Our regular report on Israel’s war on Palestinian cultural life and expression.
Dareen Tatour: languid oppression
The Israeli state continues its legal harassment of Dareen Tatour (Artswatch 2016 and 2017). Yoav Haifawi reports in +972 (17th December) that more than two years after her arrest in October 2015, the poet’s trial ‘drags on languidly’ in a Nazareth court with no end in sight. On Monday, December 4, the remand judge once again rejected her request to be released from the house arrest imposed on her ‘until the end of legal proceedings.’ Even when she is allowed to leave her house during the day, she must be accompanied at all times by a court-authorized custodian. Under such conditions it is clear, writes Haifawi, that she cannot work or live a normal life.
Solidarity with Tatour is growing. PEN America has made her a ‘featured case’: her trial, in which the state seeks to prove that her work incites terrorism, ‘not only threatens principles of free expression for Palestinian authors, but [is] an attempt by the Israeli government to litigate the meaning of a piece of literature’.
Some of Tatour’s work is collected in A Blade of Grass, an anthology of New Palestinian Poetry in Arabic and English, edited by Naomi Foyle, ‘poems that bear witness both to catastrophe, and to the powerful determination to survive it’. Also represented is the work of Saudi prisoner Ashraf Fayadh, who like Tatour has faced legal penalty as a result of his poetry (see Artswatch June and July 2016).
Regev in Hebron
On 24th December, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev laid the cornerstone of a ‘Founder’s Museum’ in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. According to Eliran Aharon in Israeli National News, Regev used the occasion to deny the existence of Palestinian culture and history. ‘The more you dig here,’ she said, ‘the more you find that there is no Palestinian history … and no connection [between the land] and the Palestinian Arab people.’ ‘This land, ‘ Regev explained, has a connection with only one people – the Jewish people – and therefore we will stay here forever.’
Hebron has a population of over 200,000 Palestinians and between 500 and 850 Jewish settlers. In the centre of the city, reports the human rights organisation Btselem, ‘Palestinians are subjected to extreme movement restrictions and hundreds of businesses have been shut down’. Violence by settlers and security forces, ‘has made life intolerable for Palestinians, leading to a mass exodus and the economic ruin of the downtown area. Israeli authorities are promoting ‘the driving out of Palestinians from Hebron’s city centre’.
In the Nakba of 1948, 49,000 of Lydda’s 50,000 inhabitants were forcibly expelled from the city by Israeli forces. The buildings have remained, until now.
Nir Hasson reports in Ha’aretz (6th November) that renovation/demolition work in Lydda (Lod, al-Ludd) threatens to erase its Arab past. Most of the structures from pre-1948 Lydda were built after 1700, with some being built on the foundations of older buildings. Protestors say the Israeli Antiquities Authority didn’t check each structure to see if this was the case before it was demolished.
In Hasson’s report rapper, political activist and Lod resident Tamer Nafar calls the move ‘another blow to my Arab and Islamic heritage. Lod is made up of all kinds of people, a tapestry of colours. Rather than letting it be composed of all the colours, some of these colours are being erased.’
‘This is part and parcel of the exclusion of Arabs from the public space,’ said another Lod activist Ghassan Munair. ‘We’re in favour of development, but it’s known that Lod is built atop the city underneath. If they would have found the tailbone of a Jewish dog, they would have halted everything,” he added. ‘The city is counting on the people here not protesting because they’re too busy just trying to put food on the table.’
The State against Memory
Zochrot (‘remembering’ in Hebrew) is an Israeli NGO that has worked since 2002 ‘to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba’. In December, it organised its fifth international film festival, From Nakba to Return, hosted at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Left Bank Cine club. The Middle East Monitor (17th November) reported that Culture Minister Regev ‘has asked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to see if the Cinematheque can be fined for its part in the film festival. “While Israel is celebrating 70 years, the [Tel Aviv] Cinematheque State is trying to remember and sanctify the Nakba. Not on my watch,” said Regev.
The outcome of the threat to the Cinematheque is not known.
Olga Gershenson, writing in Tikkun, reviewed one of the festival films, Looted and Hidden, by Israeli curator and art historian Rona Sela. ‘It’s super-dense with images and stories’ writes Gershenson, ‘but basically, it’s about several Palestinian photo and film archives, that were stolen by Israelis in 1948, in 1967, and in 1982, from PLO research centre and from a Cinema Center in Beirut. The good thing is that the audience gets to see tons of these documents–family photos, studio portraits, battle snapshots, pictures of atrocities, etc, along with snippets of narrative films, army reports, news footage, and even an excerpt from a Soviet anti-Zionist documentary. This plenitude is both a blessing and a curse–a curse because in 45 minutes, it’s impossible to contextualize all these still and moving images, tell what’s behind them, AND let them speak on their own terms. It took Rona Sela, a Jewish Israeli with a stubborn mind and legal assistance, over 10 years to even get access to these visual documents. All of them are locked up in the Israeli archives, with absolutely no hope for them to ever be open, especially in the current political climate. What a paradox it is, that it takes an Israeli to recover the hidden visual history of Palestinians–a Palestinian, obviously, would not stand a chance in the tightly censored IDF archives’.
