, not to speak of neighboring Arab countries). Yet there have been initiatives to surmount these challenges — this despite the fact that funding is often precarious, concentrated in the hands of international agencies, with few local sources.

The Al-Kamandjati Group, launched by a young musician from Al-Amaari Refugee Camp with a group of his French colleagues, now runs a music education program across the West Bank, including Nablus, despite the city’s having been under intermittent siege for more than six years. In Haifa, the poet Siham Daoud single-handedly runs Masharef Journal, one of the finest literary magazines published in Arabic. A group of artists have begun work on the creation of a fine arts academy in Ramallah. And as part of the Palestinian Audio-Visual Project, we at the Qattan Foundation have organized a two-year training program in various film disciplines that has included young people from across historical Palestine and from Jordan. The Project has also set up forty-five film clubs in schools across the country. And this is just a partial list of the initiatives existent today.

These initiatives and others like them are popular and often successful, but above all, they are vital. Not only have many people’s livelihoods come to depend on them, but they are also of great symbolic significance, emblematic of the psychological power born of resistance under occupation. To produce culture — in whatever form — is to create conditions of possibility for a people who might otherwise sink into despair. And so, in the end, I found myself responding to the young woman who wrote me that letter, offering my strongly held belief that culture is not only worth investing in, but an essential means of survival in times like these.