The First Steps to Liberty
The Palestinian artist Abdul Rahman Katanani has a major exhibition in Paris (December 17-January 18). Katanani was born in 1983 in the refugee camp of Sabra, a few months after the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
The central installation in the exhibition, says the Magda Danysz Gallery, ‘is a scale 1 refugee camp street, an interactive piece entirely made with recycled material. The viewer can enter inside and wander. He is then reflected dozens of times by the mirrors lining the passage, giving the impression of being multiplied and cramped in the structure. A surveillance video [of the viewer’s movements] is projected in the basement of the gallery, in black and white and in slow motion, a “co-wandering” in the work. In black and white: there are no colors in the camp. In slow motion: the image, ghostly and stretched, evolves to be lost in a forest somewhere in the depths of space.’
Marie-Laure Desjardins has written about the exhibition, and interviewed Katanani. His work, she writes, ‘immerses us in the architecture of his childhood, that of the refugee camp where he was born, in Sabra, Beirut, Lebanon.
– What kind of child were you?
– I was a child who played a lot. I remember lots of games. Shouting. We used to have fun. It’s the first stage on the road to freedom.
– Freedom? What idea can you have of freedom when you are born in a camp? Is that the only thing you thought about? Necessity must have been elsewhere?
– The main thing was to eat, to look after yourself. Our lives were blocked off. There was no possibility of work.
Since his adolescence, Abdul Rahman Katanani has been a committed, an engaged artist. In pencil he draws caricatures and posts them on a wall in the camp. He’s discovered in this resistance a way of expressing his ideas, of existing. To talk of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is to touch on a difficult subject: it’s almost taboo. But art can speak where silence rules: ‘I was drawing to change things. Always against the occupation, against corruption, against borders.’
Intimate Spaces: Rana Samara
Naima Morelli, in Middle East Monitor (17th December) writes about the art of the Palestinian artist Rana Samara. Working in Al-Amari Refugee Camp, Samara’s topic is intimacy: love and sex, and also ‘connection, comfort and feeling at home’.
Samara’s ‘Intimate Space’ series, was presented recently by Ramallah’s Zawyeh Gallery, and she has continued to work around that theme.’All the artists are talking about the political struggle in Palestine,’ says Samara.; I’m doing that too, but through a different lens’. Her paintings, videos, installations and embroidery evoke human relations in a society of confinement – in ‘condensed spaces that afford almost no privacy’.
Bozour Culture and Arts is a theatre group in Gaza, created after the Israeli attack of 2014 and led by three women – Wissam El-Dirawie, Manal Barakat and Ola Salem Deeb. ‘We had collected women’s stories from the war,’ co-director Manal Barakat explained to Rami Almaghari in Electronic Intifada, ‘and we wanted to present them to the outside world.’ Prevented from travelling to perform in Ramallah, on the West Bank, the women decided to create their own company in Gaza. Bozour means ‘seeds’.
Their first production, Gaza will become a Better Place, is a play that depicts Gaza as a place from which young people want – desperately – to leave and are willing to risk drowning at sea to do so. ‘Ultimately’, writes Almaghari, ‘the play suggests that there is reason to stay.’
Radiance of Resistance
Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network reports that the 16 year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi will be brought before a military court on 15th January, the latest of over 450 Palestinians arrested by Israeli occupation forces following Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Approximately half of those detained are children.
Ahed’s father, Bassem, has written in Ha’aretz (31st December), about his daughter:
‘Several months ago, on a trip to South Africa, we screened for an audience a video [Radiance of Resistance] documenting the struggle of our village, Nabi Saleh, against Israel’s forced rule. When the lights came back on, Ahed stood up to thank the people for their support. When she noticed that some of the audience members had tears in their eyes, she said to them : “We may be victims of the Israeli regime, but we are just as proud of our choice to fight for our cause, despite the known cost. We knew where this path would lead us, but our identity, as a people and as individuals, is planted in the struggle, and draws its inspiration from there. Beyond the suffering and daily oppression of the prisoners, the wounded and the killed, we also know the tremendous power that comes from belonging to a resistance movement ; the dedication, the love, the small sublime moments that come from the choice to shatter the invisible walls of passivity.
“I don’t want to be perceived as a victim, and I won’t give their actions the power to define who I am and what I’ll be. I choose to decide for myself how you will see me. We don’t want you to support us because of some photogenic tears, but because we chose the struggle and our struggle is just. This is the only way that we’ll be able to stop crying one day.’
[Photo by Tania Traboulsi: Abdul Rahman Katanani, artist, in his studio]